By Izeth Hussain –
This article is really in expansion of my previous one in Colombo Telegraph of September 12 in which I argued the case for what might be called meliorist politics. My purpose in that article was to establish that the present Government should be judged by its fidelity or otherwise to the mandate given to it by the January 8 Revolution, and not by the Machiavellian means it might employ towards that end in accordance with principle that politics is the art of the possible. That article did not address the perennial problem of ends and means.
The problem is that ends and means cannot be entirely dissociated from each other because dubious or morally outrageous means can vitiate the end itself. How should meliorist politics address this problem? It should eschew theoretical discussions on ends and means, which can never result in unanimity or even anything that might be rated as a consensus. Instead it should be pragmatic in its approach because pragmatism is at the core of meliorist politics. That means that we should fulminate vociferously against and do everything possible to stop the Government’s morally dubious or outrageous actions while continuing to support it to the extent that it remains committed to the January 8 Revolution. Meliorist politics would not expect to make governments morally spotless overnight, but only to improve their moral standards to acceptable levels through a gradual meliorative process. Nothing more needs to be said about the famous problem of ends and means in the realm of practical politics.
The two preceding paragraphs and my previous article see the Government and the people in contradistinction to each other. That is quite legitimate because there is obvious discontinuity between government and people: the former can kick the latter around but the latter can’t reciprocate. So there is discontinuity, but there is also continuity between government and people. I will now provide a concrete illustration to show what I have in mind. People, including supporters of the Government, are now morally outraged by the way the Government has used the National list to bring into Parliament rogues, thugs, even murderers, and endowed them with high office. That is a clear case of the discontinuity to which I refer. But we also know after the recent General Elections that rogues and other dubious characters have been enormously popular with segments of the people. There we clearly have continuity between government and people. So it is not a case of an incorrupt people trying to correct corrupt politicians. The problem confronting us now is that we have to take corrective action against partially corrupt politicians and partially corrupt people.
The truth is that our politics has undergone a process of degeneracy for several decades. I am an octogenarian who attained majority in 1948, and I can truthfully attest that until after 1970 I would never have imagined the kind of political degeneracy that we have been witnessing. I won’t go into details about the degeneracy, but I will point to a contrast by way of illustration. In my last article I invoked the names of Bismarck and Lee Kuan Yew to show that mighty achievements are possible through meliorist politics. I was not suggesting that such mighty achievements are in the offing in Sri Lanka. Our political culture is far too low grade to be able to accommodate achievers of the order of a Bismarck or a Lee. How low grade it is is shown by the following facts. Dubious elements have been brought into Parliament to establish a stable majority without which the January 8 Revolution cannot be furthered. The likes of those dubious elements would in Lee’s Singapore have been kept firmly locked in jail.
How did we come to this sorry pass in our politics? It is a huge subject, and the few observations I make here are to be regarded as no more than notes towards a fuller treatment. In my view the degeneracy began in 1956 with the introduction into Sri Lanka of what might be called Afro-Asian socialism. That phase of degeneracy lasted until 1977. It was followed by a terrifying phase of degeneracy which lasted until 1989, which I find impossible to explain in terms of socio-economic factors. The only explanation that I can offer is that Evil reigned supreme and that Evil was personified in the deeply flawed human being J.R. Jayewardene. The wreckage of our politics wrought during those two periods should however be seen against the background of the neo-colonialist phase of our history from 1931 to 1956.
After 1931 we had a very wide measure of self-government though still under British imperialist tutelage. It was essentially a neo-colonialist set-up, qualitatively distinct from the traditional colonial one, the product of a phase in which Britain was preparing to give up its coolie empire. Independence, and together with it democracy, came without any struggle worth the name. In 1948 Sri Lanka was way ahead in every sense of practically all the other Afro-Asian countries. It was a situation that could be expected to breed complacency and irresponsibility in the elite that inherited power from the British. The situation was comparable to that of the young man who inherits vast wealth without doing a stroke of work and proceeds to blow his patrimony on attaining majority. That was seen in the ways that that elite failed to understand and cope with the malefic aspects of the 1956 revolution.
1956 saw the inauguration of Afro-Asian socialism, a phenomenon that was seen also in Nehru’s India, Nasser’s Egypt, Soekarno’s Indonesia, Nyere’s Tanzania, Sekou Toure’s Guinea, and in several other Afro-Asian countries. It essentially meant the emergence to elite status of the lower middle class. There was a positive aspect to that process in that that class represented a more authentic nationalism than that of the Westernised elites, but in practically every other way the process was negative. That class had no higher education, no professional qualifications, no business skills, no capital, and the only way it could ascend to elite status was through the state sector. We therefore saw in Sri Lanka the setting up of huge state corporations and the politicization of the Administration. The State with its vast resources became the virtual possession of the Government in power. The essence of politics became patronage, and that had horrible consequences: the politicians became powerful over the people and the people had to be servile to the politicians to secure their ends. The result was partially corrupt politicians and partially corrupt people. And that result prevails today as shown by the recent General Elections.
With the introduction of the open economy in 1977 and vastly increased opportunities for upward mobility there was no need for the continued politicization of the State. But it became worse, while the politicians became more powerful and the people became more servile. I can find no socio-economic explanation for that. I can only grope towards a cogent explanation by introducing the category of Evil into the analysis of politics – a huge and complex subject that requires analysis elsewhere. By Evil I mean the drive to harm and destroy with no purpose other than the joy it gives to the perpetrator. In literature the great exemplar of Evil was Iago in Shakespeare’s play Othello. In Sri Lanka Evil was personified in President JR who exercised virtually absolute and arbitrary power over an enslaved people. I will provide only one example to show Evil in operation in his case. We all know that Governments usually try to tame the judiciary, and resort to devious ways towards that end. But JR went much further than that. When a Supreme Court decision displeased him he had the houses of the judges surrounded by thugs who were transported in CTB buses – no need to go into further details about that well-known episode. My point is that JR was not satisfied with taming the judges. He wanted to humiliate them in order to appease the drive of Evil in him.
I have tried to show that the phenomenon of partially corrupt politicians and partially corrupt people has a long history behind it, which means that it could prove difficult to eradicate it. But the people have given a clear mandate for its eradication. We must therefore be vociferously critical over the Government’s accommodativeness towards the corrupt, while continuing to support it to the extent – and only to the extent – that it furthers the January 8 revolution.