Colombo Telegraph

Both Government And Opposition Going Hither And Thither

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Both government and opposition going hither and thither; It’s looking quite Kafkaesque

Let’s start with the government side. Yes any explicit rift between President and PM is being very carefully and intelligently managed and avoided; anything like that will be suicidal, both know that and to a degree they may be playing good-cop bad-cop. Nevertheless one would have to be blind to miss that on two matters they are taking contradictory stands. Sirisena is playing straight to the Sinhala nationalist gallery and struggling to keep his head above water in the SLFP survival game. In the ‘foreign judges or no foreign judges’ tribunal issue he is trembling before these champions. He has firmly declared that no war-crimes were committed, human rights were not violated on a large scale and the military is sacrosanct. In that case why HIS government agreed in Geneva to an investigative process at all beats me. Why not come clean and declare: “We were pushed into investigations, but we have no intention of doing anything serious about it; watch and see how we sweep everything under the carpet”?

Ranil and Mangala have a different take on the matter. They are prisoners of undertakings they gave the entire world standing on the Geneva podium. Their problem is how to wiggle out but still retain at least a shred of Sri Lankan credibility. “B-C Pact, Dudly-Chelva Deal”, some people mutter, “just doing it one more time.” Well it is more difficult for two reasons; first the sucker to be taken for a ride this time is the whole international community though now that regime change is done Western governments, not human-rights activists, are more concerned to protect that gain than commiserate with snivelling Tamils. The second difference is that Sinhala chauvinism is comparatively weaker now than it was in 1958, 1977 and 1983 and the new government less accommodating. If only the race mobs come on to the streets to loot, rape and burn they can be soundly thrashed. Pity they prefer Hyde Park rallies!

The indispensable link for stability of the government – Won’t the opposition love to disrupt it!

To return to my theme, yes there is a game of good-cop bad-cop, but that is not all. There seems to be a mild parting of ways between Sirisena and Ranil-Mangala. So the processes will be drag and a via media will be worked out without cashiering war-criminals. Have no doubts about that.

The other issue on which bedlam prevails is chaos in the SLFP. The Sirisena faction threatened to fire anyone who attended Mahinda’s mutinous Hyde Park rally, then backed down in a funk when about 30 SLFP ‘Joint Opposition’ MP’s defied the threat. Point and set to the Paksa side and egg on the face of Maithripala Sirisena, President of the SLFP and Sri Lanka. The SLFP is about evenly split, one corrupt, opportunistic lot in cabinet raking in the stuff, another corrupt chauvinist lot, baying for the blood of their President. There is some speculation that the UNP, or at least sections, are glad of the crisis in the SLFP and are promoting chaos so as to weaken or split it. This is very unwise; if the Sirisena faction declines to a shadow of itself it will be fatal for the government both in parliament and outside.

Much of the blame for the revival of Rajapaksa’s fortunes has to be laid at the door of Sirisena. There have been two palpable major blunders; Rajapaksa should never have been given SLFP nomination to contest Kurunegala, possibly forcing a split in the SLFP at a time when his faction was much weaker, and the second blunder is failing to prosecute Paksa era crooks and criminals firmly. Received wisdom is that it was Sirisena more than Ranil who was putting on the brakes on prosecution. The famous tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude was to assassinate Caesar and then let Mark Anthony address the Roman mob; the rest of the story is both well known and entirely predictable. Sirisena (or Sirisena and Ranil) have handled Paksa era crooks and the Paksa clan crooks and criminals with much the same magnanimity as the honourable but short-sighted Brutus bestowed on Anthony.

The absence of policy consistency in the government is a result of different factions pulling in different directions. The prevarications on the budget are hard to forgive. Did the local and global scene change so dramatically in six months that an overhaul on such a scale was suddenly needed? No, it was a consequence of the liberal-bourgeois (some call it the neo-liberal) faction first getting its way, and when hard reality, which the blindfolded did not see, hitting like a sledgehammer. Both tax concessions to the well-off and the poor man’s prices both had to take a hit. The stats on fiscal deficit, balance of payments shortfall, declining local and foreign investment, horrendous debt servicing schedules the fall of the rupee were obvious from months ago. But we witness an unseemly run-around like a headless chicken.

A more recent example of disorderly pushing of panic buttons is the muddled reaction to the all Island power blackouts. A Ministerial and CEB Committee were appointed in September 2015 and Canadian consultants hired to write a report. In February 2016 the CEB set up a technical committee, the PM set up a broader one and the President formed a committee of Ministers. Thereafter teams were invited from Japan and Germany to examine the damaged transformers and recommend measures to rehabilitate declining system reliability. How to ensure consistency and coordination among all eight?

The devil in the Joint Opposition (JO)

The happenings on the Joint Opposition side too are like a page out of Kafka! Rajapaksa forces feel they are on an up-swell and there is one overriding reason; the economy is not doing well and prices have risen. There is a secondary reason; the inability of the government to act on corruption and criminal charges (money laundering and murder) is noted as a sign of weakness. As pressure on the government increases I expect two things; first a more populist economic tilt to consolidate popular support – not even Ranil is loony enough to imagine he can survive a love affair with neo-liberalism in this day and age when even the US is distancing itself. Secondly if its survival is threatened I think both Ranil and Sirisena wings will make common cause and forcefully go after the Rajapaksa swarm. It is my view that the government understands that if it falls its leaders will walk the plank. I believe that under pressure there will be a more explicit drift to as yet camouflaged authoritarianism.

The haphazard flapping of the JO is manifest in its clutching at every straw, a case in point is that it is trailing behind monks described by the NMSJ (Ven Sobitha’s movement) as alleged “rapists, child abusers and persons keeping baby elephants in illegal custody” alleging foul play in the Thera’s demise. The CID has launched a probe and it will be exposed as another comedy instigated by bankrupt elements.

More serious however is the multifaceted campaign against the trade economic and technology deal with India. The JO is campaigning at various levels. At the grassroots it is talk of an imperialist plot by Washington, Delhi and Temple Trees to hand Lanka over to dark political forces. At the middle level it largely based on misinformation (Indian workers and professionals will flush out unemployed Lankan youth and diligent unselfish local professionals) and at the higher level it is a mix of truth (unfair Indian practices limiting market access Lankan exports, bullying, failure to do anything about bottom-trawling) with plain short-sightedness.

There are indeed hurdles to overcome if ECTA is to be negotiated into even a half acceptable form. But the point is this: This is just what needs to be done. Managing relations with India is the crucial issue; blindfolding oneself and wishing India will disappear into thin air is a fool’s illusion. India is there, it is big and it is gaining economic strength (Goldman Sachs says of the five BRICS India is the only one of the five that is not in crisis). The challenge facing Lanka is not to pretend life a terrified child that if we close our eyes the ugly uncle will disappear, but to correctly MANAGE the relationship between Lanka and India. The problem is not to oppose ECTA tooth and nail and openly and secretly as the JO is doing but to boldly face up to the challenge and work out our relationship with Indian capital and technology.

Taiwan has been very successful in managing its economic relationships with mainland China much more serious ideological conflicts notwithstanding. For a long time Cuba, quite correctly, described the United States as an imperialist hegemon and enemy of the Cuban Revolution. The US trade embargo reduced the Cuban economy to a state of dilapidation – it survived for decades on Soviet handouts and more recently on Venezuelan props till the later country itself went bankrupt. But when opportunity knocked during the Obama Presidency the Cubans grasped the opportunity; there was no other way out. The Cuban-American is too farfetched to apply directly to the Lankan-Indian scenario, but one core principle stands out: When you are a small country at the doorstep of a giant the challenge is to manage the relationship properly. The challenge is not whether to do ECTA or not, it is to do ECTA properly.

The JO neither understands nor wishes to understand any of this, its mission is to spread fear and a miasma of poison for the sole purpose of making gains via partisan politics.

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