When a nation looks for solace...

Sri Lanka’s bid to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games ended in the early hours of Saturday. The good fight was fought and lost, 43 votes to 27. No shame there. Much has been written about the effort as well as the possible spin offs had the decision come Sri Lanka’s way. Some have painted sunshine scenarios and others have predicted bleak fallouts. No great defeat, but still a good enough reason to ask ‘what now?’ The answer lies, perhaps, in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SAARC address.

This SAARC Summit was no different from previous confabs. It was predictable: same issues, same platitudes, same assertions, more or less the same ‘state of my nation’ addresses by the leaders, some concrete measures to improve inter-state operations in the region and a conspicuous skirting of major issues. President Rajapaksa concluded his speech with a quote from the Dhammapada: ‘atta hi attano nato. Kohi nato paro sia’ (one’s solace lies in oneself; what other master could there be?’

It is an idea that is of utmost relevance to SAARC and indeed to any regional gathering of nations. It is in fact the underlying logic of SAARC. The fact, however, is that such cooperation as is implied in the relevant articles of faith have been limited to the relatively easy terrain of cultural exchanges with trade agreements showing a tendency to go the ‘global way’, the big boys getting the small to agree to dance according to tune. It is called ‘participation’. It is the democracy of ‘bystandership’ if you will. Critical issues, such as security, unfortunately, have been outsourced to those who have no interest in the region’s prosperity or security. SAARC solace, it seems, has been bartered away to masters outside of SAARC.

The president’s proposal, however, is applicable to both SAARC and to Sri Lanka. In moments of triumph as well as defeat, positions of strength and in adversity, the rise and fall of personalities, the ebb and flow of opportunity, if Sri Lanka has remained resilient it is because at critical moments of her history, the citizens have come to terms with the fact that in the end their fate lies in their own hands. It is up to them to forge victories out of defeats, to make the best of circumstances that are not rosy, to be honest about flaws, to privilege reason over emotion and treat the vicissitudes of life with equanimity.

With respect to the Commonwealth Games, two things can be kept in mind. First, that Sri Lanka, like other member states of that body have indeed played this game for a couple of centuries, a game where the strong made the rules and the others played along though scripted to lose out.
Secondly, there is no reason to close shop in Hambantota just because Gold Coast emerged winner. The Commonwealth Games is just one of many international sporting events. Sri Lanka is a small country and such facilities, especially those on par with the best in the world, anywhere in the island are a boon to the nation’s sporting population. It is incumbent on the authorities then to put in place structures and processes that not only unearth talent but channel it towards sporting glory, using these facilities. The best answer to ‘Gold Coast’ is for our young men and women to show up in 2018 and perform beyond all expectation.

It is not just about sports, of course. If our solace lies in ourselves, then it is important for a re-examination of ‘us’, as nation and collective. If we are to find solace together, then togetherness must be forged first. National boundaries contain populations but population is not coterminous with nation. It is about belonging. It is about feeling that one belongs to territory and in polity, that one is relevant and is truly represented. It is about development being about ordinary people and not glowing aggregate numbers. It is about who gets to do what and why, where the money comes from and under what conditions and what happens to the profits.
To put it crudely, roads and bridges make pretty pictures. They make for traffic-stopping hoardings. Good for rhetoric. They are also good to take away resources and value extracted from hapless peoples. Those who are dispossessed, turned into development refugees, forced to drop out of the nation’s ‘forward march’, do not end up inhabiting any miracle, Asian or otherwise.

We must, as the President correctly said, following the words of the Buddha, look to ourselves in the matter of obtaining succor and achieving national prosperity. It is important, then, to recognize both nation and every single individual within it. If anyone is ‘left behind’, so to speak, the caravan cannot journey too far.
There are things that are good to win. Sometimes a loss is not a bad thing. Einstein put it nicely: ‘Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish on its ability to climb a tree, it will lie its whole life believing that it is stupid’. It’s all about coming to terms with who we are and being the best we can be.
The President has picked the right words from the dhamma. Good word takes meaning from good deed. He can lead, this is known and acknowledged. Where to, is the question that needs to be pondered. By the President and by the people. For the people and the nation.