Who Will Resign First?
By Ravi Perera
It is said that when Lord Melbourne was invited to become Prime Minister “he thought it a damned bore” and was in two minds about accepting the honour. His private secretary apparently argued, “Why, damn it, such a position never was occupied by any Greek or Roman, and, if it only lasts two months, it is well worthwhile to have been Prime Minister of England.” Lord Melbourne was persuaded and is said to have replied, “By God, that’s true, I’ll go”.
Well, that was Melbourne when called upon to be the Prime Minister of the great imperial power on whose territories it was said ‘the sun never set’. In mature democracies the reverse of accepting office, the dignified exit from office of those defeated at elections is even more remarkable. The very next day as it were, without any violence, fanfare or breast beating they vacate their posts allowing the elected to carry on with his work. Last week we hardly noticed the exit of the flamboyant Nicolas Sarkozy of France who lost the presidency to a resurgent socialist party led by Francois Hollande. Previously only one other incumbent President of the Fifth Republic had lost a re-election bid. That was Valery Giscard d’ Estaing in 1981. He was also considered a centre-right like Sarkozy.
This attitude of selfless objectivity holds good in respect of most holders of public office and most times even in business circles. Scandals and even the failure to achieve a given objective, sometimes even unrelated to personal decisions of the incumbent, result in the resignations of those formally in charge of the situation. Of course we know all this and there is little purpose in labouring the point. The question is why such attitudes and moral standards are so rare in a culture such as ours.
Here in Sri Lanka, public office seems so desperately desired that occupying such an office, in whichever form, is considered a lifetime activity. One would have thought that a person is drawn towards a political career so that he could contribute with his learning, experience and skills (etc) towards the general improvement of things. But that is not how Sri Lankans apparently think of it. Here, sometimes persons barely out of their teens are elected to office. The only logic we can imagine in such a selection is that the voter perceives talents and skills in the teenager which the young man could have only inherited by a karmic process in past births. He simply has had no time in this life to acquire any skills which could benefit the general populace. After all he is only just out of school.
When it comes to retiring there is absolutely no cutoff point except when nature decides to terminate the august persons inning or by law like in the case of the Presidency. Both J. R. Jayawardena and Chandrika Bandaranayake were prevented from further terms of office only because of the constitutional provisions which restricted the presidency to two terms. Mrs. Srimavo Bandaranayake was Prime Minister almost up to her death although for a number of years before that she was not in a position to effectively function in that important office. At lower levels too politicians rarely retire voluntarily in this country.
The other aspect of this self-before-all attitude is the way public office is passed on to family members. At the death of a politician invariably his wife or a child will fill the vacancy. Sometimes this happens in the case of even a candidate. When Gamini Disanayake, the UNP Presidential candidate was assassinated at the eve of the elections in 1994, his wife, a total neophyte in the political cesspool of this country, was nominated in his place. It is worth noting that today many of the late UNP Presidential candidate’s family are associated with the other side!
Given this culture we can easily understand why no political party can afford to demand the resignation of a public servant as in the case of the National Savings Bank / The Finance saga with a straight face. Who among them would resign when found to be wanting? Is any of them in that position as an honourable servant of the public with no selfish motives? When will he decide that his policies, ideas and actions have been rejected by the people? What actions of his are incompatible with the office he holds? In all these situations the answer has to be negatives – no one, no, never or none. Obviously all these politicians (and even top administrators in both State and non-State institutions) are convinced that their contribution /ideas/philosophy are crucial to the nation’s welfare. But in reality the sum total of all their work is only a troubled country with a very small economy. In the media we see our political leaders and senior public servants attending international parleys on account of their putative office. When they stand alongside their counterparts do they feel that they are in on merit or are only there because of the peculiar culture prevailing in their country? Perhaps the more sensitive souls among them can only sleep well in the night thanks to the invariable evening cocktails at these conferences. We can conclude that one irrefutable feature of our social ethics and culture is that nobody ever resigns from office. In such circumstances all we, the long suffering public, can do is to be resigned to our fate.