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Walking the talk

a year ago

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Sri Lanka’s recent history is rife with instances of the once mighty falling from grace rather quickly for no other apparent reason than simply failing to walk the talk. What befell the last Yahapalana administration is a prime example of that. Having ridden to power on the promise of bringing to book those responsible for corruption and other crimes in the past, it soon became part of the problem with the Central Bank scam and subsequent failure to bring to book those they reviled during the election campaign as responsible for the country’s plight. Five years down the road, they were punished like never before by an unforgiving people who expected better of the people they reposed their faith in. In order to win elections, candidates promise what the people like to hear, and once elected, those promises are usually consigned to the dustbin of history. As an American congressman once remarked: “Like most of my colleagues, I promise my constituents a lot of stuff I can never deliver. But what the heck? If it makes them happy hearing it, and they're stupid enough to believe it, shame on them.” As unpleasant and reprehensible as it is, this has sadly been the reality that the people of this nation have had to stomach for the longest time. Performance-wise, at least on the economic front, there was not much that the Yahapalana could be found fault with, having set quite a few benchmarks such as Sri Lanka being ranked an “upper middle-income country” for the first time by the World Bank, a current account surplus for the first time in 50 years, a decent credit rating, record exports as well as tourism revenue, and being voted the No. 1 tourism destination in 2019. But all that counted for zilch when it came to non-delivery of the core promise of ensuring justice. The consequent Yahapalana humiliation, in which the then ruling United National Party (UNP) was deprived of even a single seat for the first time since Independence, was a stark indicator that things were no longer the same. Probably due to a combination of the influential millennials coming of age, aided and abetted by the use of technology, especially the influence of social media, rulers and politicians of every hue are finally coming to terms with the fact that they are being assessed and evaluated on their performance in real time. Being technologically savvy, and therefore in tune with ground realities, the incumbent, unlike his predecessors, seems to have learnt quite well from the Yahapalana debacle that no excuse, even of pandemic proportions, can make up for the failure to deliver on the core promises. In marketing speak, the standard formula for success is to underpromise and overdeliver. The political version of Tom Peter’s classic is usually the opposite. But the incumbent President, having realised the tricky territory his administration finds itself in, with the economy tottering on the brink and a host of other issues multiplying by the day, ventured to do something no Sri Lankan leader in contemporary times has done – to admit before the nation that he and his administration has been unable to deliver what was promised. Usually, if at all, such admissions or confessions are made post-election while reflecting in the opposition ranks. Yet, to date, neither the former President nor the former Prime Minister thought it fit to make a similar statement on the Yahapalana failings. In that context, the incumbent’s admission of “non-delivery”, still relatively early in his tenure, appears to be a masterstroke, which, in one swell swoop, has helped lower expectations of the people, at least with regard to the delivery of the rest of the promises, and thereby create the necessary space to underpromise by default and hopefully overdeliver, if at all, in the remaining period. Given the dire circumstances, there’s nothing to lose in a bit of introspection and public lamentation. An over-enthusiastic Opposition is likely to miss the wood for the trees and the President’s “admission” could be erroneously construed as throwing in the towel. But looks usually are deceptive. The admission, by its very nature, appears to be more akin to throwing the hat into the ring – meaning, rather than expecting to call it a day, as the Opposition would like to believe, he seems to be girding himself for what is to come; in other words, the battle is only beginning. But it’s certainly not going to be an easy one. The current state of the economy has put the administration in the doghouse, both locally as well as internationally, and it will certainly take an extraordinary effort from hereon to come out of it unscathed. The cost of living that has gone through the roof as a result of the simultaneous increase in the prices of essential items such as gas, rice, milk, sugar, flour, etc. has come as a body blow to the people already reeling from the economic impact of the pandemic that has resulted in job cuts, salary cuts, and decreased household incomes. The quantum of the price hikes has called into question the effectiveness of the emergency regulations that were introduced purportedly for the specific purpose of controlling the prices of essential items. Since that purpose has undeniably been defeated, the further retention of emergency regulations certainly merits questioning. The draconian regulations will, of course, be a handy tool in the hands of an administration bracing for an imminent wave of protests on the cost of living, among other things, as well as preparing for a provincial poll, giving merit to Opposition allegations that these were, in fact, the motivating factors for bringing in the regulations in the first place. Given the rising public displeasure on the cost of living, the Government appears to be doing next to nothing to reverse the trend. At the rate the Central Bank has been running the currency printer, inflation – or, in layman’s terms, prices of goods – will continue to rise and a further fuel price hike seems imminent, which is likely to test the limit of the people’s patience. On top of all this, the Government has announced lavish financial disbursements for local authorities over the next few months, obviously in view of the impending polls, resorting to a tried and tested method for securing votes. As a result, billions more will be printed and distributed, adding to inflationary pressure. Despite the carefree money printing, the Government seems aware of the precarious economic situation and appears to be resorting to desperate measures given the desperate times. Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris’ unprecedented appeal to European ambassadors last week to continue with the GSP+ was one such measure, and only confirms suspicions that the final outcome may not be what the Government expects. Ironically, the emergency regulations currently in force could well be a deciding factor in the GSP+ issue and the Government will do well to take cognisance of that fact. Even though the Government has consistently blamed the current economic woes on the pandemic, independent analysts have traced the issue to the pre-pandemic tax cuts that slashed government revenue but provided little or no relief to the masses as intended. With a major chunk of its revenue lost, the Government has since struggled to make ends meet and the upcoming budget next month is likely to feature the biggest deficit in the country’s history, at around 11% of GDP. The next budget is also likely to re-impose some of the slashed direct taxes while proposing further increases in indirect taxes leading to further pressure on the cost of living. For an administration that promised “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, the reality two years down the line has been quite the opposite, with the vast majority of people, especially the farming community, falling from the frying pan into the fire as a result of government policy decisions. Even though the highest in the land has expressed regret at not being able to deliver on the promises, as pointed out by him, the rest of the ministers, deputy ministers, and state ministers must also shoulder equal responsibility and at the very minimum show similar empathy towards a people struggling for mere survival in the absence of any substantive relief measures.

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