People envy their rulers, who seem to have all the luck, but there occur times when the latter bemoan their much-coveted positions, just like the title character in Shakespeare’s play, ‘Henry IV’. The English King says, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”. All leaders in this pandemic-hit world must be having many sleepless nights, and wishing they had peace and repose like the ordinary people who go out like a light, the moment they hit the hay. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot be an exception, especially during the current pandemic, which causes slumberless nights to most leaders across the globe.

When President Rajapaksa addressed the nation, on Friday (20), one could see worry written all over his face although he looked surefooted. He is aware of the enormity of the health crisis the country is faced with, and how daunting the task of tackling it is. What he is facing is a war of sorts. Unlike the LTTE, which he was instrumental in defeating, the enemy he is fighting at present is invisible and seemingly invincible; it has aced out even the world powers which boast advanced medical and public healthcare systems.

President Rajapaksa’s address to the nation could be divided roughly into six parts for the purpose of analysis. The first is self-congratulatory. He laid out the achievements of his government, and used the singular first-person pronoun, ‘I’, instead of ‘we’, and apparently sought to take the full credit for the successful Covid-19 inoculation programme. He said:

I made a special commitment to bring in vaccines to Sri Lanka in the recent past. I personally spoke to the Heads of Government in countries like China and India. I personally wrote letters to several other Heads of State. Discussions were held with vaccine producing countries through our Foreign Ministry, Ambassadors and High Commissioners. Our officials coordinated with vaccine manufacturing companies. 

“All these efforts were made because I wanted to vaccinate all the people of our country.”

The President’s efforts to gain political mileage from the country’s successful vaccination campaign may be thought to indicate that he is already working towards his re-election. If he could steer the vaccination drive to a successful conclusion, contain the pandemic, reopen the country and make the post-Covid new normal tolerable to the public, he may be able to take a head start over his contenders in the next presidential race. But this move is not without an element of gambling. What if things do not go as planned?

All politicians are given to self-promotion. But nobodycould be blamed for blowing his or her trumpet, for no one else is going to do it for him or her. Who wants to blow someone else’s trumpet? The President may not be a seasoned politician, but he seems to have realized the importance of self-advertisement in politics. A leader, however, should be careful not to succumb to exuberance and thereby make self-promotion an overkill. While on the subject of self-advertisement, what current Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation Chairman Hudson Samarasinghe once said of a piece of advice the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa had given him comes to mind.

Samarasinghe said over a radio programme, a few years ago,that President Premadasa had asked him to do something for the benefit of the public, and he had done so promptly. A few days later, when he met President Premadasa, the latter had inquiredwhether the task assigned to him had been carried out, and the former had answered in the affirmative only to be told that nothing about it had been reported in the media. When Samarasinghe said he had not cared to invite the media, the late President had asked him why he thought the tills in shrines were made of metal. Not satisfied with the answer he received, Premadasa had explained to Samarasinghe that when someone put a coin into a metal till, the sound it made resonated, and attracted the attention of the devotees, who turned their eyes to see who had made the donation. Premadasa had asked Samarasinghe to make it a point to ensure that the public were made aware of what was done for them. President Rajapaksa sems to be learning the ropes very fast where publicity is concerned.

The second part of the President’s speech dealt with the harsh economic reality. He dwelt on the deteriorating economic situation due to the pandemic, and made specific mention of the huge costs of lockdowns. He said the country had witnessed the lowest economic growth since Independence during the first wave of Covid-19 due to lockdowns. The apparel sector, which contributed about USD 5 billion to the economy, had been badly affected, he said, noting that the export earnings had plummeted, and tourism, which helped the country rake in USD 4.5 billion and provided employment to about three million people had collapsed. The construction industry had also been crippled, and investment, both local and foreign, had dropped. Small and medium enterprises, which accounted for about 50% of the GDP, had been disrupted by lockdowns. Nearly 4.5 million self-employed people had lost their livelihoods, the President stressed.

Having mentioned the economic and social consequences of the act of closing the country, the President announced his decision to impose another round of lockdowns:

“However, I have decided to impose a lockdown from 10 pm today till 4 am on 30th Monday of this month in order to contain the increase of COVID patients”.  

The President, in the third part of his speech, pointed out the hardships amidst which his government was servicing the country’s debts and paying the public sector salaries. He said that even though the country’s foreign exchange earnings had dropped, the government did not default on loan installments, and paid ‘a colossal loan installment of about USD 4 billion a year as a result of the loans obtained by various governments in the past’. He made it clear that his government was paying the loans drawn by its predecessors.

The President’s reference to the government servants’ salaries is of importance in that the public sector trade unions have beencausing a lot trouble to his government and pressing for a lockdown.

“Even under this dire situation, the government has never taken any action to reduce the salaries or curtail the allowances of more than 1.4 million public servants.”

In the fourth part of his speech, the President pays a glowing tribute to the health workers for the excellent work they are doing.

“Although the government does everything it can to provide oxygen, establish intermediate treatment centers and administer vaccines, it is the role of the doctors to manage patients appropriately. Also, I highly appreciate the service rendered by the doctors, nurses and all other health sector officials so far, despite the risk to their lives. I also pay my respects to the health sector officials belonging to all ranks who have sacrificed their lives.”

The next part of his speech contains a single sentence, which, however speaks volumes. It is a swipe at his political opponents responsible for the recent waves of protest. The protesters were public employees such as nurses and teachers. The President attributes the protests to a sinister motive:  

“It is clear that this is not a time for strike actions and protests. Do not attempt to destabilize the country [emphasis added].”

The final part of the President’s speech contains two important points; the people must realize the gravity of the situation and work unitedly to fight the pandemic, and they must be prepared to make more sacrifices in case of the prolongation of lockdowns. He stopped short of specifying the sacrifices he expected the people to make, but it is obvious that the ones he has in mind are mostly economic. They could even be pay cuts in the public sector.

All in all, President Rajapaksa’s address to the nation, on Friday, was far more effective than the previous one, in which he said a lot but left the public none the wiser. Clarity and brevity are hallmarks of good public speaking.



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