By S. Sivathasan –
Sri Lanka witness to periodic elections with unerring regularity missed that opportunity for three years. On that score there was no loss in quality of governance. The polity however lost its ability to assess the force of the sub currents and the magnitude of the iceberg developing underneath. With elections now behind us, it is not the statistical exactitudes that press for relevance. In what direction is the polity moving and at what point will it stop in two years are the critical questions.
What did January and August 2015 bring forth? Two national parties in the same harness. A third major one in search of a safe arbour slithering along, skidding the wheels of government in negative mode. Two minority entities exulting in having tilted the balance at the hustings. An ethnic formation of Tamils, eternally averse to handling power, yet in dalliance with the government though leading the opposition as well. Through policy and programme Tamils made no forward movement. The religious formation of Muslims noted for its pragmatic approaches secured some success on top of its 62 years of progress. Hill country Tamils with their new leadership grew in strength. The minor groupings lumbered along. No nation could have crafted a more amorphous arrangement for nation building. An amalgam of dissatisfaction was waiting for expression.
In the years preceding 2015, the passion for Life and Liberty were exceedingly stronger than the fondness for Pursuit of Happiness. Elections called for then, had the fullest resonance with the polity. Expectations grew high and fulfilment was anticipated. Some sacred rights were restored. Right to life was secured and the spectre of fear had been dissipated. liberty was ensured restoring multiple rights to the citizens. Among them freedom of expression being the most significant. By any measure undreamt of achievements. A tribute to Maithri-Ranil stewardship. Yet impediments to happiness were many and little mark was made on the constituents of happiness.
Disaffection Afflicting All
Public debt which was at ever growing levels and now at unpayable Rs trillions, took away the sheen from much professed good governance. Benefits of monetary infusions were more than negated by inflation. Economic growth did not translate into income distribution through new employment avenues. Education failed to have the budgetary support that government’s professions emphasized. Neither did health get the finances needed. Tamils had their hopes on military withdrawal dashed; land release never done; devolution not even attempted and expectations of economic revival ever frustrated. Fears of the Muslims were not assuaged and a recrudescence of violence against them continued to be glossed over. Hill country Tamils benefitted a little because the previous coterie was bypassed in favour of the new leadership. The innervating failure at crafting a constitution displayed supreme ineptitude. Three years in the making, it has the appearance of an unformed pudding. Dissatisfaction everywhere, hope nowhere is the polity’s summation.
Amidst this tangle prevailed a mood of disaffection and protest. The worst confluence to test the waters but yet mandated it came in February. All segments of the polity, were straining at the leash to register their protest. They did so explicitly with verve and venom. Election results conveyed the mindset and confirmed their path to be in 2020 if not earlier. The election, Local Government in name, displayed all the attributes of a National Referendum. It is idle to quibble on specious legalistics. The amplitude of the vote, embracing the total polity eligible to vote was as for general election or a referendum. If to the voters the status of the local body was of little concern, then what was their source of concern?
Omissions in Execution
The force that had gathered the greatest kinetic energy against the Rajapaksa regime, was the perception true or false, that it was (a) instrumental in corrupt practices of gigantic proportions and (b) party or privy to several high-profile killings that were alleged. What should have followed the barrage of charges and denials? Inquiry, arrest, indictment and the whole judicial process resulting in conviction or acquittal. With justice administered judiciously and with transparency, the current government will have neither blot nor blemish. Judicial failure a most sensitive shortcoming for any government and intelligible even to the laity, has become a standing slur on those in governance. What the country knows is that, sins of omission are more grievous than those of commission. All this on top of misdemeanours in the legislature and tardiness of the executive. They manifested in financial mismanagement, bringing the government into disrepute. Hence the unreserved rejection of the government and those responsible for the unpardonable impase.
In governance, a crucial partner to the social contract is the voting citizenry. To them declarations by members of parliament – now in governance – against those in power prior to 2015, were meant to be acted upon. The pratings of accusers that action will be taken were believed and default which has become the norm was construed as cheating, even premeditated. If no indictment is served for three years, was there a case at all is what the polity would ask. There is therefore disbelief that the earlier accusations were true. The leader concerned has now reason to believe and to speak only about his sense of injured innocence. This was a very potent determinant for MR’s sweeping victory and Maithri – RW’s lamentable debacle.
From Now on, What?
In an uncertain future one can only speculate. Parliament has ceased to be a forum of instructive debate or a venue for respectable discourse. For long it has been a platform to stage rowdy scenes whenever members are not asleep. Similar spectacles were on display in the House of Commons, at the time Oliver Cromwell marched in with his men. In Sri Lanka Members will be inclined to march out, stream into the streets and fill junctions to enact live shows to disparage the government. RESIGN will be the watchword gathering momentum from now on. All the while a momentous change will get into incubation.
Over four years ago when this writer ventured to write on the Indian elections and the prospects for Modi it became clear from the study that a vast transformation on the electoral scene was emerging. In the original phase the nation and the states were dominated for long by the Congress. Then came a phase when Congress captured Lok Sabha while regional parties settled down in the states. Then came a period for BJP and the Congress to wield power alternately at the centre. Since Modi’s ascent, BJP is venturing to spread its tentacles to the states as well. This is a healthy developing phenomenon and very soon two major parties holding power alternately at the centre and in the states will be the evolving pattern.
In Sri Lanka a similar picture has made its beginnings but a difference is inescapable. India a large nation has to have self-governing states. Sri Lanka has Provinces without self-sustenance capability. The centre with money power wields the whip with deadly effect. How many local institutions Municipal, Urban and Pradeshya are aware that without central sustenance, they don’t have a leg to stand on? With that knowledge and without perks to lure would they have wasted their breath?
The recent elections were an exercise only in getting our bearings right on what next.