By Rajan Philips –
Whether it is because of the 19th Amendment or not, India has been treated to two state visits within three months from its utmost isle to the south. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa paid the first visit last year soon after his election, accepting Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special invitation. Not to be outdone, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has just concluded his first Prime Ministerial visit to Delhi. The visits and the talks were given extensive coverage in the Indian media. The presidential visit last year was a casual victory lap and the new President was quite informal even on formal occasions.
The PM’s visit was true to usual form and tagged along a retinue comprising his second son (who took a furlough from the Navy) and political sidekicks including a rather roguish MP. The retinue provided good fodder for Colombo’s social media. More seriously, the talks between the two Prime Ministers and their statements gave enough clues about the different problems and priorities facing the two governments. On the Tamil question, the two leaders kept to their respective scripts. Modi struck a note of harmony on terrorism, which for the BJP government is the code word for anything Muslim.
The two newly elected governments in both countries are facing troubled economies. Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s second budget delivered on February 1, is the country’s longest budget in history. Yet, it has been called a historic non budget, lacking in foresight and boldness when the economy is facing its worst troubles in decades. The country is losing jobs, its revenues are falling, the economic growth is slow and the government’s main response is to generate cash by selling assets. But even the project of disinvestment is too ambitious to meet its targets, say the critics. The general sense is that the government is neglecting the economy while vigorously driving the BJP Hindutva agenda in general, and particularly over Kashmir autonomy and Muslim citizenship anywhere in India. Modi’s second term is running into problems that were cleverly avoided during the first term.
If there is a lesson from Modi’s second term government for Sri Lanka’s first term President, it would be to avoid the folly of ignoring the economy for other distractions. After winning a resounding second term national election victory, Modi and the BJP are having their knuckles rapped at the state and union territory level elections. The latest lesson came in the Delhi Legislative Assembly election on February 8, where the reigning Aam Aadmi (Common Man’s) Party maintained its stranglehold, winning 62 of the 70 assembly seats. It was a stunning defeat for the BJP which reportedly unleashed an unprecedented communal and chauvinistic campaign to capture power in the politically symbolic Delhi union territory.
In Sri Lanka, the distraction will likely take the form of yet another campaign for constitutional changes, but this time to go beyond the reaches of the JRJ constitution and to dismantle whatever checks and balances that were introduced by the 17th and 19th Amendments. Sri Lanka’s constitutional changes in the 1970s were spearheaded by extraordinary leaders like Colvin R de Silva and JR Jayewardene for extraordinary historic reasons – first to sever the island’s constitutional links with the British monarch; and immediately after to pivot, albeit ill advisedly, from a parliamentary system to a presidential system. Now, constitutional charlatans are coming out of the woodwork to argue for a new constitution to enable the President to fire the IGP! That is the gist of yesterday’s news story headlines. Quite a distraction not only from the economy, but also from the fallouts of corruption.
Regardless, Sri Lanka’s economic priority has suddenly become immediate and urgent. Hence, Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s plea with the Indian government for a moratorium on debt payment. A similar pitch is to be made to China even as that behemoth is reeling under the deadly coronavirus. The Rajapaksa government is trying to dig itself out of the hole it quite unnecessarily created by killing some of the tax geese based on voodoo economic wisdom. And the opposition warning shot has been fired not by anyone in the official UNP, but by Champika Ranawaka, the former government minister and the new government’s number one political enemy.
According to a reported speech in Thalawatugoda last Sunday by Mr. Ranawaka, the government has caused great confusion within government agencies and businesses by disrupting well established avenues for collecting taxes. Businesses are not sure whether or not they have to pay VAT anymore. Government finances are depleting without the traditional tax revenues. And Ranawaka is alleging that the government “cannot pay the pensions, overtime payments and Rs. 1,500 increment given to professionals”. He went on to assert, “this country could not be taken forward by leaders without any knowledge of economics and financial management.” That is exactly what the SLPP folks said about the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government during the November presidential election. So, one side is not very different from the other. And the people are stuck with choosing one or the other.
Revivals and Rejections
Different media outlets in India highlighted different aspects of Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s visit and talks in Delhi. There seem to be expectations to revive some of the bilateral and trilateral initiatives involving the previous Rajapaksa regime (2010-2014). There is renewed interest in ‘reviving’ NSA-level (National Security Advisers) discussions between India, Sri Lanka and the Maldives over defence ties and counter-terrorism co-ordinations. Bilaterally, Sri Lanka is looking to obtain further financing from India for a nationwide housing project, investment in an LNG port, and a joint Indo-Japanese bid for an oil terminal in Colombo. Apparently ‘rejected’ are the oil projects in Tincomalee and the Mattala airport expansion that were part of a 2017 MOU signed by former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
On the Tamil question, Prime Minister Modi revived the old script while Prime Minister Rajapaksa offered the old rejection. Mr. Modi said, “I am confident that the Government of Sri Lanka will realise the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace, and respect within a united Sri Lanka. For this, it will be necessary to carry forward the process of reconciliation with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.” For his part, in a subsequent interview to The Hindu, Prime Minister Rajapaksa would give “no firm commitment on the way forward for the 13th amendment” and “ruled out any resolution that was not acceptable to the ‘majority community’ of Sri Lanka.”
The Sri Lankan government’s position is to hold provincial council elections after the parliamentary elections are completed in April, and “engage with whomever the Tamil population chooses.” Mr. Rajapaksa told The Hindu, “We want to go forward, but we need to have someone to discuss, who can take responsibility for the [Tamil] areas. So, the best thing is to hold elections, and then ask for their representatives to come and discuss the future with us.”
The two governments are finding a new common ground in enhancing security co-operation and intelligence sharing, especially in the wake of “the ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday terror attacks last year.” There is also agreement to hold a meeting with the Maldivian government “to re-operationalise a security cooperation trilateral arrangement amongst them.” It is remarkable that the BJP government is not putting up its Muslim firewall in dealing with the Maldives. Interestingly, at the same time, the Indian government is reportedly cultivating India’s Buddhist neighbours, hosting President Win Myint of Myanmar, another neighbouring Buddhist country. Mr. Myint will be visiting India before the end of February.
Myanmar has its own internal Muslim problem involving the hapless Rohingyas. It was hauled up before the International Court of Justice in January this year, and was ordered “to prevent genocidal violence against its Rohingya Muslim minority and preserve evidence of past attacks.” And the world Muslim problem took another turn with the new Trump deal-of-the-century for the Middle East that President Trump pompously announced, on January 28, at the White House alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Trump deal is the outcome of a total and utter sell out of the Palestinians by the regimes of the entire Sunni Arab world. There are lessons for Sri Lanka from the twists and turns of developments in the Middle East over the last 72 years, as well as the current Rohingya Muslim crisis in Myanmar, and the BJP’s anti-Muslim politics in India.
But there is little time for Sri Lanka’s political leaders to learn anything from anywhere before they wade into the next parliamentary. There is even less time for anyone to teach anything to any of them. We can expect old rhetoric to be revived and reasserted in the north and in the south. It would be a fruitless exercise that may not even move the needle in the electo-meter one way or the other. People already have their premeditated reasons to vote for one party or another among the multiple contenders. Equally, as well, the political leaders have their own pre-meditated positions on everything which they will insist on before and after the elections, regardless of the people’s verdict.
It has been said recently that Sri Lanka is the only country where an elected President cannot fire the IGP. That is a lawyer’s brief and not a political statement, or constitutional wisdom. What needs to be said politically, however, is that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where you need not one but two national elections, and that too one after the other, to determine who actually is in government. In between elections, there is only room for caretakers. The unnecessary stalemate is the result of marrying two different political systems, that JR Jayewardene happily brokered, and the inability of all of his successors to consummate the marriage after the ceremonies. And it so happens, that in India and Myanmar, the presidents are elected not directly by the people but through electoral colleges comprising the people’s elected representatives. And the system works. It is all too late, once again, for Sri Lanka.