By Kumar David –
Is this the worst of all possible regimes? Let’s rate the Rajapakse Regime
What I do not want this to be is an occasion for venting my spleen at the Rajapakse Regime (RR); I have many openings for that. I would like it to be an opportunity for framing a level headed response to the oft posed question: “Is RR the worst government Lanka has had in 65 years of self-government?” This is not an exercise in idleness as the query crops up at street corners, in three wheelers and in drawing rooms, and if not said, it is implicit in the gossip. To be rational, we have to be comparative and bear in mind that every previous government (or for that matter every government everywhere in the world) is hugely flawed. Governments are mammoth machines with joints out of kilter and loose nuts screwing around all over. Hence only a comparative viewpoint is reasonable.
I will choose six dimensions to make an appraisal; the first three are simpler to define: financial corruption (graft), abuse of power (curbing democracy, crushing dissent, interference with judiciary, independent statutory bodies and the police) and third, family patronage (nepotism, dynastic ambitions). The next three are more complex but cannot be shirked if the rating game is serious; clear policies, especially socio-economic (at issue is not whether one approves, but whether it visibly exists); fifth, the integrity of leadership (free of fraud and malevolence; the dichotomy often quoted is Lee Kwan Yew versus Ferdinand Marcos), and sixth, special to these times, we must give thought to the ability to sort out Lanka’s national question.
OK that’s enough for definitions; let’s get down to business.
Graft, power abuse and nepotism
Graft here refers to corruption across the body politic; not leadership rot, my fifth dimension. None of Lanka’s government’s can be said to have been spotless and there has been an egregious decline in the public ethos over the years. If one were to repeat what is uttered over every cup of tea, society at large has never been so deeply in the grip of sordid sleaze at any previous time. I have put to one side my views of RR and am repeating ubiquitous chatter, nor am I recounting from one social class or community. People are persuaded that Lanka is inundated with sleaze and abuse of power as never before. Is RR entirely to blame? No, but largely, because UPFA politicos set the examples that spread the epidemic. If politicos rob, rough up, and now even rape with impunity, is it possible to make a case before the citizenry for decency and morality?
There is a patron-client network which fans out like this. Holding up the heavens, numbering say 5 to 10 dynastic deities, are about 3000 UPFA MPs, provincial and local councillors, and operators in patronage positions in ministries, corporations and departments. These lesser gods constitute a vibrant middle-layer through which the apogee of the RR exercises leverage. The middle layer demands hosannas, duties and votes from the grass-roots, the public, in exchange for favours which may be as simple as a letter of introduction, or a phone call to a police station, or more substantive such as favouritism in securing a job, or fraudulently fixing a land title deed. If each middle-level flunkey can commandeer 300 persons (an MP or councillor has a bigger stooge base) we are looking at about one million voters; a more than adequate swing vote base to guarantee victory in the seven Sinhala provinces.
It is this three-layered patron-flunkey-client nexus that partly explains the degeneration of the eventual client, the public. “Everybody is corrupt, right down to the man in the street and the man next door” is a ubiquitous remark that manifests the UPFA’s network as a maggot. It is that, but it has also rendered all society corrupt in its own image. It is for the same reason that people ignore abuses by state, regime and politicos, though only too well aware of it all. Fear is lesser reason; the erosion of public morals the greater.
RR is not entirely to blame for two reasons. The decline in civic morality is ongoing in all post-colonial societies and to a degree inevitable with the opening of political spaces, previously the preserve of an elite, to society at large; an overhead cost of decolonisation and populism. The other reason springs from the celebration of neo-liberalism, in Lanka post 1978. Neo-liberal, get-rich quick, market worship does not conceal its creed: ‘Each man for himself and the devil take the hindmost. Look after yourself, you are not the keeper of the public-good, strive only to benefit your family’. That’s the new ethic.
This morality, never mind whether you like it or not, erodes the concepts of public-good and social-responsibility; it abandons moral resistance to egregious conduct of the powerful. Decadence of the citizen at large is the ganger on which the UPFA feeds as maggots do on putrefying flesh. However, though RR found loathsome conditions at hand, it is also an active scrofulous thereon. Therefore on these two counts – graft and abuse of power – RR comes first from the bottom in post-independence Lanka.
The Senannayakes had a bit of it, the Bandaranaikes a lot but squabbled and nullified the benefits of family clannishness. RR has excelled at nepotism and family patronage like no other before. They speak of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty inIndia; pitiable in comparison with the imperial thrall in which Lanka’s dynastic clique holds state and society. I do not need to waste newsprint; it is accepted that at no time in our history since the olden monarchies, did one family exercise such a grip on power.
The RR and policy commitment
While we on the left say that RR is bereft of a policy framework, this is fabrication for propaganda purposes; the regime does have a policy framework and an orientation. Policy may fail, but it is certainly there. It is not classic neo-liberalism – that died globally in 2008 – but rather a new business friendly economic path worked out in collaboration with the IMF. The government has pursued it with deliberation for two years, and the signposts of consistency are its refusal to make concessions on wages, services (education and health expenditure), the painful devaluation of the rupee, selling the nations prime real estate to foreign investors, and making tourism a programme lynchpin. RR has been consistent in its loyalty to this path.
It is not reasonable to say that this government deserted its policy choices whenever the going got tough. True the 1970-75 coalition and the JR regime tracked their directions more doggedly, but that is more to do with the definitive character of those programmes. The current pro-capitalist, semi-populist socio-economic agenda, is by design ductile and flabby. Flaccidity aligns with the times when global capitalism is in retreat and neo-liberalism has fallen flat on its face.
RR has also chosen to sell its soul to China, come what may; it has worked itself into a corner on human rights and has little other choice. How deeply Lanka is sucked in does not depend on RR, which would like to mire itself deeper, but on China which is cautious not to overstep strategic spaces in theIndian Ocean. A contest with the US-India axis in these waters is one China cannot win. The Chinese Defence Minister visitsColombo, but makes sure his next two stops on the way home are Bombay and Delhi.
The writing is on the wall that the economic choices RR has made will come to grief and the foreign policy orientation will embroil Lanka in costly quarrels with India; but RR is not short of commitment on either. Therefore on the fourth dimension, RR is entitled to pass marks; it does have programmes and pursues them – Hail Basil! Hail PB!
Integrity of leadership
To get to the crux of it without beating about the bush, the apogee, the pinnacle, the Brahma, Siva and Vishnu of state power in Sri Lankais Mahinda–Gothabaya–Basil. Mathripala, Nimal Siripala, the whole blithering Cabinet, the Generals, everyone else, are in so far as the power equation goes, cabbages, a dispensable side dish. Power flows from the triumvirate and whatever quarrels there may be in family circles is carefully kept under the lid and not allowed to spill into the public domain. The Rajapakses are not suicide prone in the way the Bandaranaikes were. Hence when we speak of perceptions of the integrity of the national leadership we speak of public perceptions of the uprightness and worthiness of this three-headed deity.
Well dear reader decide for yourself – I do not want to have my poor Editor charge-sheeted by the Press Commission, nor land myself with a libel action for the reason that lawyers are grotesquely expensive, if I could find one at all. However, do not forget our initial contract; it must be a comparative appraisal. Hence the test is not whether RR is decent, but rather how it ranks against Dudley, Mrs B, JR, Peme and Chandrika, the other noted power holders, on the leadership probity score.
The national question
Ratings on this criterion will be intensely subjective; the objective facts are incontestable. One, RR wiped out the LTTE and brought an end to the civil war; two, there is no hope in hell that it will ever reach a political settlement with the Tamils. You may ask how I can assert the second with such certainty. Ask, and let history decide; my certainty springs from the history of the national question and the character of RR. The rating however depends on what weighting one assigns to each of these two factors. I will leave it at that.
So is RR the worst of all? It scores a bad failure on items 1, 2 and 3 on the list of criteria; it passes on 4, and reaches the pits on count 5. And on count 6 – it is a subjective choice.
I hope you enjoyed this little mind game of a Sunday morning.