Colombo Telegraph

Before The Elections – I

By Izeth Hussain

Izeth Hussain

I started writing political articles soon after I left Government Service in 1989. I am struck by the similarities and contrasts in our politics during the periods 1977 to 1989 and 2009 to 2014, and it occurs to me that it might be useful to draw the parallels in an article. 1977 witnessed the entry of the market oriented economy in contrast to the State-centric one which had ruined the Sri Lankan economy from 1956 to 1977. The success of that market economy, with all its drawbacks, was probably the major reason why the UNP managed to cling on to power for seventeen years, though dubious means were employed. The present Government has shown in the perception of many Sri Lankans an impressive dynamism in its economic performance. They believe that that could turn out to be an important reason for President Rajapaksa winning the forthcoming elections.

There is now a very wide consensus in Sri Lanka that the victor at the Presidential elections, either Rajapaksa or Sirisena, will barely scrape through, and that the decisive factor would be the minority vote. In other words the economic factor may not weigh all that much. I can think of two possible reasons for this. One is that it seems impossible to combine economic growth with equity under the capitalist system. In 1998 we had John Gray’s False Dawn exposing its shortcomings, and now we have the international best-seller Capital in the Twenty first Century by Thomas Piketty. It speaks volumes that economic inequality in China, still under the dominance of the Communist Party, is greater than in the West European countries. It is very probable that the economically dissatisfied in Sri Lanka constitute a substantial proportion of the Sri Lankan electorate. They may not be voting for the President because they cannot be expected to be overly impressed by the successes of the Government at the macro-economic level. The other reason is that there are no fears now, unlike in the period before 1994, that a change of Government will spell a reversion to a State-centric economy. The market economy has come to stay as an integral part of the bourgeois revolution here and elsewhere – at least for the time being. So, the economic factor may not weigh very much in favor of the President.

Corruption is a major issue at this election, more perhaps than at any earlier election. I am concerned here only with the moral and not the economic dimension of corruption. Both periods, from 1977 to 1989 and from 2009 to 2014, witnessed an atrophy of the moral sense in public life, something like a frightening collapse of public morality, that was not the case in our politics since 1948. I will cite just one case from the earlier period to illustrate my point. A notorious gangster, Gonawala Sunil, headed a gang rape of a young middle class female, was convicted and sentenced to rigorous imprisonment for a lengthy period. But after a brief period he was given a Presidential pardon, and I am told that he was escorted out of prison by one of the most powerful politicians of that time, a right hand man of President Jayewardene. Thereafter he was made an all-Island Justice of the Peace and a member of the UNP’s Central Committee. There was no uproar from the civil society, no adverse reactions from the clergy of the world religions that flourish mightily in Sri Lanka, which are facts attesting to the atrophy of the moral sense in our public life. Mrs. Bandaranaike happened to mention those enormities in a speech, and I took to referring to them in my writings of that time, but I cannot recollect anyone else doing so. I must clarify the full enormity of the Gonawala case. Certainly most of the third-rate Governments of the third world use gangsters for their nefarious purposes, but they are hypocritical about it bearing in mind the tribute that vice must pay to virtue in civilized societies. Not so in Sri Lanka where the Government blatantly rewarded a convicted criminal. There was a frightening collapse of public morality.

A similar collapse has been taking place in Sri Lanka since 2009. That corruption has been more rampant than ever before had to be expected as part of the natural order of things: we are now a middle income country, and particularly with the vast infrastructure projects undertaken by the Government the opportunities for corruption are vastly greater than ever before. That, from one point of view, is all that needs to be said about corruption and there is no need to be exceedingly fussy about it. But what about the attitudes to corruption? I would make a distinction between attitudes to corruption on the part of the people and of the State. The people tend to view corruption from a moral perspective, not so much an economic one where the emphasis is on the deleterious economic consequences of corruption that goes beyond the petty stage. This moral attitude seems to derive from the almost universal disapproval of theft – universal in human societies with some very rare exceptions. Corruption is seen as a form of theft because it amounts to misappropriation of what belongs to others, and a permissive attitude towards it is sensed as a destruction of social bonds. The State on the other hand tends to be permissive about corruption, particularly in the third world countries.

It is arguable that in Sri Lanka corruption is part of the very order of politics. I have in mind the fact that our idiotic electoral system requires big money, indeed big money on a colossal scale for its operation, and that engenders corruption on a colossal scale in the post-election period. The fact that so iniquitous an electoral system has been allowed to continue for so long suggests a permissive attitude towards corruption on the part of our political elite. However, the fact that I want to emphasize is that in Sri Lanka the Government has gone beyond permissiveness to an actual acceptance of corruption. A politician on the government side has put forward a unique argument for voting for the UPFA: its members have made so much money through corruption that they don’t need to resort to corruption any more, whereas an alternative Party in power will resort to it. There has been no suggestion of Governmental punitive action against that politician. We are witnessing therefore an atrophy of the moral sense in public life, a frightening collapse of public morality.

That collapse can be seen in many ways, for instance in the Khuram Shaikh case. He was a British national who was killed, and his Russian girl friend gang raped, as part of the midnight revels of a local politician and his gang. According to the established norms in Sri Lanka criminal acts by the politically powerful tend to go unpunished, and in the Khuram Shaikh case it became evident that the Police were not seriously pursuing enquiries. But the British Government would not reconcile itself to Sri Lankan norms, Prime Minister Cameron himself intervened, and convictions followed. Everyone knows that if not for that British intervention there would have been no convictions at all. A contrasting case is that of Hirunika Premachandra whose father, a politician, was killed in public “like a dog” as she reportedly put it. The suspects are politically powerful and therefore there has apparently been no serious action towards incriminating them. She has joined the Opposition in the hope that justice will be done. Her case shows that practically anything can be done to the politically powerless unless they have powerful foreign backing.

The Government’s contempt for public morality is most eloquently shown by its criminally permissive attitude towards the anti-Muslim hate campaign of the BBS and other extremist groups. The Muslims have been an abjectly submissive minority who have sided with the Sinhalese in all the racist idiocies perpetrated against the Tamils, and furthermore they have suffered horribly in consequence. I have shown in a series of articles that the charges made against the Muslims by the BBS are totally preposterous, and I have not been refuted. Two indisputable facts declare eloquently the Government’s contempt for public morality: it has refused to curb the hate campaign, and it has refused to apply the law to the BBS leaders.

To be continued..

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