Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Love him or hate him, he's still here

Do-gooders rarely “do good” unless there’s some benefit involved. They may parade as paragons of virtue, but there’s politics and self-interest involved every step of the way. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, someone shrewdly pointed out, forgetting of course that “absolute power” need not only involve ruler but can also, if we are to go by present politics, include those opposing the ruler.

Those who still cling to the myth that those opposing the ruler are the lily-white angels they cut themselves out to be are, to put it mildly, as far removed from the realities of power politics as they can ever get. When you’re not in power, it’s natural to lead a grand parade against abuse of power. The forgetting game, of course, begins when power is grabbed. The problem is that in this game the winners are the abusers and the losers us.

Sarath N. Silva is raising hell. There is talk going around town that the president can’t seek another term in office. The 18th Amendment supposedly cannot and will not allow a president bound by a pre-amendment constitution to call for another election. In other words, those seeking election must, out of (political) necessity, be “freshers.” The former Chief Justice has threatened to go out, to file petitions, and to appeal against Mahinda Rajapaksa seeking another term. All do-good, high-and-mighty threats.

There is also talk that the 18th Amendment was not done “in good faith.” The problem with interpretations is that there can be more than one. Sarath N. Silva, with all due respect, has just magically come across one among many. Similarly, other interpretations can be handed back and forth, and I suspect we are in for an “interpretation fistfight” in the weeks to come. Election fever has its symptoms and where Sri Lankan elections are concerned there’s just no shortage of them. Silva has lit the fuse. The machinery will work to its end, and when all is done and dusted it won’t be too hard to figure out who really “lost.” Us.

Sarath N. Silva has an axe to grind. No two words about it. So, for that matter, does pretty much everyone else crying out for a common candidate these days. I won’t say the president doesn’t deserve most of the things said against him but it doesn’t take a (political) rocket scientist to add two to two and figure out what is behind the backs of those clamouring against him. Strangely enough, going by this man’s logic, not even Chandrika Kumaratunge can seek another term. One wonders why the woman who blurts out invective after invective against the president in every event she’s invited to has decided to stay shut over Silva’s “crusade.” Telling. Very telling.

Perusing amendments has its pitfalls, though. It’s not easy to read into amendments and statutes. You can go and buy one for 12 rupees, but having read it then and there it won’t take long to realize that the only thing you understand in it is the price. People like Silva should realise this more than anyone else. History has its share of lessons. If we are to go by “constitutional debacles” whether based on amendment or entire document it would do well to peruse the 1978 Constitution. The problem of interpretation crops up here as well, though, and while I concede the 1978 Constitution institutionalised democracy (on paper that is), I also have to agree that we’re yet to come up with a better alternative.

But if Silva thinks the 18th Amendment is the biggest debacle of them all, he’s sadly mistaken. Thing is, opportunities come and go. Those in power rarely avail themselves of open doors. He should know this more than anyone else. “I don’t mix my personal likes and dislikes with my work,” says the man whose association with Chandrika Kumaratunge is so well documented that all statements made to the contrary can only amount to doublespeak. Predictably, he whitewashes J. R. and Chandrika. All fine and well. "Physician, heal thyself," did I hear someone say?

There is more to amendments than catches the eye. Interpretations can be made to suit any viewpoint, so long as the interpretation serves the purpose of bettering the viewpoint. The problem is that the public never get to “see” anomalies in amendments so long as the language endemic to them remains as far removed from ordinary language as legal argot will allow. Curiously, those clamouring against the president have not discounted one thing: the possibility of defeat in the event of them opposing him. For all the hue and cry over the “common candidate” fiasco, there is one salient point to be picked out: fear. Let me explain.

No-one backs a winner, unless the winner happens to be favourable to the backer’s agenda. Everyone backs a loser, unless (of course) the loser turns out to be a winner. That’s the A, B, and C of common candidate politics. The problem is everyone’s clamouring for the common candidate post, but no-one wants to. As ridiculously oxymoronic as this may sound, they want the job but don’t want it. Why? “Political death knells,” did someone say? Well, yes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a paragon of virtue. Anyone who tries to whitewash the man is as ridiculously self-deluding as opposition whitewashers. The people love him. Those who hate him still vote for him. Post-election time, one comes to hear silent curses by the opposition piled on those who voted for him. There is ample reason for all this. The man has charisma.

Forgotten by those who bemoan his popularity is the fact that he walks with the exact sort of people they don’t. To put in colloquially, he is an “apé miniha” (our man). This may be part of an elaborate PR-exercise, but at the end of the day no politician can go by without these exercises. I can think of only one person who played the political game till the very end selflessly for no personal gain: Pieter Keuneman. One can say that the country needs more Keunemans and less power-aspirers but the reality is (à la Machiavelli) that politicians rise from one ambition to the other.

I am amused whenever I see politicians (in the opposition camp, of course) eloquently talk about the programs they’ll push forward for the betterment of the country should they come to power. That’s part of the political exercise. Promises are meant to be made and kept, those opposing the regime will scream. Sillies. The truth is that promises are more often made than kept. Those denouncing regime-promises would do well to reflect on their own promises “made and un-kept.” I am thinking of Chandrika here but for all I care this goes for Ranil too.

Part of this political exercise, of course, is to present own version of statistic and event. There are those who claim that statistics pertaining to the economy have been and are being doctored. They are right. Harsha de Silva has in effect debunked the government’s claim that household real income grew by more than 7.5% annually over the past six years. According to Harsha, it grew by a mere 0.5%. Now there’s a huge (and unforgivable) discrepancy between these two figures. Doctoring is part of government prerogative, however. Harsha’s own party, it needs be said, know this, “hush-hush” though they are over this aspect to their past.

There is a section in the UNP that is going out and campaigning against government “white elephants.” There was a high-profile debacle when Eraj Fernando was seen with a gun when certain UNP parliamentarians were attacked. Who attacked them? We don’t know. The UNP says “government thugs.” Government says “anti-UNP’ers.” This is a classic Rashomon situation and like in Akira Kurosawa’s film, the truth will never be known.

Laying that aside, the likes of Harsha de Silva and Ajith Perera (two parliamentarians I have come to respect for their honesty and political astuteness) are doing a productive job with their party. It would do well for Ranil and his band to take note of this, without (as he usually does) footnoting them. Unveiling a Facebook page will do little in the way of challenging the incumbent.

Ranil should also know by now that foreign support will get him nowhere, until and unless he can challenge the “apé miniha” status Rajapaksa has been showered with. I remember reading somewhere that S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was repeatedly called a “vachalaya” by those who (in a way) opposed the sort of democracy and populism he embraced. I am not a big fan of astrology but H. L. D. Mahindapala has pointed out that the stars operative in 1956, when the battle was between Kotelawala and Bandaranaike, were present in 2005, when the battle was between (who else?) Ranil and Mahinda. This should be enough to raise some eyebrows.

I am just getting started here. For all the hullabaloos the UNP is raising, people don’t forget easily. They know that party hasn’t exactly lived up-to what they (the party that is) are expecting of the regime. Dictatorship? Rigged referendum? White elephants? Selling the country? Infringement of media freedom? You can’t really say those denouncing the regime get a 10/10 assessment over these questions. Bloodied hands clean blood. That’s the way with politics. That’s one of the less benevolent aspects to democracy as well. Metaphors aside, the electoral process is as rigged and corrupt as it’s ever going to get. Those who stay away from the polling booth on Election Day, going by my logic, are the wisest in the land. They are a minority, however. And no, that minority does not include me.

Let’s analyse some facts here. The 2013 election, for some at least, saw a crumbling away on the part of UPFA support. Forgotten here is the fact that even with this crumbling away the UNP managed to scrounge up (there is no better phrase for it) 28 seats as opposed to the UPFA’s 77 and the TNA’s 30. Footnoting this, of course, is the fact that the TNA scrounged up those seats from its usual vote base (the Tamil) whereas the UNP was unable to better it even with more than one ethnic community at its beck and call. Controversial and open to debate as TNA’s policies are, that party is to be commended for this.

Common candidate dramas are fiascos, plainly and simply. There is no point in backing a loser, unless the aim is to hide one’s un-winnability. But there are just so many losers other losers can back. There comes a time when “common candidacy” becomes obsolete. Not because those contesting realise its futility, but because no-one’s there to take the loser’s mantle. The sooner everyone realises this the better.

One can argue that the UNP went down the slope when J. R. was made leader of the UNP in 1973, but for the sake of argument let’s lay aside the fact that the reason for the party’s present dilemma is owing to this. Let’s also forget that Ranil (with or without an “official” FB page to his name) has as much chance of winning as a snow-ball has in hell.

Let’s forget all this. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the UNP is really feeling the pulse of the people. Let’s think that they are part of this common candidate fiasco because they care. Let’s skip and erase history and think that Ranil Wickremasinghe really did put country before self when he sold everything to Big Business (because, let’s face it, “Regaining Sri Lanka” remains as oxymoronic a policy paper as it ever was). Even in this (unlikely) context, there’s a lot more that needs to be done. There are floors to be mopped and pasts to be erased. The UNP will not be able to do this, unless there is a radical overhaul of the present leadership.

Tissa Attanayake is the cunning fox in all this. For all his soothing public statements everyone knows he is behind the attempts made at getting Sajith Premadasa into the UNP's higher echelons. Problem is, Premadasa wants to abolish the Leadership Council. Laudable though that goal is, it still remains a mystery why Attanayake wants to get in someone who wants to abolish a top leadership rung he is part (and part-parcel) of. No two points for guessing who’s backing who and why. There’s power politics at play here. It is the UNP’s (tragic) lack of accountability which stands in the way to victory at the ballot box. Dictators within party confines are the last people for whom intelligent voters would exercise their franchise, after all.

It is significant that no other party has publicly endorsed Sarath Silva’s “threat.” Not the UNP, not the JVP, not the TNA, and certainly not Chandrika. It would be safe to say the latter won’t speak one word in favour of her former political kinsman’s proposal, but this still doesn’t resolve why others haven’t come forth. Wijedasa Rajapakshe and Sunil Watagala admittedly have come in support of it, but the point here is that neither Ranil Wickremasinghe nor Anura Kumara Dissanayake has. Perhaps they are still hanging onto the “podhu apekshaka” paradise they’ve been living in since 2010. Perhaps I am wrong and they will endorse Silva's proposal in the days to come.

In any case, it would do well for them to take note of Silva’s proposal, because if there’s any way to thaw the ice in the regime, it’s through the simple maxim that laws are not retrospective. According to the former CJ, the provisions of the 18th Amendment remove the legal bar to the amount of times an incumbent can seek office. It doesn’t apply to Rajapaksa because he came to power before the passing of the Amendment.

This is as powerful an anti-regime argument as you are ever going to get. Not heeding to it can spell out repercussions for everyone obsessing about overthrowing the incumbent. Enmities remain, even when the enemy’s enemy is to be combated. Perhaps this is why those advocating regime overthrow have not thrown a second glance at Silva’s declaration, at least not yet. After all, in their eyes, it was the former CJ who sent Chandrika packing and brought Mahinda in. Maybe he hasn’t been forgiven for that. I don’t know.

What I do know is this: love him or hate him, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s still here. Unless anomalies within party politics are laid aside, this country’s going to be opposition-less. That’s sobering. Very sobering.