The email, automatically generated by the professional social media network LinkedIn, asked me to congratulate a friend on a new position. Normally, I would have. On this occasion, though I chose to ignore LinkedIn’s recommended action, I couldn’t ignore the nature of the position or the context in which it was offered, and clearly, accepted. To fully understand what is inexcusably wrong with governance today, one needs to recall the not so distant past and those who flagged the favouritism and nepotism that ingloriously defined, the Rajapaksa regime. Let’s call what we see today Favouritism 2.0. What are some of its defining characteristics?
One, it is the new normal. Excused, cast aside, justified as necessary, compared to the past and perceived as much better, seen as a necessary evil or the inevitable inconvenience of coalition rule. What was heinous in the past, is silently countenanced today. The abandonment of principled opposition to favouritism runs parallel with the general disinterest in holding those in government accountable to the high standards, and highfalutin rhetoric, sold to the public in the lead up to the Presidential Election, as well as the General Election, last year. In essence, even though the government and the structure of governance we have today falls far short of what was promised – judged not by World Bank, IMF, Western, US-centric or NGO driven metrics, but by what the President, the Prime Minister and those in government themselves have said in public – the refrain is to compare and contrast with the recent past, and be content with the present.
Two, Favouritism 2.0 has a ready constituency. To understand this, one needs to understand the political culture of Sri Lanka. When in power, one takes all. When out of power, one has access to nothing. Power – i.e. State resources, public sector employment, transfers, advisory posts, ministerial powers, access and the power to deny access – is sought to advance largely partisan and parochial goals masked as somehow beneficial to a larger group. Those in power, seek to retain it through fear. Those out of power, perennially conspire to regain it, through favour. Once in power, past favours become a powerful currency – those who bankrolled a campaign or party, those who own influential media, those with the backing of industrialists, influential with certain sections of the diaspora, able to withstand predatory moves by the opposition to buy out allegiance for example find their perceived value to be much higher, by those in leadership positions, than those with the actual experience and talent to get things done in the national interest. This is precisely what we witnessed under the Rajapaksas. It is happening yet again, albeit with one significant difference. Since the baseline was so outrageously bad, and set by a regime abhorred by so many, the same culture that endures is largely excused and indeed accepted, noting that institutional change takes time. There is also the argument of sequencing – that it is more important now to push through the new constitution, and indeed, meaningful mechanisms to entrench transitional justice and reconciliation – than be caught up in principled opposition to appointments, transfers and promotions that are thinly disguised rewards for partisan loyalty.
Three, and perhaps the hardest of all, Favouritism 2.0 involves close friends and erstwhile colleagues. It was, in hindsight, easy to criticise the Rajapaksa regime – towards the end of 2014 in particular, they were increasingly a parody of themselves. It is much harder, for those in civil society today, who suffered the brunt of violence under the Rajapaksa, to be critical of colleagues and friends in government and the various constellations of structures in support of reconciliation, accountability, justice and reform. There are foreign trips no for no good reason. There are consultations, to plan for consultations – and the planning takes more time and effort than the actual consulting part. There is a crisis of imagination – many bemoan what can’t be done for a plethora of reasons, all valid no doubt, but few address what can and should be done, even with limited resources and manoeuvrability. Institutional memory has gone with regime change, and new entrants have an agenda with little consideration for what was done in the past. Not all of what the Rajapaksas did and stood for was heinous or completely wrong. And yet, the political maturity and confidence to discern what can and cannot, from the past, be strengthened is hostage to partisan imperatives to completely erase the past and start everything anew. Ironical, considering the imperatives of transitional justice championed by the government itself. Some in charge today are those we have in past years met socially and exchanged strategies to build resilience. They are journalists who opposed nepotism. They are activists who opposed corruption. They are individuals who abhorred kleptocracy and championed transparency, accountability and principled politics. What was a small yet vocal minority then, is now scattered – and many now in positions of authority within government. While there is great merit to an argument that suggests these individuals are vital to institutional change from within, it is nevertheless problematic when they mirror what in the past would have been immediately framed and condemned as wrong. Perhaps it’s just me, looking in from the outside, unable to come to terms with, or comprehend, the maddening bureaucracy and the realities of working for government.
Favouritism 2.0 is seen as somehow more benign. In contrast to what we endured in the past, the same culture encouraged today is justified by sometimes flagging the nature and credentials of the individuals who go on to accept, without any real merit, positions of authority. She or he is one of us (‘ape minissu’), and this makes it ok. Those who submit this argument tend to forget that it was the same one offered by the Rajapaksas. The nature of an individual or group doesn’t erase the violence of favouritism and nepotism. A nicer demeanour or person unjustly placed in a position of authority makes for a good poster, yet continues the same evisceration of institutions that the Rajapaksas almost perfected. A friend in a position of power now means a favour or appointment is a call, email or instant message away. And yet, to indulge in such acts is to erase the distinction between yahapalanaya’s ideals, and the Rajapaksa’s sordid legacy. Clearly, perhaps with the best of intentions, individuals who should know better are accepting positions they are not entitled to hold, or see no harm in occupying. The new fiction is that, collectively, those in government today are of a calibre distinct from the past, and that even if the institutional nepotism and favouritism continues, it is not to the detriment of the country. This is a spurious argument.
Ironically perhaps, the hardest thing under yahapalanaya will be, at the risk of losing close friendships, to stand up to what continues to be so wrong. It was hard, for different reasons, under the Rajapaksas to call out nepotism and favouritism. It is no less vital today.
First published in The Sunday Island, 24 April 2016