09 June 2016

The Principle of Culpability

"Well, it is known that when the boss is crooked, it is a license for his/her subordinates to indulge as well.  The reverse is more revealing.  If the minions are in to picking, the chances are the boss is either incompetent or him/herself corrupt."  

The above was what I wrote editorially in 'The Nation' in April 2012.  The title of the editorial was 'The buck of corruption floats upwards'.  



The current regime vowed to do things differently than previous one.  It would be different too.  Is it, though?  And is it too late to really get serious about manifesto and mandate?  The following article, published in the 'Daily News' (June 9, 2016) addresses these issues.  

There is a useful rule of thumb with respect to institutions and corruption.  If the person at the top is corrupt, it is a veritable license for corruption down the line.  If there is any corrupt individual anywhere in the institution it means that either the person at the top is corrupt or else he/she is incompetent.  There are corollaries as well.  Foolishness begets foolishness and only a fool will suffer fools.  Replace ‘fool and ‘foolish’ with ‘incompetent’ and ‘incompetence’ respectively and the principle still holds.  Looking the other way is as bad as active encouragement because it sanctions wrongdoing and emboldens wrongdoer. 

This principle of culpability holds for a school, a club, an NGO, a farmer organization, a trade union, a small or medium scale business, a blue chip company or a Government.  This is why there are checks and balances, periodical review of the same and amendment of relevant rules.  Systemic error is often blamed but it is ridiculous to blame all wrongdoing on institutional flaws.  Decent, competent and incorruptible leaders can and do run cleanly even those institutions hampered by such flaws.  The ‘boss’ can play a blame game but the boss is fooling no one.  The boss has to take the blame in the end.  In short if credit flows up, debit should too.  

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a classic example.  He’s been accused of much wrongdoing and so too his confidantes as well as close family members.  Charges of financial wrongdoing are currently being investigated and therefore comment on the same has to be reserved for a later time.  Nevertheless there was enough skullduggery and gross wastage that do not require investigation.  Mahinda had a lot of friends who were thugs.  There were many instances of intimidation and assault which did not prompt inquiry or else resulted in investigative processes that were dreadfully slow.  If, as the then Chief Executive, credit for defeating terrorism accrues to him, so too all the ills during his tenure, whether it was constitutional tinkering that went against the spirit of democracy, waste and abuse of public funds and other resources, all highhanded acts by politicians and officials loyal to him, fraud, assault and murder. 

He had his chances to do things differently.  He didn’t take them. Instead he strengthened the hands of the Mervin Silvas of his administration. 

Well, all that is in the past.  What of the present?  Things haven’t been very different.  We saw candidates rejected by the people being smuggled into parliament and then to cabinet.  That’s hardly the championing of democratic principles, is it?  People with clouds over them for mismanagement and wrongdoing strangely found favor with the movers and shakers of a regime that pledged good governance.  Misuse of public funds, nepotism and interference in the affairs of the law enforcement authorities have continued. 

Let’s put it all down to the abiding force of a deeply rooted political culture that is rotten to the core.  Let’s say that it will take time for people and politicians to appreciate and make use of the 19th Amendment.  Let’s say that things will become better once the Right to Information Act is passed.  Let’s say ‘it is unfair to demand too much too soon from this Government which is struggling on a lot of fronts due to external factors beyond its control’.  Let’s say ‘let’s give them more time’.   We can say all that but we must also say ‘if you don’t stop the rot, it means that either you are rotten too or are just too powerless to do anything about it.’  We would have to say, also, ‘If you want to be like Mahinda Rajapaksa, you’ll have to go like him too!’ 

Let’s flag two issues (among a number large enough to be alarming considering that this Government is less than a year old and this Presidency just over a year old).   One is a resignation and the other is about retention of services.

A few days ago, Director General of Wildlife, Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya tendered his resignation.  It was an act of protest at pressure being exerted on the Yala Warden to apologize to a minister for arresting some of his supporters who had killed a leopard. It was a case of one minister standing up for another.

Dr Pilapitiya is known for being competent and for being straight.  He always stood up for what he believed was correct regardless of the objections or the name and power of the objector.  He had a time of it, according to reliable reports, during the previous regime.  Indeed, it appears things we worse.  This automatically means ‘things are better now’, but that’s exactly why they should not be allowed to get worse.  And worse it will get in this field as well as others if the President and Prime Minister don’t act and act decisively.  If they suffer fools (as they have and as have their predecessors), then there are no prizes for naming the biggest jokers!  

There aren’t many officials who have the knowledge, experience, courage and integrity of Dr Pilapitiya --   all the more reason for quick action to set things right.  Do nothing and you encourage, embolden and empower the fools and the goons.   Do nothing and you are acknowledging complicity.

Mahinda Rajapaksa weighed marginal costs versus marginal benefits and went for what he thought was politically expedient.  He didn’t weight ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’.   It cost him.  This Government appears to be doing what Mahinda Rajapaksa did.  It could cost.

The second case if that of Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran.  Yes, the bond issue scandal.  The committee of party loyalists hand-picked by the Prime Minister to investigate the Governor he himself had hand-picked, following inquiries, recommended a full investigation into the operations of the Governor’s nephew as well as the Bank of Ceylon.  A Parliamentary Select Committee was about to submit its findings on the matter when Parliament was dissolved.  Since then the Central Bank has indulged in equally dubious operations with the Governor’s nephew benefitting immensely.  

Against this backdrop it is alleged that the Governor wants to have all data related to the last two bond issuances deleted from the Central Bank computers.  When someone occupying as key a position as the Governor of the Central Bank comes under suspicion it should first and foremost worry the President and the Prime Minister.  It certainly ought to worry each and every citizen. 

We have Dr Pilapitiya resigning over what could be called a relatively minor issue (note however that small wrong is also wrong and principles compromised on the basis of magnitude tend to make for further compromises down the road and as such Dr Pilapitiya should be applauded).  We can hope that the Prime Minister takes actions against the errant minister(s) or else open himself to the charge that he’s breeding the likes of Mervin Silva. 

We have a Central Bank whose Governor is under a massive cloud and a Government believing it’s all blue skies up there.  We have a situation where the citizens are being asked to refer to the Principle of Culpability and conclude what the impartial and sober concluded regarding Mahinda Rajapaksa: ‘the top approves and therefore is culpable or else it is incompetent’. 

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelanceEmail: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene.
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