Menu Close

Sickness: a politician’s preserve?

Looks like he’s having the last laugh!

Politicians are sick. I’ve heard people say that. It is an unfair statement if only because it is a generalization. Nevertheless, politicians can be like a corrosive cancer given the impact that their arrogance, ignorance and incompetence have on society in general. Not all, not some, but most, most would agree. 

On the other hand, if those who are elected are a reflection of electors and if the adage that people get the politicians they deserve is true, then it would mean people themselves are unwell, so to speak. In other words, belief that accountability is not important and that integrity is just a meaningless word, is a general corrosive which infect politician and non-politician alike. 

It can’t be that simple. Institutional arrangements made for the most part by politicians, a system that encourages certain kinds of people to contest elections but not others, and a considerable distance between the represented and the representative do give politicians pride of place in the blame register. 

We are talking of sickness, though. We all fall ill. Sickness can hit us at unexpected moments. It’s the same with politicians. They too have common colds. They are infected by viruses. They can and do get heart attacks. Even the carcinogenic among them can be brought down by cancers. 

And yet, there’s something that defy the laws of average when it comes to politicians: they suddenly become unwell in the event court determines that they be remanded. Indeed, in some cases, they ‘fall ill’ when arrest appears to be imminent. Anticipatory deterioration of health, in Sri Lanka, seems to be as effective a precaution as anticipatory bail. 

We need to affirm the principle of presuming innocence, so we should not call arrested politicians rogues, murderers and such. That said, falling ill or feigning sickness has become par for the course in the case of politicians. It is a privilege others do not enjoy. 

It must be mentioned here that former minister Patali Champika Ranawaka is a rare exception, as was former Army Commander and now Field Marshall, Sarath Fonseka. Maybe their bodies are made of sterner stuff. Maybe their resolve is stronger. In any event, they stand in stark contrast to their parliamentary colleagues who have fallen foul of the law or are suspected to have done so. 

What’s strange about these sick politicians is that no one knows what their sicknesses are. Just the other day, former minister Rajitha Senaratne pleaded for anticipatory bail. The bail application was rejected. Twice, I believe. Then he disappeared. This was when a warrant was issued for his arrest. There was speculation that he was being protected by a powerful politician. That’s speculation. It was later found that he had been admitted to Lanka Hospital. No speculation there.   

What happened next is unclear. The reports have been contradictory. It was reported that prison officials had gone to move him to the prison hospital and later abandoned the idea. Who gave the directive, if indeed this is what happened? The court? A ‘powerful politician’? Let’s leave the ‘why’ out of it; that it happened this way is a serious concern. In the rush of it all, he was granted bail.

Now bail can be granted for many valid reasons. Ranawaka too was granted bail. Senaratne’s case is different because he bragged that he would not spend even five minutes in the Welikada Prison. Was that conviction of innocence? It cannot be, for the court ordered the police to arrest him. What made him so sure? Is it not contempt of court?

Question: what are the chances for a non-politician to get away with this kind of behavior? Answer: close to zero. 

What is really puzzling is that although such politicians fall ill, no one knows what the illness is. Is it that the court and police know and they don’t say anything on account of privacy considerations? Is it that court and police know what’s what, that politicians falling ill upon arrest is so common and it’s such a common lie that they don’t bother to pry? But they should, shouldn’t they?

If Champika Ranawaka’s fault, as per charges, is misleading the law, then feigning illness cannot be ‘ok’.  A few weeks ago when a Swiss Embassy was steadfastly thumbing its proverbial nose at Rule of Law, Due Process and such, trying to prevent police from questioning an employee who claimed to have been abducted because ‘her health was deteriorating,’ court would have nothing of it. Court moved. The police moved. She was duly arrested, questioned and examined by medical professionals. 

Sure, we still know nothing of her medical condition. All we know is that the Swiss have backtracked quite a distance from an untenable and arrogant position, consumed humble pie and even saluted the Sri Lankan government for upholding good governance and rule of law. Maybe that’s diplo-deal if you will, and good enough to let pass. Is Senaratne’s case a deal, a politico-deal, then? Is that something we can or should let pass? If in the face of what was called a diplomatic row that could have serious fallout for Sri Lanka the government could throw chapter, verse and book at the Swiss, what’s preventing the same government from applying the same operational principles to Rajitha Senaratne?

Clearly, this sickness is more political or rather a creature of a political culture than about viruses, poor metabolism and the like. It can only be cured by affirming at all times and in all circumstances the primacy of the law. Bend it for a friend or out of pity once and that’s precedence and worse, a habit that the ‘giver’ is likely to avail him/herself of when in reduced circumstances. 

Something has been bent. A short-cut has been taken. Like bending and short-cutting that has happened during previous regimes. But why? A cheque being cashed? Old friendships being remembered? Future profits, political and otherwise, anticipated? 

There’s good reason to brush aside privacy concerns and find out what was really wrong with Rajitha Senaratne. The reason: equality before the law. If getting admitted to a hospital on a whim or because a doctor’s kindness has been sought and granted allows a wanted man to avoid a prison cell, if illness is a ‘wild card’ that can be used to have a more comfortable incarceration, then such privileges should be available to one and all. It cannot be the politician’s preserve. That’s sick. 

This article was first published in the DAILY MIRROR [January 2, 2020]

%d bloggers like this: