Badger and mastiffs
Wednesday 24th May, 2023
The Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe regime’s shameful efforts to oust Chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL), Janaka Ratnayake, remind us of some gory western flicks, where swashbuckling, trigger-happy scumbags hang public officials who refuse to carry out their illegal orders. Ratnayake has become a marked target for retaliation by defying some questionable government orders. One, however, should not be so naïve as to believe that he is driven by pure altruism like a knight errant. His mission is not without a Quixotic element, and his critics allege that some of his decisions on power tariffs are coloured by his commercial interests; he is a real estate magnate.
Opinion may be divided on whether Ratnayake’s opposition to power tariff increases emanates from a genuine concern for the public, or his vested interest or even his animosity towards the current dispensation, but the government is unquestionably at fault, for it is misusing its parliamentary strength to remove a public official who refuses to do its bidding. It has retained its majority in the House with the help of some crossovers notorious for striking Faustian bargains. If it succeeds in seeing the back of Ratnayake today, it will be emboldened to oust all other independent public officials it considers obstacles in its path.
Sri Lankan politicians are characterised by what may be called Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde duality, and power is the potion that leads to their transformations and causes their sinister, evil alter egos to prevail. These contrasting aspects of their nature are borne out by their attitude towards the depoliticisation of vital state institutions. They amended the Constitution to create independent commissions. But they want these institutions to remain independent only when they are in the political wilderness (read the Opposition), and the moment they begin to savour power, they go into overdrive to gain total control over everything. One of the reasons the government has given for its efforts to hound the PUCSL chief out of his job is that he is no respecter of Cabinet decisions. There is no constitutional requirement for the independent commissions or their heads to obey either the Cabinet or the President. They are only required to ensure that the interests of the public are protected vis-à-vis meddlesome politicians. The government’s argument, therefore, has no leg to stand on.
It is being claimed in some quarters that the government has been struggling to muster a simple majority in Parliament to remove Ratnayake because some ruling party MPs are of the view that they will incur public opprobrium if they sack the PUCSL chief, whose opposition to power tariff increases has resonated with the people. But the odds are that ayes will have it when the resolution against Ratnayake is put to the vote, today. We are not short of politicians of easy virtue, who are willing to stoop to any low level to further their own interests. Some Opposition MPs are straddling the fence and currying favour with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and they will have an opportunity, today, to try to secure ministerial posts by voting with the government.
Ratnayake has gone on record as saying that electricity tariffs can be reduced by 27 percent because the Ceylon Electricity Board’s cost estimates and demand forecasts have been found to be erroneous. If so, the government must be made to explain why the CEB has been allowed to fleece the public, and stern action should be taken against the officials responsible for the statistical lies at issue. Is it that the government politicians are keeping the power tariffs artificially high for the benefit of the foreigners who are keen to invest in the power sector here so that there will be a quid pro quo?
Any other public official would have caved in under government pressure, but Ratnayake has proved that he is made of sterner stuff. He gave a media briefing yesterday, and while listening to him, we were reminded of one of John Clare’s poems, where a badger being pursued by hunters and their dogs fights back with might and main. The poor animal loses in the end, but Clare imbues it with heroism: “The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray /Lies down and licks his feet and turns away. /The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold, /The badger grins and never leaves his hold.”
One can only hope that sanity will prevail, and the so-called people’s representatives will be guided by the dictates of their conscience, if any, when they vote today.
Unless the Opposition, civil society outfits, trade unions, the media, etc., circle the wagons for the sake of upright public officials who dare tell stuck-up politicians where to get off, the incumbent regime will render the state service, especially regulatory outfits tasked with safeguarding the interests of the public, even more pliable.
An indictment of SLPP leaders
Wednesday 7th June, 2023
The easiest task in Sri Lanka is perhaps to distract the public. In ancient Rome, the patricians used bread and circuses to take the plebeians for a ride, but there is no need for bread to hoodwink the masses in this country, where a mere political circus can make them forget even the pangs of hunger. In fact, not even circuses as such are necessary here to divert public attention from the many burning issues that the government has failed, or not cared, to solve; only a propaganda gimmick will do the trick. A stand-up comedienne, who is far from outstanding, a self-styled prophet, and a cantankerous Buddhist monk have found themselves up a creek for having failed to exercise control over their tongues, and the SLPP-UNP government has undertaken to protect Buddhism for political reasons. Besides, everybody is now talking about the next presidential election, which cannot be advanced without a constitutional amendment; the much-delayed local government and Provincial Council polls have apparently been forgotten. The SJB has already named its presidential candidate, and the SLPP remains indecisive with a section of its MPs offering to throw in their lot with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who, the UNP has said, will run for President.
State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe has, in a television interview, declared that President Wickremesinghe is the best leader around and deserves to be popularly elected at the end of his current term. Politicians know which side their bread is buttered, and never miss an opportunity to ingratiate themselves with the powers that be. So, it is only natural that Semasinghe is fawning over the President, but his statement at issue is proof that the SLPP has become so politically bankrupt that it considers none of its own leaders fit to be the next President! His statement therefore serves as an indictment of the SLPP leadership.
We don’t intend to discuss the possibility or otherwise of a snap presidential election, but Semasinghe’s statement is of interest and much political significance. What it signifies is that the SLPP stalwarts have had to hitch their wagons to Wickremesinghe, whom they condemned vehemently until mid-2022, and even had gone all out to oust as the Prime Minister in 2018, albeit in vain. The claim that the UNP-led Yahapalana government had compromised national security and ruined the country became the SLPP’s rallying cry at the last presidential and parliamentary elections. The SLPP leaders vilified Wickremesinghe and condemned his policies as being detrimental to the country’s interests, and the popular mandate they are flaunting at present to legitimise their hold on power despite their many failures was obtained to ‘save the country from the UNP’. The SLPP has made a mockery of its mandate by elevating the person it used as a foil to promote its leaders as capable patriots, to the highest position in the country. More importantly, it is doing the very obverse of what it undertook to do in its election manifestos. Inveighing against the Yahapalana regime for the sale of state assets, the SLPP leaders declared that never would they resort to the divestiture of public enterprises, which they promised to protect and develop. Today, the SLPP has made a volte-face and is going hell for leather to sell state ventures and other public assets at fire-sale prices.
By making Wickremesinghe the President and helping him carry out his economic policies, the SLPP has unwittingly caused the people to conclude that the UNP-led Yahapalana government would have done what the current dispensation is doing and therefore should not have been voted out. It has thus forfeited its raison d’etre, delegitimised itself well and truly, and lent much weight and credibility to the Opposition’s call for an early general election. In fact, it lost its right to wield power, the day it declared the country bankrupt and began inflicting unprecedented suffering on the people, especially those who had reposed their trust in it, expecting a better future for their children. Efforts being made to straighten up the ailing economy with the help of the very politicians who bankrupted it are as futile and stupid as enlisting Lalith Kotelawala’s support to revive Golden Key and grant relief to its depositors crying out for justice!
Whether Semasinghe has rendered any noteworthy service to the public, as the State Minister of Finance, may be debatable, but he certainly deserves praise for his indictment of the SLPP leadership, unintended as it may be.
Best antidote to exploitation
Tuesday 6th June, 2023
Most people are labouring under the misconception that every prospect pleases in this country and only politicians are vile. Hence the unprecedented rise of anti-politics during the past several years and the demand that all 225 MPs go home. It is popularly thought that all we need to do is to cleanse politics, and, hey presto, the country will be a better place. The focus of last year’s Aragalaya, which sprang as a people’s response to unbearable economic hardships, corruption, etc., and was later hijacked by some ultra-radical elements with anarchical agendas to compass their sinister ends, was also on ridding the country of corrupt, failed politicians. The battle was lost and won; the popular uprising led to the ouster of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, but the Rajapaksa family has retained its hold on power by other means. In a way, it has been a case of swings and roundabouts for the general public, who expected a ‘system change’. But the question is whether their lot would have improved significantly even if they had been able to see the back of every corrupt, failed politician. There are many others who are as selfish as politicians and exploiting the public ruthlessly.
The Sri Lankan rupee has thankfully rallied against the major foreign currencies, especially the US dollar, over the past several weeks, and import costs have dropped significantly. The prices of essential food items and fuel including cooking gas have decreased, but the benefits thereof have not been passed on to the public; bakers and eatery owners fleece consumers by keeping the prices of their products extremely high. Private bus operators have benefited tremendously from diesel price decreases, but refuse to bring down their fares. They trot out lame excuses. The same goes for the unscrupulous taxi operators, who have refused to reduce their fares despite decreases in petrol prices and an increase in the fuel quota. The less said about the private hospital Mafia, the better; they exploit the sick with impunity. It has been a double whammy for the public; the state-run hospitals are experiencing various shortages and cannot cope with the demand for free healthcare, and the private sector health institutions fleece them.
Everybody is preoccupied with economic and political reforms these days. The IMF has rammed a slew of economic reforms down Sri Lanka’s throat, and they include the restructuring of some key public sector institutions. One can only hope that this bitter medicine will prove efficacious, and there will not be any social upheavals, which usually result from the IMF bailout conditions. The government has doubled down on its efforts to raise tax revenue and curtail its expenditure. Besides, some law and political reforms are on the drawing board, and much is being talked about the need to usher in a new political culture and bring about a system change. But it is doubtful whether these economic, political and law reforms will yield the desired results unless they are coupled with a robust social reform movement, which alone will help engineer an attitudinal change in people, empower them, inculcate a work ethic, and mobilise them to fight for their rights and work towards common good.
Traders, private bus operators, eatery owners, and others are having a field day at the expense of the public because people are not organised. The most effective antidote to exploitative business practices is for the public to boycott products and services that are unreasonably priced and are of poor quality. In this day and age, the public can be mobilised via social media easily. This is a task for opinion leaders and the various civil society organisations, especially those who claim to be fighting for the rights of the hapless consumers.
A question of legitimacy
Monday 5th June, 2023
President Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking at the National Law Conference, in Nuwara Eliya, on Saturday, urged the political parties represented in Parliament to join forces and help rebuild the economy. One cannot but agree that all political parties are duty bound to sink their differences and unite, for the sake of the country, to put the economy back on an even keel, for all of them have contributed to the process of ruining it albeit to varying degrees. The President also said that political parties should do so instead of calling for elections. There’s the rub! Does this mean that elections will not be held until the economy is turned around? How long will the government take to accomplish that task? What guarantee is there that it will succeed in doing so? What if it fails to straighten up the economy in the foreseeable future? Will the country be without elections indefinitely in such an eventuality? Efforts to revive the economy, we believe, must not be at the expense of the people’s franchise.
President Wickremesinghe argued that none of the parties with parliamentary representation enjoyed the support of 50% of voters. Opinion may be divided on whether his claim holds true for all political parties; those who endorse or challenge this argument will do so without empirical evidence. The best way its validity can be tested is for the government to hold the much-delayed local council elections, which will not lead to a change of government but enable the people to exercise their franchise, express their will, and, more importantly, help defuse the build-up of anger in the polity.
The SLPP has lost popular support though it polled more than 50% of the total number of valid votes at the presidential election in 2019 and the parliamentary polls in 2020; President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quit and Mahinda Rajapaksa stepped down as the Prime Minister due to public protests. They would not have done so if they had been confident that the people who had voted for them overwhelmingly were still with them. The UNP polled only about 2% of the votes countrywide at the 2020 general election and has only one MP. Thus, the SLPP-UNP administration lacks legitimacy to govern the country, and that is why an early general election has to be held so that the people can elect a new parliament; ideally, it ought to stop manipulating numbers in the current Parliament to retain its hold on power and seek a fresh mandate from the people by holding a snap general election, or at least face local government/Provincial Council elections without further delay.
Public resentment is palpable, and the government has become dependent on the police and the military for its survival, and keeps postponing elections. Political stability, which is a prerequisite for economic recovery, will be at risk as long as the people remain resentful of a failed government, which clings on to power in spite of having bankrupted the country. What the current regime is doing is tantamount to a rapist retaining the custody of his victim! It is only natural that the people have lost faith in the government.
President Wickremesinghe also said at Saturday’s National Law Conference that the majority of people had lost faith in elections, and politics, and whether it was the parliament, the judiciary, the media, trade unions or professionals, the people lacked trust in the entire system. There is a general consensus on this assertion.
The abuse of the National List (NL) mechanism by political parties to bring in defeated candidates and persons of their choice as appointed MPs is one of the main causes of the erosion of public faith in elections. The NL is a constitutional wormhole, as it were, which has to be sealed. Thankfully, all is not lost if relatively high voter turnouts at elections are any indication. Anti-politics, which means people’s hostility towards established political systems, parties, institutions or practices, is manifestly on the rise, and this situation is attributable, among other things, to the presence of many undesirable persons among politicians and people’s representatives, rampant corruption, the abuse of power and public funds, and the prevailing culture of impunity.
Most of the factors that gave rise to last year’s socio-political upheavals are still there; they have the potential to trigger another popular uprising of tsunamic proportions. Hence the need for the government to mend its ways and tread cautiously without suppressing democracy and provoking the public.
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