By Rajan Philips –
In a series of public rallies and speeches last week, both the JVP and the SJB have been issuing ultimatums, calling upon the Ranil-Rajapaksa government to step down and hand over the government to their respective alliances in parliament. Neither ultimatum is a response to Ranil Wickremesinghe’s hint at being full-term PM, i.e., continuing as PM for the remainder of the term of the current parliament. Rather, the JVP and the SJB seem convinced that nothing much is going to change under Ranil Wickremesinghe, and now is their time to step in and lead an interim government. Neither party has the numbers to do anything in parliament. The JVP has three and the SJB 54, but their unstated logic might be that if Ranil Wickremesinghe could become Prime Minister leading only himself as a nominated MP, why not they? Their stronger argument is the failure of the current interim Prime Minister to show even some results or changes on the ground.
According to Sajith Premadasa, “the super Prime Minister has failed.” Anura Kumara Dissanayake recalled the high expectations that greeted Mr. Wickremesinghe’s appointment as PM and the fact that “Nothing (of the sort) has happened. The crisis has worsened. In the meantime, the Rajapaksas have been enabled to come out from their hiding places.” The worst point in the worsening of the crisis was the realization that the country’s fuel stock has dropped to a day’s requirement. And there was nothing palpably done to manage the supply and distribution of scarce goods even after Mr. Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister nearly two months ago.
Dr. Usvatte-aratchi has written a very timely article (The Island, July 1), on Sri Lanka’s “scarcity economy.” Sri Lankans are experiencing not only the full pains of a scarcity economy, but they are also suffering all the worsts of a scarcity polity. Parliament has become the biggest hoarder of idiocy and inaction. While an early election to throw out the whole lot of them is a virtual impossibility, it will also be no easy task to forge an effective and efficient interim government out of the current parliament. That is the national dilemma and it is not clear how it will be resolved by the JVP’s and the SJB’s ultimatums, whether carried forward separately or jointly.
Although both Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa have issued ultimatums, it is the words of the JVP leader that seems to have caused a stir in political circles. The Island editorial on Friday, July 1, captioned it as “JVP’s call to arms” and described the JVP strategy in three phases: “bringing down the incumbent government, forming an interim administration and holding a general election.”
A general election in the current circumstances is anathema to most observers, even though in fairness to the JVP – its leader is not calling for an election literally tomorrow or in any immediate sense. The call for election must be understood in the same figurative sense as the aragalaya’s call for expelling all 225 MPs. Much was made of it when the expel-all-225 call emerged from Galle Face, but no one took notice when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe assured the people from Kotte that they have the power to throw out the whole 225 lot. That was in his last ‘biweekly statement’ on the economy.
The JVP/NPP, even though miniscule in parliament, may have greater credibility because of its unity of purpose and capacity for mass action. The SJB and its leader lack credibility not only in the country but also internally among its own MPs. The two parties and their leaders have been virtually absent from parliament throughout the aragalaya revolt. Neither of them was effective in articulating the people’s protest with the business of parliament. Even after Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister, the two parties should have been constructively badgering the new government about all and every aspect of the situation in the country on a daily basis. But the both the JVP and SJB have been missing in action – the SJB, somewhat predictably, and the JVP, quite surprisingly.
While the JVP/SJB ultimatums can be understood in the hopeless gravity of the current circumstances, there is very little to see by way of organizational build up or political momentum that has led to the two ultimatums. More importantly, insofar as the intended outcome is an interim government, the two parties ought to demonstrate the new dynamic in parliament that they will be able to achieve and at least present an outline of a lean (15 at most) but competently effective cabinet that can be forged out of this parliament. They should also indicate how they would address such little details as the continuance of the current President and the continuing role of the current Prime Minister.
Politics of Renunciation
The tasks within parliament are by no means easy, but they are not impossible. While all 225 of the current lot cannot be replaced immediately in one fell swoop, they can be deliberately changed to retire the old worn-outs and bring in new talent. The Supreme Court (divided) ruling on the nomination of Dhammika Perera has opened a path to bring in unlisted but capable Sri Lankans as new MPs and appoint them Ministers in an interim government. There are more than a handful of Sri Lankans who can play a very positive role as interim cabinet ministers in addressing the country’s current challenges. An interim government can find Sri Lankans with far greater credentials to be in cabinet than the dubious experience of Dhammika Perera in running gambling outlets and hijacking corporate boards.
The JVP, despite its 3-member size, is by far the only Party that has indicated its willingness to sacrifice its MPs to bring in new MPs through the National List system. It is time that other parties also announced their readiness to retire some of their MPs to be replaced by new MPs. It is more than time that some of the old warriors in parliament announced their voluntary retirement either immediately or by way of an undertaking that they will not seek election or nomination to be an MP after the current parliament is dissolved. Wouldn’t it be a grand and gallant gesture if all Rajapaksa family MPs were to announce their political retirements effective immediately?
And it will not be asking too much of Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe to solemnly announce that he will retire from politics after his current ‘interim’ work is done in the present parliament. That he will not be a candidate again for any election in Sri Lanka. Such an announcement will open a floodgate for others to follow suit. Such renunciations are among the nobler parts of South Asian political culture, not to mention Sri Lanka’s own civilizational ethos. More importantly, political renunciations can be the only way to cultivate in the short term a polity of abundance in response to an economy of severe scarcity.
In his Friday article, Usvatte-aratchi emphasizes the point that “there is nobody compelling our government to seek support from IMF. They are free go elsewhere as some who recently were in their government still urge.” That is the stark reality which should not be missed “behind veils of jargon woven by financial analysts,” and “it is not something that we have a choice about.” The JVP’s critics have lost no time in questioning its position on seeking help from the IMF. That is a fair question to ask and one the JVP must answer if it is serious about being part of an interim government, let alone leading it. The JVP should do better than its old-left counterparts who went with their socialist cap in hand to the Russian Embassy in Colombo, looking for oil but got a humiliating lesson in current global realities.
Sri Lanka is not only going through the worst of times, but it is also caught up in the worst of worlds. A recent conference of Central Bankers in Portugal, headed by the big three from the US, EU and UK, presented a gloomy picture for the world economy with no immediate end in sight. That is also the reality that no interim government in Sri Lanka, with or without the JVP, can afford to miss. Add to that a world of polities in the west as well as elsewhere, which are divided between themselves and within themselves, the US being the prime, super-power example. Sri Lanka requires more than ultimatums (by the JVP and SJB) and full-term PM fancying (by Ranil Wickremesinghe) to get through its worst of times in the worst of worlds.