By 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.
What 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.