President Mahinda Rajapakse`s surprise visit to the Registrar of Motor Vehicles Department (RMV) on Thursday reminds one of the late President Premadasa, who employed similar methods to keep the state employees on their toes. His penchant for having a finger in every pie was legendary. He was one of the few leaders who had mastered the art of dealing with the so-called government servants. Shock therapy, he knew, was the only way to spur them to do what they were paid for with public funds. A few days ago, we mentioned in these columns how a GA in the South, on finding a construction project couldn`t be completed in time for President Premadasa`s visit, had removed his tie and coat and helped the contractor with laying pipes.
The mobile presidential service was his most effective invention to do away with the bureaucratic red tape, the bane of state administration. He not only went among the people but also made his ministers and their mandarins place themselves at the service of the people. He, no doubt, undermined the Provincial Councils etc. by trespassing on their devolved power in the process but given the callous disregard politicians and bureaucrats have for the voiceless, he found no other way to help the public. He also met the public as early as 3.30-4.00 a.m. and caused many a public officer to jump out of the bed and attend to grievances of the people. He certainly overstepped his limits and was, in the end, running a virtual one man show. But his modus operandi in handling the public service worked to a great extent. His motto appeared to be: `Spare the roughshod and spoil the government servant.` Once a harassed bank customer from Galle met President Premadasa early in the morning at Sucharitha and appealed for redress. He went back home and was relaxing in the afternoon when the manager of the bank concerned materialised at the doorstep with a letter in his hand. He had been ordered to meet the customer and attend to his grievance immediately, which was done within hours. That was Premadasa`s way!
Success of the much flaunted Mahinda Chintanaya hinges on the ability of the government to deliver on the ground. No amount of propaganda is going to make it work unless the state machinery is geared for that task. Else, it will remain a set of lofty ideals couched in rhetoric.
The President`s sudden visit in question is, one might think, an indication that he has realised the need to spur the state institutions into action, one by one. Let`s hope so! RMV is one of the most corrupt institutions, where hardly anything gets done unless several palms are greased. Cleansing it of corruption as well as rendering it efficient is a Herculean task. If that could be done, Mahinda may consider it the biggest achievement in his life. He, according to reports, exchanged pleasantries with the workers and promised some welfare measures like a daycare centre. True, workers need facilities and a pleasant atmosphere to work in. But MR has to go beyond PR in making state employees pull their socks up, especially in a place like RMV, where the public undergo harassment and exploitation. If Mahinda tries surprise visits by way of PR exercises, then he will find himself very popular among state employees but not among the public.
Former Presidents had at their disposal special investigation units vested with immense powers. President Kumaratunga used her unit to give shock therapy to school principals and had powerful old boys` and old girls` unions striking back. Such a unit will be useful in ridding the public sector of malpractices and making it people friendly, if witch hunts are avoided.
A little bit of Premadasaism is perhaps required in dealing with the state service characterised by lethargy, corruption, negativism and callousness. But it should be done, as is said, the way pepper is added to a soup. Premadasa`s detractors say he not only poured too much of pepper into the soup but landed us all in it.
The way forward for Mahinda Chinthanaya appears to be sifting what was good in Premadasaism?like `taking development to the village level`? and leaving the rest out. Let surprise presidential visits be more fruitful and beneficial to the public and the institutions concerned.