Politics – the inelegant art of ‘immoral’ suasion


President Maithripala Sirisena being sworn in last year



The above title was used by me in an article published in the columns of The Island close on the heels of the change of government in 2015. It was a variation of the adage of a chastened ‘Iron Chancellor’ Bismarck, who had believed literally in applying ‘blood and iron’ solutions to internecine disputes till he achieved his life’s ambition of the unification of Germany. Once unification was achieved, Bismarck abandoned his confrontational truculence and had recourse to diplomatic ways of settling conflicts through moral suasion, thereby becoming a confirmed believer in the adage he coined- ‘Politics is the art of the possible’.

In my title given above, I have virtually stood Bismarck’s phrase on its head quite deliberately ,in the context of the extraordinary things that are happening in that ‘splendid habitat’ of ours, peopled by the avowed representatives of the people, which we call ’Parliament!

With the change in 2015, people’s euphoric expectations rose sky high in keeping with the solemn election pledges made by those aspiring to capture power. In this article, the writer will be confining himself basically to matters relating to the restoration of Law and Order in the country. The legitimate expectation of the voters was quite naturally that waste, extravagance and corruption, which public vices had reputably led to the fall of the earlier political dispensation, would be eliminated and even completely rooted out by the new rulers with the firm resolve, the honesty and sincerity of purpose, displayed by them in their election pronouncements and pledges. It is two years since the change of government took place and could the people say with a sense of assurance that there has been a transformative change marking a strong departure from the grave social ills outlined above? There was also the high expectation that the massive financial frauds alleged to have been committed by politicians of the earlier regime, would be exposed and the perpetrators punished and the assets illegally acquired by them, taken over by the State.

There was the further legitimate expectation of the people that the deterioration of law and order ,stemming from widespread indiscipline, would be arrested and reversed, with the dawn of a new era where people could look forward to the enforcement of the law, strictly, justly and equitably, to all citizens irrespective of their political status or the influence they wielded. The eager expectation therefore was that all would be treated as equal in the eyes of the law. It is to be noted however,that with the change of regime there was a visible shift from the rigid authoritarianism of the previous dispensation. People felt freer to express themselves. A clear manifestation of such freedom of expression was seen both in the press and the electronic media in the forthright expression of views on matters of both topical and national concern. This indeed, marked a welcome change from the self imposed inhibitions scrupulously observed earlier, both by the public and by the media. The media in particular has become boldly critical of all and sundry including the President hiself. In a recent speech the President lashed out at the media for not being constructive in their criticism . Another noteworthy achievement of the present Govt. was the enactment of the Right to Information Act which has run into some implementational problems, which hopefully will be sorted out in the near future.

It was indeed a happy augury for the people to see the enactment of the 19th amendment with it’s independent Commissions. However, it transpired that the manner in which the appointments to the Commissions were made did not effectively preclude the powers that be, from bringing influence to bear on the Council as well as on the members of the Commissions. The safeguards in place, were apparently not adequate to ensure that the Commissions would function truly independently. In the pervasive political culture that Sri Lankans have been heirs to over several years, such high moral expectations could not perhaps be expected to be consonant with ground realities!

Further, in regard to the massive frauds alleged to have been committed by certain political high ups of the previous regime,though investigated and pursued through specially instituted tribunals ,very little progress seems to have been made in unravelling and bringing to light these alleged frauds. All this makes one wonder whether the people who are supposed to have amassed these enormous assets illicitly on such a massive scale are perhaps be suffering from bouts of amnesia forgetting where such properties are located and where the banks they have stashed away all their monies in, are! It is all too well known that some of the alleged fraudsters appear to be happily ensconced in high positions in the ruling coalition, presumably on assurances held out of immunity from prosecution! This is what could be termed ’immoral suasion’! . Such sharp practices have sadly, been resorted to by successive ruling parties over the years, to swell their numbers in Parliament.

Admittedly, the new President has had his hands full of the immensely delicate task of forging a working relationship between two pledged political rivals viz. the SLFP and the UNP, to give his undivided attention to other matters high up in the declared scale of priorities.. He and the PM have however , amazingly, managed not only to sustain the tenuous relationship, but also to make it stronger by some canny manoeuvres redolent of some of the sharpest diplomatic practices! This was brought out clearly by the easy passage of a not too popular Budget through Parliament, with a surprisingly high two thirds majority! Paradoxically ,the at times ,uneasy relationship between the President and the Prime Minister seems to thrive, particularly when the two are faced with crisis situations!

All this may be well within the ken and understanding of the citizens of Sri Lanka who have by now become accustomed to the totally unpredictable ways in which politicians react to exigent political crises they have to face and circumvent, in their constant endeavour to ensure that their political fortunes do not take a sudden tumble. But what galls the ordinary citizen is the latest shocking announcement made by the PM a few days ago, that the Govt. has decided that it was imperative that Parliamentarians including Ministers et al , should receive substantial salary increases commensurate with the high responsibilities they are now being called upon to discharge. Additionally,they are to receive substantial increases in their daily attendance fees as well as attractive allowances to enable them to meet their obligations to their constituents. Following on this announcement, monthly salaries of Rs. 500,OO/= were being bandied about by some enthusiastic Ministers! All this is in addition to the attractive salaries, life long pensions,life insurance cover and the other multiple perks they enjoy at present! They are already entitled to duty free vehicles, which concession and facility have been abused by a good many of them by the sale of these vehicles to private parties at a huge profit ,no sooner they were cleared from the harbour!

The responsibilities of MPs to their constituents have remained unchanged over the years and the excuse given that the compensatory increases in salaries and perks are consequent on the increased burdens and resonsibilities they have to bear ,does not hold water. While the MPs who are supposed to be the elected representatives of the people and who are expected to work with selfless dedication to alleviate poverty and uplift the well being of the ordinary people, are treated with such outrageously generous special financial and material privileges, the deprived and the marginalized poor living particularly in the outlying districts of the country, eking out a precarious existence, living on two dollars a day,continue to live on the edge of dire penury. All this, at a time the country has to bear the burden of a crushing foreign debt in addition to the cost of living burdens that have been heaped on the people by the Budget.What, people quite rightly ask, is the earthly justification for this scandalous move?

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