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Mind your path, Sri Lanka

In the last 30 days or so, we have heard the President saying: “I don’t have much experience. Those with experience must advise.” The Prime Minister said: “All the youth that supported us are now lining up to go overseas.” The Finance Minister said: “There is nothing to offer the people in this Budget; we have to take from the people.” The Trade Minister said: “The country is heading towards bankruptcy. No one will be able to raise their head till 2029.” The Irrigation Minister said: “If there is no rice, eat gram.” The Industries Minister said: “Cabinet unaware of power agreement. We knew about it only when the meeting minutes arrived.” And finally, the Petroleum Minister said: “Never has there been so much corruption, not even during the previous regimes that we condemned so much.”

These were all voices from within one and the same Government – and it is certainly not what the people want to hear.

Given the dreary picture being painted in bits and pieces by none other than those who are supposed to be holding the levers of power and guiding the destinies of this nation, supporters of the regime, as well as those opposed, are entitled to ask the question: “What is going on and where are we heading?” The Budget, due to be unveiled later this week by the Finance Minister in Parliament, will hopefully provide some answers to that nagging question. But going by what the Minister has already stated, no one should be holding their breath.

Given the rapidly increasing sense of confusion and disenchantment even among its most diehard supporters, the Government is not helping itself by continuing to act on party lines at the expense of national interest. The absence of an integrated, cohesive, national rescue plan to alleviate the current economic difficulties, as highlighted by different personalities, will likely further aggravate the problems at hand. The challenges facing the nation at this particular juncture are unprecedented, and carry with it the potential to erase much of the socio-economic gains achieved in the recent past while also pushing back the development agenda. Just as much as a desperate situation calls for desperate measures, extraordinary situations call for extraordinary leadership, and that usually involves putting national interest above all else. However, just as much as the sitting government is expected to lead the way in that particular endeavour, it is also the responsibility of the sitting opposition to keep the Government in check and on-course in succeeding in that endeavour.

In William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Brutus famously urged his comrades to seize a fleeting opportunity: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” Even for the most ingenious of oppositions, the resemblance in circumstances, although in very different situations, should at the very minimum warrant a more circumspect approach in order to seize the moment. If the collective Opposition is keen on offering a viable alternative, now would be a good time to earn the confidence of the people rather than act at cross purposes. In order to do this, they need to come up with their own set of alternative proposals rather than wait for an election to do so.

Looks can be deceptive and they usually are, especially when it comes to politicking in this country. Friends become foes and foes become friends in an instant, when the carrot that is power is dangled before them. Policies and principles have no place in the power games that our politicians are accustomed to, which, in turn, is what continues to drag this country down. Therefore, even though it may appear that political fortunes are turning in its favour, the collective Opposition must be mindful of the fact that nothing is going to come easy until and unless they are perceived as the viable alternative. It is up to them and no one else to create that perception, which is why a proactive alternative programme, capable of capturing the imagination of the people, should by now be on the table while the reactive press events relating to government action should simply validate that process.

Even though party manifestos are usually forgotten about the same time as they are created once the polls are done and dusted, they play an important role in creating the foundation and basis for the campaign. Usually, parties think of manifestos and policy statements only when an election is announced. The people are routinely taken for a ride every five years and the country stagnates in the same place, while a handful makes hay while the sun shines. That, unfortunately, has been the case for 70-odd years, and amply explains why the nation is in this sorry state.

The collective Opposition has now been given a golden opportunity to break this practice and open a new chapter by attempting to bring in credible and policy-based governance by placing before the people their programmes and policies which, in turn, can be fine-tuned by society over a period of time. In the process, they have the opportunity to trump the ruling party at its own game. 

Nevertheless, the more politically savvy ruling party has been quick to identify the problems, not only within its own ranks, but within the opposite camp as well, and succeeded in launching its own opposition campaign using its own political allies, in effect pulling the rug out from under the actual Opposition. By taking on the very issues that the legitimate Opposition should be tackling using its own political resources, much of the potency of the issues have been effectively killed off, leaving just the crumbs for the Opposition to feed on. This opposition, built within the Government, while showcasing unique creativity, appears to be more useful than it is designed to be. That way, Weerawansa, Gammanpila, Vasu, et. al, along with the rest of the ruling alliance partners, can have the cake and eat it as well.

Be that as it may, members of the current Cabinet, by their own admission at different fora, appear ill-equipped to take on the complex challenges before it, with world superpowers now baying at the door. Yet, despite the glaring deficit of expertise within that which has already led to disastrous consequences, no one in the upper echelons seems inclined to tackle the issues head-on by, at the very least, questioning the viability of the decisions being made within the Cabinet, even though much hot air is released outside of it long after the damage is done. 

For its part, the ruling party is continuing its dangerous game of playing the racist card at every opportunity, pushing the minority communities to clutch at straws simply to be noticed. The almost complete reliance on the military and monks to do the job on its behalf may behold it to the core of its support base, but at what cost to the nation is what remains to be seen. If the recent appointment of monks to high positions in the education system is anything to go by, the way forward cannot be anything but problematic. Control seems to be the operative word in the absence of inspired leadership.

Already in the international doghouse for purported rights violations, the latest appointments are not going to garner any additional marks, especially from the European Union. For an administration that has not hesitated to shoot itself in the foot in order to retain domestic electoral support, such concerns will likely be of no consequence. Therefore, it is plausible that the Budget to be presented this week would have factored in the probability of a challenging macro-economic environment and put in place the requisite budgetary safeguards.

To its credit, the administration has never wavered in its chosen path of appeasing its core support base. Whether this is what is best for the nation is up to the collective Opposition to define. While the two are busy doing their thing, the people need to assert themselves and be mindful of the path that lies ahead. Sri Lanka must remain a country of the people, by the people, for the people.