23 March 2018

The vehicles of corruption, from bicycles to Benz cars

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t mince his words when addressing newly elected members to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). He has told them what is expected of them and what is not. 

‘Save the city dwellers from Dengue, resolve the garbage issue and keep the city clean,’ he said. Now if any CMC member or indeed anyone elected to any local government authority had to have responsibilities outlined thus, it is sad.  However, Wickremesinghe was just warming up, it seems.  He quickly moved to what could also be called known-stuff but stuff that few talk about. Stuff related to corruption.

‘Don’t become politicians who search for luxuries after coming to the field as paupers,’ he is quoted as having said. He uses an apt analogy: ‘Some politicians own only a push bicycle when they come to politics but later obtain Benz cars. Don’t think of becoming such politicians.’

He’s correct. We have seen how politicians grow, literally and metaphorically. The tale has been told and retold my cartoonists across many decades. Cartoonists exaggerate for effect but in this case it’s fair depiction. Wickremesinghe has been spared and for good reason. He’s remained lean throughout his political life. 

Obviously there are those born with the proverbial silver spoon. They came into politics in a Benz car and still drive around in such vehicles. Well, some have expanded a single Benz into a fleet of plush luxury cars.  Cars are seen, bank accounts are not. 

In any event, he’s articulated a problem. He’s not offered a solution, though. If telling people, ‘aney, please don’t steal’ worked, we wouldn’t need a commission to investigate allegations of bribery and corruption. Indeed, we wouldn’t need courts. Judges and lawyers would be out of work. It just doesn’t work that way and Wickremesighe probably knows this.

Now we shouldn’t make too much of a cautionary note made by a party leader to greenhorn politicians. We should, on the other hand, talk about the problem which, sadly, neither Wickremesinghe nor his partner-in-governance President Maithripala Sirisena has done little about. Corruption. 

When Maithripala Sirisena announced that he would contest the presidency, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga said ‘he is the only one in the current regime who is not corrupt.’  We don’t know what Sirisena’s first vehicle was nor what he purchased last nor how.  Perhaps Wickremesinghe would know. That’s another matter. What we saw immediately after he won the election is Sirisena and Wickremesinghe with the obvious approval of Kumaratunga appointing to cabinet those who in their book were corrupt.  That was the beginning and that’s not to say that those in the United National Party were squeaky clean. They most certainly were not!

We don’t have to list all the wrongdoings of politicians in the ruling coalition. The term ‘bond scam’ would do. There was scam and there was aiding and abetting. Wickremesinghe and Sirisena both know all about it. The first COPE report was scuttled by dissolving parliament. Arjuna Mahendran’s innocence was claimed, the man was defended. The Attorney-General helped by choosing who to attack who not to. Those who were clearly under a cloud were bailed out with new positions. 

Clearly there are lots of loopholes and Wickremesinghe would know about most of them and also those who used these conveniences. Surely, it’s not only those in ‘other parties’ who moved did the bike-to-Benz number?   

There are no easy plug-all-holes solutions. The institutional arrangement needs to be fixed. The human resources are clearly inadequate, inept and corrupt. Political interference continues to be a problem despite the 19th Amendment. The Ministry of Law and Order is being treated like a hot potato by the Government, with three ministers being in charge of the subject over the last two months. 

More than all this, there’s what could be called a cardinal principle in the matter of sanctioning and encouraging wrongdoing. This is how it goes, as was pointed out editorially in a different newspaper about six years ago: if the boss is corrupt, he/she gives a license for corruption to everyone under him/her. If any person down the line is corrupt, it means that either the boss is corrupt or inept.  Lots of hats there and people are more than welcome to pick them up.  

If we have come to a point where newly appointed representatives need to be told ‘please don’t rob’ we are in pretty bad shape. One of the key issues and one which is either ignored or is unknown to the relevant persons is that the primary task of the elected is to represent and the make laws. They are legislators and not executives.

However, the moment the pernicious ‘Decentralized Budget’  was introduced (by a previous UNP government), each and every legislator got the opportunity to play executive in his/her electorate and in most cases without any consultation with other entities, political or administrative, authorized to handle development. When you execute at any point, you tend to forget the legislating function. When you have give people the license to cut corners and make bucks, it is silly to expect them to think of push bicycles and not Benz cars.  

To put it simply, when you take the village out of the hands of the villagers and put it in the pocket of the politician, you are facilitating Benz-dreams. Wickremesinghe is not doing anything of the sort, but he’s doing nothing to put things right.  

Asset declaration at arrival and departure is a must. A strong audit commission that can resist political interference is a must. Honesty and integrity are musts. It’s sad that we must mention these things to bicycle-to-Benz politicians.

Here’s an exercise for the UNP leadership: conduct a quick survey under two broad headings, ‘First vehicle’ and ‘Current vehicle’.  What was it, how much did it cost, how did you find the money, why did you choose it as opposed to something else, are the questions that need to be asked. It’s something all party leaders can do, if they have the courage or the moral authority that is.  

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