Wijith DeChickera notes that the barometer of rights and reforms may have dropped – and the balloon of growth and progress is rising

February in our isle is a time of heady ideas. Freedom is in the air, fresh from the febrile hopes of the New Year. Independence Day can be a crucible in which the hopes of a pluralist inclusive nation could be forged – or the anvil on which faith may well be crushed again by a polarised and divided polity.

Feels like charity should trump chauvinism but one suspects it won’t.

Liberty, someone wrote a long time ago in a fairer republic, what crimes are committed in thy name! Far be it from us (as a newfound patriotic people) to wish for such a calamity to befall our beloved country.

This year, the zeitgeist favours less reforms oriented transformational fervour. The time for a certain type of reformist revolution is over. Certainly, the ‘8 January Revolution’ of 2015 proved to be a damp squib – with some exceptions such as a freer media, an independent (or was it, given those notorious leaked CDs?) judiciary and the right to access state information for oversight purposes. There was also a zeitgeist of tolerance and laissez faire.

Sadly for civil society, the would-be reformers demonstrated themselves to be in need of reformation themselves! Now, the executive is leading a different campaign of radical change based on law and order (impartial). The thing is to keep it from degenerating into law by order (selective).

HEALTHY REPUBLIC A heartfelt nationwide cry for change has been the clarion call since before that fateful presidential election on 16 November. In sundry spheres of the corridors of power and from state machinery to marketplace ethics, Sri Lanka’s post-independence need was for growth with equity; development with concern for equitability; and progress with peace and justice.

And in any nation state worth its salt as a modern player in an internationalist arena, that would be the rallying cry for elected standard-bearers of the people.

Yet, it remains to be seen if a monolithic government is up to the challenges ahead. It’s still very early days indeed, and mixed signals emanate from power centres that characterise a regime with great potential to sign, seal and deliver a new deal like never before.

On the one hand – a technocratic leader with the drive, a meritocratic approach to national appointments… the signs are good. On the other – lapses in filling some key posts, a move to consolidate executive power over other arms of government… some cracks are starting to show.

MIA FUNDAMENTALS While public spaces are bound to become pleasantly safer to be in, a corresponding space – the ability to critically engage government if you don’t agree with its mandarins and their policies – may be shrinking.

This of course, is more intuited by the dissenters rather than instituted by our democratically elected – yet clearly, majoritarian – government. And its man-date may be interpreted more narrowly than is desirable in the larger national interest. Singing the national anthem in a single language is the case in point.

That the incumbent regime means serious business is very clear to those who have vision to see. This may not include those who have turned a Nelsonian eye on arresting developments of late.

There is such a thing as even the most intelligent of interlocutors being naive or simple in their interpretation of recent events – whether it is by design (i.e. they have a vested interest in endorsing the status quo) or default (viz. there are no hidden agendas, simply pressing bottom line realities) is a moot point, which big business doesn’t discuss.

ECONOMIC DRIVE It’s far too early for prophecies or predictions. In the short to medium terms, the government’s economic policies seem more likely to challenge delivery on soft essentials, hard infrastructure, sundry processes through fiscal diktats (e.g. a minimum wage of Rs. 1,000 for a cash strapped tea industry) and tax cuts. Question is: how will there be a recovery?

It also remains to be seen how soon and by how much the state’s mantra of ‘security, stability, sustainability, sovereignty’ will yield the quantum of dividends that a neo-democratic society expects. In the short term, business confidence – yet, not quite its bottom line – has bounced back…

is probably what has corporate Sri Lanka so gung-go about this presidency.

From a miniscule escort on the day of a prorogued parliament’s first session in early January to surprise visits to national establishments such as an airport, the Department  of Motor Traffic in Werahera and the National Hospital in Colombo, the president is personally sending out strong signals about ‘discipline’ and ‘efficiency’ like none of his predecessors have done.

It is government by example, enquiry and engagement at the ground level. The danger of it escalating into the business of dynamic governance by a streamlined bureaucratic mindset seems slim.

There is a challenge to civil society however, on the constitutional tinkering front. Commerce and industry may welcome a shift in the balance of power between president and prime minister but whether it will serve the state or some vested interests might suggest proceeding with caution.