Let’s talk in the New Year; the Government to the People
It has been some years since I wrote a column for a mainstream newspaper. Looking back on it, I gave up writing for a combination of reasons, which oscillated from being bored and tired of saying the same thing to focusing on more practical action to effect change. The change happened in that in those two decisive national elections of 2015, we came out of the darkness of impunity, profligacy and loot to a new dawn of hope and expectation that we could function yet again, at least, as a formal democracy, albeit flawed and not the populist majoritarian autocracy the previous regime had cowed the most of us into. It is now some fifteen months since that dawn. The mist has yet to clear and clear it must to reveal the broad sunlit uplands of the promised and expected governance, reconciliation and unity.
The yahapalanaya coalition government is having more than a bad press; it is in danger of being handed an unpromising prognosis in public perception and this far, far too early in the day. The indictments of Rajapaksa apparatchiks and residual hangers –on notwithstanding, what the current dispensation needs to be concerned about is the perception amongst others that they cannot cope, coordinate, make policy with a reasonable shelf life and sing from the same hymn sheet. A lack of focus seems to be a popular verdict – a president more concerned about the leadership of his party, a prime minister who seems to be firefighting on a number of fronts and with ministers in between of varying degrees of competence and a loquacity approaching the biblical Tower of Babel.
Public perception, it must be noted and one freed from the grubby clutches of the greed, fear and loathing of yore can be exaggerated. The liberty to criticize can be confused with the license to do so. Public perception in a democratic polity likewise can be harsh – often lost in a focus on the immediate as the immediate past recedes in public memory. Were Harold Wilson’s point about a week in politics being a long time to be true , 15 months may seem eons ago. No point made or purpose served however, complaining about the amnesia that affects the polity – that is part and parcel of politics and has to be dealt with.
We are in the throes of constitutional reform, transitional justice and an IMF stand by agreement. The government needs to sustain the public dialogue it profited from in 2015 with a clear and coherent message of what is being done and why, as well as why, what should be done will take time to do. As the public return to their homes in preparation and celebration of the New Year, conversation will turn to politics, the ridiculous and the sublime. The government, I fear, has deprived itself of this opportunity to score points, to send to the country at large a message in its favour that it is unquestionably in charge and that whilst all that should or could have happened has not, the trajectory of change and democratic reform has not been reversed.
Communication is the key and it could turn out to be the Achilles Heel of this government like that of 2001-4. A continuous, sustained dialogue with the public is necessary to keep them in the loop in respect of the magnitude of challenges produced by a decade of plunder, loot and impunity. Public expectations, with regard to action on corruption have not been met. The public continues to be fed on an almost daily diet of allegations of corruption without a single major conviction to date. This feeds public cynicism and erodes the democratic legitimacy of the government. The public needs to be told as to why there are delays and as to why for example under this dispensation, the CCTV footage in the Thajudeen murder case was not sent abroad for over a month, as instructed by the courts. They need to be told as to why it takes inordinate time to marshal the hard evidence on financial crimes that would stand up in a court of law; it needs to be told and constantly reminded in an easy accessible and understandable way that the financial crisis is largely the making of the Rajapaksas and what the costs of recovery are.
Communication does not relate to exposing the crimes and misdemeanours of predecessors alone but also to the rationale for change and reform. Here there need to be champions of change and reform who can provide the reasons for it. The report of the public representations commission on constitutional reform may well provide the basis for this on constitutional reform, but it needs to be augmented with the raising of awareness of the party rank and file that will extend to the community at large, as to why a new constitution is needed. The latter includes transitional justice – an issue, which is still shrouded in apprehension and misunderstanding and yet so pivotal to reconciliation and unity. Megapolis, the flagship development project of the government is no exception either. Does one laugh or cry when it is confused with the police as one politician on a public chat show, did?
It would indeed be a tragedy in this day and age of an impending right to information regime and overarching “yahapalanaya” to boot, if the undoing of the government was its inability and/or unwillingness to communicate, inform and educate the people of its challenges and plans to surmount them. There are multiple tools and media for doing this. There always have and will be.
In 2016 Sri Lanka, where is our local equivalent of Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats in the USA of the 1930s? Or indeed of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s 1990s Sudhu Nelum movement?
Let’s talk in the New Year; the government to the people.