14 July 2013

The President’s name and face

President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that if anyone has done anything wrong that person needs to be punished, whether or not the concerned individual carries a picture of the president on his or her person.  He pointed out that under cover of his photograph there are people who produce moonshine, operate buses without permit. 

It is perhaps an indication of the power vested in the office of the Executive President in the 1978 Constitution that Mahinda Rajapaksa is called upon to resolve all matters big and small.  This could also mean that relevant officials are either incompetent or scared to be found ‘erring’ in the presidential eye.  The flip side, either way, is that if the all-powerful can right wrongs (and wrong rights too!) then the shortest cut to getting anything done (right or wrong) is obtaining presidential approval or endorsement, or else feigning to have got it. 
We can blame J.R. Jayewardene for this state of affairs; after all the use and abuse of name and image is not a feature particular to this regime. We saw it during the tenure of Chandrika Kumaratunga and that of Ranasinghe Premadasa as well.  If in the case of Mahinda Rajapaksa, name and image appear to have greater weight, it can be attributed to his signature achievement, that of freeing the country of terrorism.

On the other hand, the natural add-on of that victory has been enhanced in the process of stating and re-stating that obvious edge over predecessors, in and out of context, by friend and foe alike; the former for purposes of self-preservation and career-advancement and the latter in the rush to paint him into a larger-than-life monster.  Both types have carefully avoided riders, qualifiers that offer the true dimensions of the man, that which is praiseworthy and that which is not. 
The point is that the President’s face and name have been framed and uttered respectively all over the country and through all media.  From giant hoardings during elections through endorsement-claim in posters and leaflets by politicians in his party in elections regional and national (as glory-rub) to inserts in project-announcing and project-completion ads (mega and buddy sized projects both) there’s nowhere to escape the all-powerful image.  Then we have the name salaamed by one and all, as preface in the manner of ‘Under the direction and guidance of…’, and endnote thanks.  Finally there are the name boards; Mahinda Rajapaksa this and Mahinda Rajapaksa that for road, building, airport, theatre, initiative and whatnot, perhaps without direction from the man but certainly with indulgence.   

It indicates, as pointed out, the power of the office and the personality of the individual.  It is also an indication of sycophantic dimensions.  The bottom line is this: if the country is flooded with the president’s photograph and if his name falls like rain on every inch of ground then it is natural that image and name will be picked up by those who find in them a useful tool to get what they want. 
It is in this context that the President’s observation on the phenomenon and his consequent warning to disregard has to be appreciated.  The process may have done its work (good and bad) to a point where reversal is not possible, but there is no harm in attempting to rectify matters. 

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, perhaps more than any politician in the post-Independence period, can well afford to erase name and image and yet remain ‘present’ in the minds and hearts of the population, for the good he has done and the bad that has happened under his watch.  He can take much from the tombstone epitaph of Sir Christopher Wren, who designed new churches and supervised reconstruction after the Great Fire of London. 
Underneath lies buried Christopher Wren, the builder of this church and city; who lived beyond the age of ninety years, not for himself, but for the public good. If you seek his memorial, look about you.’

Most importantly, he will not have every two-bit thug and petty thief (not to mention grandmasters of swindle and underworld kings) abusing his name and office.