Man on a mission

Late last year, soon after the presidential election was announced, then President Maithripala Sirisena made an announcement. He said, up until the end of the election and his term, he would remain neutral. The tragedy for us Sri Lankans is the fact that such an announcement had to be made when such conduct is the norm expected of the holder of that office.

The reality is that all of the six former presidents took this fundamental principle for granted and dabbled in party politics first, putting the country second. Although the 1978 Constitution may not spell it out, the spirit of it certainly allures to the prospect of the executive president assuming the role of statesman and staying aloof of party politics.

The first act of all former presidents up until now has been to use the office to cement their position in the party as party leader. But today, there is a difference, and a big one at that. The least of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s concerns seems to be assuming the leadership of his party. Intriguing as it may be, he has not mentioned his party in any of the speeches made so far since assuming the presidency. No doubt it is a welcome departure from past practice. The fact that the current Opposition wields control of Parliament must surely be weighing on his mind. Nevertheless, it is a change which has been a long time coming.

Be that as it may, in today’s context, the role of the executive president can be described as being Chief Executive Officer of Sri Lanka Incorporated. What is propitious to the country is the fact that it now has a president who seems at long last to have comprehended the role he is expected to play as the country’s CEO and has got about doing the job with a professional outlook. He has even gone the extra mile in ensuring that none of the other six parties represented in Parliament have been antagonised.

New brooms sweep well they say and this was the case even with his predecessor, but there is something about Rajapaksa that says that this broom may sweep better, longer. He has brought an urgency to get things done, last seen probably under Ranasinghe Premadasa. He has shown that he is not one to care for so-called tradition, pomp, and pageantry, or as they say in Sri Lanka, “boru show”, but has just one single-minded purpose – to get Sri Lanka to work, led by the public sector.

In a previous commentary on the subject in these very columns, we observed that the biggest stumbling block to the country’s progress was also its biggest asset, which is the 1.5 million-strong public sector. Unfortunately, the state sector is a parasite gobbling the lion’s share of government revenue with little to show by way of results.

In his now famous visit to the Department of Motor Traffic office and also in his maiden policy statement to Parliament last week, President Rajapaksa repeatedly stated that he has been a government servant for 30 years, was well aware of its deficiencies, and that his primary goal now is to transform this lethargic, inefficient monolith into a productive and useful entity for the people.

The ceremonial inauguration of Parliament was a welcome change from past practice. For starters, Rajapaksa did away with the pageantry and got down to business. The other significant aspect was his attire. As Sri Lanka’s first suit-clad executive president, he sent out a subtle yet powerful message that he was not going to be a conformist and that he was going to do things his way.

However, with his brothers seated in the chamber, he did take the trouble to explain that although he did not sport the trademark kurahan satakaya, he did subscribe to the philosophy behind it, which incidentally is the representation of farmers. Nevertheless, in what could be construed as a hint that such representation had not taken place in the past other than superficially, the President then went on to spell out his policy on the subject, promising to develop agriculture and fisheries as export industries.

In a display of statesmanship, he was careful not to take swipes at the previous regime, using the opportunity to congratulate and thank the officials responsible for ensuring a free and fair election, although not going as far as naming the then Government.

He seems very much a man on a mission and ready to mend fences in order to get his manifesto implemented which in essence is to make the public sector more efficient, strengthen the intelligence services and national security, and bring about economic and constitutional reform.

We must keep in mind that even the previous President started off well only to disappoint as time went on. Let’s hope that Rajapaksa will be able to stay focused on the job he has committed himself to and not be distracted by sideshows and the fatally attractive prospect of resorting to undemocratic moves to strengthen power.

For the time being at least, he seems prepared to give the people what they want. In his policy statement in Parliament, he assured that freedom of worship will be guaranteed to every citizen, called on Parliament to restore its dignity, and reminded MPs about their responsibilities.

He also took responsibility to ensure that the VAT reduction will be reflected in a lower cost of living. Most importantly, he assured zero tolerance for bribery and corruption. The other promises made in his speech such as the introduction of technology to minimise corruption in the state sector, upgrading the railway and highway networks, producing power at a reasonable cost while focusing on renewable energy, developing human resources by creating wider higher education opportunities, and increasing university intake, providing vocational training, and introducing English language education certainly augur well.

For 70 years, Sri Lanka has been known as a developing nation and the time has come to piggyback on Asian regional growth to ascend to the next level. The quickest way to do this is to fix our outdated, irrelevant education system, invest in technology, grow tourism to be a $ 10 billion industry focusing on regional markets, and the establishment of a meritocracy where the right people are appointed to the right positions. So far so good it seems.

All in all, indications are that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a man on a mission to bring about change, not by hook or by crook, but by institutionalising attitudinal change in the hearts and minds of people to work towards the betterment of the country.