Choosing our President: what are we getting into?

Candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa was addressing a massive rally in Polonnaruwa. Just as he commenced with the usual preliminaries, there occurred a diversion.

Wasantha Senanayake, the infantile trapeze artist, thought it was the opportune time to appear from nowhere to stage his most contemporary somersault. The din he made was undoubtedly substantial.

The candidate lost his cool. Visibly angered he turned to the organisers on stage. ‘Why did you make him walk in when I am on my feet?’

The video clip of the trivial incident went viral in no time.

Was it trivial?

If it was Mahinda, he would have suppressed his annoyance to greet the surprise intruder with outstretched arms. He would have told the settlers of Polonnaruwa that even the comic entertainer and great grandson of the father of the nation who settled their ancestors in their homesteads was now on their side of the barricade.

Gota’s style

That is not Gota’s style. He has no control over his impulses. If elected he will have awesome power.

If elected he will say that his triumph is proof that he was always right. He will insist that his predispositions, his instincts are always perfect.

His overarching message is based on fear. He brooks no opposition. He allows no dissent. He simply cannot forgive a slight. He must retaliate even in language that is not quite civil.

A female journalist once dared to question how he got the national airline to ferry a ‘puppy’ from Switzerland. He saw it as absolute insolence. He called her a ‘poo eating pig’ in more colourful, more explicit words.

The Polonnaruwa episode is not the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is a ghastly reminder of the glacier that will start melting no sooner he becomes president. That terrible possibility propels these musings.

Gotabaya has been running for the presidency for the last three years. It took him that long to present his older brother, the head of the family firm with a proposition he simply could not refuse. He has a solid base.

The oligarchs demand a leader who will offer stability and social order. Tenderpreneurs who measure growth in terms of unaffordable constriction projects with little utility value, yearn for the ‘man in a hurry’ to deliver, unafraid to issue instantaneous edicts. The bigots want a man who shares their idea of the enemy.

A sizeable segment of the urban middleclass driving their limousines to work from suburban homes in Maharagama and Malabe and Moratuwa expect free flowing traffic undisturbed by protesters hogging streets. Then there are the hapless poor who want hospitals to function uninterrupted by lightning walkouts by the union of mercenary doctors, whom we now know were hired for that exact purpose.

The constituency of the strong man with a short fuse is substantial. We are now at the brink, staring into the abyss. This is the week when we must decide to turn back from that precipitous slide.

I was deeply skeptical about the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa. I have changed my mind. Over the last three weeks, he has positively demonstrated the qualities of a solidly civic leader, sensitive to the pulse of the people, demands of the age and the imperatives we can no longer ignore.

Since declaring his candidacy, he has succeeded in inspiring a constituency that was in deep hibernation. How big that constituency is, we will know on election day.

He has built for himself a vast swathe of public opinion of his phenomenal capacity to become a reasonable and empathetic leader who has mastery in the art of relationship building with the varied segments of a plural society.

He is ready to shape public policy with an audacity unheard of in the hide bound UNP. He has promised a new beginning. He has promised to dump dead weight and dead doctrine.

His promise is precise. He will not make his presidency a gravy train.

“No Minister will be able to appoint family members to important positions.”

“No person facing allegations of corruption will be given Ministerial positions. Certain positions will be reserved for qualified professionals.”

This is not empty rhetoric. Sajith has promised things he will do in the week after the presidential election. That is what matters. A new beginning. A credible beginning.

He will start off by providing an effective leadership to his rudderless party. He has demonstrated his integrity by accepting error. It requires courage. It requires humility to realize and concede one’s own frailties.

In sharp contrast to Gotabaya’s reticence in taking part in public open discussion Sajith participated in two public parleys. He was asked complex questions which were at times perilous for an incumbent minister in a meandering administration.

Calm self-assurance

He performs with a calm self-assurance. His performance is light years away from the military machismo that his opponent excludes when cornered with an uncomfortable question as was the case in the only press conference he has participated into date.

Sajith can face an interlocutor with ease. He listens with a winning politeness.

He doesn’t get defensive. He takes time before responding. He gains valuable time to offer a thoughtful response. Unlike Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa can remain calm in the face of questions.

A good leader understands his critics.

A good leader must have the capacity to be a detached observer of a situation and arrive at a solution that is best, effective and satisfactory to all parties. A good leader should be capable of identifying and understanding the interests of his critics and opponents.

A president of the republic should not dream of performing as a gladiator in the arena.

Unlike Gotabaya, Sajith can “quiet the self.” “Self-quiet” is a term coined by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Brooks offers good advice to would-be presidents. When criticized or insulted don’t get inside the game. Step outside. Discover yourself. “Pride is painful. The person who can quiet the self can see the world clearly, can learn the subject and master the situation.”

Now you will understand why wise and old Mr. Sampanthan has decided to support the candidacy of Sajith Premadasa.

They want a Sinhala leader who will step outside and see their problem as an observer. They don’t want a gladiator who will conflate the problem. Sajith Premadasa is our last best hope.



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