Colombo Telegraph

Style, Emotion & Rhetoric Of The Maithri Presidency

By Sarath de Alwis

Sarath de Alwis

Rhetoric is the art of ruling the minds of men. – Plato

This correspondent entertained no illusions when voting for the Swan – symbol of the common opposition candidate on 8th January 2015. It was a vote for what the swan stood for. The candidate was incidental. On 31st December 2014 exactly a week before the epochal change of the Presidency, I wrote in the print media: “The current political discourse is not about choosing a captain to lead our nation state. It is about electing a president for our Republic. On 8 January we should not and must not elect a captain who will rule, lead and command. Instead we should elect a president attuned to the rhythm of the age of information.

We now find that we have elected a preachy President rich on rhetoric and short on delivery. Hence this retrospective search for clues in understanding the paradox of Maithripala Sirisena Transformative President, indulgent father of Daham Sirisena, caring brother of Kumarasinghe Sirisena and hardnosed succorer, salvager of his party the SLFP.

It now seems that this president is not as attuned to the rhythm of the age of information as we hoped. If he was, he would have been far more receptive to the public abhorrence of nepotism, cronyism and profligacy.

By appointing his brother as the head of Sri Lanka telecom and taking his son to New York as a member of the official delegation to the General Assembly sessions he has determinedly excluded siblings and offspring as falling within the compass of nepotism. May be. It may just be, that the double helix structure of DNA allows some presidential double standards on nepotism as applicable to Thamankaduwa today and Giruwapattuwa yesterday.

The appointment of election rejects as members of parliament under the national list and conferring Ministerial office on them was never explained by the President himself. It was left to the rejects themselves to explain why they deserve to be treated as bearers of popular sovereignty. Our democracy flawed as it is, is dependent not only on rules but norms as well. There are limits that one could go to but not any further to advance one’s own personal political ends. Our adherence to the system supersedes our immediate partisan interest. The motivated reasoning given by the likes of Wjithamuni Soysa, S.B. Dissanayake and Mahinda Samarasinghe are remarkably innovative in meeting their personal assessment of moral reasoning. The moral rationalization of the imperative of his being in Parliament by the suave Mahinda Samarasinghe was a lesson in the ability of an individual to reinterpret an immoral actions as intrinsically moral. Public condemnation was intense and cacophonous. The decidedly demonic distortion of democracy was the nomination of the defeated candidate S.B. Dissanayake. He championed militarization of our universities, encouraged the public abuse of a former woman President and publicly justified the interruption by Sri Lanka telecom of the first live TV political program by the common opposition candidate.

The purpose of this missive is to tender some timely advice to correct these apparent auditory disorders currently experienced by our transformative president. The election of President Maithripala Sirisena on January 8th this year was not his personal triumph. Undoubtedly he deserves recognition and adulation of the nation for his personal courage in heading a political movement that challenged an entrenched political machine. But the last Presidential election was not about the candidate. The constant ‘manthra’ of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha was that “public office is a public trust”. It was the overarching ethical principle that was endorsed in near unanimity by the minorities and an evenly split vote of the majority. For 6,217,162 voters who made up 51.28 % of the electorate ‘public office is a public trust ‘was more than a metaphor. For a nation that weathered a storm, it was a ‘rain bow’ that held the promise of a brighter dawn.

The Presidential Secretariat recently took great pains to explain its version of a supplementary estimate that allocated Rs 180 million to renovate and refurbish the official residence of the President. The Secretary to the President pointed out that the Government had to rehabilitate and improve the residence of the President by joining two old houses to bring it to a proper condition that was adequate for the use of the President.

If the President used the President’s House, the Government would have incurred expenses adding up to more than 15 million rupees per month for utility costs of water and electricity in addition to maintenance costs. No doubt it is a rational explanation of a pragmatic decision of a frugal unassuming President. But what are the politics behind the rhetoric of eschewing the grandeur and the glory of Mahinda the ‘magnificent’ by Sirisena the ‘Simple’. In the battle for the Presidency, Maithri the candidate gave us the glimpse of an ‘Inner Siddhartha’ near ascetic in taste and temperament.

This is what the President actually said before the elections of his living arrangements as the transformative leader.

“When I become president on the 8th of January, I will not set foot in Temple Trees or the Presidential Secretariat. I need to state this fact clearly to you. King Vijayabahu ruled the country from Polonnaruwa. The Great King Parakramabahu later united the country. Since then, there has been no leadership in Polonnaruwa. Come the 9th of January that leadership will return to Polonnaruwa.

If the political leaders of the political force that I represent agree, and if the political parties, groups and organizations that selected me to be their Common Candidate agree, after my victory, I will administer this country from Polonnaruwa, which is my home …”

In a subsequent TV interview with Upul Shantha Sannasgala on ITN President Sirisena declared that he did not intend to use President’s House in Fort, other than for State functions, while President’s Houses in the provinces will be used for State functions in the respective locations. This he said was pending a final decision on their use for optimal productivity.

It is not the intention of this writer to hold the pre-election Maithri magniloquence against President Sirisena who single handedly steered the 19th Amendment through a dysfunctional parliament. He handled a UNP greedy for office and a UPFA that planned a scorched earth retreat with a political acumen that puts him in the Mandela league. He still remains the ‘great white hope’ in enacting the right to information act and devolution of power as a conclusive formula for the national question.

President continues to speak on issues of great importance. He is no doubt a sincere leader trapped in the cruel game of expedient politics. He is entitled to some wiggle room.

In his essay on “Fearless Speech,” the social theorist Michel Foucault explains his understanding of the Greek concept of ‘parrhesia’, a framing of free speech originating from Ancient Greek democracy. He says “In parrhesia, the speaker uses his freedom and chooses frankness instead of persuasion, truth instead of falsehood or silence, the risk of death instead of life and security, criticism instead of flattery, and moral duty instead of self-interest and moral apathy.” And so, Socrates the best, the wisest and the most upright man drank hemlock.

Will Minister of Ports and Captain cool insist on appointing brother Dhammika as Chairman of the Ports Authority? President Sirisena is no Socrates.

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