08 January 2015

Love and hate in post-election Sri Lanka

After the 'fact' of election, voters who were 'makers' turn into 'recipients of generosity' for the most part.
If they are lucky.  Life does not stop, though.   [pic from www.sportskeeda.com]
This was first published in the Daily Mirror on February 4, 2010, just after the last Presidential Election.  It spoke to the political culture we live in, which we by crimes of commission and omission sustain and even make worse.  Perhaps things haven't changed much in the five years that followed.  Perhaps we can look forward to something better.  If we were to reflect.  'Self-reflect,' that is. 

There could be a country where perfect elections are held, a country where there are solid election laws, where society is so flat that contenders have no choice but to operate on an even playing field, a country that is so fiercely independent and the media so neutral and responsible that the outcome will depend on the consideration of three things, essentially: candidates’ track records, manifestos and trustworthiness as perceived by the voter. 

In that country, candidates would execute clean campaign free of mudslinging without letting rhetoric and emotion subvert respect and reason, an informed citizen would vote early and frequently, there would be a violence-free campaign and an incident-free election-day, smooth operations at polling stations and counting centres and a sober and dignified acceptance of the people’s verdict by winners and losers. 

I don’t think such countries exist.  We live in social, political and cultural landscapes that are anything but flat and orderly and where people go about in the dispassionate manner described above.  We live in societies that are fractured along lines of class, caste, gender, age, region, ethnic and religious identity and ideological bent. 

These social formations are further compromised by institutional structures that empower politician and dwarf citizen, privilege the powerful and by an overall political economy that allows those who do no have the vote to influence the voter and allows forces that operate against the national interest to employ carrot and stick as befits political moment to engineer result. 

There is so much division, so much anger, so much frustration, so much greed, so much bitterness, many axes to grind, such high stakes, so little integrity, so little wisdom, such inability to treat things with equanimity that we should be surprised that elections only result in scarring walls, bruising egos, some fisticuffs and a few deaths. 

We have come far from the time of voter impersonation, switching ballot boxes and the kind of intimidation of voter and elections official we saw in 1988 when some 800 people were killed on election day alone.  In a certain sense we have gone further than the USA where despite appearances fraud takes place long before election day, continues after polls close, and where computer-voting not leaving a paper trail to investigate possible fraud has been a serious concern and may have cost both Al Gore and John Kerry presidential terms.  And yet, we have a long way to go still. 

The recently concluded election was about a lot of things but they can all be collapsed in a sense to two things: love and hate.  There was after all a subtext to the process that dwelled on things like patriotism and treachery.  While one is not exactly required to love one’s political opponent, this particular election was marked by a kind of hatred that was absent in previous presidential races.  This was evident in the rhetoric, the tone, the emails and text messages that were floated around, the websites constructed specifically to support the candidates, the posters, the advertisements and especially in the case of the state media, the advertorials. 

When the stakes are as high as they were in this election it is not unnatural for human beings to slip to such levels and adopt a by-any-means-necessary approach to the task at hand.  When this happens campaigns quickly change gears and tend to draw from that which is worst in society.  It leaves a bad after-taste and the foul odours take a lot of time to go away. 

Today we are in a post-election moment and two things that could have helped restore sanity and bring closure to what was an ugly and distasteful two months seem to be hard to come by: the grace to accept defeat and humility in victory.  It is not wrong to be jubilant in victory, especially after a long, grueling campaign where pre-election hype inflated considerably the key contender’s chances.  It is not wrong to feel cheated when one thought one could to fly and realized that one can only jump. There is however a difference between jubilation and gloating, just as there is a difference between disappointed and being a sour loser.  Sadly, it the gloating and the sour-loser syndrome that have been most apparent in the days following the election.  It is so apparent that enumerating instance and commenting on example are unnecessary. 

What is important, in the end, is the love, not hatred.  Hatred engenders hatred, love disarms the detractor.  Emotion discolours reason and when logic is compromised by passion the chance for error is enhanced.  If those who have lost and who feel robbed are serious about recovering territory conceded/usurped, then they have to choose carefully their companions on this new and more arduous journey.  They can recruit a million individuals but it will not matter if they fail to get Mr. Sobriety onboard.

Indeed, Mr. Sobriety is someone that the winners would do well to acquaint themselves with as well.  They’ve all gone overboard here.  There are posters out in Colombo that are utterly distasteful and I am convinced that had the boot been on the other foot, we would have seen a similar outpouring of puerility. 

Then there are the citizens.  We are being entertained by all this, even though entertaining us is probably not the intention of the entertainers on the political stage (‘Shh….they don’t know they are clowns’ did someone say?).  Hatred takes us nowhere.  That’s best left to politicians.  If we are forced to pick one or the other, I doubt if anyone will hesitate before choosing love over hatred.  The is a question, however, that comes attached to ‘love’ in the political manifestation of the term: what are the prerogatives of love?

Let us take for instance the case of those who voted for the winner.  What does ‘love’ entail, how does one express it, make it real?  There are many ways. There is ‘salutation’. That’s the basic, easy and in the end the most pedestrian way of showing solidarity.  Do it if you want, if it makes you feel good, but I wouldn’t stop there. Going beyond this means that one has to recognize that ‘support’ does not stop with victory but actually begins there.  If one voted for face and not agenda, party colour and not track-record, on account of gratitude and not preferred future, person and not country, then one can sit back and play ostrich, if ostriching is necessitated, or be a cheerboy/girl if cheering is warranted. 

On the other hand, if choice of candidate was determined by love of country and hope for a different and better future for our children, then the word ‘motherland’ has to be accompanied by three things: work, work and work. 

What is this ‘work’?  First and foremost, if we profess love for country, then we cannot be shirkers. We cannot bend rules for ourselves and charge others with wrongdoing. We cannot complain that so and so is taking commissions if we pinch a few rupees ourselves, for thieving is thieving whether it is pick-pocketing or grand larceny.  We are thieving when we don’t do justice to our job description. We rob when we do not give back to society something for having given us opportunity to learn, to be healthy and to be free of fear.  We are lesser citizens when we look the other way when looking the other way is convenient, we are undeserving when we are lenient with friends and strict with others.  That’s the kind of love-work I am referring to.

There is more to this ‘love’ business, especially for those who voted for the winner, for while they can legitimately claim credit for the good, they must at some level take the blame for error and wrongdoing even if they picked the winner as default option.  This means that the work of the voter involves both support as described above as well as scrutiny.  If love is to work then it must include an honest commitment to appraise the winner on all counts, to point out error and suggest alternative. 

One cannot be showing greater love to the President, I believe, than when one is his harshest critic, provided that the criticism in honest, is not motivated by crass self-interest and is free of malice.  If we can be that kind of critic, then would indeed be reiterating support for the man we chose as president, for let us not forget he’s president of the entire nation, those who voted for him an those who voted against him. Even if we hated him and voted for someone else, we still have to recognize that he is the President of the country we love or profess to love or in the very least the country we are citizens of and therefore to which we have certain responsibilities.  We need to support him if we want to support our country.  We are not required to love him, but we are required not to colour of criticism with ‘sourpussness’ for that would detract from our effort, our nation and ourselves.  That would be ‘hate’ and not ‘love’.

This is the bottom line. We can love or hate anyone, that’s our business, but our love for our country should be above all this.  We can love the President for example, but we have to keep in mind and he has to understand that we love our country far more than we love him.  And that love, for country, for history, heritage, civilization, memory of ancestor, and future for children, imposes certain prerogatives including the responsibility to be critical of very move that our leaders, our governments make.  And all this should be touched by one thing: tenderness. It should be devoid of one thing: malice. 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com