07 December 2017

Friends and enemies: a note on the politics of doorways

I have heard people say that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics. I also remember reading somewhere that if a person has one good friend he should be happy and that if he has two he is extremely fortunate indeed. It seems then that politics is not about friendships and enmities but interests, some that converge and some that don’t.

When Sarath Fonseka decided to run for President, he was seen as a friend who switched loyalties, a loyalist who became an enemy, a traitor. As far as the UNP was concerned, Sarath Fonseka was an enemy while he was engaged in activities that helped Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was called all kinds of nasty names by those who now hail him as friend and benefactor.

As for Fonseka, a man who talks incessantly about himself and is totally self-absorbed, there were rare moments of ‘generosity’ when he acknowledged that the war could not have been executed to conclusion had it not been for the exceptional political leadership and direction of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the military acumen and overall vision of the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

Today Fonseka’s life has been reduced to whining and vilifying these two men to whom he owes much.

Take S.B. Dissanayake. When he was a powerful minister in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Cabinet, the UNP spared no pains to attack him. And yet, when he crossed over he was embraced as hero. Kumaratunga’s Government did not mince its words when vilifying the man after he jumped ship.

‘SB’ was one of the strongest critics of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s brand of leadership and was one of the most vociferous among those calling for party reforms and democratization.

Whatever his faults, SB was the last remaining fighter in the UNP. He contested the Central Provincial Council at a time when party heavyweights would crossover rather than stand for election. He polled close to 200,000 votes under the most trying of circumstances.

No one called him ‘traitor’ then. No one objected even when he spoke home truths at the last Working Committee meeting of the party, pointing out that it is a tragedy that the country’s largest party could not field a candidate, had lost its symbol and colour and had to depend on a total outsider for salvation. Today, he is being called ‘traitor’.

That’s how it is, folks. No friendships. Just interests. There is a lesson in all this for politicians.

Given that today’s friend can be tomorrow’s arch enemy, politicians have to operate on the basis that no one can be trusted absolutely.

In hindsight, one can say that Mahinda Rajapaksa’ wisest decision was to depend on his brothers, especially Gotabhaya. There were rumours that Sarath Fonseka is being considered as the next Defence Secretary once he retires from the Army. Just imagine if that had happened, considering what the man is saying and doing right now!

It must be hard for the average politician, who is after all in this business for what he/she can get and not give. ‘Getting’ involves engaging in hanky-panky. One needs accomplices for hanky-panky. A politician can’t really trust accomplices. An accomplice is a possible turn-coat, a potential whistle-blower and is empowered by definition to blackmail. What then is the practical way out of this dilemma?

The easiest way would be to stay clean. ‘Have nothing to hide, have nothing to fear’ is a sound way of operating. It might mean poverty, though. But what if principled politics is a thing long dead and buried? Where does that leave the present day politician? The short answer would be ‘in a soup’.
He/she would have to play the odds in choosing friend/accomplice. It means that every politician is a prisoner of his/her own making. This is hardly thrilling news for the average citizen of course but a consolation prize nevertheless.

Politics, friends, is made of doors. People walk in. People walk out. People come back. They leave. Sometimes they set fire to buildings from within, sometimes from outside. It’s a place for pyromaniacs. It is not a place for the innocent, the trusting; it is designed for schemers, doubters, and masters at staying one step ahead of the crowd. Not for the faint-hearted and naive among crooks.

There are two kinds of people. Those who have to keep their doors closed tight for fear of being found out and those who keep their doors open. The second kind fears no scrutiny. They may not be perfect but are willing to let the people assess their all, the good and bad, the right and wrong, the successes and failures. The first kind is the most dangerous. The close-door politician is an unknown quantity and likely to be more of a viper than a rat-snake or lamb. Or swan, come to think of it.

The second kind, if friend turns foe, will show the person the door and will leave it open in case there is a change of mind. The first kind will not let him/her reach the doorknob, but will put a bullet through the head in an instant. Without any qualms.

Politics is full of the first kind, the leave-no-foe-behind type. There are very few open door politicians. In an ideal world we would only have honourable politicians for whom politics is not a business.

In the real world, it is prudent to opt for the second type, the open-door politician.

This article was first published in the 'Daily News' (December 8, 2009) to which paper I used to write an 'everyday column'.