Kicking out the right people

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From petrol sheds to gas stations, the anger of the people is utterly undeniable. Regardless of who they voted for in 2019, they have now parted ways with the present regime. “It is we who need to be cursed for supporting them,” a middle-aged man snarls at a petrol queue. “We gave them what they wanted, now we are getting what we deserve,” a woman sighs at a gas queue. More than anything else, the upsurge of anti-regime sentiment has cut into the electoral heartlands of the Rajapaksas, rendering them electorally toxic.

Liberals and left-liberals were misplaced in having Hitlerised the President. In less than two years Gotabaya Rajapaksa has proved them wrong. What protesters are raging against is not so much his authoritarian tendencies as his lack of will, indeed of willpower. Faced with the worst economic and political crisis since independence, all he has done to pacify the public is instruct relevant officials, in relevant Ministries, to assure continuous supplies of fuel and electricity. While this may have consoled diehard supporters, even the latter are growing frustrated with such feeble gestures.

The sense of betrayal among the people is palpable only if you remember how he came to power and how he was marketed, depicted as the saviour of the Nation, he was embraced by a vast swathe of the middle-class, cutting across ethnic and electoral divisions. This was in addition to strong peasant and even working-class support, support he has more or less lost over his fertiliser policy and his kowtowing to corporate interests. Though last to go, middle-class voters who supported him signalled, with their agitation, that they possess the will and the power to denounce him, to bring him down if necessary.

What these protests have done, in other words, is reveal him and his Government for the tin-gods they were. From extolling the virtues of Oracle technology, the regime now finds it difficult to assure the most basic amenities to the people. Though the ongoing war in Ukraine and the pandemic had a say in the crisis, Ministers and officials and those at the top must share a portion of the blame. More than anything else, they should be blamed for not appointing capable people, or not retaining them.

Take the Government’s handling of the first wave of the pandemic. Though it all seems a distant memory now, it was the people’s confidence in its handling of a medical emergency which propelled them to power in August 2020. None of that would have come to be if the administration didn’t have Dr. Anil Jasinghe as the head of the Covid task force. No different to Anthony Fauci under Donald Trump, Dr. Jasinghe appeared live on TV every day, alongside Shavendra Silva, updating the public on the Government’s Covid-19 measures.

Sri Lanka’s civil service has been disparaged, not unjustifiably, as a haven of corruption and decadence. Yet Dr. Jasinghe’s efforts reminded people that this was an administration they had voted to power to change the very nature of civil administration. Buoyed by much hope, the people voted in droves for Rajapaksa. But upon coming to power and securing a two-thirds majority, the Government responded to their call by transferring the man they’d come to respect immensely to another, unrelated Ministry. Though the reason cited for this at the time was that Dr. Jasinghe had finished his term, not a few recalled the tendency to replace capable people with clannish and servile lackeys.

As the Government’s handling of the second and third waves showed, once people lose trust in personalities, they lose trust in institutions. Without a Dr. Jasinghe at the helm, there was no one to trust. The same went for Lasantha Wickramasinghe, the head of MILCO, who managed to turn that very fine institution into a profit-earning entity and prove that State-Owned Enterprises don’t always have to be loss-making. He was removed and replaced with a regime lackey. The justification for the removal, that Wickramasinghe had prioritised liquid milk production over powdered milk, is not a little hilarious when you consider that we are facing shortages of both at shops and groceries today.

Dr. Jasinghe hailed from a respected profession, while  Wickramasinghe sought to apply optimal business practices to turn a State institution around. The experience of other heads of institutions appointed has been no different to theirs. Some, like the Chairman of Sathosa, deserved their fates, given the scandals they mired themselves up in, while others, like Thushan Gunawardena of the Consumer Affairs Authority, had to tender their resignations when they refused to facilitate such scandals. The most recent institution head to resign, Theshara Jayasinghe, has cited corruption as the reason for his resignation, in a letter to the President that essentially indicts everyone at the top.

The Government erred in appointing capable people to deserving positions, because it did so without removing the structures of graft and corruption which eventually drive the best out of any institution. Everyone, from Government Ministers to local officials, are complicit in this network. The most likely outcome of that is the departure of experts and professionals and their replacement by mediocre loyalists. I believe the ongoing protests should highlight this more, and emphasise that change of Governments will come to nothing if the structures which enabled them to capture and hold on to power aren’t unshackled.

While staying focused on the main goals of these protests, then, I believe we need to think beyond driving people out of power. For that we need to have serious discussions about the kind of people we want and the kind of people we have. We need to understand that graft and corruption is everywhere, and that, as Harsha de Silva rightly pointed out at a business conference many, many years ago, we are a part of it too. We thus urgently need to engage in debates over how we can deter politicians and State officials from earning pocket money, because we can’t have the same people at the top. It is then and only then that we can hope for any success, from the resistance that is so rapidly unfolding today.

The writer can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya