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Should professionals stay away from partisan politics?
"Politics has become more a game for the rich and powerful."
LBR,Sunday 08 January 2012

By Chanuka Wattegama

By default, politics is a dirty game of seizing power and more power. It can hardly be gentlemanly. The ugliness is seen nowhere better than in present-day South Asia where power overnight converts a vagrant to a smaller god. Desperate measures our ‘leaders’ take to grab and sustain power should surprise nobody. Parallels can be seen between the recent incident at Kollonnawa and the behavior of a primate like an olive baboon killing competitors to establish hierarchy within his troop. Sadly, just like in the animal world, it is more a matter of life and death.

It wasn’t always that bad. Few decades back, local politics appeared relatively nonviolent. It was also more a level playing field. The doors of the supreme house were open for ‘commoners’ like Maithripala Senanayake, son of a farmer or T. B. Ilangaratne, a junior government officer. Most politicians of the day were from neither rich nor socially influential families. They didn’t have the kind of muscle power enjoyed by the politicos of our times. They were simple men and women who won the trust of their constituencies. They didn’t walk around with twenty heavily armed ‘body guards’ to ‘protect’ them.

Today, sadly, we live in different times. Politics has become more a game for the rich and powerful. Only two key preconditions open the door of the treasure cave. You should either be from a political family with already established power base or darned rich. If you are neither, just forget it. The present system hardly makes Ilangaratnes. It has become a power play of olive baboons (no pun intended).

This raises an interesting question: How should the professionals react? Do nothing, says a school. There is hardly anything they can change now. Politics is no more a game for honest and self respecting professionals. Just stay out of it. Don’t jump to the cesspool. You just cannot fight with olive baboons.

It is just ‘Bad money replaces good money’ theory – known as Gresham's law by economists. It says when a government compulsorily overvalues a currency and undervalues another the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation. Silver coins were once widely circulated in Canada and in the United States.

These countries debased their coins by switching to cheaper metals as the market value of silver rose above that of the face value. The silver coins disappeared from circulation as citizens retained them to capture the higher current or perceived future intrinsic value of the metal content over their face value, using the newer coins in daily transactions. Similarly the politicians made of ‘cheap metals’ eventually replace those made of ‘gold and silver’.

Not everybody agrees. Another school argues the pathetic situation should be the very reason for professionals to enter into the fray. At least one president was on their side. President Jayawardene even established a pension scheme to encourage professionals to become lawmakers. That only, believe some, will clean the Augean Stables. Professionals just cannot wait watching Titanic sink.

They should not behave as nihilists when the country needs their services most. If they do not want to be lawmakers, there is always the option of becoming advisors. Henry Kissinger and Milton Friedman served society far better than politicians of their days by becoming advisors to their governments.

Both schools got their points. As someone who doesn’t see nihilism as an end, I agree more with the second school, but with a strict condition. There is nothing wrong in a professional engaging in partisan politics, only if he/she still maintains integrity and the same high values the society expects from a professional.

How that can be achieved? One easy solution: Support or not policies instead of individuals or political parties.

The professionals can make a clear difference if they start constructive internal criticism on the key issues. For example, take the issue of political violence. We are yet to see a politician from the government (or opposition, for that matter) strongly condemning their colleagues employing large groups of armed personnel in the guise of security – the key factor that led to recent violence in politics. We are no more at war.

Why should a people’s representative have a security crew of fifteen heavily armed men? Will not a single bodyguard do? Of course, the President, Prime minister, ministers and heads of security forces and a handful of other VVIPs like the immediate relatives of the above can have their security teams for obvious reasons, but should that be extended to parliamentarians? Aren’t they supposed to interact more with the people they represent? Why not anybody raise this issue in public?

The professionals can also take a distinct stance on many other issues, without deviating from the political forces they support. For instance, there is absolutely no need for the leftists within the government to support its pro-liberal policies (and vice versa). That was exactly what some Sama-Samajist and Communist party members of the United Front Government in 1970-77 did. They of course had to pay the price for it, but overall it helped maintain the right political culture. You do not deviate from the set of principles you believe.

Their actions created the conditions necessary for professionals to function still maintaining their integrity. Both Bandaranaike and Jayawardene governments had a set of professionals who paved the policy process, but still stayed within their limits. Partisan politics didn’t change their values. They still received the respect of society.

The worst a professional could do is to blindly support a party or an individual. This is disastrous as most professionals who get into that situation appear to demonstrate a difficulty in identifying the thin line between what they should do and not. It eventually can lead to blind justification of partisan acts with integrity, honestly, professional ethics etc becoming no more significant than mere words. A professional couldn’t meet a more pathetic fate.

The bottom-line: If professionals entering politics continue to maintain standards nobody would object to their entry to politics. That is great if it happens that way. But it is an entirely different situation if they too shed their principles and start behaving like olive baboons. In that case it would be wise for them to stay away from it.

Chanuka Wattegama is an independent policy researcher.

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