03 August 2017

The fault is in the (political) constellations and not the stars

These are not 'the stars', no....most certainly not!
“We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars…” —  Jack Gilbert

Jack Gilbert (1925-2012), celebrated poet from the USA, in a poem titled ‘Tear it down’ was essentially calling for self-criticism, for the recognition and subsequent erasure of bias, and perhaps even reflection on the error (let’s say) of being fixated with political projects or preferred outcomes. 

There were many who voted for Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015 not because they believed a word about the yahapalana promise but they thought that defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa was necessary to stop things from deteriorating. On the other hand, there were many who actually believed in the yahapalana pledge, never mind that you cannot get (as the Sinhala phrase goes) feathers from a tortoise.  Among them was the columnist Nalaka Gunawardena.

Nalaka recently quoted a fruit seller who runs a small retail shop near his house in Kotte, Jayasena.  Jayasena Mudalali had told him a few days before the 2015 General Election that there are no honest politicians and that he would prefer if it were possible to vote for a robot.  Nalaka, at the time, had entertained utopian hopes about yahapalanaya, he confesses, and therefore had not agreed with Jayasena. Nalaka yearns for robots today. 

The biggest problem with those who jumped on the yahapalana bandwagon is the term.  It was a challenge and a good one.  It was an aspiration, a standard to be maintained and it was going to be tough.  

Many who cheered Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe back in 2015 probably knew it would be tough, but what they probably didn’t know was that yahapalanaya was a feather and the yahapalanists were tortoises.  

The problem is that yahapalanaya is an end as well as a process.  Once you embroider the term on to your political flag you cannot play ‘End justifies the means,’ but you have to be alert to the journey, the decisions, each step of the way; and you have to point out deviation.  
Here’s an example.  There were those who demanded that whether one likes the idea or not R. Sampanthan should be made the Leader of the Opposition.  The hesitation of course was  ideological (at best) and racist (at worst), the latter being the more common source of objection.  The argument was about accepted parliamentary practice and the business of numbers.  And yet, the very same lofty principles were duly forgotten when the parliamentary arithmetic changed and it became obvious that the Joint Opposition had more oppositional legitimacy and clout than Sampanthan and the TNA.  

Those who raised shrill cries of horror at corruption, nepotism, abuse of state resources and such during the tenure of Mahinda Rajapaksa are conspicuously silent today.  They are not calling for the blood (or at least a hauling to the FCID) of those accused of swindling the Central Bank (accusation, let us not forget, was ‘crime’ enough for the name-shame game that the yahapalana (sic) media played when it came to those associated with the previous regime).  

The Ministry of Home Affairs has written to public servants in all districts, asking them to arrange all kinds of religious ceremonies to commemorate 40 years of the advent of a particular political ideology and the 40th anniversary of a politician’s first electoral success.  That’s a call for the abuse of public resources, a demand that government servants pander to the interests of a political party and of course a leg-up to the (further) politicization of the public service.  The (obvious) at-odds with yahapalana rhetoric has surprisingly been missed by yahapalana apologists.  

We should not be surprised since yahapalana nepotism first surfaced just days after Maithripala Sirisena became President and no one among the prominent anti-nepotism brigade uttered one word of consternation.  The watchers of the watchdogs were and are silent on the abuse of state media.  They are not exactly howling in protest when the government unleashes violence on demonstrations.  They didn’t say a word about the attempted white-vanning of a student leader.  

And then there’s the issue of postponing elections.  If the country can move along (‘stagger’ if you wish) without local government bodies but just government-appointed ‘minders’ why hold elections at all, one could argue. The same logic could be extended to include provincial councils as well.  But not holding issues is at odds with yahapalanaya, and again that at-odds has not been noticed by the yahapalana cheering squad. 

When one reads the columns of the yahapalana apologists one gets the feeling that at least some of the columnists are embarrassed about what’s happening.  They don’t exactly say it as they should — where a thundering slap is warranted (going by the ease and weight of swing they demonstrated against the previous regime), they mutter ‘tut tut.’ 

Take all that’s happened over the past 2.5 years and imagine that it was the Rajapaksas in power. Now ask yourselves how the yahapalana cheer-leaders would have responded.  It’s a throw-back to the eighties, isn’t it? It is as though people who pretended to be fast asleep during the JRJ-Premadasa tyranny, who were half-asleep during the CBK years and were wide awake during the Rajapaksa tenure, have return to feigned-sleep all over again.  

So what was all the high-minded talk during the Rajapaksa years about, one has to ask.  Were they really worried about corruption? Did nepotism keep them awake at night?  Did they feel stifled by the lack of democracy? Were they upset about violence then but not now because those targeted by Yahapalanists  are dispensable?  Is it just another api venuven api thing?

The fault, as they say, is not in the stars but, as they don’t say, it’s in the constellations.  There are constellation-preferences clearly.  It could just be a configuration of stars that make up an ape kattiya (Our Guys). It could be a constellation called ‘Constitutional Reform Closer To Our Hearts.’  Whatever it is, it is not about things that ought to matter more than ideological and political preferences, such as truth, honesty, decency, consistency, equality before the law, accountability, transparency and such.  

Let us not for one moment imagine that the same principle cannot be applied to those who support the Joint Opposition, see Mahinda Rajapaksa (or Gotabhaya) as a saviour.  They look up and they don’t see stars either; they see configurations that spell Joint Opposition, Mahinda or Gota.  If they see corruption, nepotism and other ills today, the chances are that they were blind to these before January 2015.  

Jayasena Mudalali has a point, all things considered.  But if we are a long way off from robot-governments and if we recognize that humans designing robots are never value-neutral, then we have to go beyond the more persistent constellations, i.e. those that describe the dominant political formations in the country which include not just the UNP and SLFP but also the JVP, TNA and SLMC (and their off-shoots). 

The stars that are backgrounded by such constellations are in fact the very stars that are used to create the constellations only to be sidelined post-creation: the people.

Jack Gilbert says ‘The village is not better than Pittsburgh, only Pittsburg is more than Pittsburg’.  We don’t have to look to the constellations, we don’t have to look across the seas and over the mountains.  The fault is right here. Among us.  Within us. So too the solution.


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