Putting the Horse before the Cart

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Now that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as his own Finance Minister, it may be time for the Nation to fast-track whatever economic reforms that need to be put in place, and whatever foreign aid that needs to flow into the pipeline. In more than one way and for more than one reason, this should take priority over the so-called political reforms, which can happen only in either of these two days.

Either Parliament has to amend the Constitution, where Prime Minister Ranil’s role is limited to his single vote in 225, or by the people adding new vigour to their ‘GotaGoGama’ G-3 kind of peaceful protests. Even then the question before the larger masses, especially in the rural areas, is which should come first, economic reforms or political reforms. 

After dilly-dallying for a week and more, Ranil has sent out a clear message. Earlier, there was speculation and expectation that he would try to rope in Opposition SJB’s Harsha de Silva as the Finance Minister. That died a natural death after Harsha reiterated for the nth time how he would take over the Finance portfolio if and only if it was under a “national government.”

The implication was for the Government to be accepted as being ‘national,’ the SJB should be in it. The SJB would join the Government if and only if President Gotabaya Rajapaksa exited office, or now at the very least, efforts were initiated to abolish the Executive Presidency. It was not exclusively in the hands of Prime Minister Ranil, and the SJB knew it well.

As is known, a 21A cannot be fast-tracked. First, there has to be some kind of political consensus, which is what PM Ranil is now attempting, then the Government’s Legal Draftsman has to be given time to put it in place, then it has to be approved by all political parties one more time before being put up before Parliament. And as required it would have to go to the Supreme Court, for the constitutionally-mandated vetting.

All of it is going to take time, at least one or two months, to say the least. It depends on the quality of all-party consultations outside of Parliament, which could then take most of the time.

In the prevailing circumstances, the intertwining political crisis and economic problems cannot be wished away separately or together. But the Prime Minister, who is his Finance Minister, should focus exclusively on the economy, leaving the rest of it all, including constitutional promises on 21A to his President and Cabinet colleagues to deal with.

Not a Bounty Bowl

There are reasons. The Government leaders seem to act as if the Indian neighbour has given a blank cheque or has gifted an ‘akshayapatra,’ or bounty bowl, for Sri Lanka to ask for food, fuel, and medicines on a daily basis, and it’s given. Humanness and humanitarian considerations apart, as a Nation and Government India has its inherent limitations. Yet, as a good neighbour it has been overstretching itself to help out Sri Lanka with food, fuel, medicines, other essentials, and also credit swaps and the like.

No other Nation has done it, though most of them from the US down have not lost time in ticking off the Government on an alleged excess here, or an unexpected turn there. Neither did any of them condemn the two hours of spread out arson that destroyed the properties of close to 80 ruling party politicians, including every Rajapaksa in public life, starting with President Gota. That is beside the point, yes.

Ranil began his first full working day well by meeting the envoys of multiple Western nations and also those of India and China. There was also a mention of his mooting the forgotten idea of an ‘aid consortium’ in Sri Lanka’s favour.  But days afterwards, no one is talking anything about anything on non-Indian aid.

Political decisions

Nor is there any substantive report about the IMF negotiations, as was originally projected. It is anybody’s guess how international consultants could help renegotiate repayment of credit with other nations and international financial institutions, unless their job profile is also to identify new creditors in the place of the old.

At the end of the day, rescheduling is going to be between the Sri Lankan State and such other states or international institutions. These are political decisions, and to work out the details, possibly there is enough talent left in the Nation’s bureaucracy and outside experts, some of whom have already lent their expertise to the Government.

Right now, Ranil has spoken to people from the IMF, World Bank, WHO and FAO. No one from any Western government has talked about chipping in, indicating a possible lack of trust in the Sri Lankan system to turn around the economy or for the economy to turn itself around. They seem to be treating Sri Lanka as a ‘basket case,’ if not a Somalia, to which Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, equated the Nation not very long ago.

While the much-needed 21A and initiatives thereof are welcome, the greater issue is of economic survival. Ask the Upcountry Tamil, as their late leader Soumyamurthy Thondaman told Sri Lankan Tamil (SLT) leader S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, food comes before right. In Sri Lanka’s case, there should be a pacified poor and rural people before the urban elite can talk of 21A, abolition of Executive Presidency, etc, etc…

Rather, let Prime Minister Ranil ask his Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe or even a group of ministers to take 21A forward, and not be seen as expending most of his time on politics, which alone he is comfortable with – and deviating from the economy, where his discomfort is understandable. But the Nation cannot wait, the international community cannot bother after a point!

About the writer:

The writer is a Policy Analyst and Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected]

By N. Sathiya Moorthy