Groundviews

The Good, the Bad and the Uncouth

Tamil National Alliance leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan speaks during a media briefing in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014. Sri Lanka's main ethnic Tamil political party said that it will support opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena in January's presidential election, in the latest blow to Mahinda Rajapaksa's bid for a third term in office. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Photo by AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena, via Yahoo News

There is change, and for the better. The presence of the leader of the SLFP at the UNP Convention was something unimaginable even a year ago. Maithripala Sirisena was the Chief Guest at the annual gathering of the UNP and that was a sign of new times, a movement towards a more tolerant and inclusive political culture, an indication that Sri Lanka has changed positively.

A Tamil as the leader of opposition too was unimaginable just a year ago. What is encouraging is not just the appointment of R Sampanthan to that post but the total absence of a backlash from Sinhala society. The UPFA right-wingers (Lankan National-Socialists) were banking on a wave of fearful discontent in the South. It did not happen. That absence and Mr. Sampanthan’s appointment indicate we might be headed towards a common Lankan future instead of regressing into separate Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim pasts.

The TNA is the largest opposition party. The position of the leader of opposition belongs to it. Had the JVP obtained one more seat than the TNA, Anura Kumara Dissanayake would have become the opposition leader.

The Rajapaksa camp cannot be part of the official opposition unless and until its members formally resign from the SLFP. The SLFP is a part of the government. Any SLFP parliamentarian has a democratic right to oppose his/her party’s pact with the UNP. But that does not make him/her a member of the opposition. To be a part of the opposition, SLFP parliamentarians must resign from the SLFP and this no member of the Rajapaksa camp is willing to do. What they want is to keep a foot on both sides of the divide. They are trying to have their cake and eat it, enjoy the privileges of being part of the government and the freedom of being part of the opposition.

Mr. Sampanthan now wears two hats and cannot act exclusively as a TNA/Tamil leader. He must pay attention and give voice to those who oppose the hybrid government and its policies and practices.

Many of our worst political woes were caused by leaders who thought and acted not as Lankans but as Sinhalese. Sri Lankan did not have Lankan prime ministers or presidents but Sinhala prime ministers and presidents.

Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe have the opportunity of breaking this divisive mould, of representing the varied interests of all Lankans. So has Mr. Sampanthan; he can set an example by functioning as a Lankan leader of the opposition as distinct from a Tamil leader of the opposition.

Getting rid of a tyrant is hard; but harder still is to make good the promises of development and freedom.

The democratic experiment in many parts of the Third World failed, time and again, because democratic rulers did not understand the unbreakable link between political democracy and economic democracy. Sri Lanka is a rare exception: a democratisation success story. But the continued success of our democratic project depends on how it impacts on the ordinary lives of ordinary people.

Economic neo-liberalism has outlived its uses and belongs in the past, as much as statist economics does. Any attempt to tow the country out of the economic mire by imposing burdens on ordinary people via tax hikes and spending cuts will undermine the moderate centre and strengthen extremisms of all sorts, especially Sinhala-Buddhist supremacism. Such an outcome would be tailor-made for the Rajapaksa comeback project.

Ends and Means

Ends justify means is a dangerous belief. Often the wrong means can overwhelm and warp the end. It happened to the JVP in its attempt to make a revolution; it happened to the Tamils in their attempt to create their own state; it happened to the Lankan state in its attempt to defeat the LTTE.

It can happen to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration as well.

A UNP-SLFP hybrid government is something new in the annals of Lankan history. Since it is an unprecedented experiment, teething problems are but natural. But problems must be seen as problems, and not as achievements.

Such as the scale and composition of the latest gaggle of ministers which reeks of bad, unintelligent and insensible government. The number of portfolios and the nature of many of the appointees are disturbingly similar to Mahinda Rajapaksa governance.

The UNP is a lesser culprit in this regard than the SLFP. The President could have blamed the abysmal calibre of many of his ministerial nominees on necessity had it not been for the abysmal calibre many of his National List appointments.

During the parliamentary election campaign, Rajapaksa loyalists campaigned against fellow SLFPers perceived as insufficiently loyal to Mahinda Rajapaksa. Many SLFP candidates lost the preferential race as a result of this organised and ruthless campaign-within-campaign. Given this context, Mr. Sirisena’s decision to appoint some defeated members via the National List may have been excusable had it not been for the type of person he brought to parliament through the backdoor. Bringing in Sarath Amunugama can be justified; bringing in SB Dissanayake cannot.

At this election, the UPFA voters outdid themselves in endorsing candidates of outstanding infamy. President Sirisena emulated this example when he picked his own National List nominees. Then he compounded that error by bestowing portfolios on people who should not have been nominated in the first place. Can politicians like Dilan Perera or Nimal Lansa make a positive contribution to either the country or to the SLFP? Does not the elevation of such individuals reek of nothing but expediency and cynicism of the most corrosive variety?

Not even heavenly intervention would suffice to instil competence, integrity and responsibility in most of the new ministers. But the President and the Prime Minister can and must ensure their ministers operate within the confines of the law or do not stray too far from the boundaries of decency. They can and must ensure the police and the courts have a free hand in dealing with any minister who breaks the law.

The new ministerial-herd must not be given a free pass to do in the future what they did in the past. A mammoth bunch of ministers would have been a burden on the country’s depleted coffers, even if the ministers had been men and women of character, integrity and competence. Having imposed a gigantic ministerial collection on the country, the least the President and Premier can do is to keep the gargantuan appetites of their nominees in check.

In the Rajapaksa regime, power was concentrated in the hands of the President, his close family and his most trusted acolytes. The innumerable other cabinet, deputy and state ministers had no real power. They were kept quiescent by according them outrageous perks and extravagant privileges, at the cost of the country and the people. That was how Mahinda Rajapaksa kept his men and women happy. That is the lifestyle they are used to.

Can President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe ensure these old practices are not re-enacted? Can they, for instance, put an end to the burdensome practice of giving duty-free vehicle permits to parliamentarians and ministers? Can they keep ministerial perks and privileges at the barest minimum? Can they put an end to impunity and irresponsibility?

If the President and the PM can keep ministerial costs and ministerial abuses at a clear low, the negatives of installing a horrendously large and inapt bunch of ministers can be contained; perhaps.

Installing a UNP-SLFP hybrid government is a worthy experiment, which, if successful, can bring enormous benefits to the country and the people. But if this experiment fails, it will have a devastating impact on the country and the people as well as on the political futures of its leading proponents, starting with President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe. Such a failure will turn into a massive highway via which Mahinda Rajapaksa can make a triumphant return.

The Rajapaksa camp is hoping for a quick comeback. They are just waiting for the new government to make the usual mistakes. Most of those SLFP parliamentarians President Sirisena honoured with portfolios are fair weather friends. They will take what they can from him, but dump him and flock again to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the moment they sense a change in the popular winds. No amount of bribing will work if the new government loses its popularity. The only way the President and the Prime Minister can keep these embarrassingly opportunistic politicians in line is by fulfilling key components of the January 8th and August 17th mandates.

The new government, if it is to retain its hegemony and popularity, must maintain the legal, moral-ethical and competence gap between itself and the Rajapaksa regime. The size and the composition of its ministerial-collection had caused a narrowing of this gap. If the new ministers are allowed to conduct themselves in the old way, the gap would narrow still further. In one of those ironies history delights in, the means used to bring the new hybrid government into existence might pave the way for its early downfall.

Coca Cola and Other Inabilities 

According to a statement by Dr. Wasantha Dissanayake, Deputy Director of the Cancer Hospital, what Coca Cola released to River Kelani was not diesel but a chemical which can cause cancer and kidney-damages.

The latest revelation renders even more deafening the three-week old silence of the government about Coca Cola polluting the drinking water of more than a million people. This silence is doubly outrageous because the minister in charge of environment also happens to be the president of the republic. President Sirisena reserved that portfolio for himself. He speaks eloquently about the need to protect the environment. His silence on the Coca Cola issue is deafening.

An AVAAZ petition on the matter has not been able to garner even 2,000 signatures, despite being online for more than a week. That inability indicates that the Lankan public’s indifference to its own wellbeing has survived the downfall of the Rajapaksa regime.

Politics is too serious a matter to be left to politicians. The public needs to be vigilant about issues affecting its safety and wellbeing. When citizens limit their public involvement to voting (and watching talk-shows), it is easy for politicians to break the rules and laws with impunity.

The new government is better than the old government. So far its positives outweigh its negatives. But these are early days. The government can go forward to a better future or retreat to a past which is not too dissimilar to the Rajapaksa times.

The boy who went in search of fear is a fairy tale with a Grimm and a Turkish version. In both versions the boy is consumed by a desire to experience fear. He roams far and wide encountering many adventures but never fear. Eventually he becomes a king. In the Turkish version, the boy thinks of trying to make his poor subjects rich and bad ones good, and, suddenly, he knows fear.

Whether the leaders of the new government feel like the boy in this Turkish fairytale is unknowable. They should. Hard as it was, getting rid of Mahinda Rajapaksa was the easier task. Now comes the more difficult and confusing part: avoiding old mistakes, not making too many new mistakes and fulfilling at least the key election promises.

For the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, the harder road begins now.