By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“It was in his area all right; but not within his jurisdiction or protocol of responsibility. The inability to spot the distinction is not solely an intelligence issue; it embodies the disastrous political culture of political interference that has gotten normalised over the last two or so decades.”
Stepping Out of Limits
Moratuwa’s Mayor, Samanlal Fernando, is seen in video clowning before a desperate and bewildered public during a vaccination delivery occasion at Moratuwa. Such a low IQ character, Samanlal would have not have realized that this was not the place and time and the occasion to politicise a health event. I dare say, this guy must be hardpressed to advertise himself as the author of all good things for the people in his area. It was in his area all right; but not within his jurisdiction or protocol of responsibility. The inability to spot the distinction is not only an intelligence issue; it embodies the disastrous political culture of political interference that has gotten normalised over the last two or so decades.
The video goes round the cyber world in order to ensure nobody misses the entertainment. Although we aren’t short of similar stuff in Sri Lanka in contemporary times this seems the limit at this level of governance.
The doctor had arrived at the vaccination facility to administer Covid-19 vaccine to a people who have been spending sleepless nights dreaming of it, as the undertaker is at the door. The context was pathetic and sombre and not an occasion for dispute. On the other hand, the mayor had been pre-informed of the event and he had thought is a prizeless opportunity to issue token cards to his supportersso that the latter get preference over others. Here is Samanlal acting as a kind of God doing favours.
Dressed in white shirt and trouser, the mayor- a rather short guy- flexed his muscles before the doctor and staff and the meek cops, and kept shouting and demanding that the vaccine must be given first to his token card holders and later, if any be left, be given to others. Not knowing of the mayor’s prerequirement innocent people had arrived in hundreds to fall in line in a queue to take their turn for the life-saver. In this way one observes in the video a gathering of card holders and queue of non-card holders lining up for the dose.
Bullying Mayor VS The Rest
A big crowd had gathered and the mayor tried hard to bully the doctor and medical staff and even the police to take over his card holders first. He went raucous, shouting and screaming. The doctor stood her guns and said she cannot treat any group with preference and that she would go with the official line. The lady did try with a lot of patience to explain to this dimwit but the latter did not budge. How could he budge? He would lose face instantly. He should have anticiapted such a result before he tried this stunt.
The mayor went on and on. The cops were cops only because of their uniforms. This is what the police force has been reduced to under politicised systems: impotent, supplicant, slavish, bootlickers with poor selfimage.
The mayor acted out of his jurisdiction of authority. The doctor and her staff were acting as an official of the Ministry of Health of the national government. She had a professional duty to perform with no political or other sorts of intent. On the other hand, the mayor was doing cheap politics.One never knows how he selected card holders. It is reasonable to speculate that he relied on his underlings or ‘catchers,’ to inform him about the political reliability of any claimant for a token card. Political reliability is irrelevant criteria here. As a matter of fact such considerations diminish the occasion and undermine the whole process of public management.
What if the doctor succumbed to the mayor? The mayor, of course, would have been delighted. This success would have added to another string of success in political bullying. More successes like this would serve to consolidate a growing and dangerous public norm about the normalness of public officials “acting in cooperation,” with the politician.
Two Factor Clue to Good Governance
This incident gives a clue to one important factor in keeping a good administration namely, by public servants keeping their autonomy in the face of assaults like this. My own days in the Public Service had been different and we were less impregenable than the doctor in this illustration. We were stronger because those before us safeguarded the honour of their office. I remember a day in the dim past when, while conducting a Land Kachcheri I ordered an MP out of my room for attempting to ride roughshod over my performance of duty. The days had been so good those days because that MP had later praised me in parliament! You don’t find that stuff today with the poor quality of members of parliament we have today.
In this sense the doctor must be congratulated for acting right and firmly. Being a woman she was in a realtively vulnerable situation. By her example she also safeguarded the cops and helped the latter to justify their uniforms. Every Public Servant must protect the dignty of his/her office jealously both for the sake of himself and for others in the service. Unfortunately, in the recent past Sri Lanka had unbelievably unworthy and ignoble behaviour even among officials as high as the level of judiciary. Consider the behavioural impact and precedents when when a former Chief Justice tells a new government that he would, like Barkis, be willing for any order that is desired by the new dispensation; when an older Chief Justice openly tells that he could have sent a Prime Minister (later, President) to jail but refrained from doing that. Mercifully, there have been only few such aberrations among our judiciary so far. This is because we have had in the past men and women terribly above board holding such office iin this institution. A tradition once established is hard to deviate from. A deviator is a traitor to a great inheritance in government
On the other hand, every instance of a government that awards such deviators high position subsequently assists in the normalisation of abnormal conduct. I have delineated a two-way process here: both from the officer concerned and from the government above him.
Our doctor acted admirably as far as the first part of the process is concerned.
While I end writing this column, I just get the news that the mayor has been arrested! That’s great! But let’s wait and see if the arrest may be a nominal one. නිදොස් කොට නිදහස් කරනු ලැබේ [Found not guilty and freed] is a well-worne strategy these days
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org