Thursday, October 8, 2015

Nepotism isn't a label, period

There’s something in politics called “context”. Words are defined and redefined endlessly, and as such how one word holds true for one political “moment” may be quite different to how it’s defined in another. Relevance factors in too, which is probably why countries have multiple meanings for “ally” and “enemy”, those terms being defined according to geopolitics and not to how saintly or beastly countries are in their dealings.

Nepotism is different. It’s timeless. Space-less. True, context applies to it too. But for the most, it congeals into any form of favouritism granted to any relative or friend while in power. Daham Sirisena, who got lambasted for accompanying his father to the UN General Assembly last week, should know this. As of now though, his response hasn’t really been satisfactory. At all.

First of all, if the president’s family feels that they are being targeted in a witch-hunt they are wrong. True, relentless criticism can sometimes be equated with witch-hunts, but if Sirisena justified critique of the Rajapaksas with the “free media” label before he came to power, then getting that same weapon focussed on and against his family shouldn’t be cause for complaint. The president himself, let’s not forget, confirmed this in his July Declaration (in which he vowed never to let Mahinda Rajapaksa into power again), where he said that he welcomes criticism (“In a democratic country, criticism is essential”). No excuses here, then.

By allowing Daham Sirisena into the entourage that went to New York, the Sirisena administration risked two things. One was the inevitable comparison to the previous regime. True, commentators known for their anything-but-impartial love for the incumbent and hatred towards the predecessor tried to brush things off, saying (quite lamely) that his son did nothing more than “accompany the father.”

The past however, these people should realise, is not forgotten. Not that easily. Namal Rajapaksa and his brothers didn’t exactly get into parliament or into power in one go. There were steps taken. Decisions made. This isn’t to say they began their political journey by accompanying their father to official functions. But it is true that (never mind how they did it specifically) they did take baby steps (the pun’s intended) and hence calculated their moves to get into power. Anyone who brushes THIS off must be very, VERY stupid.

Daham (in his response on Facebook) seemed hurt. “I urge you all not to compare me and my family with the past regimes as we are far different from them,” he wrote, which obviously means that most of his critics DID compare them to the Rajapaksas. Such a comparison would be wild to make, but that’s only if you limit the comparison to the years 2010 to 2015. Take into account Namal Rajapaksa’s political circumstances in 2005 (when Mahinda was new to the presidency just as Sirisena is) and you’ll find that they were essentially no different to Daham’s.

Secondly, by responding as he did Daham not only put that proverbial foot in the mouth, but (worse) added fuel to fire by doing so AFTER President Sirisena’s media team cropped him and his son out of a photo of the Sri Lankan delegation at New York and hilariously photo-shopped it on Facebook. Not surprisingly, that gave the message that the “response” was little more than a face-saver (which also means, logically enough, that those who sanctioned the “crop-out” either were stupid or, like their predecessors, thought that people forget easily).

Moreover, what the response fails to take note of is the point that no leader of a country takes his or her family to a session of the General Assembly, not because of a law per se but because of an unwritten norm established there. Yes, it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who set a precedent by taking wife and child with him, but by following it Sirisena’s message to the people is that classic line, “Same old! Same old!”

Perhaps the people were used to this before. But the response was the last straw. Even those who sympathised with the president were incensed. Justifiably.

What’s done and dusted in done and dusted. There’s really no point comparing Sirisena with Rajapaksa, come to think of it. But in one thing Daham falls in line with his much vilified predecessor. He is faintly displaying the same kind of response which Namal gave when he and his father were being pilloried on the political stage, before and after they were toppled. That’s bad. Doesn’t augur well.

There’s another thing. Namal was an elected MP. Daham is not. True, taking Namal to the UN (or anywhere else, for that matter) was considered “nepotism” back in the day, and by the same people who’ve gone dumb over this present issue. But he at least had the “elected” excuse. What excuse has Sirisena’s son got? He’s no minister, nor is he a government official!

Here’s the bottom line, hence.

Daham Sirisena committed an error. He was invited to a delegation and had, like every citizen of this country, a right to attend. That’s not the issue here though. The issue is that he was made (or made himself?) a part of the official delegation that participated at the New York summit. THAT’S what at stake here. THAT’S what being contended here, and hotly so.

If the president’s son considers the “I was invited” excuse reasonable enough to trivialise where he was (notwithstanding that he was at a function where family members not being taken to is the norm, not the exception), he’s mistaken. Sadly.

He needn’t apologise. He needn’t say “Sorry”. But he should acknowledge error. As should the president himself.