You get nothing for nothing! | Daily News


You get nothing for nothing!

“Be bad, but at least don’t be a liar, a deceiver!” - Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenin

“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion” opens Anna Karenin, Leo Tolstoy’s monumental novel, acclaimed by many literary critics to be the greatest novel ever written.

With a masterful grasp of the wrenching historical processes that defined the lives of its characters, Tolstoy’s epic works are set against the widest possible canvas, the mind-boggling immensity of Russia. Of surpassing humanity, to this day his novels are held out as the gold standard for serious story telling. Perhaps, only in a country as vast, a history as vivid and a language as rich that a towering genius of a Tolstoy could find full expression. His eyes needed explore no further, within Russia’s far-flung borders was a world large enough.

He spoke of unhappy families: what Tolstoy would have said of unhappy nations, we may only speculate, especially of this small country in a corner of South Asia, endlessly troubled and ceaselessly abused.

On April 21, a handful of Muslim men, in a synchronized attack, blew themselves up inside some Christian churches and Colombo hotels, taking with them more than two hundred innocent victims. Prior to the attack, there were no claims or demands from the terrorists. This horrific attack put Sri Lanka, so to speak, on the world map.

In the country, they are now getting ready for elections again. There is a discernible quickening of the political pulse; that great democratic exercise, when the voter decides how he wants to be governed, is about to take place. His selection is multi-tiered, choosing the President of the country, his Parliamentarian (voting on a preferential list basis), the Provincial Representative and even the local level government. At every stage of our economy, we bemoan the lack of competent or even honest skills. Per Capita, in nearly every field of human endeavour, our productivity is below the world average, this impression of mediocrity now going down to even sports and arts. But it is assumed that by the mere exercise of the vote, the trend is reversed, competence and honesty are bestowed on the elected.

Different powers and functions

These various institutions (from the President to the local government) have different powers and functions, with some over-lap. From the voter a high degree of discernment is called for here. If the exercise is to be meaningful, he must ensure the rule of law, an effective government and a democratic culture. The voter also needs his basic requirements met; food, health, shelter, education and a reasonable opportunity to pursue a full life.

Hope springs not only in the voters’ breast; many fellowmen come forward to lead the nation; ambitions are stirred, meetings are held, coalitions formed, manifestos created and promises made. Their venture is driven by either bravery or knavery; the country has been voting since 1948 (as an Independent country) with only the most modest of progress to show. On the other hand, ill-advised and ill-conceived policies and actions of the elected have done near fatal damage to the social fabric as well as the country’s prospects. But, however hard the times, great expectations bloom, repeated failure notwithstanding.

That politics is the easiest path to fame and fortune, is an open secret in this country. In Sri Lanka “public life” is given a meaning very different to the more evolved societies, taken as an occupation with very little accountability, but replete with incredible opportunities for personal gain and fame. As it has become a career, earlier started, more the length of time on the gravy train. In the common attitude, longer the stay in politics, greater the respect. This is akin to feting elderly directors of a company which has been run down to near bankruptcy. Its shareholders are too humble to have judgement on the various ruses that the directors adopted to retain control of the company, while squeezing it dry!

There are some national politicians who started their public life of “service” in the early 1970s, when a land phone was considered a high-tech luxury, now in this 21st Century making decisions about cloud technology. There is nothing pivotal about their contribution in these five decades, perhaps someone else may have done better, but they have “cultural” acceptance as “leaders”.

A poor leadership culture has caused the decline of many a civilization. A system which favours spivs and windbags, while discouraging the good and the able, will stagnate and rot.

Confronted with a vast and rapidly changing world, the people of this island seem stupefied, frozen into an imbecility that serves us not. It is a fact worth considering that our systems of government did not change one bit for nearly 2000 years. If you take King Vijaya as a starting point and end with Sri Wickrema Rajasinha, there is a sameness in the feudalistic governing methods we see; there is a King, there are the priests, the Kings court and the peasants, the latter, hardly a footnote.

No new laws, methods or institutions appear to have evolved. There was no movement towards democratization or individual rights. If there had not been periodic outside intervention, perhaps we would have happily continued another two thousand years, a kingship going from father to son (or close relatives). The impulse to change or the genius to bring forth something new, is markedly lacking in the preceding millennia.

Democratic organisations

A society unfamiliar with democratic instincts has distorted its interpretation, evolving into a dictatorship by political parties, principally two political configurations, the UNP and the opposition, now primarily gathered around the SLPP. Internally, these two are top down arrangements, by no means democratic organisations in a true sense. Once a leader is ensconced, he will determine the party committees, nominees at elections and even his successor. They forage as a family, thus family politics has become the norm; political ideas, in governing as well as opposition, expressed through family names.

“Democratic procedures can be manipulated by elites, and do not always accurately reflect the will or true self-interests of the people” argued Francis Fukuyama the author of the ground breaking book “The End of history and the Last Man”.

Sri Lankan politics has no true ideology, either of conservatism or liberalism, but only a sense of permanent self-interest; the conservatives create government corporations while bleeding the private sector with crushing taxes, the socialists wine and dine the Chinese Triads and Indian sleazebags, while muzzling the trade unions! Save for a few, nearly all our high-level politicians have crossed over to another political party some time or the other. As there is no true ideology, and the leader of a political party goes on for decades, such crossovers are not as serious a transgression as it may sound. And it is not that those who haven’t crossed over are any more faithful to an ideology, only that the party they have stayed with, has yielded a better harvest.

While the parliamentary system is designed to create competition and rivalry between political parties, the leading elite are mindful that the game can be won regardless of the outcome at elections. At the top of the two hierarchies, there is a unity of purpose, a mutual benefit in collaboration. Out there is a society wriggling with want; political office is a sure way to escape that rat trap –status, money, cars, travel, diplomatic passports- all become possible. Invariably, in their long “careers” there is an accumulation of misdeeds and crimes. As the legal system is amenable to political swings, there is further security in the game of give and take.

Our average citizen grapples with everyday problems; how do I redeem the pawned jewellery of the wife, how do I pay for the extra tuition my school going daughter needs, how can I get food on the table for the growing family? Our politician, a man of no particular distinction, decides the appropriate interest rate for the country, whether to build (with borrowed money) an international airport or go for a whole new city in the ocean or who can best represent the country as our ambassador-his daughter- in -laws’ maternal uncle or his own third cousin?

What plane of existence would you prefer?

Then, there is the endless entreaty, a people wanting and asking for favours that only he may bestow; contracts, jobs, blessings, invitations –the list is endless. In the two thousand years of atrophy, we have learnt that in this hard world you get nothing for nothing, tributes and compliments must be paid to the powerful, for fortune to smile.

Even the best among them, cannot resist the blandishments. 

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