25 June 2012

Good Governance VI: Austerity and Restriant

Tapa: the virtues of austerity and restraint

Ernesto Che Guevara, a short while after Uncle Sam’s darling and Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown, got to know that there was a food shortage in Havana and that people were starving. He didn’t believe it because he was not going hungry.  He is supposed to followed up on the story and told an officer responsible for overseeing such things, ‘I must be getting double-rations’.  The reply was sobering: ‘you are!’  He had promptly insisted that he gets what others get. 

Che Guevara, like all revolutionaries worthy of that tag, was austere in habit, denied himself many comforts and suffered many deprivations, both in Cuba and in Bolivia, where he was killed in cold blood by US-trained Bolivian soldiers.  I’ve heard of Fidel Castro’s work ethic; how he went on working in the sugarcane fields long after the reporters and photographers had left, putting in more hours than the average volunteer was expected to or would put in. 

Che and Fidel are 20th Century leaders and are exceptions. One doesn’t hear about other leaders in Latin America or elsewhere willingly foregoing anything.  The opposite is what is more common, self-pampering legally or by deft law-circumvention.  How about the past? Let’s peek into our history, as record and remnant.

The kings who ruled from Polonnaruwa built amazing irrigation works but also lived in luxury, going purely by archaeological record. The Anuradhapura Period, on the other hand, is marked by the weva (literally ‘reservoir’ but metaphor to lifestyle, economy-base, culture and philosophy) and the dagoba (literally a residence for relic but also a metaphor for the core-element of a culture and a civilization).  There were places of learning and scholarship (Abhayagiriya is the best example of course) that were marvelous works of architecture.  The water supply and drainage system itself speaks of engineering genius remarkable for that age and time, when comparing how things were in, say, what’s now known as Europe (for instance).   

What this indicates is that there was nothing lacking in terms of requisite knowledge and expertise to build palaces and magnificent cities during this time.  There was then a conscious choice on the part of most rulers to abide by the 6th principle/element of Lord Buddha’s Discourse on Good Governance, Tapa, i.e. the value of austerity and restraint. 

There was a time when parliamentarians did not have perks apart from free railway passes or some such triviality.  These were too meager by way of ‘rewards’ to act as inducement to enter politics. Today, public office is so rewarding in the by hook-or-by-crook sense of operating, funds required to run election campaigns are considered investment and consideration of contesting is quite akin to a feasibility study on a business proposal. Would be candidates consider marginal costs and marginal benefits, as much as they compute vote-gettability.  

If rehearsal is important by way of being indicative of things to come, then I doubt any of our politicians, in power and seeking power, being capable of jumping over the Tapa hurdle.  They would trip a long way before sighting it, in fact.

Sense-gratification is the name of the game in Sri Lankan politics, from top to bottom.  Denial is at best eye-wash, for what it ‘given’ or ‘refused’ by one hand is amply compensated by what is collected by the other.  There is a need to be ‘seen’.  Massive cut-outs are paid for.  Even a simple ceremony such as opening a newly tarred road requires advertisement, on-the-spot and in the media.  We are a ‘by so-and-so’ nation of politicians.  From the humble Pradeshiya Sabhika to the Executive President, all politicians are obsessed with name-engraving.  And pageantry.

Millions are wasted on festivities.  Austerity is bad for politics, they seem to believe.  I think otherwise.  There is so much vulgarity in this crass self-advertising that I am sure the people will applaud and reward the austere.  I am not sure if anyone would be brave enough to let merit accrue on account of work and not its advertising, that is).

Ideally, such virtues should be self-cultivated.  Ideally, they should not require rules and regulations and harsh insistence and implementation of the same.  We don’t live in happy times, though. 

Perhaps this is why one of the main flaws of the 17th Amendment was the non-inclusion of an Independent Audit Commission.  We don’t have anything close to a mechanism that monitors wealth accumulation and source of wealth.  We have come to a point where the people expect their representatives to thieve. 

Change must come from both top and bottom.  If the rulers want to be truly dharmika as sometimes they claim they are, let them begin with themselves, let them meditate on Tapa, on the virtues of austerity and the need to exercise restraint.  Let the President and the Government take the lead, as individuals and as law-makers, to ‘let go willingly’ and to enact legislation that stumps the acquisitive intent respectively.  Let them adopt a code of conduct that exemplifies austerity, a certain reticence when it comes to pleasuring senses, to be of good conduct at all times, etc etc. 

Today they are conspicuous in the vulgarity of their indulgences. Let them be different tomorrow.  

Let us resolve that these ideals should not only be pledged in manifesto, but concretized in action on the pain of punishment when re-election time comes around and most importantly in legislative enactment that give effect to notion, sentiment and objective.  

We are an indulgent people, we indulge ourselves and indulge others.  We are perhaps and sadly deserving of the leaders we get, but we have been better (history shows) and we can yet be better than we are.  We don’t insist. Perhaps we should. 

Tapa is key because a restrained leader and one who is austere in conduct would be more rational and less susceptible to purchase by parochial and anti-citizen interests.  Our leaders operate as if they are purchasable and as though they are merely quibbling about price.  We are to blame, in part. 

 [Originally published in the Daily Mirror, November 2010]

The following is the complete set of articles on the Dasa Raja Dharma

Dana: the virtue of giving

Sila: the moral component of the Dasa Raja Dharma]

Pariccaga: the third element of the Dasa Raja Dharma

Ajjava: the discourse on honesty and integrity in governance 

Majjava: the kinder, gentler elements of governance

Tapa: the virtues of austerity and restraint 

Akkodha: the need to eschew enmity

Avihimsa: incorporating non-violence into good governance

Khanti: the virtue of patience and tolerance

Avirodha: a must-cultivate for the effective and benevolent ruler



Ranilj said...

The tone of the article reminds one of "Api asarana wela wage hithata denenawa..."

I really wonder if Buddhism asks one to be austere in case one can afford the luxuries (leaving aside the discussion on the rulers to be austere, because the possibility to misuse funds that can otherwise be used for the benefit of the common) - for example for a business person?

And again, leaving aside the talk on political leaders, the world has seen some successful business leaders who have practised measures of austerity to a good extent: Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of Panasonic, is said to have travelled economy class when he could have asked his board to approve him a private jet. He even said to have travelled from Tokyo to Osaka in the Shinkansen.

Another is Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA.

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