8 August, 2022


PC Elections: Rajapaksa Economics And TNA Politics

By Rajan Philips

Rajan Philips

The voting is over in the three Provincial Council elections that concluded yesterday.  The news over the coming days and weeks and even months will be saturated with election results analyses and commentaries, especially the results of the Northern Provincial Council election.  If predictions hold, the UPFA will triumph as usual in the North Western Province and the Central Province, but it is the TNA that is expected to topple the UPFA cart in the Northern Province.  So there will be one part of the country where the Rajapaksa regime will not be total control.  After trying everything to cancel the Northern PC election and to dilute PC powers pre-emptively,  government leaders, i.e. Rajapaksa brothers and their inner circles, seem to have conceded the North to the TNA. 

With defeat staring at them, the government cheer leaders led by the President himself, went on the attack against the TNA.  The President even played the other North-South card, i.e. the Jaffna Tamil vs Colombo Tamil card, poking mock fun at the TNA leadership for inflicting a Colombo Tamil, Justice Wigneswaran, on the hapless Jaffna Tamil voters.  Aren’t there good enough people in Jaffna, he has asked, clearly enjoying holding the wooden spoon to stir the Jaffna pot.  Good for him, but it would be better for the Tamils if President Rajapaksa would similarly be concerned about the Sri Lankan State’s inflictions on Jaffna and everywhere else in the North and East. 

To wit, the President cannot find suitable Tamils, Muslims, or even civilian Sinhalese, to be Governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.  He is either unaware of or does not care about the continuing military intrusions in the lives of ordinary people in the two Provinces.  A President who can fire his Chief Justice has shown no willingness to step in and address the basic request of the people of Jaffna to get their homes and properties back.  They have to go to the court instead.  And the Tamils of the North and East are not to be given a civilian police force with whom they can talk without translation. 

The election dynamic and rhetoric were different in the North Western Province and the Central Province.  The fight, physical and political, was internal, pitting the UPFA candidates themselves against one another over preferential votes and rivalries for Chief Minister posts.  There were attacks on opposition candidates as well.  In Puttalam, Government goons have attacked Mohamed Fairoos, the leading candidate for the Nationalities Unity Organization, an opposition alliance including the NSSP.  Mr. Fairoos is a brother of the Puttalam Mayor and was targeted for attack while he was campaigning with the NSSP leader Vickramabahu Karunarathne.  The police were helpful after the attack but were not powerful enough to prevent the attack or apprehend the attackers.  Violence and election law violations are now facts of Lanka’s political life.  They have spawned a monitoring industry but there is no prospect of a behavioural change.  The principal political leaders, starting with the President himself, take no responsibility to stop the violence and the violations of the election rules.   

Not about the Economy

There is another aspect to this election, especially in the North, and that is what this election was not about.  It was not about the economy and that lacuna has its own political meanings.  Tamil politics has never been about the economy, even though the fear and the fact of loss of government jobs were the main political triggers in the heyday of Tamil parliamentary politics between 40 and 80 years ago.  Tamil nativism was such that there was always greater emphasis on everyday economics rather than political debate.  A political rally before sunset was unheard of unless someone from the south was in town to talk politics at ten o’clock in the morning.  Few people attended such morning rallies as people were working in the fields or elsewhere. Now things might be different with little land to farm and less opportunities for work. 

Whether practical or not, Tamil politics was never formulated in economic terms.  Ideologically, as the late AJ Wilson used to say, the foremost Tamil leaders of that time, GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanyakam were “to the right of JR” (Jayewardene).  Ponnambalam never missed an opportunity to boast that he was the “unrepentant opponent of Marxism”, and SJV Chelvanyakam saw “seeds of communism” in Philip Gunawardene’s Paddy Lands legislation.  Never mind that the father of Marxism was practically the only Sinhalese leader who supported both the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyakam Pact and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact.  Even though pseudo Marxism would later embellish portions of Tamil separatist rhetoric, the rhetoric itself was never informed by serious economic arguments.   

On the other hand, Southern politics was heavily influenced by the economic argument, with the political division between the Left and the Right being the determining dynamic at critical moments of southern politics until the 1980s.  Now it is neither about the Left nor the Right, but about “Rajapaksa economics”, as Kumar David described last Sunday the economic regime the country is under.  Kath Noble has called it hotchpotch, and thanks to her reference I was able to read an interesting (Australian National University) Working Paper  on “Economic Policy Shifts in Sri Lanka: The Post-conflict Development Challenge”, by two Australian academics of Sri Lankan origin, Prema-chandra Athukorala and Sisira Jayasuriya. 

A notable aspect of their paper is that it provides the economic context to the National, if not the Tamil, Question – the context, that is, to the eruption of the war and the continuing politics after the war, in addition to critiquing the regime’s wrongheaded policies.  And Peradeniya academic Milton Rajaratne has ridiculed the Rajapaksa economic theory of “Five Hubs” (i.e. turning Sri Lanka into a GLOBAL knowledge hub, energy hub, shipping hub, aviation hub, and commercial hub) as a chimeric myth.  If it all Sri Lanka will become a South Asian casino hub! 

Without labouring over the political past let us focus on what is happening after the war.  The government’s boast is that it is rebuilding and building infrastructure in the North and East like never before.  The boast is not unjustified because there has not been so much public investment in the two ‘deficit provinces’ (Chelvanayakm’s description) until now in all the years after the establishment of three government factories – KKS Cement, Paranthan Chemicals and Valaichchenai Paper Mill.  Those factories were built soon after independence when GG Ponnambalam was Minister of Industries.  Yet, the Rajapaksa government has not been able to translate this infrastructure investment into political support in the North and East, the way it has been able to consolidate even much larger investment in Hambantota into seemingly impregnable political support.   How so?

The obvious political reason is that there is a specific political problem as well as a humanitarian problem in the North and East unlike in Hambantota or anywhere else in the south.  The government cannot hide these problems under new roads and bridges, and without addressing those problems the government cannot even get the ears of the people, let alone their support.  How does it benefit someone to have the road in front of his property carpeted when he or she is denied access to that property on the pretext of state security?  How does that property benefit from a road reconstruction if the road is raised above the property and the drainage from the property runs to the property and not the other way around? What benefits are there to the local people and entrepreneurs when they are excluded from the immediate spinoffs from infrastructure investment and construction, such as jobs and contracts?  The not so obvious factors are the government’s motivations in undertaking this investment programme and the manner in which the programme is implemented.  The selection of contractors and suppliers and the network of kickbacks have bred cynicism among the people rather than any appreciation for the infrastructure invasion. These factors invariably make political sales job all the more difficult for government apologists and campaigners.

Not surprisingly, the TNA, in its now controverted manifesto, did not make it a point to highlight the shortcomings and the inappropriateness of the government’s economic initiatives in the North and East.  Nor did it present an alternative economic approach that will correspond to its political objectives and provide the road map for systematically addressing the pressing needs of the people.  If it wins the election and is ‘allowed’ to form a new Provincial Administration in the North, the TNA will have to quickly change gears from empty rhetoric to meaningful action.  There are enough people living in the North affiliated and unaffiliated to the University who have insight and empirical understanding of the potentials for and the challenges of undertaking economic development in the North.  It will be up to the TNA to harness their knowledge and ideas and formulate a new program of action that is more productive than the election manifesto.     

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