Unkindest Cut of All!

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It is one thing for vocal, vociferous parties like the JVP and the FSP to talk about the Government placing the Nation at the ‘mercy of foreign powers’. It is another matter when the main Opposition’s Leader and presidential aspirant Sajith Premadasa says such things. The former two do not aspire to be in power any time soon. If anything, they continue to talk about changing the system and the society. That is not the case with the SJB and Sajith Premadasa.

It is not that the Opposition should not criticise the Government, or target President Gotabaya Rajapaksa personally, for the current economic crisis – at least partially. As the official Opposition party, it is their job and business to oppose. In doing so, their charges about a black market in imported food, fuel and medicine should be welcome – though neither the Government, nor the ruling party, has done so. Neither has either challenged Premadasa on his sweeping allegations, for some of which he has cited the COPE proceedings.

However, given the current circumstances, when only a ‘foreign power’ in neighbouring India has been extending food, fuel and medicine assistance for weeks and months now, a senior politician like Premadasa with ambitions to return to power at the helm, should have measured his words. If it is not India, it has to be some other nation or international institutions. Hence, his sweeping observation, “at the mercy of foreign powers” has a larger connotation than merely targeting the domestic opponent in power.

Leave aside India, which as a neighbour feels obligated to extend a helping hand to the drowning Sri Lankan neighbour. Such sweeping statements have a knack of being seen as the ‘the most unkindest cut’ by Nations that want to help!

Inherent limitations

Sri Lanka was never ever self-sufficient. Nor will ever be in the foreseeable future. As a Nation, it has inherent limitations, not only in the manufacturing sector but also in basic agriculture, after a point. As basic economics teaches you, manufacturing needs land, labour and capital. Of this, the nation has labour, but not enough capital.

The land that may be in abundance, so to say, is the major attraction for foreign tourists, in the form of multiple national parks with their flora, fauna and animal kingdom. But for the current crisis and its feared consequences turning away tourists, it is a major forex-earner, and also job-provider.

But investments and markets both have to come from outside the country. It is so whether it is in manufacturing or in new-generation services sector like IT and ITE. When neighbouring India opened up in the early nineties, the Nation sooner than later, discovered the power of the local market.

It got foreign investments, and also manufacturers, many of whom are now producing automobiles and white goods, mostly for the local market – though many of them, like traditional Indian industrial houses also export. That is not going to be the case with Sri Lanka, not certainly in the short and medium terms.

Fooled by thoughts

The nation was fooled by thoughts and talks of big-ticket foreign investments when it opened up. If JRJ and his team thought that auto-makers and pharma firms from Europe and the US would be opening shop here, they were entirely mistaken. That was not going to happen, not certainly when economic reforms happened in 1978.

What Sri Lankans got instead was a throttling of local farm-based industries, especially in the dairy sector. Those who could afford also got to buy imported fruits, of all things, which pushed local produce out of shop-shelves. Together, they also caused avoidable forex outflows.

Now, close to 45 years after opening up, the Nation is discovering that manufacturing investments are not happening other than in an occasional way. Even if it were to happen with further opening up, as the current crisis would dictate, it has to be only at the instance of ‘foreign powers’.

Maybe, it would not be through the Government, as in the case of India or China. Instead, in the case of investors from the US and Europe, Japan and South Korea, for instance, some of the MNC conglomerates would be bigger and richer than many nations and their Governments. The term ‘foreign powers’ thus applies to them as much as they apply to their Nations and Governments.

Political stability

It maybe, or maybe not, the people of Sri Lanka do not want President Gota in office any more. Now after a month-plus, they may not even want Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister. Granting those perceptions /prescriptions, even if for argument’s sake, what alternative do Sajith and the SJB have to offer? Or, even the likes of the JVP, FSP and even the TNA, which has been equally vociferous against the Gota-Ranil combo, as they used to be against all the Rajapaksas until only the President was left from the family pack.

The assumption and presumption is that the voters would sent the Rajapaksas packing in any election that is held anytime soon, whether for the presidency or for Parliament, or for both. The Constitution however says that should Gota quit as President, then Ranil as Prime Minister becomes interim President, with Parliament choosing another to fill the remaining period of Gota’s term, till mid-2024, or nearly two years hence.

Gota’s SLPP has an absolute majority in Parliament. Past efforts to frighten/threaten ruling party parliamentarians and other leaders to quit, by burning down their homes and other property, did not produce the desired results on the evening of 9 May, only hours after ‘Rajapaksa goons’ had attacked ‘peaceful protestors’ seeking their exit at Colombo’s Galle Face Green beach-front.

Thankfully, the ‘arsonists’ stopped with killing only one ruling party MP. Today, with SJB’s national organiser Tissa Attanayake indicating the party’s preparedness to ‘join those wanting this Government out’ in (planned/plotted) street-protests, they also need to tell the Nation beforehand, as to what they intend achieving, and what they intend doing after such achievement – if at all – and what economic recovery plan they have, with or without help from ‘foreign powers’ – if they too were not to face a similar fate in their time!

(The writer is a policy analyst & commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected])

By N Sathiya Moorthy