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An accommodation with the realities?

Thursday, 9 February 2017


A very notable feature of our political culture is the
longevity of political careers. Several of the present
leaders began their politics in the 1970s or even before,
in their callow youth, on the basis that their fathers too
were in politics! What in most cultures would be a matter
of embarrassment is considered a qualification here

The European and the African have an entirely different concept


of time.

We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of
culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if
the passenger is a foreigner who doesnt know Africa. Someone
like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, when will
the bus leave?
What do you mean, when? the astonished driver will reply. The
bus will leave when we find enough people to fill it up

The African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and
immediately falls into a state in which he spends a great portion
of his life: a benumbed waiting.

These people have a fantastic talent for waiting! an Englishman


who has lived here for years tells me. A talent, stamina, some
peculiar kind of instinct.

A waiting group is mute. It emits no sound. The body goes limp,


droops, shrinks. The person does not look around, does not
observe anything, is not curious. Sometimes his eyes are closed-
but not always. More frequently, they are open but appear
unseeing, with no spark of life in them.

What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?

I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making


plans? Meditating? Traveling in the world beyond?

It is difficult to say.
The Shadow of the Sun-Ryszard Kapusciski

The only alternative to a Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) regime is the


Maithripala Sirisena/Ranil Wickremesinghe (MS/RW) Government,
while, the only credible challenge to the MS/RW combine is a MR
regime, is how one of our more perceptive commentators
described the current political configuration in the country.

It is difficult to think of a more hopeless and plaintive theme fora


country, especially, as these are persons whose claim to lead is
based on public mandate; democratically chosen by the people
(however imperfect that process maybe) to lead their political
parties, espouse public causes and finally manage the country
itself.

If the alternatives are as limited, if these are the only available


leadership material the country is possessed of, we are indeed
much poorer than statistically shown. The material causes of
poverty could be addressed and even successfully overcome.
There are a few countries which have, Singapore being a
particular example of a country which within our lifetime has gone
from a poverty stricken status to becoming one of the richest in
the world.
In retrospect, it seems that Singapore carried from the beginning
the potential both in spirit and skill to achieve what they did. It is
perhaps somewhat facile to say that one man, Lee Kuan Yew, was
solely responsible for the miracle; such accomplishments are
beyond the abilities of one person, however capable.

For the dream to become reality, the mans drive, vision and
talent must be answered by the nation. There could not be a Marx
in Saudi Arabia, a Gandhi in Germany or a Beethoven in Nigeria.
For a person (or an achievement) of a global impact to blossom,
the soil must be fertile. The countries that produced these
extraordinary personalities had the necessary background for that
particular genius to emerge.

For certain, each country will have its own writers, thinkers and
musicians; circumscribed by that particular environment, and of
relevance only to that particular culture. It is only given to a few
to produce persons and ideas of universal relevance. Anybody can
play cricket, but only a very few can invent a sport that can be
enjoyed by many cultures, worldwide. What Singapore has
become today is an inspiration to the entire world; it has shown
away forward. Place Lee Kuan Yew in another culture, and perhaps
the results would not have been that spectacular.

Damnable political arrangement

Little Singapore is an example of a country overcoming material


disadvantages within a short period of time. But material
handicaps are not the only drawbacks in a nations path. There
could be other, less tangible snags bedevilling it; a lot more
complex and elusive in substance than mere material poverty. For
such manifestations we can refer to the hopelessness of our
countrys situation and its damnable political arrangement.
Relatively, Sri Lanka is not a resource poor country. In 1948, at the
time of independence, it was said by many that, Ceylon, as it was
referred to then, was one of the more promising countries in Asia.
We had a well-developed plantation sector, reasonably advanced
infrastructure including an extensive road network, nascent
industries which could have been developed, a healthy balance of
payment situation, somewhat strong institutions and a population
which had been exposed to democratic methods for longer than
many other countries in Asia. But in a few years all that just went
away, reducing us to a mediocre country, lurching from one crisis
to another.

Almost all our problems are results of post-independence political


actions, or old problems exacerbated since. Nearly every
government, claiming wizardry in that difficult art, attempts at
constitution making; but invariably acts with the very antithesis of
good law making; devious, self-serving and short term interests.
Whoever is in ascendency at the time ends up conferring on
himself more powers than he had prior to the constitution he
makes! The result of all this mindless tinkering is now before us.
We have a constitution which everybody wants out, but nobody
can remove potentially undemocratic, dangerous and open to
abuse.

From time immemorial there have been several races living in this
country. Their relations have been mostly peaceful with the
occasional conflict, like in all histories. In 1948, we had a chance
at a new beginning, an opportunity to forge a national identity,
emphasise the common factors, becoming one. Our political
leadership was far below the required calibre for the task; leaving
for the future generations to deal with embittered racial relations
and a destructive three decades long civil war ( like many things
in this country, a long stalemate ,neither party capable of
achieving their ends nor bringing it to a speedy conclusion )
A tragi-comedy

In the all-important area of economic management, the showy


and ponderous efforts of our politicians take the air of a tragi-
comedy. Those who have a memory of the ideology driven regime
of 1970-77 will recall how the then government waged war on
every grower and producer; leaving the country poor, fallow and
broken. Things have improved much since. But in comparison with
countries we were on par with in the early years, we still lag far
behind.

Politicians, egos running on top gear, revel in prestige projects


(generally named after them) Mihin Air, Bandaranaike Hall,
Senanayake Samudraya (ocean!), Rajapaksa Airport (in the
middle of nowhere) keep sprouting. Most of the misdeeds of the
politicians are committed through our uneconomical and
unproductive public sector; employing on a conservative
estimate, at least fivefold the number required for their functions.
By far the biggest employer, the public sector is an open field for
the politicians; to exploit, misuse and abuse in any way they
fancy.

Sadly, the more the politicians change in this country, more they
remain the same; we now have national budgets of which nearly
every proposal is given the short-shrift within days, smacking of
rank amateurism and superficiality in budget planning. No one
seems to know what became of the much spoken of Mansion
Tax, a tax on an asset.

A very notable feature of our political culture is the longevity of


political careers. Several of the present leaders began their
politics in the 1970s or even before, in their callow youth, on the
basis that their fathers too were in politics! What in most cultures
would be a matter of embarrassment is considered a qualification
here. Later in the career, this absurdity becomes an asset, when it
will be argued that in the interim the man has become a sage like
figure experienced, wise and philosophical! Presumably, he
knew the answers to our problems in the 1970s, and knows the
answers to our present and future problems too.

This phenomenon can only be understood as a feature of the


underlying Brahmanism of the culture, punditry as a reserve of a
few, thwarting and paralysing everything it touches .There is no
periodic renewing or refreshing of political ideas or talent here.
Only those who burn incense at the altar of the leader may aspire
to a career in public service. It is not for us to see the fresh
political faces of the Obamas, Theresa Mays or even Donald
Trumps. As to new ideas, we wait in vain.

Unchanging

In the past 2,000 years, ideas, methods and technology of Europe


have changed in a revolutionary way, and that is putting it mildly.
From primitive beginnings they have evolved into prosperous
democracies while at the same time making huge strides in
science and technology. So great has been the transformation
that in the process mans view of his role in the universe itself has
changed; no longer is he a mere vassal of a feudal lord or a
helpless victim of dark supernatural forces. Today, he will only
accept a social contract based on the rule of law; the governed as
well as the governor, equally bound by it. Needless to say, these
developed societies have also ensured a very high standard of life
for their people.

On the other hand, when we look at our own history, there seems
to be an unchanging quality, a stoical temperament, an inability
to break free; with no discernible change between the methods of
governing between our first king Vijaya and the last, Sri Vikrama
Rajasinha, 2,000 years later. In between these two kings, there
have been several rulers said to have been benevolent, but that is
mainly on account of the personality of the king rather than a
change of system or the empowering of the people. Technology
wise, the latter stages of the kingdom appear a low point, kings of
centuries before being credited with better technology and much
bigger achievements than the subsequent.

Confusion reigns

It is said that in a democracy it is the voter who must take the


final responsibility for the leaders they elect. Going by the kind of
persons they have been electing regularly, the only rational
conclusion we can come to is that confusion worse confounded
reigns in the ranks. Perhaps the voter thinks that the elected
deserve a social uplift, the most noticeable feature of the
electoral process being the rapid gentrification of the elected.

No sooner he is elected, the man becomes a sir, his wife


madam, and their children baby. They will stop driving (if they
were driving before); the State will provide them with vehicles and
chauffeurs. In fact, then on any physical activity on his part, even
stirring a cup of tea, is unbecoming of his magnificence (the only
exception to the cutting down on physical activity is the
constitutional at the Independence Square, Colombo 7, now in
fashion).

What holds the key to the gravy train is not the election to
parliament by the voter. That is bound to happen, one way or the
other, once you become a candidate of a major political party. If a
person is simple unelectable, he can easily become an appointed
member of parliament through the Party! The crucial move is to
get in to the Party, preferably as the leader. Our political parties
are democratic only in name; in substance they are very much
like a private company of which the leader is the major
shareholder. It is nearly impossible to remove the leader unless he
in some way sells his shares. The Party in reality is a gathering of
deplorables; careerists , adventurers, hustlers and hangers on
around a strong man who in their calculations can manoeuvre
them into power on a future date and bring the machinery of the
State into their grubby hands.

Fickleness and frustration

That in fact there is no real difference between our political


parties is clearly borne out from the regular cross-overs from one
party to another. It is very common to see national
organisers ,secretaries and central committee members of one
Party crossing over to the opposite Party to become stalwarts
overnight of that Party. In the same family we see brothers in
leading positions of different Parties.

Philip Gunawardena, the one-time leader of the much promised


Trotskyite revolution ended his political career as a Cabinet
member of the UNP government of 1965-70. His brother Robert
Gunawardena, another fire-breathing Marxist, became an
ambassador under the same so-called capitalist government,
which he had been damning.

It is said that around 1972 even J.R. Jayewardene, in the height of


tensions with the then UNP Leader Dudley Senanayake,
commenced negotiations with Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike
on the possibility of joining her Coalition Government (J.R.
Jayewardene of Sri Lanka K.M. De Silva/Wriggins).

Some of this fickleness could arise out of frustration with the


leader (the major shareholder!) who, fails to deliver, yet continues
to hold onto the reigns of the Party. In a mature democracy, after
the magnitude of the UNP defeat of 1970, the leader (Dudley
Senanayake) would have left of his own. That did not happen, and
a more astute J.R. Jayewardene was perhaps pushed into a
difficult moral dilemma.
In 1977, Sirima Bandaranaike was rejected by the voter in no
uncertain terms. But the SLFP which she led continued with her
leadership until the mid-1990s when it came back into power with
her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike as President and Sirima
Bandaranaike in the evening of her life, as Prime Minister!

All politicians are bedfellows

The lifestyle that the elected has created for them is the basis of
the unspoken conspiracy that makes all politicians bedfellows.
Whatever the professed differences, our politicians will not upset
the wonderful existence that they have created. Herein perhaps
lies another difference between the European models (mainly
British), on which almost all our institutions as well as political
ideas are based.

Our leaders may study at European universities, speak their


language, and don their dress but by their efforts to identify with
that civilisation, only show how much they misunderstand it. They
have not acquired the thoughts that fashioned the institutions nor
the values that inspired the ideals of the West. It is the exception,
the aberration; the corruption of the Nixons, the excesses of the
Kennedys, and the sleaze of the Clintons of history that comforts
them by providing a commonality.

What is important to our leaders is not the reaching out for


something good, the endless search for an ideal or the
imperatives behind mans long march from slave to freeman.
Theirs is an outlook infinitely smaller; to bask in the public light,
hog public office and to enjoy the good life at public expense.

And meanwhile, what is going on in the heads of the voters who


make all this possible those who talk politics, are members of
political parties, go for political meetings, and finally vote in the
politicians?
Thoughts, dreams, plans, ideals or as in all their history; just an
accommodation with everyday realities?

It is difficult to say.
Posted by Thavam