By Ameer Ali –
The Covid-19 pandemic, which shows no sign of retreating yet, is threatening to unleash instead its fourth wave with the highly contagious Delta strain. People who would normally adhere to advice from health experts to avoid close personal contacts and large gatherings, are turning a blind eye to the orders of military men who advise the same, and are engaging openly in protest rallies and marches against the government, although the official media hides the facts. Unlike in previous years, the current mass awakening appears to be largely spontaneous, although political parties in opposition are keen to take advantage of the situation. However, as far as the masses are concerned there is an underlying theme in their loud chorus, and that is, a clear voice of no confidence on the ruling regime. The regime has failed them and failed miserably. If there is not going to be a U-turn in some of its policies such as the clamp down on imports of some necessities and intermediate goods, an irrational stubbornness to avoid IMF for urgent financial assistance, and tolerance of corruption, food shortages would lead to famine and starvation. The masses who are out on the streets may not understand the complexity surrounding the management of national economy, but they clearly have a sound grasp of the reasons afflicting the misery of their household economy, which they witness first hand and understand better than Central Bankers and pundits who advise the regime and produce statistics. It is this understanding that has driven them out on streets and telling the rulers that ‘enough is enough, change or quit’.
If the electors are saying that what on earth are the elected doing in the parliament? Of the 213 representatives who participated in and the 9 absentees from the Gammanpila vote of no/confidence saga, the vast majority were simply trying to prolong their stay, because it is not certain whether they would return to their seats if a general election were to be held. That much is clear from the manoeuvrings behind the scene. One may see the repetition of that performance after the debate on the Kotelawala National Defense University (KNDU) Bill, which is vehemently opposed by the university communities and academia.
However, the response to the agony of common people is not for X and Y to come out and shout that they are ready to take over and begging voters to give them a chance, but to explain to the masses in a language they understand how would they bring about improvements. Unlike in times of plenty when efficiency and economy matter little, in an era of chronic scarcities and conflicting pressures those criteria become pivotal. A systematic strategy with a package of coordinated policies is an absolute minimum to repair the damage done by this regime. The idea of economic planning, which lost is credibility and voice in the economic cacophony of a neoliberal era, now needs revisiting. For God’s sake don’t assume that I am craving for a return of Marxism, Communism or Leftism. I am only appealing to consider pragmatism and parsimony in economic policy making. The country cannot afford to have policies on the run.
The immediate concerns of the masses are, ruinous cost of living that is spiraling out of control, falling income and indebtedness, rising unemployment, failing health, mental stress and breakdown of families. These are bread and butter issues. Infrastructure development, “alternative way” to growth and vistas of prosperity and splendour are high sounding and empty promises beyond the reach of ordinary people. Has the opposition got an alternative or a deliverable package of solutions to these basic issues? So far, except for NPP/JVP allies to some extent, whose level of mass support is still wobbling around the 5-10%, none of the three major contenders for power, UNP, SLFP and SJB, not to mention the parties of the two minorities, seem to have any workable program or manifesto. There is a glaring bankruptcy of original thinking and plan within the major opposition parties. There is no pointing in changing the regime unless the alternative has a meaningful program of action.
It is time for civil society groups from all three communities to come together and dialogue with the opposition and draw up such a manifesto and become foot soldiers in canvassing support from the masses. The challenge facing a regime change is going to be formidable and may even be bloody under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has divulged his intention to run for a second term. His de facto military rule with the planned KNDU is no doubt, preparations for that race. Having learnt from history how elections are conducted in Sri Lanka and how various reactionary forces work overtime to manipulate the mindset of Sinhalese voters, it would be optimistic to predict that the proposed broad coalition, which includes JVP/NPP, will have an easy ride. However, if such a coalition could manage to garner the balancing votes the two minorities could tip the balance in its favour.
There is a particular message to the two minorities in this context. Ever since the British introduced the system of communal representation in the 19th century, an idea has been ingrained in the public mind that only a leader from a particular community should and could lead that community and no cross-community leadership was therefore entertained, unless when exceptional circumstances such as the absolute minority position of a community within a particular electorate demands that choice. This was how communalism allowed to be nurtured and over seven decades of that communal plague, peace and prosperity of the country are in ruins. The time has arrived to break this mold and the two minorities, including Up-country Tamils, must realise that they can live with honour and dignity while enjoying their citizenship rights and cultural identity only under a coalition of secular leadership that keeps ethnicity and religion away from political calculations and economic management. When leftists in the last century went with that promise the two minorities jointly rejected them. It is hoped that a new coalition to be stitched before the next election would promise such an alternative. If that happens, the coalition deserves a chance to prove its mettle. The so-called 13th amendment, North-East merger and cry for help from India and international communities are not going to bring lasting solutions to minority grievances. Such solutions have to be worked out internally through a mechanism of toleration and compromise by a coalition of rational and peace-loving coalition of political and civilian groups. One would hope that civil society organizations within the two minorities work hard to change their voters’ behaviour at the next polls.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, School of Business & Governance, Murdoch University, Western Australia