Failing greatly

In a recent interview on guest editing the most recent issue of US edition of Wired magazine, President Obama talks about a number of ideas related to science, technology, economics and politics. The incredible breadth and depth of the outgoing US President’s knowledge around what he is asked, without the input of any outsider or advisor, beggars belief. Reading the interview, freely available online on Wired’s website, prompted an observation and question I posed on social media: “…not for the first time, deeply saddened by the fact that Sri Lanka’s best thinkers are nowhere on our party political spectrum. How can we inspire the best in us, when those heading our country are routinely the worst amongst us?”

I had in mind statements made by both the President and PM in Sri Lanka over the course of last week. A quote attributed to the PM and published this week in the National Geographic magazine’s website unequivocally suggested that those missing in Sri Lanka today are in fact, dead. It is not the first time this year he has said precisely this, and in public. If he is so clear about the matter, it raises the question as to why the government established the Office of Missing Persons to inquire into the fate of the thousands who have gone missing during and after the war. Last week was also punctured by Sirisena Jnr and Snr going on rampages. While Jnr’s posse laid waste to a popular nightclub for an indeterminable reason, Snr went on frothing tirade against the FCID, CID and Bribery Commission, noting amongst other things that they were anchored to a political agenda and since it was he who appointed the officials in them, they should in turn keep him informed of all high profile cases. Lest we forget, leading Australian media earlier this year reported that Sirisena, in his avatar as a Cabinet Minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa, had requested kickbacks from Snowy Mountains Engineering Company (SMEC) officials around a multi-million-rupee contract to construct a damn, saying “that he needed to ‘prioritise’ certain payments to unnamed parties ‘since the signing of the contract would depend’ on it”. Unsurprisingly, denying the claims made in the report, President Sirisena ordered the Attorney-General to investigate the matter. No report on the investigation has been made public or tabled in Parliament to date.

An apocryphal story attributed to Churchill and a female socialite springs to mind. Churchill asks the woman to sleep with him for five million pounds. The woman in question readily agrees. Churchill then asks her to sleep with him for five pounds. The woman, aghast, asks Churchill “What kind of a woman do you think I am?”. Churchill retorts by saying “Madam, we’ve already established that. Now we are haggling about the price”. Despite the President’s tiresome, prosaic moralising, despite the establishment of the OMP and the on-going ‘victim-centric’ consultations around reconciliation supported by the PM, the essential nature of both men who lead our country is now distressingly clear. One cannot practice what he preaches. The other just cannot communicate. We have changed faces in power. The awful nature of power remains the same. We celebrate and focus on cosmetic change, when in fact, systemic change remains elusive and episodic at best. Even under ‘yahapalanaya’, citizens are perennially haggling with feckless men who hold their future hostage to personal whim, corruption, expedient politics or parochial interest, disguised as ‘national interest’. As journalist Shihar Aneez aptly said on Twitter, “a visionary government with very poor media strategy is worse than a government with better media strategy and lack of long term vision”.

What’s the broader context for what Aneez flags?

The President is under pressure and not just because of Daham. The PM is under pressure and not just because of the President’s recent comments. Champika Ranawaka and the JHU are becoming increasingly important strategic players, in for the long-haul and positioning themselves against for example the manic nationalism of the Gotabaya and those who venerate him. The JHU aren’t democrats. The veneer of their progressive politics today hides a darker shade of red, just a little under the surface. And yet they enjoy a distinct, enduring appeal from the private sector, business community and professionals. In the North, we now have a Chief Minister mirroring the worst traits of politicians in the South – merely amplifying for self-advancement and gain, without really meaningfully addressing, a deep-seated disquiet, unmet aspirations and dwindling hope. The deep, dark state, which gave birth to the BBS and its ilk, persists. We know post-Snowden in particular that in any country, the intelligence community exists independent of any real government oversight and scrutiny. Given what they have been witness to and part of, it is likely they have their own agenda in Sri Lanka. The country’s economy is a mess and my last column dealt with the fact that the majority of citizens don’t know what key reforms the government has undertaken, why, what will result from them or where they are presently at. The JO, Rajapaksa’s and their apparatchiks are not going quietly into the night.

It all seems hopeless, at least from outside. And yet, those in government may yet find a way to get us out of this mess.

Perhaps there someone who has the trust of the President, to tell him especially after his pronouncements last week that he doesn’t need to lose face in order to be more conciliatory, if only out of pure self-interest, towards those who walk a different path and want what he doesn’t himself support? They can work out alternatives, negotiate space, create counter-narratives and with the support of (many) others who don’t want to see the return of the Rajapaksas, create a context where his sense of self-worth finds suitable anchor, and there is a working relationship that glosses over the need for frequent pronouncements on policy he will in fact have no real role in the shaping of. Likewise, for the PM – perhaps there someone who has his trust to suggest, urgently and unequivocally, that he has already lost the support of a general public which remains ignorant of his grand visions and plans? Spending millions of dollars for external spin doctors is a poor substitute for the lack of political will and leadership. Any crisis presents opportunities for advancement – can the PM be guided to grasp them, even if he himself can’t see the potential? Can the JHU’s shrink-wrapping of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism as glossy cosmopolitanism be nipped in the bud? Unlikely, though the next best thing that can be done today is to ascertain to what degree a possible Sirisena-Ranawaka or SLFP-JHU nexus in the future can be thwarted by a PM who plans for the non-return of the Rajapaksas in a way that begets support from unlikely quarters to support reform where necessary, including with the new constitution.

We don’t need our President and PM to like, much less love each other. But their leadership and this coalition, warts and all, is essential. Given a penchant for insensitivity and inanity, it is easy to pick on what each said or did and write them off, individually or together. And yet, our self-interest, to never again relive the Rajapaksa years, must motivate us to see beyond what they both are able to, and repeat, as much as and as often as we can, Kennedy’s aphorism that only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 16 October 2016.

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