By Javid Yusuf –
One of the objectives of the regime change that took place on January 8, 2015 was to create a new political culture that would be consistent with a civilized democratic society. It would not be far wrong to say that the Yahapalana Government has taken some steps in this direction.
With the opening up of democratic space people are not afraid to give expression to their views and to critique the Government and even the President and the Prime Minister in the strongest terms. The media has shaken off the shackles of self censorship and do not hesitate to call Government to account whenever necessary.
The new Local Government Electoral system has also contributed to reduction of the violence that has characterized some of the Elections in the recent past. While all this is welcome much more has to be done in order to work towards a more comprehensive and sustainable change in the political culture. While systemic change as in the case of the Local Government Election Reforms can contribute positively it will require attitudinal changes on the part of all sections of society to ensure that a new political culture can be forged that will stand the test of time.
The citizenry themselves have a role to play in this regard. While political parties have a duty to put forward candidates of integrity to contest at Elections, the public have an even greater duty to ensure that where political parties slip up and fail to do so the voters s vote against such unsavoury characters and prevent them from being elected to office. The forthcoming Local Government Elections gives the public a golden opportunity to do so because the ward system and the size of the wards enables the voter to easily ascertain the credentials or otherwise of candidates and to come to an informed decision on the best candidate to elect. This decision of the voter will impact on the future of the country because it will infuse new blood into a decaying and corrupt Local Government system. The simple act of casting the vote wisely can contribute immensely to the future wellbeing of the country because a vibrant Local Government system can be the nursery for future legislators of quality and integrity.
Another area where citizens can play a greater role is by not giving undue importance to politicians. While legislators can be given the respect they deserve for the role they play in the Governance of the country many tend to treat them as super human beings and sometimes even treat them as demi gods. This has at least two negative effects. This attitude of servility (as opposed to respect) to politicians and especially to those holding positions of authority demeans the members of the publicand greatly diminishes their dignity as human beings.
The other negative fallout of giving undue importance to politicians is the creation of big egos and a feeling of self importance. While not all politicians allow themselves to be ego massaged in this way there are many weaker ones who fall prey to such public servility and arrogate to themselves roles that are not befitting their status as representatives of the sovereign people.
The recent allegations made against the Chief Minister of the Uva Province are a case in point. He has been accused of summoning a lady Principal of a School in Badulla and berating her for not acceding to his request to admit a child to her School and asking her to kneel down and or worship him as a punishment. There were further allegations that the Chief Minister had made racist remarks alluding to her Tamil ethnicity. Although the Chief Minister denied such allegations, the news broadcast on Friday on Hiru TV showed the Principal in tears explaining in detail what happened.
Earlier during the previous regime a Provincial Councillor in Wayamba named Ananda Kumara forced a lady teacher to kneel down as punishment for pulling up his daughter with regard to her school uniform. Yet another instance was the case where former Minister Mervyn Silva order a Samurdhi officer to be tied to a tree for failing to turn up at a dengue eradication program. A disciplinary committee headed by a lawyer later found the Minister innocent and determined that the Samurdhi officer had tied himself up to the tree as a former of self punishment ! There are many other instances of such unbecoming action by politicians which while reflecting their temperament are greatly fuelled by the servile attitude of the public and the undue deference paid to politicians by not only members of the public but even State officials.
This is why often politicians talk of coming to power rather than assuming office. However in fairness it must be said that not all politicians fall into this category and many of them do adhere to norms of common decency and do not throw their weight around.
A closer examination of the Uva Chief Minister’s conduct reveal many misunderstandings that exist in the minds of many who assume political office and ignorance of systems and rules of conduct expected of them. The first observation is that the Chief Minister took it as a personal affront that the Principal did not carry out his orders on his mere say so but rather insisted on the proper procedure being followed which was that the Education Ministry Secretary’s approval be first obtained in order for her to approve such admission.
The second point at which the Chief Minister blundered was when he took it upon himself to conduct the so called inquiry when it should have been conducted by the appropriate official even if the Chief Minister had a grievance with regard to the matter. The third point is that even if an inquiry was warranted the Principal should not have been summoned to the Chief Minister’s residence for that purpose. The fact that it was the official residence made no difference. Another point on which the Chief Minister was out of line was that he had no right to demean the Principal by ordering her to kneel and or worship him and of course the unkindest cut was to make racist remarks at her.
Yet another area where changes have to be made with regard to the prevailing political culture is in the matter of handing over of letters of appointment, handing over of deeds of houses and lands to individuals etc. It has become common practice when anyone is recruited to the public service whether as teachers, nurses, postmen etc or when land or houses are allocated to members of the public for a public ceremony to be held at which a politician would hand out such letters of appointments or deeds to fawning recipients some of whom would even fall at the feet of the politician ostensibly as a show of gratitude. This has become so ingrained in the system that neither the politician concerned or the recipient realize that such selections had been made on merit and such appointments or allotments due to them as of right on the basis of the Government’s declared scheme of recruitment or allotment and not due to the largesse of the politician concerned. And besides there is nothing as demeaning and degrading of human dignity as having to pay obeisance to another human being for getting what is yours by right.
The better option and more in keeping with human dignity would be to post such letters of appointment or letters of allotment to the recipients.
The strengthening of systems of Governance will benefit both politicians and the public while making life better for the people as a whole. Necessary systemic changes would result in public confidence to rely on working the system rather than depending on and being beholden to individual politicians to get what one is entitled to as a citizen. This will obviate the need for the public to follow the demeaning practice of spending unproductive hours hanging around politicians’ houses or offices to get what is their just due. This in turn will take the pressure off politicians and legislators and enable them to devote time on reflecting on how to improve the lot of the sovereign people whom they have been elected to serve. For the politician his ultimate achievement will be that he has contributed to the general well being of the country and the people rather than the momentary satisfaction of seeing someone genuflecting at his or her feet .
The role of the media in bringing about changes in the political culture cannot be underestimated. They can help change attitudes by exercising discretion in giving prominence to politicians of disrepute. Many politicians consider any form of publicity as positive and helpful to their political career. If the media is to live up to its role as the watchdog of the people it must help shape attitudes by highlighting positives in society and holding the torchlight on excesses in Government without being subject to partisan agendas.
Schools too have to play a big role in building a strong and resilient society. It would not be wrong to say that it is in the classrooms that the seeds of our future society will be sown with the necessary values and skills being ingrained in the minds of the young ones. Today there is a great deal of attention being paid to enhancement of skills among children in order to equip them to meet the challenges of the future. Unfortunately there does not seem to be much attention being paid in the Schools to building values that help the citizens of tomorrow to use such skills for the betterment of society in a constructive way.
All in all a change in the political culture will only be achieved only through the sustained efforts of all sections of society including but not limited to the political leadership.