President Maithripala Sirisena is no saint. He has not attained arahathood. He’s new to the job. He is, however, a seasoned politician. He has seen many leaders make many mistakes; enough to have enabled him to learn some lessons. He’s been a big disappointment so far in terms of the much advertised promise of change.
Here’s a recap: He abused presidential powers to remove a Chief Justice and appoint a new one. He violated the basic principles of democracy in his machinations to take control of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He turned into people’s representatives (via the national list) those who were rejected by the people and arranged cabinet portfolios for them to boot. He has seen no wrong in his daughter Chathurika arrogating on herself presidential powers to turn state officials into minions. He took his son Daham, a man without any official status, to the UN General Assembly. All this after pledging to put an end to nepotism.
Let’s forget all that. Human beings are by definition frail. They are victims of circumstances. They are constrained by forces beyond their control. They are often made to assess victory not in terms of territory gained but ground not conceded.
Change gives hope. It makes everyone feel that things can get better. The fact of regime change as well as the freedom-pledges mouthed by the victors was certainly ‘freeing’. It is an easy out, for example, for journalists to explain reticence in certain situations to the fact that owners of media institutions determine the terms of engagement and the parameters of the possible.
Sure, we all work ‘within frames’. There are stated and un-stated boundaries. Some play safe and others test the edges. Sometimes we ‘go overboard’. There are ‘penalties’ to pay. Journalists know all this. During the Rajapaksa regime, for example, when ‘ownership’ by and large replaced ‘censorship’, outfits controlled by those close to the political leadership tested journalists to the maximum. To be fair, the President rarely interfered. In the case of ‘The Nation’, during the past four years, there was only one request made and that too had nothing to do with the Rajapaksas.
And yet, there were ‘holy cows’. Naming and shaming were of the no-can-do kind. We took liberties and sometimes got away. Also, since there are many ways to skin a cat, by and large we said what had to be said, one way or another. Not enough, some would say. Well, we do what we can or else do nothing. We note that those who screamed slogans and waved banners hardly ever strung words together in a coherent sentence. And we note that certain institutions (overtly anti-Rajapaksa) were essentially bank-rolled by that regime through the channeling of advertisements from state institutions to help recover costs incurred in defamation cases.
Still, it was far from ideal. Regime change freed us all. Those who were brave remain brave and those who were not found some courage. And yet, sadly, the scandalous reluctance of the media in general to take on the President and the Prime Minister shows that it is less a fear instilled by a particular brand of governance than a syndrome of servility. Anyway, we are grateful for the ‘unleashing’ shall we say? We are waiting and not with bated breath the promised passage of the Right to Information Act.
So, returning to our not-so-perfect President, let us agree to put the past behind us, including the recent past (leading to Daham Sirisena’s antics). Here’s something that President Sirisena might find interesting.
In 2001, the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a speech. This was when his son Euan, then 16, was arrested in London ‘for drunkenness’. He was almost in tears. This is what he said: ‘We should take action against violent, aggressive and disorderly conduct and I’m afraid that applies to my son as well as anybody else’s. I don’t ask for any special preference for my kid. I guess most of us at the age of 16 have done something we might later regret. Not everybody has to see it in the newspapers, but that is the life we have to lead. I hope he would be deterred from behaving wrongly.’
Now Tony Blair is not my favorite politician. He is a liar and went to war on the basis of a lie. He is a war criminal in my book. And yet, there’s something in what he said. He gets top marks for it.
This is where President Maithripala Sirisena can give a new boost to the notion of ‘change’. He can do something that will restore some credibility to the term ‘good governance’, a term that is fast becoming a joke. President Sirisena can start afresh. Still. All he needs is a bit of humility. It’s a fuel that can take him and his stated program very far.
Here’s a start: ‘I erred’.