By Upali Cooray –
Elara the Chola king who ruled Sri Lanka from 205 BC to 161 BC from the ancient capital of Anuradhapura is often referred in Mahavamsa as a “just king” and as one of the wisest. Even Elara’s nemesis king Dutugamunu had a great a respect for him. What is pertinent is the unwavering trait of responsibility he adhered to as a leader which comes as an anecdote in the chronicle Mahavamsa. The story goes that he was so concerned about carrying out justice to his subjects irrespective of status; he established a bell of justice within hearing distance from the palace so that anyone who needs justice from him could ring it day or night. As it goes in the chronicle, one day a calf was run over by the cart driven by King Elara’s son and the mother cow sought justice from the king by ringing the bell. Having investigated the reasons for the cow to ring the bell and finding that his son was at fault he ordered execution of his son and ensured the order was carried out. This story depicts a very important and righteous trait any leader should cultivate whether it is politician or some other leader. This trait is known as responsibility. This story in Mahavamsa is clear evidence that inhabitants of this Island of Sri Lanka was accustomed to the concepts of responsibility and accountability long before it became a key prerequisite in good governance in modern times. King Elara’s son was accountable for the death and it was Elara’s responsibility to see that justice is done.
Though some would like to use the words responsibility and accountability as synonyms; responsibility is a normative concept that differs slightly from accountability in that accountability has formal obligations embedded within its definition. Elara’s son was accountable for the death of the calf because it was the rule that committing the crime has an appropriate punishment.
Austrian Psychiatrist Victor Frankel in his world famous book written in 1945 “Man’s search for Meaning” recommended that the famous “statue of Liberty” in the east coast of U.S.A should be supplemented by a “Statue of responsibility” on the west coast. In fact this thought is now likely to become a reality through a Responsibility Statue Foundation established for this purpose for which the Utah legislature has confirmed fullest support. Utah is the home state of the sculptor Gary Price who had the prototype of the” Statue of Responsibility” sculpted. The concept behind this statue is that it will symbolize to the Americans and to the world that freedom cannot be sustained without balancing liberty with responsibility. It is unique and significant especially at this time in history when the United States of America appears to be in confusion in the use of concepts of responsibility and accountability within and without. One can even argue that these concepts are being abused. The unprecedented crisis in the American economy as a consequence of irregular financial affairs by giant corporate bodies is a case of lack of responsibility. The subprime mortgage crisis which triggered the economic down turn was a clear example of irresponsible corporate governance on the part of the companies involved and the politicians in Washington who were pawns in their hands. R2P which stands for ‘responsibility to protect’ stands heavily abused for selfish agendas of super powers in the name of protecting human rights.
Our former colonial masters gifted to us the Westminster Parliament system for better or for worse. The Westminster principle of ministerial responsibility can be explained in the following manner. Each Minister is responsible for his private conduct, the conduct of his ministry and it’s departments for acts undone or done by his officials. These principles are applicable to anyone holding public office. Among 125 British Ministerial resignations in the 20th century, no fewer than a dozen were reasons for private scandal and two were for private financial arrangements. In many democracies even unproven allegations are sufficient to provoke resignation. Sensitiveness to questions of honor and shame and the desire to minimize the stain on one’s reputation can lead to tragedy. The most stringent standard as in the case of Elara was by an Australian Immigration Minister who resigned in the 1980s for failing to declare a stuffed toy in his suit case to customs officers when he returned to the country.
Naoto Kan the prime minister of Japan resigned in August 2011. He was under fire for his handling of foreign affairs and economic policies but the immediate reasons for the resignation was his handling of the March 11th earthquake, Tsunami and the nuclear accident. Naoto Kan is not accountable for any of the events but he was responsible to ensure that due diligence was exercised in the matters pertaining to the tragedies.
Coming closer home, Anna Hazare of India wanted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to pass the Lok Pal Bill which he had put forward to fight rampant corruption in India. The Prime Ministers credibility slowly and gradually went down because he was not able to check corruption by his ministers and party men. The Prime Minister moved from one crisis to the other. He was said to be an impeccably honest individual who would not allow his good name to be tainted. The Indian people gave the final verdict and ousted him from power.
Former railways minister of India Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned in 1956 over a railway accident and later went on to become the Prime Minister. Pundit Nehru paid tributes to him as “a man of highest integrity”.
The only politician in Sri Lanka who resigned his post are Dudley Senanyake as Prime minister on the rice subsidy issue and the consequent “Hartal” in 1953. The other is Gamini Jayasuriya the Minster of UNP government under President JR Jayewardene who did not agree to the 13th amendment to the constitution and here is an extract of his speech.
“These two bills strike at the very root of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the unitary nature of our country. These are very complex issues that require the strictest scrutiny”. How will these bills affect the peaceful coexistence between the Sinhala and Muslim people? How will it affect the Sinhala Buddhists? Will we obtain peace with honor through these bills?
The most important aspect of these bills is the merger of the North and East Provinces. Mr. Speaker, give me the opportunity to explain to this House why I oppose this merger.”
This is in a bygone era. The practice hardly exists anymore. Moral obligations take a back seat to other political obligations such as holding on to power and making Hay while the Sun shines.
What is the situation today? A minister will not resign voluntarily or even through coercion unless convicted by a court of law. The delays in justice make it possible for the ministers to carry on for a long period of time even if a legal process is initiated. Ministers first show casualness and then defend if pressure mounts: lastly pass the buck to some Scapegoat and save their skin. This is a very common phenomenon in the Asian region whether in India, Japan, Malaysia or in Sri Lanka for that matter.
In the turbulent world of politics no one is indispensable as seen our last elections. Every leader has a chance to serve. But once he fails to live up to his reputation, it is for his own political good that he resigns and departs honorably. A minister may not be aware of the irregularities happening in a department or an institution under his purview but his responsibility remains the same. This is applicable not only to the secretaries of ministries but to the heads of departments and Chairmen of other institutions under the ministry. The head of a department cannot absolve himself from responsibility on the pretext of ignorance or being abroad or some other excuse at the time of the wrong doing. It is good to appoint committees and commissions to investigate and indict the accountable; but those responsible also should not unashamedly hold on to office on the pretext of innocence.
If Good governance or YAHA PALANAYA is the most prominent election pledge given by this government in coming to power, people expect it to be practiced to the last letter. As of now this government does not appear to be keeping to the pledge at all. There is no need to elaborate why; people hear and see through media about nepotism at the highest level, ministers and parliamentarians with shady records, Wheeler dealing in monetary affairs and so on? It is only the beginning. We will see more when the power is well consolidated in the near future. The voters stand duped.