Groundviews

Maithri’s Mandela Moment: An open letter to the President

Dear Mr President,

Please accept my good wishes on your election victory on a platform for good governance, justice and fairness.

During the past few weeks, we watched – first in astonishment, and then with mounting hope – how you set out as the underdog yet resolutely worked towards election victory.

Your short and swift journey to become the seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka was fraught with challenges and hazards. You won. You are now President of all 21 million Lankans, from all walks of life and irrespective of any labels assigned by birth or culture.

You have been elected for a fixed term of six years. And as you quickly pointed out, you are not a king, and we shall not treat you as one. Two centuries after the Lankan monarchy ended (1815), we must at last exorcise its lingering ghost.

A popular slogan during the election campaign – promoted by apolitical groups and citizen journalists like myself – was that we want to live as citizens, and not subjects. We are counting on you to ensure this happens, fast. No more pseudo-monarchies!

Dear Mr President,

While I respect your high office, I shall not use any deferential honorific – such as Your Excellency, or අතිගරු, උතුමාණෙනි, මැතිතුමනි – to address you. These have been highly misused in the past; in any case, they are a relic of our feudal past that we must let go.

Modern times require that we update such traditions, and our neighbours — with an even greater heritage than ours  — have recently done so. In late 2012, Indian President Pranab Mukherjee changed protocols so that he is no longer addressed as “His Excellency” within the country. “Mr President” is sufficient.

I urge you to adopt a similar approach. And while at it, please also end the disturbing habit of school children and public officials kneeling in front of the president and other politicians. Some might claim this is part of our ‘culture’, but surely there are other ways to greet and show respect without prostrating?

Adversity into advantage

As a communicator, I followed your election campaign with interest. You didn’t have the seemingly bottomless budgets for media advertising or outdoor displays. Neither did you have any access to the state owned, public-funded radio/TV channels that have the widest signal coverage. Your outreach was largely through sympathetic private radio/TV channels plus the web and social media.

Yours was the classic David vs Goliath struggle — how your campaigners turned adversity into advantage deserves to be studied in detail.

Optics (appearances) do matter in today’s information society dominated by mobile phones and social media. You seem to appreciate this going by your consistent gesturing, soft speaking style, reconciliatory tone and sartorial neatness.

Tough as it must surely have been, that was the easy part! Campaigning is one thing; governance is quite another. Your challenge now, heading a coalition government, is to go well beyond image management.

As head of state, we expect you to strive for accuracy, balance and credibility in all communications. The last government relied so heavily on spin doctors and costly lobbyists both at home and abroad. Instead, we want you be honest with us and the outside world. Please don’t airbrush the truth.

Managing Diversity

Your campaign projected visions of a united country and an inclusive society that celebrates diversity – a rainbow nation of sorts. That certainly is an ideal all moderates can aspire to, but pursuing that needs careful and sensitive handling.

There are different models for integrating diverse societies. Leading Indian dancer and social activist Mallika Sarabhai once put her country’s diversity challenge in these words: “We are a salad-like mélange of cultures and not a soup where all variations get reduced to a homogeneous pulp — this, to me, is our greatest strength.”

I realize that salads and soups are not very native metaphors, but this highlights the need for choosing the right model.

In doing so, I hope you will study how India and South Africa – two countries with much greater diversity than Sri Lanka – have tried to maintain unity amidst diversity. Your campaign carried allusions to the two great leaders Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. These struck a chord with many Lankans fed up with divisive and greedy politics. I hope you will continue to draw inspiration from Gandhi, Mandela and other iconic leaders of our time.

Dear Mr President,

Your election victory and the first few days in office evoked strong feelings of Déjà vu in me. Two decades ago, I held my breath when another peaceful regime change took place in Sri Lanka. In November 1994, we elected President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga with the largest ever electoral mandate (62%) for a Lankan president before or since.

I was 28 at the time, and harboured high hopes of her ushering in a more pluralistic, accountable and caring form of government. Alas, the good lady squandered it all away after the first thousand days in office…

For a wee moment after our brutal civil war ended in May 2009, I rekindled my lost hopes for enlightened statesmanship. In an essay titled ‘Memories of War, Dreams of Peace, hurriedly put together within hours of the last shots being fired, I wrote: “Our political leaders, in whom we entrust our collective destiny, now face a historic choice… African analogies can go only so far in Asia, but at this juncture, it is tempting to ask: would our leaders now choose the Mandela Road or the Mugabe Road for the journey ahead?”

Big mistake. I was rebuked by the then government spokesman for this analogy. Within months, I realised how naïve I had been to expect the war winning government to be magnanimous or conciliatory. As we watched, the nation was forced down the Mugabe Road. President Rajapaksa won the war, but lost the peace.

As a result, our society was polarised between pseudo-patriots and the rest branded unfairly as ‘traitors’. Ethnic, religious and other minorities were humiliated and harassed. A deeply suspicious government spied on its own citizens on a massive scale — listening to phone conversations and intercepting electronic exchanges. Dissenting voices in media and civil society were coerced, intimidated or brutally silenced.

We hope you will immediately apply ‘brakes’ on the militarization of the state, brutalisation of polity and ‘saffronisation’ of society. Reversing trends will take time and effort, but you can set the tone.

Dear Mr President,

Unlike many others of my generation, I refuse to be cynical. I remain cautiously optimistic. I dare not give up hope in our collective ability to learn, heal and rebuild.

Right now you must be under pressure from so many individuals and groups. There is much to be done, and expectations are high. In this social media age, newly elected leaders have a much tighter window in which to ‘prove’ themselves. You are under constant scrutiny, with every move over-analysed by admirers and detractors alike.

In such a setting, your ‘minders’ might want you to be all things to all people. Or, heaven forbid, even govern by spin, data doctoring, public distractions and other hazardous tricks. Please resist these temptations at all costs.

We’d much rather have a leader and government who trusts us — and in whom we can place our trust. If you make mistakes, please tell us so. We know you are only human…

Leaders in the 21st Century have to balance between what I call ‘retail’ and ‘wholesale’ policy actions. While elections tend to be won more on retail level issues – those that direct affect citizens on an everyday basis – good governance demands paying sufficient attention to the larger picture, or the wholesale level.

Your election manifesto was an assortment of both kinds. Systemic changes and structural reforms are vital, for sure, but some sections of society also need rapid relief. You will now have to do this tightrope walk everyday!

Dear Mr President,

Since you chose the Mandela metaphor, it is going to stay with you. I trust you realise that this is your Mandela Moment. Your and my hero faced such an open, decisive moment when he walked out of prison in February 1990. As we now know, he had about 1,000 days to pull his nation back from the brink of calamity.

These days, history seems to be marching on steroids. So your – and our – window would close faster. In whatever time left, I hope you can help our nation to awaken from its long nightmare and take the first few steps towards an inclusive, egalitarian and modern society.

Yours unruly,

Nalaka Gunawardene

Citizen, Father and Writer