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The verbal altercation in Parliament between veteran politician Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, where the former resorted to using foul language on the latter has sparked controversy and some reflection on the declining standards in the legislature.

Video clips of the incident went viral on the Internet. They showed an enraged Nanayakkara repeatedly hurling insults at Wickremesinghe who appeared unruffled and appeared to revel in Nanayakkara’s discomfiture. Nanayakkara was also admonished by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.

The Lankan legislature has always been a place of robust discussion where the thrust and parry of debate has not been for the faint-hearted. However, despite the occasional moment where someone has ‘lost the plot’, a certain degree of decorum has been maintained over the years.

Leaders of a bygone era excelled in debate. SWRD Bandaranaike, Dudley Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, NM Perera, Colvin R de Silva, and more recently, Lalith Athulathmudali and Sarath Muttetuwegama were brilliant in their wit and repartee; they never used abuse to make their case.

This is my NationThis incident is an exception. The language resorted to by Nanayakkara was obscene and was used repeatedly. Since then, he has not regretted the incident; instead he says that had he had harsher words at his disposal, he would have used them. Apologists for him have also tried to justify the event.

Some, such as Bandula Gunewardena made a spectacle of themselves arguing that the words used were not derogatory but could denote some other aesthetic meaning. Gunewardena does have a habit of opening his mouth and putting both feet in but he surpassed even himself in this instance.

Wickremesinghe has been in politics for nearly forty years and has been at the butt end of jokes and criticisms for most of that time. He is the least likely to be affected by all this but it is not only Wickremesinghe who has been disparaged; it is the office he holds: the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.

To put that in perspective, a different scenario may be postulated: had the same words been used on Mahinda Rajapaksa, for example by C.V. Wigneswaran (not that the former Supreme Court judge will ever resort to such behavior, though he is related to Nanayakkara), what would be the outcome?

That would have led to a national outcry, possibly with racial undertones, and that would have been spearheaded by the likes of Nanayakkara himself! Though there has been a good deal of controversy – and some humour in social media – over the Nanayakkara incident, there has been no such fallout.

The underlying reason is that there has been a ‘dumbing down’ of Parliament over the years. Instead of well-informed debate and discussion, what we see now is name calling and insults. And, the legislators of today appear to get away with it – as even Nanayakkara has, with only a reprimand!

Recently, we also saw the spectacle of Parliament being used to stage an ‘overnight’ protest. The sight of parliamentarians, in casual clothes sleeping on the floor of the chamber, was reminiscent of street urchins at the Fort Railway Station and an insult to the legislature and the country.

So, the nation now expects Parliament and its legislators to behave in this manner. The standards displayed by their elected representatives have been declining steadily, aided and abetted by a proportional representation system which ushered in people with money and little else to Parliament.

This has enabled anyone with name recognition and sufficient funds at their disposal – cricketers, teledrama actresses, drug barons – to enter Parliament. These are not the types who will engage in enlightened discussion. They will prefer the name calling and the abuse to intellectual discourse.

The saddest fact though is that Vasudeva Nanayakkara is not a product of the ‘dumbing down’ of Parliament. He is an elder statesman of the legislature, and having entered it in 1970, is senior even to Wickremesinghe. Until recently, his was a voice of reason and he had a reputation for integrity.

Nanayakkara would have literally rubbed shoulders with Dudley Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, NM Perera, Colvin R de Silva, Lalith Athulathmudali and Sarath Muttetuwegama and seen our Parliament in its finest hour. For him to therefore stoop this low is to descend from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Is politics then a malaise that takes its toll and affects a person’s integrity and outlook as its practitioners seek survival? That is certainly what Nanayakkara seems to be doing these days, tying his fortunes to that of former President Rajapaksa and seeking the latter’s return to glory.

These are points worth pondering, especially at a time when the country is considering changes to its electoral system and deciding on how its legislators should be elected. If the Nanayakkara incident can turn the light inwards, those foul words would not have been uttered in vain.