It is said that the voice of a sectional group of the population which is not loud and vociferous enough will not be heeded by politicians.
It is also said that a weak political structure is more likely to encourage sectional lobbying than if those who govern a country have a strong majority and are therefore able to take decisions fearlessly.
It has been quite some time now since the polls last yielded a strong government in power. One may have to go back to 1983 for such an electoral outcome. This could mean that, in the long interval since then, government majorities have been increasingly fragilized. Not that the members of the governments did not outnumber those of the opposition. Political coalitions in power reflected a configuration of diverse interests put together. The effect of this combination in power meant that decisions were diluted to please particular interest groups supporting such coalitions. Parties in power were accordingly beholden to specific groups of voters who dictate to them what they can or cannot do and these are not always and necessarily in the public interest.
In such circumstances, a decision which looked straightforward and good for the best interests of the country was either set aside or not implemented. Consider the case of the street hawkers in our principal towns. The Supreme Court has interpreted the law of the land and decided that they cannot operate within certain peripheries. Both the government and the opposition, when the latter was in power, have failed in their duty to have the law respected. The free-for-all has thus expanded with time.
One may reckon that street “hawking” has gradually become for an increasing number the means to earn a livelihood. But it is not supported by the law in the way that it is being done. The non-application of the law in this case has been encouraged due to political parties’ dependence on important blocks of votes which have the capacity to change electoral outcomes. Political parties have chosen to pray at the altar of such blocks of electoral votes. The opposition in particular has been nothing less than opportunist, ready to pick up feathers the government might lose by taking the decision imposed by the law of the land.
In other words, it is enough for any particular lobby group, howsoever small in relation to the aggregate electorate but capable of giving political power to one side or, by default, to the other side, to throw up successive weak governments. Recent history has demonstrated that such governments have been willing to turn a blind eye when the law is not being respected for fear of losing critical votes. When people able to sway electoral decisions are minded to have it their own way, there is the likelihood that they will not even brook alternative decent solutions provided at taxpayers’ cost. It would be open in the circumstances for any one group of voters, reckoning the influence they can exert on political decisions by acting together, to employ identical tactics and sway decisions in their favour, however unfair to everybody else.
The opposition loses no time to exploit fractures which may help confer power upon it. It therefore reinforces the system which has weakened successive governments. Similarly, it is taking a risk that it may itself be exposed to the same sort of vulnerability should it manage to secure power. It will lose no opportunity to get the additional political mileage, however, by appearing to be in favour of the vindications of one group or another.
This is the context in which Paul Bérenger’s latest PNQ has to be viewed. Even if he might have guessed that the Prime Minister may after all not attend the Commonwealth Summit being currently held in Sri Lanka in view of the atrocities being practised over there against the Tamil-speaking part of the Sri Lankan population, he decided to pose a question on the subject. If the PM stated that he would go to Sri Lanka, the Leader of the Opposition would cash on it and draw sympathy from the local Tamil-speaking population and thus secure their affiliation to him. If the PM answered that he was not going, which is what he said, Paul Bérenger would claim merit for sharing the sensibilities of the local Tamil-speaking population which rightly condemns the inhuman treatment of Tamils in that country.
For decades now, local politics is being played on the sensitive chords of group interests within the population. The result has been the emergence of relatively weak governments which have had to marry private interests awkwardly with the national interest but without the strong decisions that have made the country successful in the past. Yet this country has to its credit a string of decisions which are applicable to one and all both in terms of benefits conferred for abiding with laid-down principles and sanctions taken for failure to comply with legal provisions.
It is not difficult to contemplate that by going the way of creating exceptions, there could come a time when everybody would want to take the law in his own hands as best suits his interests. Yet, it is known that governments contribute the best when they do not allow exceptions to become the rule.
So long as political parties operate with the fear of having to take decisions to please a particular group or another to catch enough votes, their private interests will stifle development at the national level. It will be too late to then raise the chicken-and-egg question of whether we obtained weak governments because they kept giving in to sectional lobbies or whether the governments in power willingly and deliberately fostered their weakness with a view to catching votes from such lobbies. It should be clear that if such political tribalism carries on accentuating, it will not be in the best interests of the country.
* Published in print edition on 15 November 2013