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Sunday, 3 January 2016

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Government Gazette

A President's mission

The last presidential election was, at one level, a contest between two beliefs: a superstitious belief in an astrological prediction on the one hand and, on the other, a pragmatically calculated political response to a perceived national crisis. There could be no better example of the continuing perennial battle between avijjaa and vijjaa in this material, yet illusory, world.

Thus, when Maithripala Sirisena triumphed - as predicted in all social-scientific surveys - on January 8, 2015, the world immediately changed, even if minutely, with the entire political dispensation in our island republic shifting from one based on arbitrary rule and myth-building to one based on reasoned calculation - even if somewhat opportunistic - and a pragmatic managerial outlook.

The very personality of the President newly elected in January last year symbolised that paradigm shift: his slight, austere bearing and self-deprecatory demeanour a stark contrast to the bombastic, if vacuous, flamboyance of his predecessor. The predecessor, a demagogue par excellence, used his bulk to wade into the crowds to scoop up political allegiance; smooching proffered infants, dishing out largesse. Maithripala Sirisena achieved his presidency through reasoned persuasion and impassioned appeal to the good sense - and sensibility - of the citizen voters.

And the citizens themselves responded well to the President's candidacy because by the end of 2014, many, if not most Sri Lankans had, on their own, decided that they had had enough of the Rajapakse style of governance or, misgovernance. Indeed, even as social surveys began to indicate popular disillusionment with fantasy and macho ethno-nationalism, that popular mood was clearly expressed by the electorate in the Uva Provincial elections which saw the most drastic reduction in votes for the Rajapaksa-led UPFA provincial administration.

The whole of Sri Lanka realised the popular mood swing away from the Rajapaksa regime, although the sway of avijjaa at the time was such that the rulers themselves chose to read the star signs and not the signs of realpolitik.

Thus, January 8, 2015 was a happy conjunction of the efforts of both the revivalist nationalist political leadership embodied in Sirisena and the newly galvanised, popular dissident movements - such as the Puravesi Balaya (Citizens' Power) - and other interest groups, all wanting change.

A year has now gone by since that historic presidential election and the sense of change enjoyed by the populace has been palpable. While living costs have not been fully reigned, generous development and other financial support by supportive nations East and West has helped the country weather the financial storms that threaten in the wake of the lavish borrowings and cavalier economic management under the previous presidency.

More importantly, those who wish to protest living costs and other economic issues, have had the freedom to so express themselves publicly and, have done so. 2015 has been punctuated by numerous demonstrations large and small on a wide range of issues. The white van deterrent no longer extant, pensioners, students, unemployed youth and war widows alike have thronged the streets North and South enjoying their newfound freedom of expression.

Even as they enjoy a new societal stability and a modicum of wellbeing, Sri Lankans have had to stomach some remnants of nepotism to be seen within the new regime as well. But the never-ending list of immense acts of nepotism, corruption and political violence perpetrated during the previous regime, suffices to serve as a reminder of the extremities of mis-governance that the nation escaped with the electoral victory of President Sirisena.

The disgust with the previous dispensation has been so great that the nation has been ready to go along with that rare phenomenon of a 'national unity' government that combines the most unlikely political partners - parties that have been the traditional political rivals since freedom from colonial rule. The citizenry also seems ready to bear up with further complications, namely, the making of a whole new Constitution and also evolving a structural solution to the ethnic conflict.

President Sirisena is, as usual, being austere in his celebration of his first presidential year. But this austerity is no more that a discipline dedicated to achieving the may great tasks he and the national unity government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have been entrusted with by an electorate that is impatient for intelligent governance, creative development strategy and rapid economic upliftment.

The President will surely have learnt the lessons of the last regime: one can't fool all the people all the time.

Of course, no one relying on starscopes will learn from practical experience and analysis of data. But this President and his governing partners all come from the side of the intellectual spectrum that values reason and civilised decency at least to some extent. As the country moves into a very delicate and complex phase of constitution-making involving the whole political spectrum as well as the spectrum of citizens' interests, nothing but such intellectual depth and civilised forms of political discourse will help.

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