By Rajan Philips –
What struck me most about the President’s policy speech to parliament last week was its subdued tone. It was more than mildly defensive, but fully free of boast and bluster. The last two years have certainly clouded the aspirational vistas of ‘Saubhagya Dakma’, even though there were two references to it in the speech – one in connection with the Eastern (port) Terminal (now with the Indians), and the other on renewable energy (ostensibly with the Chinese in Jaffna’s isles). Despite its subduedness, the President’s speech did not give any indication that his administration is in control of any of the crises he is literally presiding over. From that standpoint, and to the point of today’s title, the speech left many key things unsaid compared to the many that were said.
My purpose is also to look at the implications the President’s speech might have for the near-term political paths of his two emerging contenders, Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake. As I concluded last week, the two contenders have a long way to go in pursuing their claims to power even as the President and his government are running out of road to stay in power. Will the policy speech help to extend that shortening road for the government? More bluntly, is the speech a turning point for the government to pull itself out of the hole that it keeps digging? Looked at it another way, what markers are in the speech that the two challengers might use to differentiate themselves not only from the government but also from one another, and to assert their own alternative approaches?
Only speech, no shuffle
When the President prorogued parliament in December, there were two expectations. First, there was going to be a major cabinet reshuffle in which the President will get rid of the old deadwood and bring the best and the brightest of the Viyathmaga stars (whoever that might be) to the front benches of the government. Second, the President will use the resumption of parliament to deliver a new road map and demonstrate to the country that he and his new cabinet will deliver in the next three years what he and his old cabinet could not do in the last two years.
Proroguing has come and gone, parliament has been shut and re-opened, but there is no new cabinet. Only the firing of a backbench State Minister who was a front bench cabinet minister under Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was all the President could accomplish in spite of all the powers he arrogated to himself under the 20th Amendment. Especially, the power to fire a Prime Minister and to unmake and make cabinets at will – the power that had been checkmated by the 19th Amendment. The President now has the power he coveted but he cannot carry out his threat to shuffle the cabinet. Because shuffling the cabinet would mean breaking up the government. A break-up will not be enough to bring down the government, but more than enough to chip away the President’s two-thirds majority in parliament. So, the President is stuck with his old cabinet. That may have been a reason for the subdued tone of the speech to parliament. Indeed, in his speech the President beseeched parliamentarians of all hues for their support “to overcome the challenges that the country faces today.”
As for the speech itself, it is not his fault but whoever who wrote the speech harnessed the President to ramble on from start to finish – touching on a range of topics with no thematic order. Rather, in this order: the role of parliament and parliamentarians; the two lost years due to Covid-19; vaccination success – a modest boast; national security – now resolved and apparently forgotten; national reconciliation – of sorts; law & order and judiciary – a sermon of support from a dubious guardian; the (new) constitution – just three sentences; development and infrastructure – ad nauseum; the economy – a rather casual assurance that normalcy is returning; a litany of projects – almost all on irrigation and drinking water; foreign exchange crisis – the biggest problem for everyone, but mentioned as a postscript; education – an honorary lecture on university education; technology – full of digital vistas. Finally, the President’s blessings to his subjects: “Theruwan Saranai!”
There is no need for us to ramble on the speech in the same order, but there are a few pickings for a passing look. On national security, the President bemoaned that “many have forgotten that the key issue facing the people of this country when I became the President in 2019 was national security.” Actually, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has not forgotten anything. Only, the Cardinal remembers differently and constantly reminds the country that it is the President who has forgotten the “key issue” on which he campaigned and won the election. True to form, the President recalled how his government has dealt with ‘underworld terrorism,’ ‘drug terrorism,’ and how as Defence Secretary he finished off the old LTTE terrorism. But there was no mention whatsoever of Easter terrorism or the alleged masterminds behind the Easter Sunday bombings.
This Administration hardly has any credibility to lecture on human rights, law and order and the judiciary. But these topics somehow found their way into the President’s speech. What was resoundingly left out was any reference to the ‘One Country, One Law’ Task Force. Understandably, the two could not be reconciled in the same speech. But which one of them – one country – one law, or universal justice for all – is the President really committed to? On reconciliation itself, the speech actually fell far short of media speculations that the President was going to include something substantial at the behest of India – a political payback for the forex swap.
There was nothing new or substantial about reconciliation in the speech. The very next day, the TNA leader R. Sampanthan and his colleagues were at the Indian High Commission to hand over their letter addressed to Prime Minister Modi, and pleading for a different swap. Remarkably, and as the Daily Mirror reported, President Rajapaksa is yet to hold talks with the Tamil leadership or elected MPs since his election to office in November 2019. Apparently, in June 2021, a meeting between the President and a TNA delegation was scheduled, but the meeting was cancelled by the President’s office and a new meeting has not been scheduled since.
The speech had three sentences on the new constitution: “Governments since 1994 have, on various occasions, attempted to introduce a new Constitution but to no avail. Therefore, I appointed an Experts Committee, with the approval of the Cabinet, to study this subject in depth, broadly consult public opinion and prepare a preliminary draft for a people-friendly constitution. I hope to submit the recommendations of this Committee to the Cabinet and the Parliament for broad discussion.” We can hardly wait, and it is not clear what the Experts Committee might have produced. Just recommendations, or a whole new draft.
On the economy, foreign exchange crisis and fear of food shortages, the speech offered platitudes, blames and excuses. There were no serious clues about how the government is planning to turn things around, except the claim: “Today we are self-sufficient in turmeric”! There was no mention of the IMF at all, or whether the government is going to stick to bilateral swapping until Sri Lanka’s exports suddenly start booming. On organic fertilizer, the President is stubbornly sticking to his belief that the failure of the lamebrained switch is because of “a misunderstanding in this regard as our objective and plan were not properly communicated, and some practical issues in introducing the programme were politicized.”
There was deafening silence about the gas cylinder fiasco at home, and the controversial contract with New Fortress Energy, the American company. The President reiterated his goal to achieve Sri Lanka’s carbon neural target by 2050, but there was no mention of any measures for climate adaptation – for dealing with the now familiar recurrent cycles of floods and droughts.
The speech was also silent about the government’s foreign policy or, more accurately, about the government’s approach to Sri Lanka’s relations with other countries. Sri Lanka has no conflict with any country, but the countries Sri Lanka has to deal with most are in conflict among themselves. More than ever, there is no room for native cunning to play one country against another. What is needed is a balanced approach based on principled self-interest, and there was no indication of it in the policy speech.
Overall, the policy speech of the President is more a puzzle than a road map. The underlying purpose of the government has come to be more about self-preservation than about any national interest. Self-preservation is necessary in politics as in life, but it cannot be the be all and end all of government. As the President enters his third year in office, Sri Lanka is caught in an economic crisis and faces a likely food crisis unlike any time in its modern past, and unlike any other country in Asia. If the policy speech last week is all that the government is capable of mustering as a response to the current crises, then there is little hope for the country from this government and little hope for the self-preservation of the government from the wrath of the people.
The current situation raises the stakes for the President’s contenders, Sajith Premadasa (who wants the government to leave) and Anura Kumara Dissanayake (who is ready to lead). For their benefit, the President’s policy speech leaves plenty of markers to stake their own ground. Markers on the economy, food crisis, the constitution, foreign relations, energy contracts, climate adaptability and so on. Specifically on the constitution, what The Island’s editorial said last Wednesday (January 19), after the President’s speech, is a prudent thought to hold as we wait for the report of the Experts Committee: “Perhaps, if the 20th Amendment is abolished and the 19th Amendment reintroduced with some changes, we may be able to make do with the existing Constitution.”
(Next Week: The new JVP Manifestos)