By Ameer Ali –
Nearly two months have passed since Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) was elected to the presidency. Although it is too soon to make any informed judgement on his administration, his achievements so far, in improving efficiency and productivity in public administration are credit worthy. His own preference for making his office less pompous and ceremonial is an example to be followed by every holder of public office, including the Prime Minster and cabinet of ministers. His tight control over public purse has saved millions of precious dollars, which should make it at least little easier the imponderable task of balancing the national budget. The country actually needs not balanced but surplus budgets for years to come. Yet, with his simplicity and discipline, GR is proving to be a workaholic and a hard taskmaster.
The more efficient and productive the public sector becomes stiffer will be competition from the private sector. Together, the twosectors can pull the country and its economy to a higher level. A clean government with an internationally competitive private sector is the best combination a country should look for. GR seems to understand this. Needless to say, this is one of the secrets behind Singapore’s success.
All this are positive signs for good governance in the long run. However, there had been some populist measures like ad hoc reduction in taxes and tariffs apparently to reduce the cost of living, but without giving any consideration to the negative impact those measures would have on the revenue side of public finance. Until now, no countervailing measures to enhance government revenue have been announced, except to repeat the neoliberal mantra of the debunked ‘trickledown effect’. The argument is that tax and tariff reductions would stimulate economic activities, promote growth and income, and would eventually improve the revenue side of public finance. The time lag between fiscal stimulus and economic growth is fairly long, and in an open economy adverse impacts of international turbulence and uncertainties will certainly affect domestic growth expectations. Besides, the problem with the trickledown theory is that the so called trickling does not go right down to the bottom layers of society, but stops short somewhere at the upper middle level. This may be the reason why PGR announced programs of food security to low income families by providing essential food items. This measure of public subsidy, although to be welcome, will be costly given the parlous state of government revenue. With all this, where is the expected reduction in cost of living? Let the president go to the street and ask the shoppers.
In actual fact, when one looks at these populist measures one would see that PGR’s stimulus was not targeted directly at the economy and cost of living, but more importantly at the forthcoming General Election in which he wants SLPP to achieve victory with two-third majority. There is more politics than economics in this stimulus. Herein lies the darker side of GR’s presidency.
It is now public knowledge and GR himself has accepted that his victory last year was entirely made possible by the overwhelming support he received from Sinhala Buddhists. However, behind this mass of Sinhala Buddhists was an army of supremacist foot soldiers under the command of militant members of the Sangha, who campaigned with communal hatred and religious zealotry to get GR elected so that they could achieve their Buddhist Valhalla. GR is indebted to this army and commanders, and he wants to see that they work with the same gusto to achieve victory with a two-third majority for SLPP at the next General Election. GR, because of political necessity, has become a virtual prisoner of this group. What do these supremacists want?
The political agenda of the supremacists goes far beyond protecting Sri Lanka’s unitary state, its sovereignty and constitution. The role of a militant clergy is totally outside the historic mission of bhikkus in this country, who in the past worked with the monarchs to ensure virtuosity in governance, without destroying the plural makeup of Sri Lankan society. Buddhism flourished as a result and the country prospered. These supremacists instead are essentially anti-democratic and anti-pluralist, and aspires to convert Sri Lanka into a homogenised nation with one religion, one culture, one law, and if possible, one race, all woven round their politicised Buddhism.
To achieve this objective they need an all-powerful president, protected by a loyal security machinery, a Prime Minister with less powers and a cabinet of ministers to carry out presidential orders. It is always easier to manipulate one person than to deal with an entire cabinet of ministers and members of their party. Hence, the need to change the constitution and do away with the 19th amendment. That could be done only with a two-third majority vote in the parliament, which the current care taker government does not have. Hence, the crucial importance of the coming General Election. With a two-third majority in parliament and with one brother as Prime Minister, the supremacist’s agenda would walk through easily for implementation. The big question is, does GR realise the hidden danger in this pernicious agenda and his own future if he fails to go along with supremacist demands.
For instance, GR’s rejection of power sharing with minorities by implementing the 13th amendment, which he agreed to do in front of the Indian Prime Minister in Delhi, but backed down after returning home and argued that the “majority” was unwilling, shows PGR’s sad predicament. He did not say that he was not willing but the so called “majority”, and hiding behind that majority is the powerful supremacist minority. It is this minority that also wants the national anthem sung only in Sinhala, and it is this minority that demands all madrasas be closed. When the government decided to register the madrasas, militant bhikkus were up in arms criticising that move and demanded nothing less than total closure. GR is well and truly trapped into the supremacist net and once they secure him his desired two-third majority at the General Election they will have a stranglehold on the President. That is where the danger lies to the country and GR.
Supremacists’ relentless attack on the minorities cannot go on for ever without provoking retaliation. It appears that even after a thirty year civil war and last year’s Easter massacre of colossal magnitude, both costing the country incalculable losses, these supremacists have not learnt their lessons. This may be the reason why GR has strengthened the security forces and its intelligence branch, through purge, promotions and recruitment. The decision to employ 100,000 young men and women from poor families also appears to have a military tinge. His deployment of the military to all districts, in the name of turning ‘swordsmen into ploughmen’, is the soft face of militarizing the country. He has to do this because he realises the danger of domestic convulsions arising out of supremacists’ reckless demands and lawless behaviour. If this continues unchecked the country will have no alternative but to become a police state, and that is not going to bring GR’s “prosperity and splendour”, but misery and mayhem.
What if GR rejects the supremacists? SWRD tried to do that in 1957 and paid with his life. Does the country want that history to repeat? SWRD was socialist minded and was not a born racist. He wanted to take the country on a new direction and took the cause of Sinhala language and Buddhism purely to win an election, and brought in the clergy to campaign for his victory. “Here were the best election agents any politician could wish for – 12,000 men whose words were holy to over 5,000,000 people, campaigning for the down fall of the Government, zealously and, what is more gratis”, wrote the veteran journalist, Tarzie Vittachi (Emergency ’58: The Story of the Ceylon Riots”, London, 1958, p. 19). Once he took the genie out of the bottle he could not put it back. Similarly, with a military background, an exposure to life in the democratic melting pot of USA, and with some grasp of how the Asian Tigers over the last few decades became economic power houses, Gota also wants to take Sri Lanka in a new direction for “prosperity and splendour”. He has plenty of constructive ideas and some of them have been translated into action already. However, like SWRD, political necessity has made Gota also to fall into the hands of supremacists. He should be saved from their clutches, and the best way to save him is to deny the two-third majority he is looking for. Mother Lanka should feed her baby not with what the baby wants, but with what she thinks is best for the baby.