Maithripala Sirisena’s election manifesto came out on the 19th making a series of promises that are quite appealing to the general public. The MS manifesto had upset the top brasses in the government ranks. They were so upset that they could not come up with any coherent response to it. Within the last two days, many of them, including the president himself and his trusted hired mouth, Wimal Weerawansha, repeated some sections of the MS manifesto indirectly giving it immense publicity. The lack of coordination in responding to the MS manifesto was seen by the two key statements about it.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa argued that it was a copy of his own budget proposals for 2015 and, therefore, he owns the copyrights (He used the word “patent” ) for the MS manifesto. His argument was that the MS manifesto was good because it copied much of what is in the budget. Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, the current secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, claimed in contrast that the MS manifesto has been written by someone who does not have an iota of understanding of an economy suitable for contemporary Sri Lanka. The Internet generation, which seems to be a decisive force in the forthcoming election, immediately pounced on the two statements. The very manifesto the president claims to be plagiarized from his own budget proposals shows a terrible lack of understanding as to what the country needs!! Anura Priyadarshana, as many a minister in the current cabinet, is not known to say cohesive things or things with intellectual substance. But the social media thought that the above statement was a smart move to poke fun at his boss. Some thought it was a smart move by the president to belittle his minister. The belittling of others is something the president is quite known for, and the current constitution allows the president to do exactly that.
Those two divergent responses to the MS manifesto shows that the president’s election campaign needs a little bit of extra help in getting some focus. Last few days some ministers did not have anything substantial to say about the Common Candidate’s challenge. Some ministers have been carried away by the Common Candidate’s new attire – a jacket akin to the one the Indian Prime Ministers wears. Too much focus on the jacket showed that the ministers kept them away from the heart of Common Candidate, which his message. As I argued in my piece on the 16th in the present paper, the Common Candidate’s message, articulated attractively by able orators such as Champika Ranawaka, Rev. Athuraliye Rathana, Rajitha Senaratne and Sujeewa Senasinghe is primarily about the ethical capital of the Sri Lankan state.
After the ending of the war in 2009 Mahinda Rajapaksa regime descended fast towards an abyss of ethical bankruptcy. First of all, the concept of development the president wanted to promote was rather poor even by the standards promoted by the West or West-dominated institutions such as the World Bank. The president’s development was dominated by the mega construction projects such as harbors, airports and highways. As it is well-known, the focus on these large construction projects is not animated even by a wrong concept of development. In fact, it is the cut of commission they could get out these projects that has been the driving force behind these projects. The horrific stories about corruption described in John Perkin’s The Confessions of an Economic Hit Man are just minute pieces of short fiction compared to almost mythical narratives of gigantic corruption under the patriotic façade of the current regime. Since the president and his siblings and their in-laws (to-be-in-laws) control the largest part of the national budget, they are the protagonists of those mythic narratives of corruption. Large construction projects are directly controlled by Rajapaksa Brothers. In fact, with the protection of the executive presidency there is nothing ‘illegal’ about the brothers holding on to these huge sums of development dollars mostly come as loans. Legally, the story might be OK as long as one can shut off one’s conscience. But in terms of ethics the story is not all that OK. Presented in terms of Buddhist ethics by leading Buddhists monks in the Common Candidate movement these stories of mega-corruption do not sound right at all, and that is why even rural vote base of the president is quickly eroding. The president’s might itself is not all that convincing in facing the challenge of allegations of corruption. Recently, when challenged that his sons have been given helicopters, fancy cars and horses as birthday presents, the president failed to deny it and referred to an incident involving Mr. Maithripala Sirisena’s son having a fight with the son of a DIG.
Even if there is no such thing as corruption in these large projects, the concept of development that undergirds them is still questionable. When it comes to development, the Rajapaksa regime does not seem to have gotten its priorities right. There are so much the state can do before embarking on building a harbor and an airport, where there are no people to embark on airplanes and ships. But what our president seemed to like the most were the pompous opening ceremonies of those mega development projects where he would pay some garrulous men, who presented themselves as artists, to describe him as a great king. In the process, he ignored so many areas that could have contributed to promoting a better concept of development.
For example, for the last few years, the university academics of the country attempted to draw the president’s attention to the importance investing in education. They have argued that the government needs to allocate at least 6% of the GDP for education – a percentage approved by the UNESCO. Without that amount a country like ours cannot develop its human resources. Ours is the lowest in the region in terms of government funding for education. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is the worst leader in modern Sri Lanka in investing in education because on his watch the government funding for schools and universities has continued to dwindle. The school in the village the present writer lives in has contributed to produce a vice chancellor for the University of Peradeniya. But that school is now struggling to exist though the road in front of it has been recently carpeted spending a ridiculously large amount for one kilometer. The president’s son himself came to ceremoniously open the road after carpeting. If the president had much more inclusive concept of development, the school by the road would have flourished too. The MS manifesto promises to allocate 6% of the GDP for education. It is a great presidential lie to say that it was stolen from his budget proposals.
Who gets to define development?
The executive presidency allows one person or family to be the prime arbiter of what is meant by development, and makes the parliament mutely support that man’s or family’s wishes. The parliamentary debate on the right form of development is next to nothing. This fact has been one factor making the people nervous because even according to their traditional sources of wisdom, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, sustained arguments and debates have been seen as essential in running just societies. Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has shown us in his books such as The Argumentative Indian, Development as Freedom, and The idea of Justice that civic participation in debates on what is good and needed for a society is something essential for democracy. He argues further that democratic rights are not a set of luxuries a country can afford only after development. In addition, the path for development itself must be made of democratic rights and opportunities. There can be no true development by ignoring what Professor Sen calls, “substantial freedom.”
Our president, however, seems to think differently because, of late, he talks of the stability of government as an essential pre-condition for achieving development. He asks us to vote for him in order to make the government stable for carrying out development projects. Professor Amartya Sen, known to know his economics better than our president does, has shown us in his books that the wider public participation and plurality of voices are crucial in creating and sustaining a heterogeneous notion of development, and, for that a country needs to uphold democratic rights. And that includes regime change, when needed. It is not the regime that needs to be stable but the state and for that a country needs a form of government that promotes inclusiveness. The Common Candidate movement aspires to create that form of government and it is an aspiration that has become an appealing ethical claim. That is why Common Candidate movement must continue as a civic force even after winning the election on January 8th.