7 December, 2022


Crossing The Bridge

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.
”Down, you base thing!” thundered the Moral Principle, “and let me pass over you!”
The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.
”Ah,” said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, “let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.”
The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.
”In order to avoid a conflict,” the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, “I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.”
Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. “I don’t think you are very good walking,” it said. “I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.”

It occurred that way. – Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables

The UPFA manifesto says it all. It is a Rajapaksa power project that relies on neo patrimonial politics. It is not a policy statement. It consists of a series of pledges. It has no time frame for implementation or explanation of how the relief measures will be financed. It leaves such intricacies to be resolved by the ‘Redeemer ’. Therefore its primary purpose is the restoration of the ‘Ancien Régime’. It is unsurprising and consistent with the UPFA’s proven disregard for conventional economic wisdom distinguishing illiquidity from insolvency.

Anura Kumara JVPWhat is neo patrimonialsm? Neo-patrimonialism is the vertical distribution of resources that creates patron-client networks based around a powerful individual or a party. We have seen it before and we are promised more of it. We have seen it since independence in 1948. Patrimonial politics often misinterpreted as benevolence of the native elite towards their less endowed people was an acceptable form of governance in the early years of decolonization. The regime that replaced the departing colonials did not quite dismantle the colonial institutions. Instead they kept the peace by patrimony towards the people and for the benefit of a few individuals. We changed it partially in 1956. [The JVP does not agree. Read JVP manifesto Page 1]

The UPFA is quite candid about their worldview. They explain in the introduction – “This document is the outcome of an intellectual dialogue which has gone beyond the traditional list of political pledges. The contents of this document were crafted by a group of respected intellectuals and professionals with expert knowledge in their respective fields; in doing so, they have also taken in to account extensive research and surveys carried out to determine the pressing needs and long felt grievances of all Sri Lankans.”

Government contractors and business will be brought out of the darkness. The UPFA has discovered families deprived of their main breadwinners, families with no shelter, orphans, patients suffering acute kidney ailments, women, children, youth, senior citizens, war heroes, government servants, private sector employees, farmers, artists, journalists, fisher folk, house maids in Arabia, small businessmen , Three Wheeler drivers, gem miners and gem merchants and plantation workers. They will all have their grievances addressed. All are offered relief within the targeted time frame. The targeted time frame however is not stated. That is understandable. This document is the work of respected intellectuals and professionals with expert knowledge in their respective fields. The resource allocation will have to await the next meeting of the family politburo.

Max Weber was right. Patrimonial politics is not corruption. It is bad governance.

In this election, the JVP was first to make its policy statement. That the other two major groups who followed them, followed their lead by conceding failure of past policies, is a tribute to their successful articulation of the nation’s general mistrust of the political class.

The JVP in its policy statement, has identified problems and, framed the issues and offered solutions that hold out the promise of citizen participation. The problems and solutions are embodied in a covenant with the nation. The claim – ‘ours is the conscience of the nation’ is quietly stressed, indicting the UNP and SLFP for 67 years of misrule.

The UNP led united national front was next. The grand old party has promised to build ‘a new nation in sixty months’. Rejecting market fundamentalism, it has promised a knowledge based social market economy that cushioned the poor, the disabled, the unemployed and protected the natural environment. It also claims credit for the new democratic discourse. “Before 8th January an atrocious regime was in place. Its cronies shared all economic dividends. A cowed people could not protest. They were coerced in to silence.”

As already explained the UPFA makes no policy statement. It is an attempt to regain its capacity of being able to divert public resources to remain in power.

Politics of patrimony was developed and fine-tuned by the UPFA in the five post war years to a level that made life impossible for them without their discretionary power. Many local UPFA bosses found the post January 8th climate too stifling to endure. Deprived of the monopoly of state resources they could not hold on to their networks. Defections is their current nightmare and the list of pledges provides interim relief until elections.

Does it absolve the rival UNP led coalition of their guilt in promoting clientilist politics? The answer lies in their performance between 8th January to date. In a Democracy, the policy that determines the transfer of public goods or deciding who gets what and when is decided by the elected government. This power is held by the elected government. The purpose of elections is for the voters to hold political elites accountable for the manner in which they decided who gets what in their term in office. A political party organized around one overpowering personality such as the UPFA is the natural outcome of patronage politics. There is no life after Mahinda for the UPFA. It is not so dreadful in the case of the UNF. It is time for the United National Front to get out of its Bondage of patrimonial politics. Pun intended.

In all democracies, vibrant, quasi or dysfunctional, politicians tend to invoke morality as justification for their policies. We make the mistake of assuming that morality is a timeless concept that has crystalized as norms of human conduct.

The chief function of official morality is to justify the means and not the end. This writer hopes to see the former Auditor General Sarath Chandrasiri Mayadunne in parliament.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    So, no one is getting good marks from you. Why not give us what you consider as a good policy statement if you were a leader of of a political party?

  • 4

    Sarath de Alwis:
    It is such a pleasure to read cogent arguments presented with civility and class!
    There are many of us who saw in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combination a glimmer of hope for this country. However, the “insurance-buyers” around them have made sure that the essential cleansing of the body politic was little more than the mouthing of slogans from time to time and it is becoming increasingly obvious that they have given a thoroughly discredited bunch of politicians a new lease of life.

    The question being posed by many is whether they should split the anti-Rajapaksa vote by going for the JVP which is the only party projecting principle and good sense and risk the MARA gang coming back in on the back of a split opposition or whether they support Ranil W and co. and hope that they can be persuaded to display something like principle and backbone if returned to government and that they will prosecute, to the full extent of the law, those who have pillaged this country.

    Personally, I am sick and tired of the lame, “due process of law takes time and we can’t arbitrarily throw people into jail” talk. What is very evident and what I hear regularly from my village neighbours is that something is damned fishy when the sharks are going untouched (except for short periods of residence in the paying wards of hospitals for a miniscule number) while some traffic cop is nailed for extracting a three- or four-figure bribe!

    I have watched some of these movers and shakers in action when the Rajapaksas ruled the roost and their current conduct towards those that they sucked up to then is no surprise!

  • 1

    indeed a fantastic fable from Ambrose Bierce! A human tragedy told in very few words.


  • 2

    This writer hopes to see the former Auditor General Sarath Chandrasiri Mayadunne in parliament.

    Please find out the party in whose national list is topped by the former auditor general Sarath Mayadunne. That party gets good marks. This is from a fellow citizen. I am not a member of any political party.

  • 1

    Ours is not a robust democracy. Our journey from the end of a feudal past and colonial rule to democracy was short. We didn’t have that long gestation as Britain did. And we have yet to correct some of our weaknesses in our democracy.

    After ten years of Rajapake’s corrupt and perverted rule, we expected something decent from the new government. But we were disappointed.

    To expect “good governance” from our politicians is foolish. What we need, as Obama recently said in Africa, is strong institutions. That is the prelude to “good governance”.

    Rajapakse deliberately weakened our institutions. But he wasn’t the first. All the previous ones too contributed. Rajapakse’s claim to historical notoriety, however, is that he took it to a new low and despicable level. Examples are ample.

    The best we can hope for is that the civil society will force any new government to strengthen our battered institutions – something like the campaign the legal fraternity did at the appointment of Mohan Pieris as CJ. Although they failed to achieve their objective, the campaign did rouse the public conscience to see what was happening to that sacred institution, the judiciary and its independence.

    In that regard, JVP having the former auditor general, Sarath Mayadunne, in their National List is heartening.

  • 1

    JVP is the only party who has presented a policy statement. They do not have drug dealers, rapists, thugs, criminals or corrupted people contesting in this election. But still older people remember only UNP or SLFP when it comes to voting. I wish they will get significant no of members in this parliament to control and to force the government to bring in good policies as we saw how much effort they did during 100 day program. Lalith from Sydney

  • 1

    My thanks to the author. With everybody talking about manifestos, principles and what not, I was getting confused. Will look it up.

  • 0

    Its all about Pledges VS Promises.
    But, the author having described the Pledges and when moving onto Promises gets mixed up with Pledges.
    If unbias, his heart & pen needs to keep them apart & not only by the pen.

    JVP has nowhere to hang so by their speeches will eat into the UNP vote base. What JVP has been saying what we have known all along & nothing new other than Mr. Mayadunne is No. 1 in the national list.

  • 1

    Most important issue at this election is to keep Rajapakse out of power. To achieve that objective, voting for JVP will be pointless. However repugnant Ranil’s rule in the last 180 days, it is necessary to vote for the UNP keep the Rajapakse Family out.

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