Looking forward to a hopeful future
Posted on February 27th, 2021

By Rohana R. Wasala

All sensible adult citizens of Sri Lanka confidently hope that today’s youthful politicians will realise the importance of working together with their rivals in the national interest while maintaining their separate political identities, because, in the final analysis, all politicians of whatever party or faction they are affiliated to have no reason for their existence except their commitment to serve our motherland Sri Lanka . It is time they understood that any ethnic or religious or cultural community struggling to promote its own welfare disregarding the interests of other communities is not going to achieve permanent success. This has been demonstrated by the failure of older generations which pursued such divisive strategies in the past, regretfully slowing down the country’s forward march. Though they may be committed to different political ideologies they should be able to resolve their differences democratically in a cultured manner. Only when an atmosphere of value-based politics becomes the norm will politicians, whether in the government or the opposition ranks, be able to make their fullest contribution to the survival of the nation as an independent sovereign entity and its future wellbeing.

Friendly personal relations among politicians who fiercely clash in public are nothing new. This has been always the case. But today such interaction between political opponents must be seen in a new light in view of the more widely shared socio-cultural  and political sophistication of the Sri Lankan populace.

It can’t be denied that Sri Lanka has achieved some tangibly positive results at least in terms of a much larger proportion of the population being afforded a chance to dream of a better future. This is a direct result of a high rate of literacy achieved through free education. Economically, she may have lost the stability she used to enjoy at independence, as so often pointed out by those interested in the subject, and slipped a few notches down in the scale of overall development in comparison with some neighbouring countries. However, the generally growth-oriented policies of the successive post-independence regimes led in turn by the two main parties have brought about considerable human development, and a corresponding improvement of the lot of the common people, and that too in the face of unprecedented problems posed by a steadily increasing population, overt and covert foreign interference in our affairs, politicization of issues and institutions, terrorism, economic and political upheavals elsewhere, and other crises that threw a spanner in the works most of the time.

Within a generation our society has undergone tremendous change. The nation has emerged  victorious after one of the most trying periods of its history, which, though it slowed down the rate of growth, failed to arrest it altogether. Today our literacy rate is among the highest in the region. We enjoy fairly satisfactory healthcare services, both public and private, in spite of occasional lapses. More people own houses and cars than before, and more young people take part in cultural activities such as singing, dancing, and drama than their parents used to in the past. Increasingly accessible modern technology is revolutionizing every aspect of their life. People living in the remotest districts are aware that they too have a democratic right to a decent living standard like those placed in better circumstances in urban areas. Amidst all this, today’s young, particularly those in their thirties and forties, have known no life other than the one they have had to live under terrorism (which is now fortunately out of the way; the under-twenties  were spared any adult experience of it). They expect more from life, are less prepared to put up with privations, and are more aggressive in meeting challenges than earlier generations. Their expectations are high. 

These social, economic, and political realities influence the thinking of the youngest section of the population, particularly those below thirty. They are almost completely insulated from any meaningful memory of the conditions that prevailed thirty to fifty years ago in which their parents grew up, and that helped form the latter’s values and attitudes, which may not be in tune with the existing state of affairs today. Youth are usually more responsive to change than the old. The former love the excitement of change, while the latter prefer the sedateness offered by a settled order.  The traditional clash between the old and the young in any age in opinions, values, and attitudes known as the generation gap applies to those involved in parliamentary politics too, though it is often obscured by an ostensible unanimity of opinion among members of the same party. In this context, the young are in a better position to decide what is in the best interest of the country. 

By this, however, I don’t mean to say that every young politician is invariably forward looking and progressive in outlook, and that every old one is incorrigibly retrograde. There are enough examples of senior politicians adopting fresh viewpoints in keeping with the changed circumstances in principled ways; there are also young novices who squander their youth and energy by aligning themselves with old fossilized elements of yesteryear with no future. In other words, a certain fossilization of ideas and attitudes is characteristic of an older generation; but there can be exceptions; some older politicians prove themselves more progressive, and more adaptable than their younger colleagues. 

When politicians decide to accept the membership of a particular party, they do so after committing themselves to the ideology and the policies of that party. It is important to adhere to these. But since situations may arise in which a particular party line is not the best position to adopt in regard to a critical issue, it becomes necessary in such instances to be flexible in order, for example, to avoid betraying the whole country through blind adherence to a particular policy such as some conservative politicians’ unrealistic commitment to a negotiated settlement of the separatist crisis in the face of the intransigence of the separatist terror outfit, which is now no more. A critical turn of events may demand that established beliefs and ways of behaviour be given up in favour of new modes of thought and action to serve the national interest.

Some time ago an MP from a prominent party, then in the opposition, said that the main role of the opposition is to bring down the government at any cost. If what he said was true, then no government would have an opportunity to rule or to implement any development plan without being baulked at every turn, irrespective of the soundness or otherwise of the policies pursued. The irrational way some opposition politicians criticise every move of the government suggests that this in fact is the principle that guides their conduct even today. Probably the same principle was at work when it was clear that not even the December 2004 tsunami nor the raging separatist terror led the opposition to join forces with the government to rescue the country from those disasters. However, in the critical last stages of the then MR government’s campaign against terrorism, it was thanks to the support extended by seventeen opposition MPs acting on their own in defiance of the party hierarchy that made it possible for the government to put an end to that scourge. Now that there are more young MPs who are capable of thinking  in terms of promoting the national interest rather than their own self-interest, we may be hopeful that the constitution making project embarked upon by the present administration will go ahead without a hitch.  

In terms of the ordinary people’s understanding of parliamentary democracy, the role of the opposition is to ensure that the ruling party governs the country well by monitoring its conduct and by criticizing its actions when they believe that it is not  performing its duty, and to be a potential alternative to the government. The broadest interface for positive government-opposition interaction includes the three interrelated areas of  the rule of law, human rights, and good governance. The opposition’s responsibility is to maximize the chances of these three things being realized for the good of the country through constructive criticism of the government’s performance. When faced with external challenges and threats, the opposition and the government must act as a single solid group in defence of the nation, based on the commonsense realisation that in geopolitics a country is obliged to interact with both friendly and hostile countries who sometimes happen to be one another’s rivals.

Such a political culture will evolve only when young broadminded politicians take the centre stage. If there is any obstacle to the unhindered development of such an environment, steps must be taken by the concerned politicians and ordinary citizens to remove it. Of course, politicians can’t act by themselves unless they have a similarly educated and inspired following. An enlightened electorate that will promote cultured politicians is already there, to show their mind when the old fossils,  among the present-day leaders, either ensconced in positions of power or already kicked out into irrelevance, finally bow out or are successfully convinced to do so gracefully.

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