By Uditha Devapriya –
The democratic process is premised on the idea that we don’t owe our representatives anything, except the “gratitude” that we must pay through taxes and other levies to maintain public services. It’s a two-way street: you pay to keep those services and they run the country through what we pay. Nothing that goes beyond this can be considered as gratitude. What goes beyond can hence only be considered as servility. Servility of the most nauseating, ridiculous sort. The kind that adorns politicians whose pasts have been tarnished thanks to allegations of graft, abuse, and misappropriation. I am not singling out the present regime here, incidentally.
I know this government has those leftover hurrah-boys who still think that what transpired on January 8, 2015 was a revolution, never mind that revolutions can’t be sustained if those who were part of the status quo that worked against the “revolutionaries” are hired by the latter as their lackeys (as this government has done). Expedience is sometimes considered the better part of imperative, sadly, which is why we have to sacrifice principles, but even adjusting for that the government has failed to deliver on the brief we gave them. Anyone who bats for this regime using revolutionary rhetoric, then, clearly needs to look up the word in the dictionary.
But these revolutionaries are just part of the crowd that keeps on batting for the government. Consider the other elements, i.e. those who applaud its representatives on the basis of their arbitrary conceptions of democracy, elitism, and meritocracy. It is these conceptions that demarcate the Old Boys Club in the government as well-intentioned technocrats, while the likes of Palitha Thewarapperuma and even Mahinda Rajapaksa are disparaged as backward. They will go to any lengths to defend even someone like Ravi Karunanayake on the premise that those they defend are worthy of eloquent praise. These claims wouldn’t stand the test of scrutiny, since the educated, as history has taught us, have not been better and indeed have been worse than the “uneducated” in resolving several compelling national issues.
We’ve messed up our notions of decency and education so much that we look for the wrong indicators thereof when assessing our politicians. We will consider Dayasiri Jayasekara’s momentary gaffe at pronouncing Latin phrases as something to laugh and poke at. We will disregard the horrendous mispronunciations in Sinhala (yes, the mother tongue) being made every day in parliament. Some would say this is a symptom of our colonial hangover, but for me the problem goes deeper. Fact is, we’ve screwed up the fine line between being uneducated and indecent so much that we pick and choose politicians based on the image they project of their status.
A recent Facebook comment compelled my interest in this: “Why we’re in this rut as a country is because your generation was preoccupied with correcting ‘e’s and ‘a’s instead of doing anything constructive.” The comment was aimed at those who were more interested in grammar and pronunciation than in the spirit in which something was written or spoken. Reminds me of a certain Prime Minister who, in a heated argument in parliament with Robert Gunawardena, chastised him over a grammatical faux pas or slip of the tongue the latter made, with his own classic slip of the tongue: “Why don’t you speak a language you understand? Speak Sinhalese?” “His tones left no doubt that this [Sinhalese] was a language fit only for the lower orders,” Regi Siriwardena later wrote. That Prime Minister, incidentally, was not a rightwing elitist. He was S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Telling, I should think.
Given our political culture it’s no surprise that there were people who sobbed at Ravi Karunanayake’s departure. Whether or not these people were “paid” to do what they did is beside the point. What’s important is that they were there, some of them even worshipping the man. What’s as important is that those who were hell bent on ridiculing Mahinda Rajapaksa over his habit of holding up babies and consoling emotional, if not hysterical, supporters (right after he was defeated) are speechless and selective when it comes to this display of emotion and hysterics. To be sure, the fact of his departure, more forced than willingly conceded to by the alleged wrongdoer, speaks volumes about the political culture we are witnessing. But that political culture is still predicated on that timeless excuse for incompetency, relative merits.
Relative merits, ladies and gentlemen. The we’re-better-than-them argument, which has become too old and outpaced to be taken seriously. The problem with that argument, of course, is that it works both ways: the Mahinda Rajapaksa Cabal can use it just as effectively as this regime can. And in case you’re wondering, they are. The recent tirade against the Attorney General’s Department over what is alleged to be their partiality against members of the present government is symptomatic of a political culture that operates on such arguments. That’s not to say the Attorney General is to be absolved everywhere and with respect to every allegation, but then there’s a fine line to be drawn between constructive and baseless criticism.
What strengthens the relative merits argument is that the government is partly correct. They are better procedurally than the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. What weakens it, on the other hand, is the point that it depends on whether the government has been better than Rajapaksa’s regime at improving the democratic machine. There’s a difference between procedural and substantive democracy, after all. A careful perusal of every antidemocratic act taken by the government, any government, in the last three decades will prove that nearly all of them have been absolved by the argument that the state is the ultimate arbiter of political action, since it derives legitimacy from the fact of being elected by the people. The paradox of modern democracy is that it shields inequalities and deplorable state action under a facade of procedural correctness.
But consider this. We haven’t seen a repeat of Rathupaswala, at least not yet. Protestors were beaten up and continue to be beaten up and/or tear-gassed, but that is not as coercive as being killed or shot. There’s been a definite improvement in the way political dissidents are being accommodated (Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe being a good example), though that’s less a sign of political correctness than one of political lethargy. Allegations of graft and misappropriation do abound, but they are less than what we saw during the previous regime. Putting all these together, is our present political culture better than what it used to be?
I would be tempted to say yes, with some reservations. Political sycophancy still continues. Those who raised hell over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s supporters now stay shut over how they themselves are covering up the alleged wrongdoings of this government. Had Rajapaksa stalled any election, presidential, general, or provincial, he would probably have raised flak not just from the UNP, but probably also from the American, British, French, and even Indian Embassies. Delaying an election, any election, no matter how much one justifies it, is a serious transgression of the democratic process. Those who came to power in 2015 did so with the intent of transforming a culture in which expedience flourished into one where imperative and necessity would reign. Neither of the latter two has. Not yet.
Better than the rest, clearly, is an argument that endorses wrongdoing as long as it’s seen as better than what used to be. The problem with such an argument is that its parameters are arbitrarily set: just what is better, and just where is one to draw the line between them and us? Let’s not forget that we as a country are prone to political amnesia. Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cohorts can be, and probably are, behind the recent spate of strikes and the AG Department’s sway against the current regime. But even if we concede that they are, the relative merits thesis loses water when considering that no government elected on a platform of liberal democracy can sacrifice certain norms to get back at the opponent’s attempts to undermine them. And why? Because we simply don’t give a damn about that opponent.
This government’s slip is showing. Rather tellingly. It used to be said that political elitists were independent enough to not be swayed by the allure of power and wealth. Not true. If the recent past and the horde of allegations this regime has attracted are anything to go by, our political culture has improved only marginally, and that because of the demands for betterment that we, the people, and certain outfits we’ve organised for ourselves have made. The truth is that the same people who cried foul over Mahinda Rajapaksa and his cronies and supporters now write, say, or do anything and everything they can to justify what is being written, said, and done by their representatives. The trouble with that is that their representatives happen to be ours as well. The 5.8 million are, effectively, in the hands of the 6.2 million.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org