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Politicians, professionals and power

Sunday Essay by Ajith Samaranayake

Tsunami debris being cleared away. 

Now that the debris is being cleared away and the country is coming to terms with the terrible human and emotional cost of the Tsunami tragedy the hunt for villains and culprits has begun in earnest.

Perhaps a nation ravaged by the most awful calamity in her history has need for an exercise in collective catharsis. So while the writers and the columnists are trying to draw metaphysical and philosophical conclusions from December 26 the more logical and practical-minded are seeking to find out whether the disaster could not have been forecast so that there would not have been such a terrible cost in human lives and suffering.

Certainly there is enough evidence to believe that there were Government and other agencies which had equipment capable of giving a warning of the earthquake which erupted in the sea off Sumatra although an accurate Tsunami warning may not have been possible although any intelligent reading of an earthquake of that magnitude should have led to the logical conclusion of a possible tsunami wave.

The Geological survey and Mines Bureau, its monitoring system at Pallekelle and a unit at the University of Peradeniya were all in a position to issue such a warning although it has now transpired that the University's equipment was not functioning.

The fact however is that no such warning was issued and it is pathetic to take refuge behind the excuse that it was a Sunday and a Poya day to boot. It was, of course, the most unfortunate time for such a strike since it was the height of the normal year-end festive season but nature quite evidently is immune to any feelings of piety which could have been engendered by the succession of Christmas day and Full Moon Poya.

But obviously the malaise is more deep-seated than the mere malfunctioning of a piece of equipment at Peradeniya or the ineptness of a Government agency. The sickness lies much deeper at the heart of the bureaucracy and the professional classes who down the years have become complacent and smug with power and position until they have become incapable of giving leadership to society at a time of national crisis.

The colonial bureaucracy was cast in the image of the White Raj and except for a handful of officials at the upper echelons such as an occasional Governor or an Inspector General of Police was not as oppressive as other bureaucracies in the far-flung colonies of the British Empire.

Indeed some of the officials were scholars fostered in the school of Orientalism influential in certain academic and official circles at the time. There were archaeologists and historians such as H. C. P. Bell and our own Ananda Coomaraswamy who although his later reputation was as an art critic and philosopher, himself started his public career as the head of the Geological Survey Department.

This was a caste of administrators rejoicing in their status as civil servants and if they were alienated and aloof from the faceless and nameless hordes whom they administered this also made for a sense of independence from the political establishment.

Indeed there were civil servants who were fiercely independent such as M. (Tissa) Chandrasoma who died recently. In the immediate post-Independence years the Cabinet of Ministers which itself was drawn from the propertied sections and the professional classes was itself prepared to listen to the advice and counsel of the civil servants and give them a relatively free hand in the administration.

Things started changing in the mid-1950's with the injection of the broad masses into the political process. The complexion of the political class also began changing with the induction of more Sinhala-educated middle class politicians into the parliamentary system and the executive branch of the government.

These politicians had to give a greater ear to the clamour of the popular masses and in consequence were sometimes impatient with the convention-bound rigidities of the administrative structure and the bureaucracy's genuflection to the holy writ of AR and FR.

Certainly there was need to demystify the administration, bring the gods down to earth, but it is true that this process of populism also contributed to the adulteration of the administration and the injection of deleterious political influences into the process of government.

The Civil Service was succeeded by the Administrative Service while at a different level the gramasevaka system replaced the headman system. In the mid-1970's the then United front Government introduced Workers' Councils into work places while a system of Political Authorities was established to give political leadership to the development effort in the wake of the food and fuel crisis of the time.

In the late-1970's the Government of President J. R. Jayewardene introduced the system of District Ministers in a bid to decentralise the administration while the Provincial Councils were established for the same purpose in the 1980's.

No doubt all this was done with the best of intentions - the maximisation of efficiency, the decentralisation of the administration and the devolution of power, all the noble ideals which have animated the liberal, democratic and socialist leaderships of the newly-Independent world. But the crunch came when the political establishment was unable to reconcile itself with the administrative machinery to attain a common goal.

Under the influence of the masses reaching out to the political arena governments tended to be more sympathetic to making the administration consonant with their aspirations but unfortunately the system of governance could not strike a balance between such aspirations and the national interest which would go beyond the partisan political games of the contending parties.

The situation was compounded by the alienation created between the Government and the Opposition on one hand and the Sinhala and Tamil communities on the other which has plagued this country from the late 1970's.

This both led to an authoritarian governance as well as the consolidation of a parallel bureaucracy of super civil servants. Influential sections of civil society, which has given birth to that mythical monster which a lot of us love to hate, the NGOs, too became alienated from the Government of the day. Deep fissures had been created in the social order.

Confronted with a national tragedy, however, what is necessary is to seek common roots, a return to a consensual political order. In the immediate aftermath of the devastation there were some signs of this happening such as encouraging noises made by diverse political leaders, hopeful signs of a change of heart on the part of the Northern Tamil leadership and the end-of-the-year Adhishtana Pooja. But now with the retreat of the deadly tide and a semblance of normalcy taking over there is a return to the vituperative politics on the television talk shows and a demonising of the NGOs.

The problem is not politics by itself but its acutely adversarial nature and the loss of that consensual order which alone can give meaning and shape to society. The social contract after all was the basis of the community, the emergence of mankind into human society leaving behind its primordial setting.

It will be naive to expect that Sri Lanka's politicians will be prepared to abandon their political warfare in the face of the tsunami disaster and become good boys and girls but what we can expect of them is a broad outlook and a wider national vision. In short what we need is a politics of ideas rather than one of petty point-scoring or a rhetoric of saying 'I told you so.'

The other question is the relationship of the bureaucracy and the professional strata to the administration. Too often do politicians behave as if they are the repositories of all knowledge under the sun even in the fields of science and technology where their understanding might be limited.

In these circumstances professionals who will definitely know more can well be driven to postures of subservience particularly in a semi-feudal milieu such as ours. If we take it as axiomatic that the contours of the present century will be increasingly determined by science and technology then the professionals in the areas of these disciplines will have to take the centre stage.

This will mean a new relationship between the political class and the professional sections. In his book 'The Coming of Post-Industrial Society' Daniel Bell has written: 'Against the dreams of the early technocrats such as Saint Simon, who hoped that the savants would rule, it becomes clear that political decisions are the central ones in the society and that the relationship of knowledge to power is essentially a subservient one.

'He went on to note that the chief problem of the emerging post-industrial society was the conflict generated by a meritocratic principle which is central to the allocation of position in a knowledge society. Thus the tension between populism and elitism, which is already apparent, becomes a political issue in communities.

Here then is the nub of the matter. Are our political leaders capable of reconciling their various brands of populism at least in the short term and evolving a common ethos which can subsume that populism in the elitism of the technocratic professional classes to forge a new outlook for these post-tsunami decades?

SOURCE: The Coming of Post-Industrial Society - A Venture in Social Forecasting by Daniel Bell - Arnold Heinemann Publishers (India) Private Ltd. - 1974.

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