The art of survival

Two senior politicians achieved personal milestones last week completing 40 and 30 years respectively, as elected representatives of the people. Both held elaborate commemorative events on consecutive days at the main auditorium of the BMICH in Colombo to blow their own trumpets.

John Amaratunga completed an unbroken 40 years as the elected Member of Parliament for Wattala while Mangala Samaraweera completed 30 years as an MP for Matara. What is significant is that despite their long innings at the wicket, both these MPs have not lost sight of their primary role of looking after the interests of the people they represent. In doing so, they have retained their popularity and shown the rest of the 223 MPs that sticking to old fashioned ways, actually pays off.

Both are old school and steadfastly believe in the politics of accountability. During his speech at the commemorative event, Amaratunga attributed his success to two basic principles – physically living in his electorate and being accessible to the people at any given time. Amaratunga is well known for being one of the most accessible MPs and in addition to being available at his office or electorate all seven days of the week, he is also known to personally answer all calls that come on his mobile phone.

There is a lesson here for the modern day politician who is more interested in the perks of office than actually being of service to the people he/she purportedly represents. Some MPs are notorious for their false airs with unwarranted security escorts, phones being answered by security personnel and rarely keeping to time at official events. Such delays are usually attributed to their “busy schedule”. If MP Ranjan Ramanayake is to be taken seriously, “busy schedules” may well include time for consuming various narcotics too.

It is a well-known fact that most MPs are tradable commodities, available to the highest bidder at the right time. As long as the price is right, nothing else really matters. With talk of a 20th Amendment now doing the rounds, which according to the grapevine is a rehashed version of the dubious 18th Amendment that removed the two-term limit for the presidency, a fresh round of horse trading of MPs is around the corner.

The so-called 20th Amendment will likely pave the way for the current Opposition Leader, who is constitutionally barred from contesting for the presidency again, to make a fresh bid for the presidency. In such a scenario, it will be interesting to see the fate that will befall current front runner for the nomination, his brother, and former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. As things are, it seems both are equally interested in the job.

Another speaker at Amaratunga’s commemoration was the Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcom Cardinal Ranjith. Speaking to an audience that consisted of a few dozen MPs, the President, Prime Minister, Oppositions Leader, Former President, and many ministers, the Cardinal proposed that only “educated” individuals should seek nomination at future elections. The Cardinal, in his wisdom, was probably alluding to the fact that many of those present at the ceremony did not deserve to be representatives of the people, as they were simply not qualified for the job.

Not stopping there, he called on the leaders who were present to ensure that nominations should only be given to educated individuals who have the interest of the nation at heart. Although the comments may not have gone down well with some of those present, the Cardinal was only echoing what society was demanding.

Meanwhile, five MPs made their asset declarations public last week. The five who represent different parties may have hoped that their actions would create a precedent for others to follow, but except for one MP that took up the challenge, no one else seems to be interested in letting the public know what they own.

Only time will tell if the example set by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Vidura Wickramanayake, M.A. Sumanthiran, Eran Wickremaratne, Ranjan Ramanayake, and Tharaka Balasuriya have the desired effect. If such disclosure is made compulsory on an annual basis, it will certainly deter MPs from becoming commodities. Not that our MPs are unaware of the finer points of shielding their considerable assets, but such a move will nevertheless have a mitigating effect on wealth accumulation.
As Amaratunga emphasised, it is important that a member of Parliament actually lives in the electorate he/she represents as this will create a lasting bond and facilitate the people in their time of need.
Today, many elected MPs are nowhere to be seen in their electorates and only appear during election time with hefty handouts compensating for their absence. Only a handful of MPs from both sides of the divide are known to nurse their electorates as in the good old days.

Under the present proportional representation electoral system, MPs can do very little for the people who vote for them and still get re-elected. A change to the first-past-the-post system will remove this injustice and that is probably the reason why there has been very little progress in electoral reform.
For instance, take the Member of Parliament for Kurunegala – Mahinda Rajapaksa. Hailing from Hambantota and a well-known benefactor of the area, Rajapaksa has had little time for his adopted electorate and as a result it is the people in the district that have got a raw deal.

Some MPs don’t even bother to attend Parliament unless forced to do so. For instance, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who is a Colombo District National List MP of the United National Party, is not only acting against the party which put him in Parliament, but out of 163 days that Parliament has been held, he has attended only 46 days.
While the people on the street fight each other based on party allegiance, those elected live safely cocooned in their little utopia, knowing well that it’s not about what’s right or what’s best but that politics is all about what you can actually get done – and that basically is the formula for survival.