Political pantomimes are not entertaining | Daily News

Political pantomimes are not entertaining

People have to wait in hours in queues to purchase cooking gas. Picture by Sulochana Gamage
People have to wait in hours in queues to purchase cooking gas. Picture by Sulochana Gamage

A certain crassness in the political discourse on the current crisis has been observed among career politicians, and it would do well for the entire lot of them to be less insensitive to the lot of the people. This trend of obtuse insensitivity has been manifest best in the way that the focus has shifted from the woes of the people, to the woes of the politicians.

Also, this crassness is seen in the subtle way that politicians from both sides of the aisle sometimes jockey for positions and engage in political manoeuvering.

The multiple crises of this day are not being treated as multiple crises at all. Instead, politicians have been engaging in regular banter, and exchanging barbs with political opponents as if it was a spectator sport.

This is crass and cynical — and when such crassness has been on display in other countries, politicians that engaged in such behaviours very often learnt to their cost that people do not tolerate their disdain for the masses.

Politicians that belittle the public have always been shown the door. In many cases they have been ousted by force. In neighbouring India the excesses of the Indira Gandhi regime was manifested in particular by some statements that were uttered by the key figures in the then government.

Forced vasectomies etc, made the 70s Gandhi Government deeply unpopular, and the then prime minister’s son Sanjay Gandhi was seen as a law unto himself. This crassness has been documented in several books that characterize the Gandhi era emergency as a dark chapter in Indian history.

In the Philippines of course the several excesses of the Marcos regime are only too well known. The Marcos dictatorship was not known for any subtlety — and of course the antics of the then First Lady Imelda Marcos and tales about her substantial shoe collection as well, came to represent the sheer crassness of the leadership of that era that was of course ousted in short order.


But in times of crisis in particular, political discourse has to be civil and sensitive. But this is not seen in the way that politicians from all sides of the political aisle are behaving in the face of the unprecedented economic crisis that has faced the country.

Many politicians have been going out of the way to underline damage caused to them — which would have been fine if at least a modicum of thought was given to the travails that the people have to endure these days. But the crassness has not abated.

The parallels with the Felix Dias (FDB) era in Sri Lanka are eerie. The movie Sagarayak Meda documented the lengths to which the powerful FDB family went towards ensuring that political opponents were cowed and rendered totally submissive. The people purportedly were treated with a great deal of disdain.

This type of boorishness was also the cause of the downfall of former Prime Minister the late John Kotelawala. Perhaps the case of Kotelawala would be more apt as an example for these times. As the incumbent premier he was pitted against what he considered the upstart bid for power by SWRD Bandaranaike who had formed a new political party, the SLFP.

But Kotelawala was deaf to the rapid social transformations that were taking place. His Temple Trees barbecues and his merrymaking were legendary, and the cartoonist had a field day. Senaka Weeraratne writes to a local publication about the Aubrey Collete cartoons that contributed in no small measure to the downfall of the Kotelawala Government:

“Sir John Kotelawala and his henchmen paid dearly for an unqualified embracing of Western trappings and indulging in decadent practices including barbecuing calves and consuming veal (gavamas) at Temple Trees.

The Eksath Bhikkshu Peramuna unleashed the Pancha Maha Balavegaya (Sanga, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru) led by Buddhist monks that engaged in a house to house street campaign nation-wide on a scale that was never seen before or after 1956.


It reminded astute observers of the French writer Victor Hugo’s classic observation: “An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.”

The empty boasts of some politicians in the face of the hardships of the people may be in a different league considering that the people face an unprecedented crisis these days as well. There is no need to barbecue anything these days — the mere fact that people’s representatives insist on business as usual is a sign of crassness.

Even those people’s representatives that did not suffer any damage as the result of recent unrest, were seen to be berating the public and talking about the sacrifices they made, without any references to the immense hardships that the public faced. If any reference was made at all, it was in very cursory terms, and was obviously done to keep up appearances.

Those who said that their misery of keeping ‘our two drivers’ in petrol queues compared to the hardships of folk who miss work and child-minding to hang around for hours on end in petrol queues, were being completely oblivious to the struggles of the people.

However, the bigger pantomime was that by and large the politicians were keeping up petty party rivalry without paying heed to the situation on the ground.

There was no consideration of optics at all. In the case of the late Premier Kotelawala, it could be argued that there were no special hardships that he was responsible for when it came to governance.

That did not stop him from being pilloried for being tone-deaf when it came to alienating the people with his aloofness and his indifference to optics. He rubbed things in by belittling the desire of the people to decisively back measures such as naming Sinhala as the national language.

Though in retrospect there can be several political interpretations with regard to this nationalist policy, there was no need for Kotelawala to seek to belittle the emerging tide of nationalism.

Though it can be argued that nobody is belittling the people today when they are engaged in existential battles, that in effect is what happens when politician engage in petty-politicking when there are concerns that are existentially important to the people such as the supply of essentials etc.


There is an added perception these days that corruption among the political classes has led to a lot of today’s woes. MP Shankiyan Rasamanikkam has been one of the few that have been able to put his finger on these concerns and bring them to the fore, even though he has said he runs the risk of running afoul of Parliamentary privilege.

But even though Rasamannikam has been telling his colleagues to pay heed there has hardly been any decent response from his Parliamentary colleagues. They have been either keener on compensation for the damage they have suffered, or the 21st Amendment.

The people cannot help but notice. Political opponents can never be termed ‘undesirables’ as a Presidential candidate learned in the U.S. to her cost. Yes of course, the Bar Association has made it clear that arson and looting would not be encouraged with recourse to legal aid, and that is exactly how things ought to be.

But yet there is no cause to make the troubles of MPs seem larger somehow than the travails of the people. That is crassness and insensitivity especially in these extremely difficult times, needless to say.

Political lessons being imparted in this day and age should be elementary but it’s embarrassing that politicians are oblivious.

Politicians should know by instinct when the tide seems to be turning against them. They are supposed to have a hand on the pulse of the people, but their taking things for granted has become more or less an ingrained trait now.

These attitudes are not healthy and would probably cause more upheaval than the system can endure, in the long run. Politicians have to think about the stresses they cause to the system. They have to be part of the solution, and not be part of the problem.

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