By Rajan Philips –
As expected the President threw manna at the ‘official’ May Day rally in the form of electricity tariff relief. The President disposed in public what he and his government had earlier put in place without even having a proper cabinet discussion on the matter. It is not just that the electricity tariffs have been poorly handled politically, they are also a botched-up product professionally. The President’s May Day manna may mitigate the political damage somewhat but will do nothing to correct the fundamentally flawed premise and methodology of the tariffs, let alone the crisis in the power sector. Rupees Eight billion is the price tag on the President’s relief promise. What’s a billion for the brotherhood government with a superrich mindset?
But don’t call this subsidy, which is the opposite of tax. Government collects taxes and pays out subsidy. It would be subsidy if the government pays the CEB the shortfall due to reduced rates from its other revenues. But the government has no revenue to pay from, when its debt payments are more than its revenues. The result would be a continual increase of the CEB’s debt. And between them the CEB and CPC will make sure that there is little money left in the banks for any other business to borrow. The tariff fiasco is another example of misfiring government and 2013 is becoming a remarkable year for it.
The year began judgmentally with rulings by the apex Courts on the unconstitutionality of the impeachment of CJ Shirani Bandaranayake. The government is now constrained to end the year by hosting the Commonwealth Conference in November. The summit is seven months away but speculations about RSVPs have already started. And before the summit, by its own miscalculated commitment the government has to showcase to Sri Lankans, the Commonwealth and others the holding of a free and fair election to the Northern Provincial Council in September.
In other achievements this year, a new airport was opened in deep south but it requires bowsers shipping aviation fuel by road from Colombo to pump a plane fly back from Hambantota. There is more marketing than managing the economy. The chief salesman happens to be the Central Bank Governor under whose stewardship the Bank is investing in advertising GOSL in the US and has turned its Annual Report into a glossy show-and-tell political affair from what used to be a credible and independent assessment of the economy. The parliament is sidelined without formally receiving or questioning the Bank’s Annual Report. MPs need not bother for it is no longer the Bank’s Annual Report but “Cabraal Report” according to UNP MP Eran Wickremeratne. In any event, MPs can keep themselves busy by staging candle light fights and not doing anything worthwhile.
Mistakes in governing do not go away or diminish but keep multiplying and returning. Nothing illustrates this more than the continuing harassment of Shirani Bandaranayake. The government cannot and will not let go of her, nor could it leave alone the January rulings of the apex courts. A repacked bench is now set to revisit the verdict of a bench of its own brothers. The judicial pyramid is being stripped away from top to bottom. Thanks to the rot at the bottom level, an accused like Duminda Silva is allowed to rise and walk like Lazarus and be saluted by a state policeman. The government apologists will say to independent lawyers in Colombo that they should not protest too much and in fact they should be happy that they are not in Islamabad where gunmen just this Friday killed Pakistan’s main prosecutor.
Commonwealth Summit and the NPC election
From now till November political preoccupation will be with the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) election in September and the Commonwealth Summit in November. The government fought hard to get the Commonwealth to meet in Sri Lanka as it was scheduled at the last summit in Australia. Now many in the government are fighting hard to have the NPC election canceled. The President is in a pickle because he knows that his government cannot successfully host the summit without holding the NPC election first. He must be regretting now for his grand promise to hold the NPC election in September 2013. Just as he would have been regretting for talking about 13A plus to the Indians. The government can dance around 13A, but canceling the NPC election set for September will have consequences for the attendance at and the success of the summit in November.
Strategically, the government could have skipped hosting the Commonwealth summit for a few years instead of insisting on hosting it this year when it has too many global detractions going against it. Sri Lanka is by no means a pariah country but the Sri Lankan government has fences to mend in countries that the government can ill afford to ignore. And the broken overseas fences are on account of lingering problems at home – involving the political solution to the Tamil problem, the organized harassment of the Muslims, and continuing violations of human and democratic rights. The government’s dilemma is that it wants to be liked abroad without doing even the minimum to address the concerns that others have about the government’s record on postwar reconciliation, campaign against the Muslims, and crackdown on political opponents.
Holding the NPC election in September is not going to address all the problems facing the people in the Northern Province. But canceling the election will only send the message that the government is not interested in solving any of them. The government and the President are also the reason for the rising calls to cancel the election and to repeal 13A. If the President wants he can put an end to these calls in no time. On the other hand, if the President is as convinced as the doubters that 13A and the PC system have no place in Sri Lanka, he should say that openly and unambiguously. He should have the courage of his conviction to cancel the NPC election and deal with the fallout at the Commonwealth Summit. In fact, he should use the occasion of the Commonwealth Summit to clearly indicate why he cancelled the election and where he stands on 13A, the Provincial Council system and the LLRC recommendations.
By all appearances, the President is not a convinced supporter of 13A and the PC system, but he is a shrewd politician who would keep them in place and cynically muddle through to serve his own ends. Rather than canceling the NPC, the President is reportedly planning to field a relic from the LTTE past as the UPFA candidate for the Chief Minister post. The coopted candidate is Daya Master (Velayutham Dayanidhi), who was LTTE’s media spokesman in Kilinochchi before his surrender and rehabilitation. If the news reports are true, the President and his advisers have learnt nothing from what happened electorally in Tamil politics before the LTTE and have forgotten everything about the LTTE experience. More to the point, elections were anathema to the LTTE and now a former LTTE operative is going contest an election for the UPFA. And by some governmental alchemy, every LTTE operative who surrendered to the government is now a good Sri Lankan citizen and any Tamil who does not support the government is a Tiger, unarmed but dangerous! This is hardly the way for the government to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils.
Daya Master will not even win many Tamil votes if he were to translate and use the strident Daily News editorials in his election campaign. One such editorial last week called SJV Chelvanayakam “that original unadulterated Tamil racist” and “that arch original racist bigot.” The quoted words say a great deal about the person who wrote them and nothing at all about Mr. Chelvanayakam. But the question is whether a state-owned paper should carry such vituperation if the state is sincere about winning the hearts and minds of the Tamils, not to mention their votes in the NPC election.