A challenging first year in office | Sunday Observer

A challenging first year in office

15 November, 2020

It is generally accepted that the conflict in the North and the East would not have ended without the political leadership provided by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the active military coordination of then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This twin combination enabled the Sri Lankan Security Forces to march to victory in just over four years, a great achievement against a terror outfit that some foreign military experts called ‘invincible’.

Once the war ended, President Rajapaksa gave him another role in addition to the Defence Secretary’s post – the post of Urban Development Secretary. Gotabaya Rajapaksa shone in this role as well, completely transforming Colombo within a couple of years. Several derelict buildings were turned into modern edifices without essentially changing their iconic character. This earned him plaudits in Sri Lanka and elsewhere as a visionary urban planner as well.

Although Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself may not have thought much about it, many people, and political opponents of the Rajapaksa Government included, saw a potential future leader in him. Many intellectuals and others flocked around him without any political bias, attracted by his ability to get things done, his effortless flow of ideas and creative streak. This movement gradually grew into what is now known as the Viyath Maga (Path of Intellectuals). It was not a political movement per se, but rather a collective that wanted to resolve many problems the country was facing.

It was in this milieu that the Yahapalana (Good Governance) Government was ushered into power amid much fanfare. But the honeymoon did not last all that long. What began with the Central Bank bond scam ended with the tragic Easter attacks of April 2019 and people began to clamour for a more astute leadership and a more stable Government that could give due place to national security. There was one name on everyone’s lips – Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It was inevitable that he would be propelled by a diverse array of forces including the Viyath Maga to seek the highest office in Sri Lanka.

Just one year earlier, the people had handed over a resounding victory to the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Local Government Elections. With Presidential Elections due to be held before end 2019, there was a clamour from all corners to nominate Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the candidate of the SLPP, though he himself was apolitical.

While many expressed optimism at his chances, there were well-meaning critics who pointed out that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had zero political experience, having never been an MP or a Minister. However, others noted his excellent track record as a military commander and an administrator. Moreover, his opponent was the son of a former President who had close to two decades of political experience, which some feared would hinder his chances.

However, all these fears came to naught as Gotabaya Rajapaksa polled 6.9 million votes, an astonishing record for a political novice.

Exactly one year ago, at his swearing-in, he promised to be a President for all Sri Lankans and work towards a future where all could live in harmony. There were many challenges in store for him, from reviving a battered economy to improving foreign relations. However, little did anyone guess that a far bigger crisis would engulf practically the whole world and pose an unprecedented challenge to Governments everywhere, ours included.

This was an enemy unseen and unheard, which conquered the whole world in a few months. It would not be incorrect to say that the Coronavirus pandemic would become virtually a baptism of fire for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Here again, his professional skills and Forces-instilled discipline came into play, as he took decisive steps to keep the disease at bay. Indeed, thanks largely to his vision and the cooperation of the health sector and Security Forces personnel, Sri Lanka was able to contain the first wave of the disease with just over 10 deaths and a few thousands infected persons. The World Health Organization and many other countries praised the President for his endeavours. The Government was even able to successfully hold a General Election on August 5, which gave an overwhelming near two-thirds majority to the SLPP.

But now that the country is facing virtually a second, more deadly wave of the pandemic, the President and the Government cannot be expected to handle it alone. The President is doing everything humanely possible to handle the second round of the pandemic, but public cooperation is vital. Sri Lanka will be a success story on the international stage once again only if the public follows through with the recommended health guidelines to prevent the further spread of the disease. We have to remember that the Government spends Rs.60 million per day on PCR tests alone, which a developing country can hardly afford.

Amid all this, the President and the Government are doing everything possible for Sri Lanka to surpass that ‘developing’ label. In just a few days, the massive expansion project of the Bandaranaike International Airport will begin. Over 100,000 Km of rural roads are being renovated or newly built. Irrigation tanks and waterways are being renovated. A housing program is underway. The Central Expressway is nearing completion and work on the Ruwanpura Expressway is to begin soon. That is the real hallmark of a leader – soaring even higher amid the biggest challenge to ever face any presidency in Sri Lanka, period. It is the fervent wish of all Sri Lankans that he will be able to eradicate the Coronavirus menace and usher in greater prosperity for all.