By Kumar David –
Though I do have a particular interest in the JVP-NPP and am anxious to see the NPP’s ‘Rapid Response to Current Challenges’ manifesto developed and improved, this column not drafted exclusively for that purpose, though it may read like that. I would be happy if other social and political movements find it useful. But first an analogy; only laymen who studied physics in school will make sense of it, but my analogy last week with the Exodus of the best European scientists from Nazism in the 1930s generated interest. So here goes.
Neutron penetration of a U-235 nucleus within a critical mass makes everything go bananas; like Boris Johnson. Point 1: The nucleus fissions into Barium and Krypton and emits say two new neutrons. These two then bombard adjacent U-235 cores and so on and so on. The number of fission reactions multiply 2, 4, 8, zillions of times till all the U-235 is used up. Point 2: The mass of the fission products (Barium, Krypton and 2 neutrons) is a bit less than the mass of the initial U-235 plus one neutron, say by a tiny amount m. Even if you skipped A-Level physics in school (poor sod) you would have heard of E=mc2 where c is the velocity of light (300 million meters per second). One kg of U-235 produces the same energy as three million tons of coal. Jesus! Point, set and game to nuclear energy but for safety problems; radioactivity, waste disposal etc.
Deciding your species
The analogy with my subject today is this. Anyone who writes a manifesto must aim at a chain-reaction (ideas must spread like a fire) and make big gains in persuasion in the public domain. The NPP is the only entity that has issued a manifesto in this season; Sajith’s SJB is scratching its head and all the parties and goofs in the government fruit salad are scratching their ulcers. Wisely the NPP document is called “initial” so one can look to revised and improved versions to come. Hence it is implicit that comment will be welcome. NPP redrafts or anyone trying his/her hand at a programme must focus on four fundamentals.
* State, constitution, provincial power, the National Question.
* Economy: Productivity, growth-exports; fiscal gap; foreign debt; public-private-FDI balances.
* Welfare: Healthcare, education, social services and infrastructure.
* I separate out from the first point the National Question for special comment.
* Foreign policy, economic dependence, nonalignment.
Taming corruption, enhancing public service efficiency, abolishing abuse of power by the police and halting militarisation are imperative – too well known to need repetition. I do not intend to write at length nor offer alternative drafts, only to highlight my thoughts. My intention is to make comments that may be useful to those updating the NPP document or writing fresh manifestos. Even in the latter case the NPP version will be the starting point since there is no point reinventing the wheel.
State and Constitution
In respect of constitution and state structures what has to said is simple. It will have to be a liberal-democratic order based on the extensive and excellent work that was done in 2016-17 but was simply discarded; I refer to the seven Subcommittee Recommendations. More recently there have been the NMSJ proposal and Basil Fernando’s seven-part series in Colombo Telegraph. The truth is there is already too much, not too little material to hand. Some basics are straightforward JR’s Constitution, the Twentieth Amendment and the presidential system must be dumped as must some chapters and concepts in the Sirima-Colvin 1972 Constitution. At this juncture Lanka needs a democratic constitution, not a one-party arrangement nor a post-revolutionary structure. The devil is entirely in the details (balance of power between the so-called three pillars, constitutional committee systems, checks and balances, proportional, direct or mixed electoral options, provincial and regional balances). All possible options are out there and have been thrashed out ad nauseum for two decades; it’s a matter of opposition manifesto drafters zeroing in on bona fide compromises and getting on with it. The fly in the ointment is the ambition of scoundrels with presidential aspirations; other compromises can be worked out.
Economic systems and subsystems
It would appear that the economy is the hardest nut to crack; observe the inconclusive humming and hawing of all commentators and scholars who nevertheless agree that (a) to (f) needs to be done. Their prevarication is for the sole reason that they are unwilling to commit themselves to the ‘big decision’. This where my atomic analogy helps make the point. You have to make a commitment to a basic strategy, you pick a direction, the nature of the energy release process (U-235 or plutonium). The details, the specific answers to the specific questions (a) to (f) and their sub-questions are chain reactions that then fall into place.
Conceptually there are just two and only two choices between basics, between ‘energy release’ processes to select from; either the “capitalist road” (private investment, entrepreneurship, market dominance; for want of a better term the Western model) or a more socially or publicly directed model (for want of a better term the Vietnam, Mongolia, China model). Of course, there is scope and need for flexibility whichever the direction and that will take a lot more discussion. But two points are crucial. Once you know in which direction you are pointing answers to specific details in (a) to (f) fall within recognised alternative spectra. Second, I have discarded other systemic options (the Soviet or Cuban centralised state directed style and now discredited model, and the Regan-Thatcher old-IMF championed ‘neoliberal’ option). The flabby neither here nor there stumbling methodology frequently employed in the past has failed all across the developing world.
a) Enforce fiscal discipline.
b) Implement reforms to enhance productivity.
c) Prioritise manufacturing, shift to tech industries and emphasise exports.
d) Make firm decisions about foreign capital investment and public-private enterprises.
e) Clearly define the role of the capitalist sector and market economics.
f) Enhance the efficiency of state machinery.
To drive home the argument that once the fundamental ‘energy release’ option is chosen the ‘chain reactions’ fairly easily fall into place, let me choose (a), (d) and (e) for brief comment. To enforce fiscal discipline (and please the IMF), you have to slash expenditure, increase revenue, or a bit of each with emphasis falling this way or that. Frugality in expenditure will impact people’s livelihood (sales tax, wage controls and labour-market reforms and slashing welfare expenditure). Or to secure more revenue the top income tax rate (just 16% now) must go up and the Central Bank’s interest rate just 3.5% now has to be pushed much higher. Either way the ‘energy-release’ option choice is political, it is JVP-NPP or Sajith-SJB; let this be said openly.
Of course, both options will need to make huge concessions to real-politics, that is good, but the two game-plans are clear-cut; the rest is ‘chain-reaction’. In respect of flexibility the NPP’s Rapid Response clearly indicates that it is sensitive to the role that the private-sector will perforce be called upon to play within its preferred direction for another generation – vide China. It would be wise from the point of view of the public, and reassure the capitalist class if the manifesto is fleshed out and details made more explicit.
The choices that will be made by Sajith-SBJ ideology (conservative but couched in radical plumage); the market-driven, entrepreneurial-capital led road, is well understood. For example, on point (d) – foreign investment – it will be an open invitation sweetened by tax and remittance concessions. There is nothing conceptually new, it is in use in dozens of countries. I say no more on this matter as I can safely take it this a well-known strategy.
It is the other option, the more directed one, where the sate intervenes as the custodian of the public interest that needs the NPP drafter’s close attention. The government plays this role in varying degrees in India and in China, in Mongolia and in Mexico. I expect the second version of the NPP manifesto will measure up to addressing these variations which have so far been left incomplete. I also expect that the SJB cannot remain manifesto-less for much longer; 2022 is likely to be the year of the manifestos!
The godforsaken minorities!
Breathes there a Sinhala-Buddhist with soul so dead who never to himself hath said “This is my own my native land”? Or sworn “Will no one rid me of these turbulent minorities”? If only these blasted Tamils and Muslims and Catholics were to evaporate how peaceful Lanka would be, with what single mindedness could we devote ourselves to building a nation of splendour flowing with Gota blessed milk and honey.
Fat hopes! Absent Tamils and Muslims men of ill-will will find other causes to tear out each other’s throats and disembowel their neighbours. The loin-cloth versus keulas, hali versus tree-climbers, Kandyan snobs despising low-country plebeians, vellalas guarding their temple gates. No, I am not being facetious; if the social consciousness of a nation is primitive the behaviour of its people will be correspondingly primeval. Equitable answers to ethnic and religious conflicts exist, but getting the majority of people to accept any is daunting, and not only in Lanka.
Both the JVP-NPP and Sajith-SBJ, despite their chequered track records, can think up some sort of patchwork quilt of proposals, marketable to all sides – the SLPP cannot, even in theory. But however short of nirvana the NPP or SBJ proposals on the national question fall, it is determination to deliver on promises (no more B-C and Dudley-Chelva circuses) not their absolute virtue that will count in the event that either forms a government. If you promise only 50% and only deliver forty you will be a hero; promise one hundred and riots, racism and a string of lies you will just be another fallen idol.