Tuesday, January 17, 2017

That inconsistency problem

If facts exist, factoids shouldn’t. If facts stare you in the face, myths shouldn’t. Therefore and ideally, if policy is based on facts, that policy should survive regime-change, rhetoric, and of course factoids and myths. No government worth its salt can linger for long with the latter: lies can survive only so far, and as for factoids, the people can’t be fooled all the time. Factoring all this, and what do you get? A simple proposition: policy, if it is to remain impenetrable, must be consistent. The only reason why it is not, then, is that there is no policy. Only rudderless, aimless rhetoric.

The government has seen better days. The first week of the New Year did not contain better days. Everything that got muddled, twisted, and contorted, everything that was contradicted ably and efficiently by the Press, can be attributed to the policy trajectory, or the lack thereof, of this government. Ministers are not miracle workers, true. But policies aren’t crafted by miracle-workers. They are crafted by realists. Hard, uncompromising realists. The problem isn’t that we lack these realists among our representatives. The problem is that the realists in those representatives don’t come out as often as we wish them to.

Based on the stances that the government took in the past year, we can contend that it remains dangerously unmoored and unchartered. A government that gives even the perception of so being is, it must be said, prone to intrusion. Two years on after the “2015 Revolution” (as its champions are wont to term it, for reasons that warrant another article), we are forced to admit that old wine has survived in new bottles. Again, the main problem is the lack of a policy trajectory.

Let me explain. In a (liberal) democracy, policy consistency isn’t just a sign of integrity. It’s also a tool to safeguard those mechanisms that protect it from veering off into a dictatorship. When the government communicates with its people, it's expected to communicate something it does not capitulate on or revise later. When it gives an indication of an incident or a landmark being achieved, it's nominally expected to stick to such a claim without recanting. That is why there is a Cabinet Spokesman and that is why Ministers deliver speeches at functions and events. That is also why cognizant enough reporters take heed of what they say and note it all down.

Liberal democracies are founded on a curious dichotomy: between absolute democracy and mild authoritarianism. In a country like Sri Lanka, with a history of authoritarian governments and slipshod reforms, you either have cohesive, comprehensive policies to offer to the people, or you market those policies for votes and then, after elections, forget them. Lamentably, we see more of the latter. Even more lamentably, we’ve seen more of the latter with this regime. For a country that has dallied with both democracy and authoritarianism, this is not a good sign.

Take the Volkswagen fiasco. Consider the facts. According to Michael Dohmen, Deputy Head of the German Embassy, the parties to the contract were the Board of Investment and SENOK Trade Combine. That contract was entered into on August 13, 2015. That’s more than a year ago, during which time Volkswagen was suggested and then abandoned over its emissions scandals. To date, we don’t have information about what car brands will be manufactured in Kuliyapitiya, or whether the goal of 2,500 new jobs has been expressly provided for in the contract (it has not, we now know). Who's telling what to whom?

Forget that though. Think about the regime’s stance on accountability. Mahinda Rajapaksa was notoriously clear on his stance on the matter: no room for foreign mediation. He was not, however, unclear about it. The present regime’s claims about foreign mediation, intervention, and of course accountability are far from clear, in comparison. Not only is it unclear, it's also ambivalent. When the President says that there won’t be room for foreign judges, when the Cabinet Spokesman and the Foreign Minister in turn contradict and then confirm the President’s claim, and when the United Nations tweets against the claims of these three people, who are we to believe?

Because these issues don’t fall within the purview of legitimate expectations, the government can well contradict its own stances days after they were “made clear” and get away with it. But policies matter. Rhetoric does not. The government, in the New Year at least, is opening itself to the threat of self-annihilation. In military parlance, it is conceding ground to the enemy, an enemy that is (at least now) looking on lazily as the regime slips and contorts itself even more.

In an ideal world, policies wouldn’t be subjected to the whims and fancies of individual governments. And yet, they are. This is nothing new to Sri Lanka, or to the world. We see it happening elsewhere. But even in a context where government policies diverge wildly, we need a foundation on which those very same changes and shifts of policy are based.

The biggest problem with the government (I neither subscribe to nor oppose it) is that it’s slipshod and notoriously opaque when it comes to policy. The Volkswagen fiasco and the ruckus over the War Crimes Tribunal are only two instances. There are others. There will be others. Even in a world where elections operate on fact-free premises and assumptions and leaders clinch power through sheer, unsubstantiated rhetoric, we should be worried. The fact that we are no strangers to these divergent policy shifts, the fact that since 1956 we have witnessed governments that have paid scant attention to the need to translate rhetoric to policy, indicates that we aren't headed for better times.

The defeat of the LTTE was a necessary first step to resolving the ethnic issues. The problem with the previous regime was that it never went beyond that first step. The defeat of the plutocracy that (is alleged to have) roosted itself here was a necessary first step to ushering in democracy. The problem with this regime is that it hasn’t gone beyond that. Should we be complacent? No. Should we be worried? No. Should we act? Decidedly. How?

I can’t claim to offer a proper solution, but I do know this: the sooner we differentiate calls for reforms from calls for a Rajapaksa Restoration, the better it’ll be for all of us. Currently the only voice being raised against the misshapen policies of this regime is that of the Joint Opposition. (The Official Opposition, barring the JVP, remains woefully inadequate.) Again, we shouldn’t be worried: after all the JO has its own share of refined and exceptional politicos. Sycophancy is the one thing we don’t see in these politicos, and because of that alone, we shouldn’t be worried about the JO’s attempts at axing most of the government’s ill-conceived policies. This, however, does not forbid criticism.

The JO lacks numbers. It lacks parliamentary power. It needs, in short, a bigger, better, and more pluralistic movement. True, the Parliament does not decide on the country’s destiny all the time, but in a context where the President seems to have devolved much of his power to the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, and if we are to start with a cohesive, comprehensive Opposition free of the sycophants who were in power before 2014, we need to aim higher. We need, in short, to couple up with the more tolerant and national-minded sections of the JO, take it away from the crass majoritarianism it still seems to subscribe to, and form a more wholesome movement that is not fact-free. Not impossible, one can reasonably concede.

Written for: Ceylon Today, January 17 2017