By Malinda Seneviratne –
Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he was sworn in as the fifth President with executive powers in November 2005, made a stirring speech at Galle Face. He spoke of friends and friendship. He said ‘I believe my friends are those who offer just criticism and not those who sing hosannas in my praise’.
While we don’t know whether the President has assessed friendship-worth of hosanna singers, it is very clear that in the six years that have passes since that significant political moment there has been no lack in the matter of singing hosannas. Indeed it would seem that those who are in a position to sing praises, metaphorically and literally, have not understood the friendship parameters laid out by the President six years ago.
Two recent incidents come to mind which illustrate what might be called the classic occupational hazard of rulers. First, there was the assault on placard carrying opposition members while the President was presenting the annual budget in Parliament.
UNP members carried placards containing the legend ‘Shame!’ It was clearly bait and several ruling party MPs swallowed it. Whatever other issues prompted such a demonstration and regardless of ideological objections to the President and the Government the move by the opposition indicated a crass disregard for the gravity of parliamentary proceedings on that particular day. One recalls how parliamentarians of an earlier era with far less number-clout than that enjoyed by today’s opposition kept former finance ministers on their toes simply by the power of argument. Sarath Muttetuwegama (Communist Party) and Anura Bandaranaike (SLFP) had both decorum and logic while the then UNP government, handicapped by roughly the same proportions of parliamentary hooligans as the UPFA today, listened, objected as best it could and held the day courtesy of superior numbers.
The legend ‘Shame!’ then can be read both as accusation and confession of course. After all, there is a lot that the placard-carriers have to be embarrassed about in the stands they’ve taken with respect to the execution of the military offensive against terrorism, the vilification of the nation and complicity in commercial hanky-panky while in power. Those who did the punching, however, helped footnote that ‘confession’ and succeeded in conferring justification on the accusation.
The evidence points to the fact that who paid scant regards for parliamentary traditions and regulations felt they were doing their leader a favour. They were not exactly singing hosannas, but were nevertheless currying favour, which is what hosanna-singers typically do. The President himself was rendered helpless and was made to cut a sorry figure thanks to the antics of those who believe punching the opposition at that moment was what friendship dictated.
The second is the doctoring of photographs. The outfit that ‘outed’ the doctoring has built for itself a damning reputation as an unprofessional, tasteless and odious organization that knows nothing of journalistic ethics, a fact that was apparent in the long comment that accompanied this ‘disclosure’. Still, what they did ‘out’ was a fact and one which put the President in poor light. Again, we see the work of ‘friends’, the hosanna-singing need and the costs of the recipient of genuflection.
What these hosanna-singers fail to understand is that even in this era of communications there is nothing more powerful that word that is followed by deed and deed that matches word, yata vadi tatha kari and so on. The President has the words and a track record. He is a communicator who does not need a PR company to market him. He can certainly do without the well-meaning interventions of sycophants for it is the President and not they who get egg on the face. He is no saint and has his imperfections. It is for this very reason that he needs the critics far more than the hosanna-singers, especially in a context where factors such as regime-fatigue and a natural decline of popularity-credit from stewardship during the victory over terrorism.
One recalls the period prior to that historic day of victory in November 2005. Then, as presidential candidate, Mahinda Rajapaksa had few friends. Power is a friend-magnate. It tests the ability to separate friend from sycophant. It is perhaps time to revisit that historic speech and that particularly pertinent line about true friendship. It is perhaps time to tell off hosanna-singers and view with new eyes his critics, friendly and otherwise.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com