Polls: war by other means

By the time you read this heaven knows what other cat our political leadership would have let out of the diplomatic bag. After the Presidential Secretariat reversed the Foreign Ministry’s ruling to recall and discipline an errant ambassadorial official who made threatening gestures to a group of Tiger demonstrators outside Sri Lanka’s High Commission in London. But the damage to our once deteriorating and gradually being restored image is probably already done. More tellingly some tilting of the stage as regards the impending local government polls has been effected as a result of the president’s shenanigans. Of course, the military attaché who precipitated the storm in a Ceylon tea cup can hardly be let off the hook. Be all of these as they may, here is yet another issue on which sundry demographics in the nation-state perilously poised on the edge of a divisive precipice have drawn battle lines once again.

Conventional wisdom 

An ambassadorial employee of whatever rank or disposition is first and foremost a civil servant albeit attached to the foreign office. If the embassy appointment necessitates the employment of a military attaché, the individual in question must remind himself and be remonstrated by his peers if he at any time acts in contravention of the unwritten rule that a diplomat holding a commission is expected to discharge himself as an officer and a gentleman at all times. In fact on closer inspection it transpires that such a code of conduct in encapsulated in the standing orders. If a servant of the republic falls foul of such a high standard, he is subject to enquiry and castigation if found to be culpable – notwithstanding military prowess or field decorations.

Devil’s advocate 

The war was won by a rich mix of political entrepreneurship and military derring-do which flew in the face of naysayers in liberal circles. Therefore gunboat diplomacy must triumph over ambassadorial etiquette. Career diplomats may be summoned and disciplined in private, but not so much as a dressing-down can be meted out to military attachés much less a court martial and cashiering. This in a sense is the new conventional wisdom in that it touches a chord with many Sri Lankans even today almost a decade after the cessation of hostilities in a brutal and bitter hardly civil conflict. That unscrupulous politicos with their eye on the main chance have managed to tap time and again into the ethno-nationalist chauvinism latent in the island’s mainstream psyche redounds to the glory and honour of neither or none…

Ground reality 

That an ambassador is one who lies abroad for his country is not germane to a case where the more damaging truth by far is that political or military attachés often achieve the opposite and equally undesirable effect. They showcase the grimmer realities under the surface of the cosmetic suavity of the nation state they ostensibly reflect and in fact represent. To this add the penchant of successive generations of national leaders to play ducks and drakes with what used to be a pretty sophisticated and elite corps of educated highly trained professionals to do abroad what politicians wish their cabinets could accomplish at home. It has been the undoing of the foreign service, the national image, and sundry careers. Now the timing in this case makes the odour more suspect than the usual aroma of chrysanthemums in the foyer. The outcome of the election could hinge on the expansive gesture of the President in overruling the disciplinary strictures of civil servitude.

It is in this context – and not necessarily with too much concern about the state of our diplomatic corps – that one is enjoined to sit the exam given below.

The Acid Tests

(First sit down. Or if you must, stand up. As long as you refrain from any sudden movements such as a reversal of political fortunes or change of policies, or sundry threatening gestures such as signalling that you would slit the examiner’s throat in a jiffy given half a chance.)

A. Essays

A President must remain impartial in matters of foreign policy. He must remind himself as one of two heads in a coalition of coalitions of the promises he made the people he fooled, er ruled, and the pledges he swept away, er kept, to his premier political partners. (Critically evaluate. Ignore the Prime Minister’s kind entreaty to his cabinet colleagues not to say nasty things to the nation’s head leader or lead header or whatever. Ask yourself what it’s all in aid of if not self-serving signals being sent out to a polity that is still regrettably most influenced in terms of its susceptibility to ethno-national issues. Be nice to our war heroes. Because some of them might slit your throat if you forget not to demonstrate.)

B. Short Answers

i. An officer and a gentleman is one who says “please may I” before and “thank you so much” after he has slit your throat or promised to do so before the watching world. (Explode this myth. Don’t forget not to be nasty or nice.)

ii. A war hero is someone who has survived the war unscathed in heart and mind as well as body and soul – and not necessarily the last man left standing after all the shouting and killing has come to an end. (Explore this minefield. Be careful.)

C. Multiple Choice Questions  

1. “I keep putting my foot in my mouth because…”

a. A President must be flexible enough to show his partners who’s the boss

b. An executive must flex his muscles to keep the minions on their toes

c. Any idiot can see that I’m not the savant the UNP made me out to be

2. “My sense of style as a leader has my sternest critics as well as my stoutest champions saying…”

a. My hat!

b. My sainted aunt…

c. My three idiot sons even never gave me so much trouble when I was President, no?

d. My name is Bond, shames Bond… shoot from the hip – and damn the collateral damage!

3. The last laugh will be on:

a. MR, Gota, Basil & Co. when I spring my surprise on them the same way I did on those ‘My name is Bond’ fellows

b. Tricky Wicky when he discovers that even these broadsides are nothing like the whiff of grapeshot I’m reserving for those campaign-finance and money-laundering racketeers

c. The gullible consumers in the blue party who thought I’d have eaten my last egg-hopper by now

4. Fill In The Blanks

i. A diplomat is one who _____ (lies/lives/slits/slithers) abroad for one’s country

ii. An enquiry is what takes place _____ (after/before) the miscreant has been reinstated

iii. The _____ (winner/loser/last man standing) takes it all

iv. Imitation is the sincerest form of _____ (flattery/flattening/flat refusal to grow up and be a world class leader/fat around the middle, preventing one from growing a pair)

5. Quote Completion

“A _____ (democrat/diplomat/diplomutt) at home and a _____ (tyrant/tin-pot dictator/tin-hat toy soldier/crackpot chauvinist) overseas” – that’s the new damned math… sorry, new diplomatic mandate.

One more thing

Well, three more in fact…

First, the naïve view: the President is proving to be predictably partisan and showing the true shade of the typical self-serving politico corrupted by the infinitely corruptible office he holds. In this sense he deserves the patronising nomenclature heaped on him – such as peasant and patriarchal paternalist in polite society’s champagne social media platforms, as well as less honorific appellations in lowly arrack and soda klatches.

Then, a hypothetical strategy: our Head of State has no intention of being a one-time Chief Executive, despite his promise to the people and pledges to his erstwhile coalition partners. Sensing that now is the time to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war against his putative opponents for LG as well as loftier laurels, he has taken a calculated risk in pre-emptive as well as punitive strikes against the UNP. The five or six year question, the bond scam sabre rattling and following through with the touché of two arrests are all part of this scenario. To this mix add the sickening populism that has given the national interest a nauseating vertigo for 70 years.

And, last but not least, a cynical take: Maithri, like his former boss Mahinda, is adept at playing to the gallery. Subservient to the GOP, who appear to have some hold over him even now, he seems content to shoot himself and any future prospects such as that which he may have in the foot… to bolster sympathy for the UNP and further the rift in the SLFP… in an ironic sense, keeping his word… but all the while going along to play for time… after which, as with all devil’s advocates, sooner or later out pops the cloven hoof…

If I’m right about the latter, then it’s not so much Aiyo Sirisena who needs to be bothered about being caught out l.b.w., but Tricky Wicky and Co. who would want to guard their stumps. Either way, there’s little if any doubt that the LG polls match is being played on a queered pitch.

A senior journalist, the writer is Editor-at-large of LMD. He believes war is hell, having barely survived a 26-year conflict together with many others of a lost generation hardly found again. And desperately wishes temperatures would drop on both sides of the feverish divide lest we provoke another conflagration. So don’t waste that vote.

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