By Sarath de Alwis –
I must follow the people. Am I not their leader? – Benjamin Disraeli
The cliché runs somewhat like this. “There’s a rainbow always after the rain.” After the rainbow what? What has the Rainbow coalition of 8th January brought us? This is for starters. Despair for democracy before 8th January has turned in to disgust of democracy after 17th August.
The consensus coalition held in place with over hundred parliamentarians receiving ministerial perks and privileges is focused on power, not on governance. It negates the principle of a principled coalition – The non-coercive coercion by the better argument.
The peevish prophets who promised us ‘change’ have given us an undated promissory note for good governance. Their priority seems to be the isolation or the quarantine of Mahinda Rajapaksa. While appreciating their dilemma, it is necessary for us to stress our priority- that of good governance and a legislature of sanity, dignity and integrity.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is more a victim than a villain. He is emblematic of our collective amnesia of a tortured past and our stubborn insistence of ignoring present reality. Three decades of conflict undermined the legitimacy of our democracy. At the end of war, we failed to restore our democratic institutions. The safety of the people was the supreme law in times of conflict. The insidious transformation of this obiter in to ‘safety of the regime’ was a brilliant piece of mind manipulation that bent a population to the will of an elite few determined on creating a deep state to perpetuate their grip on power. The strategy was to promote a Sinhala authoritarian populism. They succeeded remarkably in producing an entire mythology about the inevitable struggle against internal and external enemies.
The perils of raising the strength and the capacity of Standing Armies and introduction of measures that curb civil liberties in times of an ‘Internal War’ are not unknown to students of politics.
The dangers to liberty when the military is elevated to the ‘Ranaviru’ syndrome is well documented. Alexander Hamilton warned his infant republic “ The inhabitants of the territories often the theatre of war , are unavoidably subjected to frequent infringements on their rights, which serve to weaken their sense of those rights, and by degrees, the people are brought to consider the soldiery not only as their protectors, but as their superiors. [The brigadier who was in command at Weliweriya was given a diplomatic posting] Though the war ended the tribal drums were not silenced. In the decades of conflict we had forgotten the basics of democracy. Post conflict exhilaration, diminished the virtues of democracy. Tyranny supplanted terror. Mahinda Rajapaksa the human rights activist of the ‘Pada Yathra’ and Geneva fame was at the right place at the wrong time in 1989. He was in the wrong place at the right time in May 2009.
The democratic recession under Mahinda Rajapaksa had less to do with an ingrained desire to be an elected autocrat and more to his ‘provisions pact’ with the main opposition.
During the impeachment attempt of the Chief Justice, the court of Appeal on December 21 2013 issued a notice to the 11-member Parliamentary Select Committee which found Ms. Bandaranayake guilty paving way for her impeachment. The TNA announced that its leader R Sampanthan would honour the court notice and attend the hearing. The JVP too announced that it would attend. But the main opposition had a deferent response. Its General Secretary Tissa Attanayake [ What goes around comes around ] announced “We will not attend court tomorrow as it is a matter concerning parliament. Our leader will be making a special statement on this”. He then qualified “This does not mean that we have changed our opposition on the impeachment ruling. We still maintain that it was an unfair trial”.
The watch dog sniffed. It refused to bark or bite. When the opposition fails to provide an alternative point of view it is not a democracy, not even an imperfect one.
In our anxiety to repair the aberrations in post war years we have entered a reform labyrinth blindfolded. We no longer understand politics. We know who has gained power. We do not know who has lost power. We can only surmise as to who wields power. Above all we do not know what those presumed wielders of power intend to do with it. The citizenry are cynical about the normative institutions of democracy and above all their politicians. The January hopes that our individual or collective participation could bring about changes in our pitiful predicament have been replaced by a sense of foreboding- the kind that one experiences on a rickety raft watching a sky full of stormy clouds.
The attempt to build a new or a better political culture while retaining and reinforcing the present fractious socio political structure is as futile as the attempt of the blind turtle in the Buddhist fable that surfaced from the bottom of the ocean to look at the sky through a plough handle.
In democratic governance power is exercised through concerted, collective action. It is not the power of commanding and obeying. Hannah Arendt famously observed “All political institutions are manifestations and materializations of power; they petrify and decay as soon as the living power of the people ceases to uphold them.”
Politics is not about power. It is about ideas. The failure of Prime Minster Ranil Wickeremesinghe to include Eran Wickeratne, Harsha de Silva, Ajith Perera, and Ajith Manaperuma in the Cabinet that steers us to a brave new world of reforms hurts. The inclusion of Tilak Marapone and Sagala Rathnayake in the Cabinet is no strategy. It is improvisation. At its best it is an old idea renewed.
The bargaining that preceded cabinet formation and the spectacle of two deputy minsters swapping their portfolios after the swearing in is adequate proof that our political class is not ready to switch from patronage to programmatic politics.
The UNP and the SLFP, the UPFA dissidents and the TNA are parties that are deeply entrenched in the current system of patronage politics. In the present socio political structure the political party must have access to a pool of resources out of which patronage can be generated. The survival of the party is dependent on power or the possible acquisition of power that will open the nozzles for government jobs, contracts and interventions in profit or rent generating opportunities.
Today, the JVP is the only party that is externally mobilized and immune to patrimonial and patronage politics. At this point in time, we have three metanarratives – salvage the SLFP, preserve the UNP and prevent a repeat of the betrayal of 1815.None of the narratives are priorities for the people. They only serve to keep up the morale of partisan believers in their respective stockades. We are spectators of our own meandering.