By Ravi Perera –
“The beginning of everything lies in moral indignation” Milovan Djilas
Almost all commentators have labeled the 2014 Budget an election budget, meaning that its main purpose is to offer a sop to the voters before the impending Presidential elections in 2015, a description the government spokesmen have not seriously challenged. Some of the spokesmen for the government even gloat that there is “something” in it for almost everybody. For once they seem to have forgotten the most important element in our society; for conspicuously left out of the list of budget beneficiaries were themselves -the legislators and other politicians! Given the popular exhort ion to serve one self first when the spoon is in your hand, this indeed is a strange omission. Or perhaps they were taking the larger view that in a budget which sets as a primary goal the achieving of an embarrassingly modest US$ 4000 per capita in two years’ time, obtaining benefits by way of budget proposals is below the dignity of national leaders.
In societies with a different concept of public office, the idea that a politician could use government revenue and expenditure as part of an electoral strategy will be met with ill-favour, if not downright opprobrium. There is a distinct difference between a politicians career interests and that of the long term welfare of the country and its people. They are not the same. Often they run in the opposite directions, thus the fundamental need for checks and balances. A politician , for example, who offers a hand-out of Rs. 10,000 to each voter before an election is not a benefactor of the poor, but a scoundrel attempting to bribe the voter with public money. Such things can happen when there are no checks and balances.
Parallel with the presentation of the Budget in the parliament at Sri Jayawardenapura, the Lionel Wendt theatre, our closest approximation to a centre of cosmopolitan culture for the performing arts, was hosting an irreverent political satire named “Thank you for Voting –the entire solution summit” (the ‘antire solooshen’ summit). It ran to full houses, in the posh urban enclave of the tree lined Guilford Crescent there was hardly enough room for another SUV. These avid theatre goers were evidently not disappointed. The young producer’s unflattering portrayal of prominent politicians was much appreciated by the audience. As famously said, he who laughs, lasts.
The show is a barely connected series of episodes representing the doings of the President (Pusswedilla), leader of the opposition, politicians and various hangers on of an imaginary country called Arsikland. Mr. Pusswedilla does not resemble any President known to us in recent times although some may posit an older Duminda Silva, at least appearance-wise. On the other hand, the leader of the opposition is portrayed as a nerdy man in a western garb, endlessly quibbling about irrelevancies. The other characters are almost painful caricatures, utterly servile, stupid or corrupt. Every effort is taken to bring forth the impact of the lowering standards of English; through the howlers, faulty pronunciation and bad spelling of the supporting cast. Typically Sri Lankan, much emphasis is laid on Pusswedilla’s interactions with foreign personages. Not for him a leader of a country with say a per capita income of US $ 10,000. He must dialogue, leader to leader, with countries in a different weight-class. So Pusswedilla unleashes his buffoonery on President Barack Obama, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel and a Senator of the US Congress. At the end, we are left wondering whether the greater crime of our politics is the transgressions of our leaders or the imperfections of their English.
But for intelligent insights into of the inner workings of a rotten political culture, psychological scrutiny of its prominent personalities or dramatic development of the plot we look in vain. Is the unscrupulous, intellectually narrow Pusswedilla the villain of the piece or is the opinionated if effete leader of the opposition to be blamed? What of the abject Arsiklanders, mediocre, and amoral; concerned only with the morsels that fall in front of them? It seems the paucities that limit the powerful equally afflict the powerless, so within so without. The artist may see the humour in a terrible reality, but only that much more, true discernment eluding both. In the endless tragicomedy of the Sri Lankan saga, the cause and effect are indistinguishable.
Things could not have not been more different when President Rajapaksa concluded his presentation of the Budget with a teasing challenge, “How is the budget presented by a country bumpkin”. With a sure grasp of electoral realities, here is the true politician addressing his voter. Not for him the niceties of the English language or even political ideals, when a flawed usage could be far more advantageous.
The budget may have reduced the burdens of many thousands for whom life is an unremitting grind. So pleased would they be by the concessions granted by the budget that its timing is of little consequence. Like the Arsiklanders of the play, it is not for them to ask why these reliefs were not given before. Could there have been more reliefs coming their way if not for the bad investments, waste and corruption on the part of the rulers? And if they were to observe the moving scene, they surely will not miss the luxury, security and the splendor of the lives of their political leaders, including the families. Such lifestyles were not earned by any industry on their part, but only by representing the people.But to grasp the sweeping injustices and the deepening disparities of the prevailing scheme of things is to bear upon it a heightened moral judgment.
“What to do!” was the resigned phrase a more discerning theatergoer put to me while walking out of the Lionel Wendt. I just shrugged my shoulders, for I had no answer.