By Kumar David –
The Foundation Institute’s auditorium was packed on 5th August afternoon, there was no standing room even in the corridors, the choreography was imaginative and well rehearsed, Professor Gunapala Nanayakkara made a calibrated (but far too long) speech whose objective was to introduce Minister Champika Ranawaka as a national leader of the highest calibre. If I were President Mahinda Rajapakse sitting in the audience, I would feel diminished. And by the way, very wisely, not one word was said about the great leader or his more talked about but notorious siblings, and no effort was made to hide that state owned enterprises (especially Petroleum and the CEB) are corrupt, their statement of accounts bizarre, and they function under a corporate mafia. I don’t know if this is an exaggeration but it is up to these two enterprises and national leaders (meaning the President) to respond. If they remain silent the charges stand proved by default as they are levelled by a ranking cabinet minister.
I swear I am not a conspiracy theorist by inclination or habit, but this event to me was a probe, a first flying of the kite, an initial floating of a proposal to introduce Champika Ranawaka as presidential material. But for his chauvinist reputation – I don’t hold it against him that in 1970 or 1971 he belonged to a chauvinist student group that broke up our Vama Samasamajaya anti-JVP assembly in one of the campuses – he is more competent and credible than discredited Mahinda. But if he dares to challenge Mahinda Rajapakse’s Sinhala-Buddhist vote base, he had better take precautions with life and limb. You may say, ‘let dog eat dog, what do you (KD) care!’ OK I will drop this side of the matter and give you an account of the meeting as best I can; I was there from start to finish.
Visionary, helmsman, servant of the people
The audience at Champika Ranawaka’s launch of “Power and Power” (meaning power/energy related matters, and issues pertaining to political muscle) was impressive. I ran into dozens of senior engineers, former Chairmen and Board members and technology leaders not only from state enterprises but also from the private sector, and a few consultants. There were plenty more than technical types; many young professionals of the Sinhala intelligentsia, middle management and educated middle classes were there. The typical age of this younger portion of the audience was late 30s and early 40s and this is politically significant. It is a putative mobilisation of Young Turks.
With the Rajapakses and the UPFA in a state of abject moral decline, the UNP in disarray (let us watch Uva though) and the Dead Left beyond terminal decadence, it is interesting to watch very carefully whether an ideologically rata-jathika-abymane believing, Sinhala professional, educated, middle-class movement can breakthrough as a national force and organisation. A movement of this nature, if it gels, is different from the JVP which has a more plebeian class base and is committed to a left-oriented ideology. We are seeing here the birth of something new; it may swell or it may fizzle out. It is too early to tell but the ground exists for a rightwing version of the leftwing JVP to surface, given the grime and debauchery of the regime and its leaders, and the wretchedness of the UNP. By counter-posing to the left JVP the possible rise of a rightwing movement of this nature, I am not implying that it will necessarily assume neo-fascist contours, though it may. Nationalism can be wedded to “socialism” in many ways. The emergent new-right in France, Denmark and Austria manifests a different storyline from the narrative of pre-war fascism.
Keynote speaker Professor Nanayakkara was quite candid about what he was up to; he was extolling a visionary leader and a servant of the people; a technical expert (Ranawaka in an electrical engineering graduate) and a fighter against a mafia that is exploiting and corrupting state enterprises. The professor was singing an unabashed panegyric to the next, or a future president. The occasion was a launch event to see how well the proposal went down with the targeted public. Many people in the audience, though they had letters behind their names, were too politically naïve to grasp what this launch was all about though they were duly impressed by the tamasha. It was a hard squeeze to reach the counter and buy the book, very wisely issued in Sinhala, Tamil and English (350 pages, colourful graphics, loaded with charts and data).
Power and Power (Balaya saha Balaya)
The book is serious business and in two parts; the first, mainly educational, pertains to energy technology in general, and the second is a Lanka focussed critique of institutions, power politics (of the kW and litres genre), energy policies, or rather their absence, and suggestions on the way forward. The book per se is not directly related to the leadership challenge discussed above, except that showcasing the author as a credible intellectual and an experienced administrator and policy maker will do no harm. I doubt if an alternative popular, well written and well illustrated book on global climate science, energy conversion technologies, energy resource options, hydrocarbon potential in the Gulf of Mannar and the status of small-scale nuclear technology, is available in Sinhala. This first section will be popular with older school children and university freshmen. There is a bit of unwarranted star gazing in the discussions of wind and solar electric potential (uninitiated commentators quote MWs without a clue that it is energy – MWh – that holds the key to the feasibility of these technologies; but I have no space to explain the difference to laymen, here).
The second part of Power and Power is a sustained critique of what, to put it mildly, can be summed up by the quip: The electric power, petroleum, institutional, regulatory and policy scenario in Sri Lanka is a bloody mess. The harshest criticisms that came across, more in Ranawaka’s presentation than the book because he used more up to date statistics, is that inclusive of all costs (oil price, transport, landing charges, technical expenses) the pump price of petrol (92 and 95 octane) was about 60%, diesel about 40%, and kerosene about 25% higher than cost. Where, asked Ranawaka, is the difference going (he estimated it at Rs 106 billion for last year); why is there no transparency; why is the public in the dark? His quite reasonable bottom line is that a transparent national energy policy is a must. My conjecture is that a part of this loss is plain robbery at high levels and part cross subsidy to pay for waste and profligacy in state expenditure. Much of the information in the book is controversial, some is claimed to be previously undisclosed and certainly very sensitive. Eventually, some numbers may be challenged, nevertheless, if even a few of the allegations stick, the book is worth buying (Rs 1000) and discussing.
Needless to say as a Marxist and an opponent of Sinhala nationalism (and Tamil nationalism) I am not favourably inclined to Ranawaka’s ideology or his possible presidential ambitions. This piece, however, is about a different aspect. It is about the challenge that has been mounted and about the intrinsic strength of the challenge because it proceeds from intelligently chosen premises linking key techno-economic anxieties with political abuse. It taps into roots of social concern as against the UPFA’s and UNP’s fish-market sloganeering. The old fashioned left (the Dead Left included), the new style JVP and even newer Pertugami will not be able to meet this challenge unless they wake up to 21-st Century techno-economic, global-structural, and emerging national class realities. Unfortunately they do not have the intellectual cadres to digest and address a complex challenge such as this.
When I conveyed these impressions, pretty much as above, to some left comrades with little training in science they thought I was besotted with Ranakawa. They lacked the trained frame of mind to grasp the distinction between clear and precise descriptions of empirical phenomena, and moral value-based judgements. This is an unfortunate hurdle that serious political analysts often encounter these days.