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Briefing note to presidential hopefuls

9 August 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Three adults were discussing politics in a quaint holiday house in Kabalana, Koggala named ‘Octopus Reef’ a few days ago.  The son of one of these adults tapped his father’s knee.  The father handed over a mobile phone to his son saying ‘this is what you wanted, right?’ The son responded thus: ‘Yes. You were talking about ideology, whatever that means.’

The boy is just 11 years old. He didn’t know this, but the truth is that very few talk ‘ideology’ and fewer still know ‘whatever it means’. One might add, ‘and even fewer would really care.’ That’s what ideological hegemony has done — persuaded the abandonment of ideology even as the dominant ideology is affirmed in practice if not in word and more perniciously endorsed by those in contexts of subjugation. 

In the classic Marxist model of understanding things and processes, the economy is the base and ideology refers to religious, legal and political systems determined by that base.  The dominant ideology would be the projection of the consciousness of the ruling class whether or not the majority of that particular class clearly understands the operational logic of the overall system or the interests of the collective.

Let’s keep it simple though. Ideology refers to a system of ideas and ideals, especially pertaining to things economic and political. It could include among other things beliefs, tenets, principles, doctrines, creeds and theories. 

Now even a cursory examination of Sri Lanka’s political landscape would show that ideology, in this ‘simplistic’ sense, is conspicuously absent or consistently bested by fixations with personality and political collective. There’s talk, especially when elections are at hand, and that’s about it. Perhaps Mangala Samaraweera for all his ideological posturing was the one who came closest to describing the state of affairs: ‘manifestos don’t count after elections are done (or words to that effect).’  
The ‘state of ideology’ can be ascertained by the fact that nothing has dominated elections and even politics in recent times than that sad and humiliating notion, ‘default option’.  We don’t need to elaborate. 

Today, the talk is about what or who comes next. The talk is about presidential hopefuls. There’s also talk about known devils and lesser evils. There’s also the cursory talk about programs, more from the Opposition than from the ruling coalition which has all but come undone.  

It’s nothing more than a recycling of old buzz-words and slogans. Check these out: democracy, reconciliation, rule of law, equal before the law, abuse of power, nepotism, cronyism, combating bribery and corruption, accountability, transparency, separation of powers, separating state and religion, independence of the judiciary, good governance. Now let’s ask some questions. Do we have true representation? Does the law actually rule? Is the judiciary independent and without blemish? Are we rid of nepotism and cronyism? Are we reconciled? Have we resolved the issues of power-separation? Have we unshackled state from the burden of religion as some would put it? And what about yahapalanaya? 

When will we get to the hard questions, when will we start looking seriously for answers? I do not know, but there are things that presidential hopefuls and parties considering pathways to political victories would do well to consider. In the coming weeks, in this column, these issues will be discussed in greater detail. For now, they shall be flagged. Fleshing out is in the final instance in the hands of those who operate within the political equation and hopefully in the hands of those they seek to or claim to represent, i.e. the people.

The State 

When we talk of the State it is a discussion that seems sadly limited to one of two things: should it be secular or not, should it be unitary or not. The nature and the role of the state given both local and global realities is never discussed outside academic circles, if indeed they are discussed even in such rarified spaces.  What does the state do, really? What should it do and what is it made to do and whom? These are questions that are ignored. They are questions people like to pretend don’t exist. Indeed, even those discussions that focus on the placement or otherwise of religion and the pros and cons of unitary/federal arrangements are marked by sectarian interests.

The Cabinet 

The focus has been on size.  The pledges have been on limitation. The mechanism to limit has loopholes which make the rhetoric sound hollow and worse, manipulative, contemptuous of the people and deceiving. The issue should be about legislating not just for a limiting of size but the specification of subjects and rules over assigning institutions to the relevant ministries.  


That’s been a buzz word for a long time since it replaced that other politically tainted term, ‘peace’. There’s talk of grievances and aspirations. There’s talk of historical injustices. There’s talk of traditional homelands. The relevant histories, grievances and aspirations are seldom fleshed out, are frequently inflated or deflated as per the interests of the particular articulator, and are less about substance than about sloganeering. 

Separation of powers

That’s about the legislative, judicial and executive arms of the state.  All three are out of order.  Perhaps out of fear, the judiciary is left strictly alone when it comes to pointing out flaw, but the truth is that the judiciary is not independent and moreover is marked by institutionalized wrongdoing. The same goes for law-enforcement, with the Police Department severely compromised when it comes to expertise in regular police work, multiple avenues for the fattening of the corrupt, scandalous submission to political authority and even the underworld, and a system of appointments and promotion which has undermined the fundamental principles of policing.


It seems to be an after-thought, coming into play only when those affected by development or those who are concerned about environmental issues raise their voices. It does not frame national policy at every turn. As it should, if sustainability is a key as politicians, academics and experts here and abroad make it out to be. 

Foreign Policy 

Ad hoc seems a good descriptive. Is it only about doing things that please those whose ‘friendship’ is limited to securing access to resources, better terms of trade and furthering strategic interests? Should not foreign policy be designed after considering larger global issues, in particular the play of nations and corporates in robbing the commons, as it were? Should it not be about making choices that make sense not just for the resolution of immediate concerns but the overall wellbeing of generations to come? That’s not the case, sadly.


That’s a brag. The discussion has been reduced to a simplistic argument: ‘private or public?’ Where is the comprehensive occupational classification that is a prerequisite for scientific planning pertaining to the education system as a whole as well as its constituent parts? Why hasn’t new knowledge about the objectives of education, methodologies and overall streamlining become central to discussions?


It’s another brag. A simple question would reveal a lot about current policy on the health sector: who makes the bucks?
There are of course other areas that need to be examined, and these we shall come to in the coming weeks. However, one important element has to be flagged in this initial enumeration. 

The people 

They are kings and queens from the moment elections are announced and until the polls close. They are taken to be of little consequence in the relevant before and after. Politicians and parties claim to represent and to do things in the name of people, but people are not trusted. 

The people are an important part of the nation. There are, therefore, attendant questions. Who are we as a people and a nation? Are we simply multi-ethnic and multi-religious? Who made this nation? Who died in the making and defence of this nation? Is history important or irrelevant and why is it so (either way)?  

We can indulge in caricature. We can sweep things under the carpet. We can say ‘whatever that means…’ not in the honest manner of a child but in the irresponsible, frivolous and ultimately damaging way of an adult. 

Let us see how serious politicians and political organizations are.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.

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