By Ravi Perera
A friend of mine recounted an incident which although something experienced by thousands of people in our country on a routine basis, got me thinking nevertheless.
She and her husband, both professionals work hard to provide a reasonable life for their family. Although by no means extravagant, their lifestyle would be middle-class by Sri Lankan standards, concentrated primarily on educating their three teenage children. Apart from meeting the basic necessities their only diversions from the daily grind as far as I am aware, are an occasional meal out at a fast food place like McDonald’s or a visit to a theatre.
Professional commitments have made it necessary for them to invest in two small cars for their use, both heavily financed. The inevitable maintenance and repair bills of the vehicles push the carefully worked out budget to worrisome situations. By the way they are both tax payers.
One morning when she was driving down a by-road in Pelawatte (near Parliament) her car broke down. With the help of some passerby she managed to push the vehicle out of the road and contacted her husband who undertook to get there with a mechanic. Suddenly, a convoy of four, four-wheel drive vehicles came tearing down towards her. The lead vehicle which was full of young soldiers slowed down for a fraction of a second near her vehicle. Some of the soldiers waved their hands frantically indicating that she should shoo-off from there, but sped on however. The three fully tinted vehicles following did not slow down at all.
“This incident made me very sad. Here we are struggling all the way through life. The guys we have elected to serve us are going about in that manner with our tax money. I was on the little patch of grass outside the road. Do I have no right to be there? There is something wrong in this situation,” she told me.
The difference between my hapless friend stuck on the side of the road and that worthy person given transport in a high powered convoy, is of course, that the latter had been elected by thousands of people like her to public office. Given the general standards of the political leadership here, it goes without saying that there would be much to be desired in that person. Set against most international contemporaries he will look, if not criminally corrupt, embarrassingly inept.
The violence, corruption and the tortuous political culture prevailing in the country provide no incentive for the better type of individual to take to politics. In the circumstances, the voter has to decide between Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum. And at election time, the subsequent life style of the elected is never the issue, such things subsumed by so called ‘national’ questions and promises. But once elected, or as so pithily said in Sinhala “when the spoon is firmly in the grip of the elected” it is useless for the voter to protest. He is now left high and dry in the hot sun while the appointee rides all over in comfort, physically as well as metaphorically.
Of course this situation by no means is specific to one government. Sooner or later every government in this country has become one, of the rulers, by the rulers and for the rulers. If possible, the rulers will be only too happy to continue indefinitely in the seats of power, the one obstacle against a continuation in this manner being the periodic elections. It is a historical fact that there were no democratic impulses in our traditional methods of governing, the idea of electing the rulers being a salubrious gift from the British political systems, which we adopted. With all the alleged abuses now taking place, even the integrity of the system of elections is increasingly under threat. Considering the enthusiasm with which our elected rulers are compared to kings of yore, perhaps there is an argument for doing away with elections altogether!
Coming back to that high powered convoy, at what point do we decide that the politician inside that tinted vehicle does not need such an investment of public money on his security? In a government which is run for the rulers, is such a decision possible? Imagine the situation of a policeman who tells a politician “Boss, you may be unpopular, but there is no threat to your personal safety requiring this level of security.” Our politicians have made sure that public servants can only tell them news that pleases.
Everything is relative. Despite all the devotion shown and the money spent on them, the collective efforts of all our politicians since independence has only produced an economy of US $ 48 billion (app) with the per capita income of a citizen at about US $ 5000, on the basis of purchasing power parity. Sudan, one of the poorest countries in the world has an economy of 93 billion and a per capita of US $ 2300. Malaysia, a country comparable to Sri Lanka on many counts, has an economy of 381 billion with a per capita of about US $ 15,000.
We need not labour the point that at best the performance of our political hierarchy is mediocre if not poor. For all the slogans invented, solemn inaugurations, grand ceremonies and money spent we remain a poor, debt ridden country. For most, the only way they can obtain a worthwhile education, livable income or for some even a free life is by migrating. But going by the manner and conduct of our politicians’ one would think they are top of the pops. The way they command every resource in the country including its people, there is no room for self-doubt. After their appointed period (which they invariably try to extend as much as possible, even if in the opposition!) they move on, richer in the pocket and covered with the gaudy honours bestowed by an apparently delirious people. There are roads, schools and hospitals named after them.
In this crazy carnival, how easy it is for the politicians to forget that the ferryman is paid with the money given by people like my helpless friend, stranded on a dusty road near the parliament, that day.