Listening to discontent

“What has he done for Sinhala-Buddhists? From the time he was elected, much of what he has done has been for Tamils and the North. Then look at the Muslims Sir, they are now all over, doing what they want. On the one hand there is Sampanthan, he is respectable. But is the President doing anything to stop terrorism from rising again? I now think the Rajapaksas were better – at least you knew what they were. Today Sir, we don’t know who is telling the truth.”

“Sir, do you really think the Ministers wanted the new cars? I can’t believe it. I just can’t. Here I am driving every day to feed my family. This nice car? It’s not mine. You are going comfortably to a destination, but Sir, this is my A/C prison. Yes, I earn enough, but with the new government I thought I would be happier. I thought we would be happier. We were, but just for a short time. I now just drive, Sir.” 

“Sanjana, I know we need to do better and to engage the public more. I have brought this up so many times. But what can I do if no one listens?”

Conversations with those one encounters must never be generalised. And yet, they offer some insights into the public imagination and pulse, beyond the echo chambers of our friends, colleagues and even those we consider radical or different. What is it about this Government that makes them so unwilling and unable to speak with, and listen to the public? Those who were in some way associated with the Ceasefire Agreement, and the UNF government of the day, will recall this familiar obduracy. It is anchored to a core belief that echoes the legendary Steve Jobs of Apple, and his disdain for market research. Jobs believed that customers didn’t know what they want. The government today believes citizens don’t know what they want. It is elitism of the worst sort, where instead of leveraging class, caste and power to engage and to the extent possible, convert, we have instead a few who believe they alone have the solutions to what ails the country. That they alone can garner the buy-in from political elites to support their solutions. And finally, by doing this, that the people will invariably follow.

What may have worked for Apple does not work for government. The court of public opinion can be devastating for a company, erasing profitability and viability in a matter of a few years, or less. Look at Nokia, or even Apple’s struggle with innovation and retaining market share today. In a similar vein, negative public opinion obviously erodes confidence in government. But it has a more long-lasting effect and a more dangerous one. A Government wins or loses public confidence by marketing ideas, and the delivery of promises. An idea badly communicated, yet vital to our democratic progress, risks public ire and opposition. Take federalism, the dreaded f-word in politics. Or in the recent past, the perception of human rights. As a political idea around the configuration of the State, or framed as the protection of basic human decency and dignity (and importantly, in line with core tenets of the dhamma), both find traction even amongst those who would violently decry embracing federalism as an organising principle of any future Constitution, and by those who think of human rights as a Western, neo-liberal agenda to name and shame those in the previous government, or imprison “war heroes”.  It follows that communicating what something is, is as important as clearly indicating what something is not.

The current government is supremely bad at both. We must ask why.

It could be that both our President and Prime Minister are stubborn men. Both are political animals, with decades of experience in realpolitik. The President is more charismatic, the Prime Minister, more cosmopolitan and visionary. The Venn intersection of both men contains a mutual interest in keeping the Rajapaksas at bay, consolidating power over the long term, managing the expectations of yahapalanaya and the need to keep a motley coalition together by the glue of incentives, which include for example luxury vehicles. The systemic breakdown of governance in Sri Lanka cannot be fixed. We call for a reboot, but fail to realise that this will require many who hold public office today to be fired. This cannot be done, and the trap of replacing completely the old regime with new figures was realised by the Americans in Iraq much too late. It is a recipe for instability. The equation for political authority then becomes one centred around at least three axes – how to retain power and at the same time, manage the expectations around yahapalanaya, how to capture public confidence around mechanisms promised in international fora around accountability, and how to best generate support for a new Constitution, with the resulting radical restructuring of the State. At the heart of all this, strategic communication. When to say something. When to be silent. When to opine, and when to let Ministers dig their own graves. When to intervene publicly and when to allow the public to forget over time what may have incensed them at some point. What we have instead of a coherent strategy is, by and large, silence. And it is in this silence that spoilers, rumour and gossip reign. This helps no one, save for those who wish to regain what they lost on the 8th of January 2015.

The quotes above come from the owner of a medium sized garage in Battaramulla, an Uber driver and someone from government. The first speaks to what is symptomatic of the deep seated ‘Othering’ of a Sinhala-Buddhist State, interested primarily in the protection of ‘apey’ – whether it is country, religion, person or party. Those who are not us, should not get more benefits than us. Political office should primarily protect, and be seen to protect, the South. Any appreciation of addressing the challenges in the North only results from appearing to address, or actually addressing, issues in the South. The second quote speaks volumes about how public opinion once supportive of yahapalanaya has diminished. This is extremely disturbing, because apathy and disillusionment with political figures and the non-delivery of promises invariably translates into a distancing from robust political engagement, which only fuels a greater democratic deficit.  The third quote is from someone who has, to use a term from peacebuilding theory, an ‘insider-partial’ perspective, which is to say, someone in government trying to change it from within. The frustration is real. The resistance to change, equally real. And so we come back to our initial query – why doesn’t the government communicate better?

I increasingly believe it is because they aren’t interested. We must ask why. Three quotes don’t indicate a national trend and cannot be projected as sentiments echoed by a larger community. They are anecdotal. They can and should be contested. But indubitably, these voices are growing – in government, on the streets and across the country. No consociational or elitist framework of power, inadequately rooted in the public consciousness, stands a chance of enduring over the long-term.

Communication is key to reform. And it begins with listening.


First published in The Sunday Island, 26 June 2016


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