How did we fail in the most essential task of nation building?

Monday, 16 March 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

President Gotabaya’s resounding election victory should usher in a long-awaited meritocratic government which will be responsible to create an internationally respectable government and the promised land of unity with financial probity, security, peace, progress, happiness and development – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


  • ‘Tone at the top’ influences all elements of governance (part 2)

Man occupies an exalted position on the earth. John Adams had pronounced: “If the meanest man in the republic is deprived of his rights then every man in the republic is deprived of his rights.”

Abraham Lincoln, former US President, a statesman par excellence, who had led the nation during the American civil war through its greatest moral, constitutional and political crisis, had said: “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired labourer, hauling rails, at work on a flatboat – just what might happen to any poor man’s son. I want every single man given opportunities.”

He had added that “America will not be destroyed from outside, if we falter our freedoms, we will destroy America from within”. President Lincoln was responsible for abolishing slavery, strengthening the Federal Government and modernising the US economy. He had also said: “With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nations wounds.”

Strong leadership

Strong leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. It is a pre-requisite to achieve growth and development. A strong leader should essentially ‘walk the talk’. He should model good governance behaviour and demonstrate the commitment to achieve government objectives through accountable processes.  I believe the ‘tone at the top’ influences virtually all elements of governance. We have a top-heavy government. The composition of the House of Representatives in USA with a population of 330.4 million is 435. In Indian Lok Sabha with a population of 1.386 billion is 545. We have 225 with a population of 21.44 million. Shouldn’t it be halved? It is a white elephant. Taxpayer carries a burden of nearly 9,000 elected representatives at all levels.

The President, the Cabinet of Ministers are the ultimate decision makers of the government. The Cabinet ratifies all the decisions with collective responsibility. I am unable to believe Mahinda Rajapaksa, former President, said that he did not take pains to study the cabinet papers in detail. That proves they did not do honest governance. They have not been responsive to the needs of the country. They had failed to exercise prudence in policy/decision making in the best interest of the citizens.

They had violated the basic tenets of statecraft: (a) being responsive to public demands; (b) being transparent in the allocation of resources and; (c) being equitable in the distribution of goods. They were busy thinking of ways how to increase their personal wealth. 

It was our misfortune past leaders did not serve; they were served. When holding positions, they behaved as a superior class. They thought they were omnipotent. JRJ, the first Executive President, had said: “Only thing I cannot do is to make a man a woman and vice versa.” Such leaders and their cronies considered they are above the law. They have ruined statecraft for personal gain. Powers that be should know that they have been empowered to perform the assigned duties and responsibilities within the framework of the Constitution. It has been so designed to ensure that the peoples’ rights are well taken care of by these institutions, elected representatives and appointed public officers within the rule of law.  The Constitution requires the entire system should fundamentally operate with the understanding that all elected and appointed officials, including the President are accountable to the general public through the Parliament and to the government. It is a good omen that the present Presidents goes through every word carefully in cabinet papers, as former President had hinted. 

The Cabinet of Ministers should only include the resourceful, dedicated, hardworking good people, who bring their ideas, experiences, preferences and other human strengths to the policy-making table of the government – the Cabinet. 

There is a need to democratise the oldest democracy in Asia, the model democracy then, by adding innovative resources to all democratic institutions. All have been weakened and malnourished. Good governance is the only possible path to limit and restrain state power to strengthen democratic governance. The application of doctrine of separation of powers is the finest and the best technique to establish good governance and say ‘no’ to extractive type of politicos in the system. 

Rebuilding the nation 

We now need a leader who is strong, courageous, fearless and farsighted. Shouldn’t we also as a nation take the bull by the horns, by taking the onerous task of rebuilding the nation? It is my personal experience serving people with humility and grace is the very essence of good leadership. Good leadership spells good governance, creates pathway to peace, unity, progress and development. 

President Gotabaya’s manifesto ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ says – “The ultimate aim of all governments in the world is to achieve a series of desirable objectives such as reduction of poverty, healthy population, education for all, and a clean environment, etc., which are among the sustainable development goals of the United Nations.”

In UK, Prime Minister Theresa May had issued similar guidelines that needs to be adhered to by the Members of the Cabinet. I quote: “The mission of this government is to build a country that works for everyone, not just the privileged few. That means putting ourselves firmly at the service of ordinary working people across the nation who are looking to us to step up and take the big decisions necessary to guide our country through this period of great national change. That is what politics is all about: taking the big decisions, serving the people, getting on with the job. It is why I have spoken of the need to recognise the good that government can do and of what an enormous privilege it is to have the chance to serve the public in this way.” Successive presidents and their cronies have hoodwinked the masses and destroyed the rule of law, demolished almost all democratic institutions and had been complicit in brazen acts of corruption. Transparency International defines corruption as the use of entrusted power for private gain. Shouldn’t we therefore adhere to advice of PM Theresa May from now onwards?

Corruption that had taken place in our country could be classified as grand, petty and political. The blatant abuse of power has undermined the political system and skewed it toward the politically connected at the expense of everyone else. Top elected officials and their misconduct has created the need to begin more significant reforms, if there is sufficient political will with the newly elected President.

Meritocratic government

President Gotabaya’s resounding election victory should therefore usher in a long-awaited meritocratic government which will be responsible to create an internationally respectable government and the promised land of unity with financial probity, security, peace, progress, happiness and development. President Gotabaya should ensure:

1. Public debt which has exceeded manageable limits should be re-scheduled to be maintained at fiscally sustainable levels to ensure that the delivery of programs, projects and services are not adversely impacted;

2. Financial risks should be managed prudently;

3. A fiscal decision-making system that is rational, fair, efficient, credible, transparent and accountable should be maintained and

4. Government will only authorise to borrow for the following purposes:

a. Short-term – Operational requirements

b. Long-term – Infrastructure investments

c. Long-term – Self-liquidating investments

d. Short-term/long-term – Self-sustaining loan programs

Lawlessness and corruption should become a thing of the past. Hence, executing the laws according to the letter of the Constitution and providing the ideal service to our motherland should be the name of the game.  I strongly believe we need an honest visionary leadership with political will and altruistic enthusiasm to combine all our energies to uplift our ransacked motherland. A purposefully drawn up, well-planned, orchestrated, bold, pragmatic, persistent program of action is the need of the hour. Gotabaya government should therefore usher in justice, peace and end impunity. 

President Gotabaya should necessarily create a meaningful, efficient, effective ethical political network to restrain the abuse of power, and produce socioeconomic development policies which could reduce weighty social inequities and contribute to sustainable peace, economic growth, political stability and social development. 

Paradigm shift

The Parliament and public sector should play their key role for the government and for the benefit of the citizens. This has not been done. They have disgracefully disregarded the fact that the public sector and the Parliament should essentially win the confidence of the masses and their endorsement. Both Parliament and the public sector need a paradigm shift to embrace professionalism and knowhow and undergo significant reforms without delay to fulfil the new President’s goals.

Let me quote in regard to the post-Watergate reforms carried out after the doomed presidency of Richard Nixon. The US authorities had expeditiously done several reforms to introduce new measures to combat the corrupting influence of big money in politics by promoting transparency, protecting people against abuses of government power and limiting certain extraordinary exercises of presidential authority. They had created the Federal Election Commission (FEC) too and had introduced limits on election expenditure, etc. 

The Inspector General Act was quickly enacted as a means of strengthening integrity and accountability in the Executive Branch. Wide-powers had been granted to carry out audits and investigations and report the outcomes and make recommendations to promote economy, efficiency, and effectiveness. This agency had thereafter been able to save billions of dollars, propose transformational reforms and prosecute thousands of offenders throughout USA. Why is that we don’t act like in USA?

The then Chief Justice Earl Warren (USA) had said: “If anything is to be learned from our present difficulties, compendiously known as Watergate, it is that we must open our public affairs to public scrutiny on every level of management. It was in this vein that congress passed two separate laws to enhance government transparency. The first of these laws, the Federal Advisory Committee Act – enacted before Nixon even left office – sets out rules requiring certain processes for federal advisory committees to ensure that advice by the various advisory committees formed over the years is objective and accessible to the public.” There is enough empirical evidence in countries like Sweden how they have succeeded in creating employment, reducing the budget deficit etc. Their government, which was elected in 1994, amidst a severe economic crisis had remediated all policies, and had achieved resounding success having eradicated the budget deficit just in a few years. The Swedish economy had quickly gathered growth speedily and unemployment too had fallen. 

It is therefore vital to seek maximum co-operation from both elected and appointed public officers to revise, renew and implant new policies, principles, values, mission and the purpose of the public service with new dynamism and strength. These need to be fortified with honesty, trust and openness to win the hearts and minds of the people.

It is essential that the entire public service needs to be re-organised totally to become a much more dynamic and responsive organisation. Sadly, the top layer in the governance system lacks leadership capabilities including professionalism.  We also shouldn’t think of there being only two sectors of society, the State and the marketplace – which I mean is both the public and private sectors. How about the civil society? To take the country forward, shouldn’t we build our democracy with their total support and approval too. Former Prime Minister of Great Britain had said – “Don’t follow the crowd, let the crowd follow you.”

(To be continued.)


(The writer can be reached via email at

Recent columns