Buffed and beringed; shoes gleaming; sleek, slick and portly – save for one — five poster boys lined up obediently to perform at prime time. Politics is really a strange ringmaster.
Yet the show they were selling was not the one they delivered. The televised panel discussion (sequels to which have been promised on Wednesday nights so I have not yet seen the second at the time of writing), invoked thoughts of democracy in its title, but the subtitles communicated something far removed.
This was not accidental. The actors had obviously done quite a bit of homework to be able to generate the figures and names they rattled off so easily as they walked their one sure road to political safety. They had prepared themselves to come there primarily to attack the Opposition party, and it seems, anyone not following their scripts. One after the other, sometimes tripping over themselves, they rolled it out: accusations, lists, ancestry, ethnicity…all came to pass on that dishevelled night. Even the most tasteless references to a journalist and the profession came out vindictively, and as is evident by what has followed, with the capacity to incite nasty, vicious and potentially physically harmful consequences.
Freedom of the press is not a phrase to be yanked about when big brothers are watching. One can learn a lot about a society where it is an insecurity issue. In places like these jobs are threatened if voices are raised; it is in places like these that mud-slinging is approved for one side, but not the other; in places like these praises for democracy and freedoms go hand in hand with the stealthy arm of censorship.
As that night's drama unfolded, the sheer carelessness with which information was being bandied about was breathtaking; perhaps they had forgotten where they were and believed themselves to be within the protective walls of Parliament?
In any case, as the show wore on, the participants relaxed somewhat and their interactions increased and assumed a more convivial air. Egged on towards the delightful state of being one of the big boys by the moderator who willingly showed them movies and ran repeats as special requests, they revealed themselves as a sideshow.
In fact, the broadcast was quite revealing at many levels. For the average citizen, who does not hobnob with politicians and does not make it to every political event on the block, there is a filtered sense of the personalities. They might come at you from behind a microphone at a function, or in front of a journalist, usually in a context where they are focused on an issue.
On the set, with their compliant moderator chipping in, not to ask questions, but to remind them of the issues they were supposed to have raised, they let themselves go; and it was an interesting opportunity to see these personalities from a different perspective.
As they cheerfully rolled around in the mud, the thing that their performance was confirming took on a face. Not a new one; but you know how sometimes there is a moment of clarity when you suddenly realise why something was looking so familiar?
It was that as they nimbly listed off sins wrought by the previous administration, it became clear that it was all the same. The same patterns of behaviour; the same kinds of sins; the same denials; the same defensive tactics; nothing of substance had changed.
Nothing has changed after years and years of self governance. Our past is our present.
For a country that has not offered itself a wide range of choices, though it has often voted, we have seen a remarkable pattern of political behaviour. No matter how jaded or blasé we purport to be at each ink-staining episode, there has to be a reason that people do it in as large the numbers that they do.
There has to be something that we hope for. We go to the polls and imagine that we are either voting for or against something. Then we let politicians revise the pact we think we are making with them. This has been the pattern. There is hope at some level — especially in 1986 and 2010, the coalition years — that things will improve. But it has always ended badly. Each time an administration has changed, it has been triggered by a growing sense that we are being taken for fools. The trust has been broken.
If we can shed our own disorders and take realistic looks at the political relationships we have formed, we'd see that they are dysfunctional at best. The worst part of it is that as a society, despite broken promises, corruption, neglect, cankers and open sores, we have walked away from our own capacity to act and invested more and more power in the back pockets of politicians who do not even know what is expected of them anymore.
We have tolerated so much with apathy that even the leadership has remained unsure about how far they can go. And like children exploring boundaries, they will just keep pushing until they are made to stop.