My conversations with individuals and institutions over the course of last week highlighted what a few in government and many more outside already know and fear. Since the 8th of January 2015, politics as usual has trumped the promise of a new political culture, captured best by the yahapalanaya brand. This was expected, though to see and live through it, is no less depressing. A friend succinctly flagged salient features of the challenge at a meeting held to trace the contours of what today is a promising, new, government led communications initiative. Those in power now trust more those they perceived to be loyal (either to self or party) more than those with skills and experience. Critical commentary, including that which holds the President, PM and the rest of government accountable to the promises they themselves made, is seen as unnecessary, inconvenient and as a sign of trouble. So instead of attending to or focusing on the short-comings flagged, attention is almost entirely devoted to deny, decry or destroy the messenger. Adding to this is a new and already complex constellation of party political appointees and personal favourites, acting as gatekeepers and firewalls to ideas, information and input that can from those without any interest in SUVs, the perks of office or foreign jaunts, strengthen governance.
The result is government in a cocoon and a debilitating metamorphosis of governance from promise to reality. Those in government are surrounded by outmoded, outdated thinking by those who favour self-advancement through genuflection. Rather than call their bluff, for vanity, partisan parochialism, fear or some misguided strategic interest, those in power continuously countenance the bad advice they receive from those they have appointed to positions of significant authority. The more powerful the office, the more isolating it is. This is why even with the best of intent, efforts around course-correction through for example better, more strategic media and communications planning will fail unless there is traction from the highest political offices in the country. This works to the Joint Opposition’s benefit, and those in government who are deeply conventional and conservative in their political outlook, resisting to the extent they can the absolutely vital upgrade to and reboot of our constitutional operating system.
What this means is that everything officially on the table – from transitional justice to constitutional reform and fragile negotiations over policymaking conducted sub rosa, is at risk. And yet, the art of the long view requires us to appreciate that individuals and institutions in power are, to varying degrees, hostage to the systemic nature of power. Political reform, beyond manifestos and in almost every single instance when in power, is deeply often combatively resisted. However, despite what appears to be a growing disenchantment with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration across the media landscape, I remain cautiously optimistic for several reasons.
The criticism against government, though increasing in volume, vectors and velocity, is still fuelled and framed by a fidelity towards yahapalanaya more than strident opposition towards President or PM. In other words, the criticism is not a call, yet, for changing government. And given that it is the JO and the Rajapaksa’s who want to reclaim power, any direct, open effort to regain authority will result in an immediate, sustained and entirely organic opposition that spans the digital to physical resistance. This is important, because this support for government isn’t engineered or controlled by government. The authors of a recent book called Political Turbulence call this ‘the turbulent world of chaotic pluralism’. What this means is that despite the characteristic and continuing incompetence from and in the present government, there is still a geographically, linguistically and ethno-politically diverse and distributed community who will, without seeking political reward or recognition, fight against a return to what was before the 8th of January 2015. The challenge around more fully leveraging this reservoir of conditional support is not that, by and large, this community has no desire to be openly associated with government. It is because the majority of those dealing with strategic communications and media in government still think of social media as a dark art, millennials with the greatest of disdain, online political organisation as entirely independent of real world political interactions, or social media as just having a Facebook page that one uploads photos of oneself at various opening ceremonies, cutting ribbons or carrying a hapless infant or child. Despite this, chaotic pluralism means the best ambassadors of government may often lie outside it.
The risk is that fatigue sets in. Incremental reform over the long term as a proposition for systemic change isn’t really appealing for the most politically vocal and active segment of our society. Their imagination is framed by minutes and weeks, not months and years. If those who feel, to whatever degree, they contributed to the Presidency and government we enjoy today are still without voice, and what they aspire to, voted in, hope for and support is precisely what government is not doing or undermining, what will immediately result is disengagement and disenchantment. Through this alone, the government loses a bulwark against political regression. Over time and unaddressed, the waves of criticism against government from this demographic can be hard to distinguish from the propaganda of the JO, even if the two camps remain, ideologically and motivationally, largely distinct. These are ‘wicked problems’ – significant challenges that morph even as you study them, and change even as you find good enough responses. The government needs the best minds to address them, and not just from within party ranks.
From idiom and expression to platform and medium, what is a sophisticated, scathing wit especially in Sinhala through popular culture increasingly berates those in government. This means that a key demographic still cares, and gives a damn. This means they are observant, follow government policy with interest and are still partial to the promise of yahapalanaya in contrast to what was voted out of power. This means that with skill and significant investments in time, there is a community that creates content which regularly goes viral, lampooning those in power for not doing what they promised. Surely, these are signs of a healthy democracy unimaginable just two or three years ago? What we see today in Sri Lanka is that the most textured discussions on politics is often led by those outside political parties. It is a discussion that is rich, varied and multi-polar, anchored to not just one entity, location or language. It cannot be censored and through a variety of mediums encourages those who were never before part of these dialogues to participate, freely, through like, comment, selfie, hashtag, video, soundbite, emoticon, filter, livestream or instant message, aside from the consumption of traditional mainstream media.
This is arguably very new for government in Sri Lanka and stands in stark contrast to the Rajapaksa’s rule through violence, fear and anxiety. Must we carry their entrails into the future? The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration continues to enjoy the confidence of many, and yet still see principled criticism with fear, discomfort and disdain. A few interested in governance beyond SUVs and have the ear of the President and PM need to tell them, gently but firmly and repeatedly, that to lose the organic support they enjoy today, in person, through party and over digital domains, would be the first step in losing what is an important legacy they can write together.
And that would be such a pity.
First published in The Sunday Island, 2 October 2016.