15 June 2017

A non-political citizenry for a no-politician democracy

"The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state."  

දේශපාලනයේ 'අපි' කව්රුද?

Tilak Disanayake and Hilmy Sally who describe themselves as ‘design engineers and concerned citizens’ have proposed a concept which they call ‘No politician democracy (NPD)’ (see ‘No politician democracy’ in the Daily FT, June 14, 2017).  It is a blueprint (in the making) of a new Sri Lanka which will be, in their words, ‘unitary, secular and sustainable, and will have a thriving, inclusive economy affording opportunities for all its people regardless of gender, race, age, religion, caste or sexual orientation.’

Ask any politician or anyone else for that matter and very few if at all would object to residency in such a republic.  Tilak and Hilmy have promised to detail the ‘how to get there’ of all this shortly and I await eagerly what promises in the very least to be a good read.  They have hinted that their ‘plan’ can come into force if 151 Members of Parliament purchase it.  Given the enormous benefits that politicians have reaped and continue to enjoy one might think it is a hard sell, but this engineering duo believe that the benefits of change would outweigh the costs and the said MPs would be ‘swung’.   

That the country requires radical change is a no-brainer.  That it is urgent is clear.  And yet, for all the need and all the ‘blueprints, the resilience of the institutional arrangement and the current political culture is certainly formidable.  

Lying politicians are certainly responsible for sabotaging the reform agenda that they themselves pledged to implement, but theirs is essentially a part role.  There are structural factors that stand in the way.   

This obviously pleases the politicians who were never serious about reform for they can always blame it on the system (when they are not blaming everything on the Rajapaksas that is).  It won’t be easy to convince 151 MPs because easy money is a happier prospect that hard-earned money.  The carrot called ‘freedom from prosecution’ may look delicious but it will nevertheless be compared to the infinitely more delicious goodies that arrive from tenaciously defending a system that does not prosecute.  

The issue perhaps is about how deeply embedded the individual MP is in this corrupt system. We have to understand that some have invested heavily in all this and those who haven’t secured adequate returns will not feel the prosecution-free pull.  

That’s only part of the problem.  When Dullas Alahapperuma decided not to contest the 2001 General Election he offered the following reason: ‘We [I] are [am] too white; there are too many brown people and their brownness is most evidenced when there is a white contrast.’  He has a valid point that has outlived his political ‘whiteness’.  The more serious issue is that we don’t really have a white (or ‘clean’) citizenry.  In that sense perhaps we do have a decent enough  ‘representative democracy’ and this is something we need to recognize.

Our NPD advocates acknowledge this pervading ‘brownness”:  

The mostly dishonest, incompetent politicians (and their parties) that we elect via easily manipulated polls have ruined the country over the past 69 years.  And we the people have been complicit by electing them.’  

If 151 MPs stand up for NPD it would not be a revolution, it would be a coup.  Given that such a coup would immediately get us a different constitution it could revolutionize the system of governance and pave the way for transparent and efficient institutional arrangements and processes. I am sure that there are many people who would share the vision for Sri Lanka that Tilak and Hilmy have outlined.  They probably have shared their thoughts with movers and shakers.  Perhaps they have even won some of them over and who knows, even convinced some MPs.  Perhaps they could do with some help from below.  

The history of social transformation demonstrates that given certain objective conditions what is required is not a citizens’ majority.  We don’t need, happily, ‘two-thirds plus one’ of ‘the people’.  A critical mass is what is required.  An organized critical mass, one might add, or at least a number of people/groups who although they may not work together are in concert in the matter of action.  

The proposition is mouth-watering given what we’ve had for so many decades.  A ‘no politician democracy’ is a cry that rises from everything vile that politician, political party and politics denotes.   

We are, as Tilak and Hilmy imply, a ‘serial monarchy.’  A republic without meaningful citizenship, a population that is not also a citizenry.  

And yet, it is not that ‘the people’ have not counted.  They have stood up, they have challenged, and they have died. Those who say that independence was won without a drop of blood being shed are ignorant of all that has happened from 1815 to 1948 (and that’s only if we count the British period).  We have seen flashes of the kind of citizenship that Tilak and Hilmy probably envisage, but in non-political terms, especially in times of tragedy.  

It is of course not easy to mobilize the energy, capacity, tenacity and attitude demonstrated in such situation for what is essentially a political project, even though the objective is a no-politician democracy.  This does not mean that it should not be attempted.  

The most radical idea at this political moment could very well be the notion of a no-politician citizenry, i.e. a movement of the people, by the people, for the people, with or without the state.  

Anarchy?  It may look like that, but perhaps such a tendency would be the ‘stick’ that would force those critical 151 individuals in Parliament to take the carrots offered by Tilak and Hilmy.  

They’ve set a ball of ideas rolling, these two.  It’s a big object and one that requires more than 4 hands to keep it going in the right direction.  There’s a lot of space on that surface for many more hands.  One thing is certain:  established political parties and professional politicians are unlikely to lend their weight. 

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Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Blog: malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene