NO CLICHÉ: The old order changeth | Sunday Observer

NO CLICHÉ: The old order changeth

The United National Party is in a vegetative state, on virtual life support, and the irony is that the UNP’s politicians are capable of talking about only one thing these days, which is the price of vegetables. And yes, sometimes, rice.

A party that impoverished families with prohibitive taxes, and stultified the economy with ever reducing growth rates, is now making a hue and a cry about the prices of a few items of veggies that shot up due to sudden flood conditions.

But the big bluff is over. The game is up. Today, not even the cat-that-got-the-cream smirk of Eran Wickremeratne, or the teeth gnashing, chest thumping howls of Harin Fernando can quite gloss over the fact that the UNP as it is constituted at present, is a spent force, especially in the face of the culture of work that has been launched by the new Gotabaya led Government.

Work has a soul. To take just one example, the beaches have been cleaned up in barely a month since the SLPP-SLFP Government coasted to power.

This shoreline cleanup has been achieved without any fanfare, and with hardly anyone noticing it as such. The reason is that there is so much else happening simultaneously such as the RMV heist a.k.a a no nonsense government service, the swift taxation reform that did away with PAYE and telecom levies, the merit based public service Boards and Chairmanships initiative, the Kamal Gunaratne/Shavendra Silva war on drugs and underworld crime, etc. It’s no great surprise that the one important matter of the beach cleanup, garnered no special attention in this process.

User friendly

So, it is good a time as any to venture a guess on how the next decade will pan out for Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans under the watch of the formerly much vilified Rajapaksa clan, who seemed to be the entire raison d’etre — the all encompassing purpose — for the UNP’s existence during its five year tenure. The UNP failed miserably at delegitimizing the clan or any of its support base, and instead ensured that the country’s fortunes in the next decade will be determined by the same Rajapaksa led forces they were flogging on a daily basis.

The UNP also kicked the Sinhala Buddhist majority into what they thought would be the dustbin of history. Instead, they kicked themselves not just into the dustbins of history, but as a wag observed, into the history of dustbins.

Meanwhile, the beaches got cleaned up in less than a month. A few palpably solid steps are being taken to bring Sri Lanka into a modern age. The low floorboard buses that are disable-friendly, and a ‘user friendly’ State bureaucracy, are among just some such innovations.

But yet there is work to be done, and the country has to be inculcated with a solid work ethic. Modernization is good, but the ruler can take the horse to the water, and realize that it still doesn’t drink. You can take the people on a journey towards modernization, but the mass of people must surely be ready for it.

The process has to happen organically. A plan for national production which is accompanied with a work ethic will expand the economy. Modernization will follow in the natural course of things.

There are two ways in which such a process gets kick started. One is through the workings of a Master Plan. The second is that optics and the example at the top would create its own momentum.

On that score, President Gotabaya got off to a smooth start. Here are possible parallels. How was Park Chung Hee’s Korean economic miracle engineered? At the beginning he made the state the primary agent of the economy. He was imbued with a fierce sense of nationalism, but to get things done in South Korea, he began the economic miracle by opting for state engineered growth.

The peninsula experiment

For his efforts, he was at first branded a ‘closet commie’ by some of his U.S based allies, but soon they were to change their minds, as the South Korean economic miracle — also called the Wonder of the Han River — began taking shape.

No two conditions are the same, and the Gotabaya/Mahinda Rajapaksa administration should not have to mimic the South Korean example in the exact same model, when it’s been several decades since that particular experiment took off in the Korean Peninsula.

However, the President has shown that he has the one ingredient that is needed of a politician before any kind of program or plan is engineered — and that is real empathy for the people.

The late South Korean leader Park who is universally credited with having single handedly pioneered that country’s economic miracle, was a genuine people’s man. If Singapore’s Lee and Malaysia’s Mahathir have been called authoritarian, Park would of course have to be called a dictator.

But he was a benevolent dictator, a true ‘sonduru agnadayakaya’ if ever there was one.

When the late President Park’s wife died in an assassination that targeted him, the nurse who attended to the corpse said the First Lady had been wearing darned and repaired clothes. The story has become part of the national lore in the country.

When Park himself died, the Korean people realized he had virtually nothing of value at his home. He amassed no glittering fortune in his service to the nation.

In that mould, true empathy seems to be the calling card of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, with his natural frugality that he never made a show of. There is an abundance of evidence for it — such as his decision to do away with military honors at the occasion of the opening of Parliament, and his opting to forego the use of official residencies, etc. …

It’s in interesting contrast to the UNP type of frugality which was used as a trope to attract votes. It’s simple to explain. Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t say that he was going to live in his own private residence, and make a rooftop slogan of that intent from his campaign trail. He didn’t want to make a song and dance about it in other words, whereas his opponent made a fetish of the fact that he walks around in worn out slippers, and would willingly be the dust that’s trampled by the ordinary people. He claimed he will live in his private residence when President, and it was obvious there was no genuine empathy there, because he was already living in luxury in a chic Colombo condominium complex.

He was having his eye on the votes — i. e: he was thinking of himself first with his ‘I’m the people’s footwear’ gambit, and that’s the antithesis of empathy.

Breaking the mould

It’s clear the President wants to set his own tone and style by contrast, and is not — clearly not — afraid to break the mould. He didn’t beg for votes saying it, but he does live in his simple private residence.

Historians will note that he doesn’t like expensive frills, i.e: he displays natural empathy, and cannot stand humbug. There is a measure of humbug in a regular shirt and trouser wearer switching to national dress as a nod to nationalism, which is of course another vote gathering gimmick.

Sartorially, the President stuck to his coat and tie, the garb he had always used for the formal occasion.

Dr. Mahathir, General Park Chung Hee and Mr. Lee of Singapore who were all architects of successful nation State models, were similarly never unctuous politicians, meaning that they were never oily and slick and didn’t try to ingratiate themselves with the people with humbug such as changing their regular mode of dress for the sake of appearance.

So it seems the President lives up to his image as a doer — the quintessential ‘vedakarana miniha’ , the pith and essence of his campaign message.

In sum it can be said that the collective opposition seems to be gobsmacked by all this no-nonsense messaging in the approach of the new GR administration.

The UNP expected that their man’s rather oily pitch of being the dust that’s trampled by the poor man’s feet, would result in a love fest between them and the people, but instead a man in his own skin is being looked up to as President, and being appreciated by the people because he is the genuine article.

The JVP for its part continues to shoot themselves in the foot by criticizing the President’s every move.

They thought they owned the symbolism of simple hardworking men, with oodles of empathy for the common folk.

But the new President steals their thunder, and does it while not so much as bothering to wear a showpiece national dress or a Mao tunic. The JVP is piqued, and are certainly showing it.

Their leadership has resorted to the usual cavils about the President not being ‘inclusive’ in his address to Parliament. They don’t realize that there is merit in not trying to be all things to all men.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa essentially says ‘this is me, this is my line, no humbug, no frills, no two words about it.’What the perennially losing left comrades don’t realize is that the people waited for years to see someone who ‘says it as it is’ and does not resort to the oily, slick code of the regular unctuous politician.

The JVP should think of getting themselves a refresher course on what’s refreshing to the people.