First principle of governance must be got right first


By Jehan Perera

The crossover of UN Parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera to the government is being seen as yet another example of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political power and acumen that is proving difficult to resist. It is also seen as an example of political opportunism and venality.  More than adding to the strength of an already over-powerful government the crossover of the former UNP stalwart will further demoralize an already demoralized opposition.  It will also serve as a warning to any potential dissenters within the government that they can be replaced by the President if need be. The President continues to be the dominating figure of Sri Lankan politics. Therefore those who are concerned about the political direction of the country, have to find ways to work with the President and his government.  This is the justification that many of those who join the government have given. 

At the present time the opposition cannot match the government in regard to the material power that can be thrown into the political arena.  However, there are also other forms of power.  One is religious power. It is from religion that human societies first learnt of universal values, and that what applies to oneself, needs to be applied to others as well.  The first principle of good governance is to look at the larger interest, at the wellbeing of all, rather than the wellbeing of the few.  It is said that Mahatma Gandhi combined the spiritual symbols of Indian society with personal asceticism which made for a powerful appeal to the Indian psyche.  This is one of the attractions of Justice C V Wigneswaran’s nomination to the TNA’s Chief Ministerial candidate at the forthcoming Northern Provincial Council elections.  He has steeped himself in the Hindu religious tradition, so much so that he became a representative of the Hindu religion at multi religious functions.

The most recent crossover to the government ranks, however, has emphasized how politics in the country is about personal power and being part of the power structure. In justifying his cross over in his farewell speech in Parliament the latest chief ministerial aspirant from the government side blamed his former party leaders of taking no effective action to oppose the passage of the 18th Amendment to the constitution, the impeachment of the former chief justice and the electricity price hike.  He expressed his disappointment that his former party leadership did not effectively oppose the government.  But he joined this very government when it offered him a position.  Unless there is more to the agreement he has with the government that took him in, it looks like he will only seek to strengthen the government to continue on its path without changing course.  Politics at the present time is too much about attaining and retaining personal power, and too little about looking at the best interests of the larger community.


There is a tendency to blame the UNP leadership and its internal divisions and weaknesses for the sins of the government.   But the criticism of the opposition leadership for its ineffectiveness needs to be accompanied in equal if not greater measure by public pressure on the government to practice good governance.  The greater challenge to all who want good governance to prevail is to find ways to express their concerns to the government and not only to the opposition.  It is the government that has the levers of military and economic power under its control, and not the opposition. It must use its powers in the interests of the larger society and not of itself or its supporters only.  This recalls the timeless advice of Arahat Mahinda to King Devanampiyatissa over two millennia ago, recorded in the Great Chronicle, the Mahavamsa, when he said that the King was not owner of the land and its inhabitants, but only the trustee.

That this type of thinking is being talked about at the more intellectual levels of civil society is a reason to be optimistic and not pessimistic about the future. This was indeed the thought that emerged at a symposium on Religion and Reconciliation organized by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations where the keynote speaker was the founder of the Sarvodaya Movement, Dr A T Ariyaratne, who spoke of the inspiration of Gandhi’s thought in his own work, regarding the importance of the wellbeing of all, which in Buddhist terms is the Awakening of All.  The other speakers who included senior Buddhist monks, Ven. Dr Bellanwila Wimalaratana and Ven. Galkande Dhammananda, and leaders of other religions, Kurukkal Babu Sharma, Fr Benedict Joseph and N M Ameen who were also speakers at the event equally stressed the importance of universal values. 

Although the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute is a government-controlled one under Foreign Ministry auspices, those who attended the symposium showed a much greater liberality and universality of spirit than is presently visible in the political discourse which is dominated by half truths and ethnic nationalism.  One of the monks said that he saw the country heading towards renewed conflict, and we would have no one to blame but the present generation.  If the thirty year war that ended in 2009 could have been blamed on the previous generation, the coming conflict will be due to the mis-governance of the present generation, and all who implicitly sanction the absence of morality in politics.  He also said that the time for religious leaders to act was now, since violence has ended, and not later, when violence might come again and leaves no space for the social practice of religious values. 


A notable feature at the symposium was the dissent of youth.  When a representative of an extremist religious group tried to criticize the universal values of the main speakers at the event, he was immediately challenged by the youth present in the audience.  This echoed another event that took place a week earlier where the opposition leadership was itself challenged and was unable to come up with an adequate response.  The growing impatience of the youth with the older generation of leaders is one sign of change. The duty of politicians who aspire to elected office, or hold it, is to lead the country as a whole to a better future, not to cater to only a section of the people in order to secure themselves in the seats of power, whether in government or opposition. 

The frustration at the opposition’s inability to get correct the government’s abuse of power is continuing to grow amongst those thinking and progressive sections of the population who see the need for a new mode of governance to meet their expectations.  This was also evident at the discussion organized by UNP parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratne which took place a fortnight ago at the Institute of Chartered Accountants.  The hall was filled with younger professionals and businesspersons who represent the cutting edge of the country’s economic and political future.  Undoubtedly the key attraction at the discussion was UNP and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe who showed readiness to face a disappointed constituency at an open forum.  He took the opportunity to explain the outlines of his party’s proposals for a new constitution for the country. 

Amongst the audience and the large number of critics of the weakness of the opposition, were outspoken young people with a high level of education, many of them foreign educated, but still who had chosen to return to their motherland.  They were not afraid to challenge the opposition leader at the forum discussion.  A comparison was drawn to the CEO of a company that is continuously making losses, and whether the Board of Directors and shareholders would long tolerate this situation.  To his credit, the opposition leader did not try and suppress the critics, but even invited them to have their say, which is not a common feature in Sri Lanka today due to the intolerance of dissent by the ruling politicians.   A truly democratic society, as against a nominal democracy, is one in which the leaders encourage their people to assemble freely, speak freely and express themselves, even critically, for the higher truth to emerge without suppressing them.  At the present time this will be to get the first principle of governance correct, that the good of the whole is essential for the good of the part, and the larger interest must come first, not the personal interest.

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