The trappings of office

An investigation will be conducted on the import of super luxury motor vehicles, racing cars and motor cycles and action will be taken to recover pertinent taxes. Voters have short, or more accurately, selective memories. The first sentence is from the English version of the then Presidential candidate Maithripala Sirisena’s manifesto, released late December 2014. On the 9th of January 2015, standing with a euphoric, even incredulous crowd at 6.30 in the evening to see him sworn in was our Obama moment – the audacity and triumph of hope, against all odds, to overthrow without bloodshed a regime that had over ten years eviscerated our public resources, self-worth, identity, dignity and democracy. And yet, well over a year into the President’s tenure, there are no investigations into the import of super luxury vehicles by the former regime. Perversely, what we instead have is a government that seeks to spend over 1 billion in vehicles for MPs.

Let’s not mince words. This is evil. It is morally reprehensible and ethically indefensible. These were descriptive words closely associated with the Rajapaksa regime. It is disturbing the degree to which they apply, already, to the present government and how far removed governance is from the yahapalanaya that was promised. The justifications for the colossal expenditure on cars is worth flagging, as set forth by Joint Cabinet Spokesmen Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Gayantha Karunatileka and Deputy Minister Karunaratne Paranawithana last week in statements to mainstream media. It was noted that Ministers and Deputy Ministers needed super luxury vehicles to travel to their electorate, various functions and ceremonies round the country. It was also noted that unlike Ministers needed to “travel hundreds of kilometres and [needed] a comfortable vehicle for that”. Minister Rajitha Senaratne is reported to have said that politicians have to use ‘four wheel vehicles’ while they are required to visit rural areas due to the bad quality of the roads.

What we have here is a clear statement of the Government’s priorities. Instead of uplifting the road conditions across the island, which necessarily entails infrastructure development as well as significant improvements to public transport networks, over one billion rupees is spent on SUVs and other luxury vehicles so that MPs can, in the rare instance they actually do, visit their electorates in comfort. The sheer violence of this statement perhaps escapes the good Minister, especially in light of the fact that hundreds of thousands suffer the ignominy of Sri Lanka’s wretched public transport every single day. The hypocrisy is stark, the questions, many. Ministers who represent us, should not really be subject to what we suffer. Some MPs, like Sarath Fonseka, get a vehicle for 70 million, while others like Harin Fernando and Tharanath Basnaka are both allotted a little over 90 million. Why and on what basis? What added 4WD capability or luxury is needed by Sarath Fonseka that justifies tens of millions more for a vehicle? Recall that just a few weeks ago, the government was asking for two billion dollars in aid to help with flood relief. Remarkably, a government too poor to provide relief to its citizens finds itself rich enough to rewards its MPs with new luxury vehicles.

But let’s park incredulity for a moment take this fiction as fact. Say MPs do go to their electorates often, and that these regions can only be accessed by good 4WD vehicles. Say, at the risk of insulting Toyota, that a four to five-year-old Prado or Land Cruiser is somehow now incapable of traversing these roads. Why does every MP need their own SUV? A government that elsewhere is committed to innovation and invention should surely be looking at basic services like a car pool or Uber for MPs? Not all MPs go to their electorates at the same time, and even if there is peak demand, the cost of renting in the short-term is surely much cheaper than buying a vehicle? Why don’t MPs ride-share? We have the well-known road.lk website encouraging it for some months with ordinary citizens – invite them to help out with the travel needs of MPs using the existing car pools in government?  India’s Lok Sabha has a shuttle service for MPs to come to Parliament – why not a similar service here? Less congestion, less fuel, less expenditure on SUVs, less environmental impact, better coordination and far stronger oversight and accountability over transport expenditure. What’s not to like or champion?

The evil here – and I use the word consciously – is that those defending these expenditures in particular, and so much more the government is doing wrong or is silent around, know what they are saying is untrue. It is only now we hear of high-ranking policemen, politicians, public officials and others recanting what they swore was true under the Rajapaksa regime. The change promised under yahapalanaya, and explicitly mentioned in its manifesto, hasn’t come about. The violence here is in disenchanting the millions who voted in this government, who may now think that there is little difference between those from the previous regime, and the present government. And while such a simplistic reading isn’t entirely true, perceptions matter – and the dominant public perception around government today is that it continues much of what it came into power promising to end or change.

Dear Hon. President and Hon. Prime Minister – we brought this government into power. We are its custodians. Treat us as citizens, not supine subjects. The model, make and registration of my (fifteen-year-old) car are a keystroke away for your security detail. Tell them that I am not moving for you, your flashing lights, your outriders or your convoys of MPs. You ply the roads I helped build and maintain. You expend fuel I pay for. You ride in vehicles paid for in debt we have to beg the IMF and borrow more to pay back. That debt burden is mine too. You ask me to move aside out of fear of being run over, or violently thrust aside by Defenders driven by those who have never served individuals who need to adhere to road rules or the right of way. It shows. You hold me up in traffic so you can move around in luxury. Your MPs embody the values you sought to change – and every single tinted SUV they go in is a marker of your government’s failure to reboot a wasteful, violent political structure.

MPs, as logic would have it, are there to serve the public. And yet, in Sri Lanka, the opposite is true. Once elected, political authority and the trappings of office soon make even the humblest aspirant into an untouchable demi-god. Remember this though. The chutzpah of air conditioned cocoons, tinted glasses and traction control may only serve to get you to a destination, sooner than you realise, that the Rajapaksa’s now inhabit after ten years of ostentatious indulgence. Spend away, but know that no vehicle you purchase will be able to out run the anger amongst the public you raise. Is wasting one billion really worth the opportunity to change this country for the better, and the fruition of yahapalanaya’s true promise?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 12 June 2016.

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