The Importance of Working With

Image courtesy Colombo Telegraph

Machan, I hope a couple of UPFA guys get elected, too!” said my drinking partner, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram. It is a warm and beautifully sunny day in Bridgetown, UK, and from our favourite water hole we were discussing the decision by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to name former Supreme Court Judge, Mr Wigneswaran, as their lead candidate in the forthcoming election to the Northern Provincial Council. Should the election take place (low probability), the TNA will win (high probability) and Wigneswaran will be sworn in as Chief Minister of the said Council.

I was as shocked as you are as to why a Tamil man would think it desirable for UPFA candidates to get elected. After all, the UPFA is the current ruling coalition and, since the war ended, has gone out of the way to make the Tamil people of our country feel that they don’t belong here. The callousness shown during times of war and the barbed wire fences of Menik Farm top the list for some, but Thevaram and I have at least agreed on three issues as symptomatic: (a) the idea the national anthem may be sung only in Sinhala; (b) the abrupt stopping of the dual nationality scheme as an ingenious way of crowd control at Nallur temple; and (c) the Eighteenth Amendment. (If I may let you in on a little secret, Thevaram has reacted to the first of the above by teaching himself to whistle our anthem in Sinhala! Please try, it is beautiful!)

The run-up to the decision to nominate Wigneswaran was full of amusement. Initially, he showed no interest. Much pressure was applied on him and the persuasion worked. Then out of the blue Maavai Senathirajah declared he wants the job, with an MP saying that Wigneswaran is not suitable because his in-laws were Sinhalese, thereby confirming that an integral part of Tamil Nationalism is Tamil racism. The appointments committee met twice without reaching agreement — a tug of war between everyone who wanted Maavai and the leader who thought otherwise, or so we were told. Suddenly on day three, there was the announcement of unanimous agreement.

Shortly after the announcement, Wigneswaran gave two nice interviews, one to an Australian radio station in Tamil and the other to Ada Derana in English. He said exactly the same thing in both languages, which alone is a great step in the right direction, critics of Tamil politics tell me. What was trigger of the 180 degree turn by Maavai and his supporters remains unknown. Some reports point to telephone calls received from Hanumanland, but let us not gossip.

“What can Wigneswaran realistically do?” I challenged Thevaram. “The position is highly constrained and we know from the noises coming from both ends of nationalist thinking in the country that the whole thing is flawed in theory, right? So how come something flawed in theory causes all this excitement in practice?”

“You see, the thing to do in a situation like this,” Thevaram insisted, “is to learn to work with others in the system, recognizing that this is as good as it can possibly get.”

“Let me tell you a story,” he began. I braced myself for what was coming: some small incident in the story, he will show me a lesson from it and extrapolate it a hundred fold to make a political point.

“Some years ago, I was elected to be head of a department (HOD) in my university, a position I didn’t particularly want, but kind of a “duty calls” situation. The HOD is supposed to be responsible for everything – smooth running of the teaching programme, active research to international standards, work allocated equally among staff and perfect adherences to the monotonically increasing rules and regulations.”

“But, you see, in the way the university was designed, there was no power vested in the office of HOD. All of it was with a pro Vice Chancellor (PVC), directly appointed by the Vice Chancellor, and acted pretty much as a “yes man” to his boss. Any decision involving money, appointments or the estate has to be approved by this PVC. The University boasted big about devolved governance at the level of its academic departments, but in reality, the only decision the HOD was empowered to do was if the books in the library ought to be stacked vertically or horizontally. And more importantly, you see, the PVC had the power to sack the HOD at any time.”

“Oh shoot,” I hear you say, “The elected guy has all the responsibility whereas the appointed guy holds all power.” That sounds like a unique Indo-Sri Lankan invention, no?

“So how did you do handle that situation?” I asked.

“You see, there are two fundamental rules to start with,” he said. “A, you must recognize a brick wall when you see one and learn not to bang your head against it. In all battles between brick walls and heads, brick walls are known to have won. And B, you must recognize that working with someone is not always the same as kneeling down before them, yielding to their authority; `working with’ is not `licking boots’. So I developed a working relationship with the PVC, tried to understand where he was coming from, avoided situations of obvious conflict and identified areas in which we could work together, and pushed those to the top of the agenda. And, you see, when you find areas in which you work together and do these well, a sense of partnership develops, even in a poorly designed system with asymmetry in power-responsibility distribution. And from there you can also tackle issues in which you have strong disagreement.”

“Did he ever threaten to sack you?” “No, he knew I could resign faster than he could sack me, and the cost of embarrassment to him was greater than the dent he could make to my salary. I did have my letter of resignation in my pocket at every meeting with him, you know.”

“Did you ever come close to using it?” “No – in these situations, as players of the game of chess know well, the rule, `threat is better than its execution’ is most effective.”

“See, of the two rules I told you earlier (the brick wall and working with),” he continued, “the first is obvious — you have to pick your battles. But on the second, we as a community have so much to learn.” I did not take the bait, because this last loaded comment, if pushed, will go down a long list of names like Anatharajan, Thiranagama, Panchalingam and so on. The man has memory, and that is sometimes selective.

“But you are positive about these developments?” I tried to distract. “Of course,” he replied, “the Provincial Council can be made to work.”

I agreed. “Yes, as many have commented, Wigneswaran can act as catalyst to do the enormous tasks that are needed in the Northern Province, isolated and devastated by thirty years of war, can’t he? Resettlement of the displaced in their own homes, advances in education (English, in particular), preservation and enhancement of the local culture, a renaissance of confidence in a much cheated community that also needs to do away with accumulated superstitions and shameful caste structures, positive engagement with the diaspora, building up capacity in areas like plumbing, software engineering and fisheries, and making sure not a single drop of rain-water reaches the sea by surface run-off.”

“Oh, no, I didn’t mean any of that,” Thevaram pauses for a sip, “I am excited by the possibility that Wiggles can do something profoundly dramatic within the first week of winning the elections,” introducing a nice little pet name for the charismatic judge.

“He can offer the UPFA guys ministerial positions and Pajero four-wheel drives, and tempt them to cross over to the ruling side!” “That would be the master stroke.”

“Cheers, Machan,” I said, in full agreement.