06 June 2016

A vote of no-confidence on constituency begs return of favour

There are times when regimes stop trusting their constituencies.  This is the beginning of a process which ends with the constituencies stop trusting the very people they placed in power.  This article was published on June 5, 2011.  In retrospect it looks like a warning letter to the then Government.  It took 4 more years and a few months, but insensitivity to warning may have helped produce the January 8, 2015 outcome.  Today, it's a different regime.  A little more than a year in office (or less than a year if you want to begin with the General Election last August).  There may be some lessons to be learnt, hence this re-post. 
For thirty long years, the LTTE could not be defeated. For a variety of reasons.  The negatives were always there such as the lack of political will, overestimation of enemy, underestimation of capacity, disunity, the sway of pro-LTTE forces, inability to counter LTTE propaganda abroad, a largely unsympathetic international community, foul play by India and numerous Tiger-bailout efforts.  The positives came together eventually.  The most important among them was the overwhelming support for the strategy adopted. 

It was not only clear that the LTTE needed to be militarily defeated, but this position became the thrust of the Government’s policy with respect to the issue at hand.  Finally the will of the majority prevailed over the preferences of the spoilers, those who insisted that the LTTE could not be militarily defeated, that the stated grievances be taken as givens never mind the lack of substantiation, that a negotiated settlement was possible etc. 

It was no cake walk.  The Government had to fight on several fronts.  The economy had to be taken care of.  International pressure had to be neutralized.  Political stability had to be maintained. The necessities pertaining to combat had to be provided and sustained.  One of the least acknowledged pluses was the fact that the position taken was not only popular, but correct on all counts.  This was what cushioned setbacks.  The people knew there would be costs and they were willing to bear them. 

Fighting terrorism is not the same as ensuring conflict-free bump-free operation of the economy.  The overwhelming support for the execution of the military option could not be expected to spill over to all other policy preferences of the Government.  Indulgence on account of the against-all-odds elimination of the terrorist threat had a life expectancy.  The honeymoon period ensured the comfortable re-election of the President, an unprecedented margin of victory at the General Election and perhaps helped secure more seats that incumbency warranted in the local government elections. 

All that is over now. From now on, brownie points will have to be earned.  The Government came under test on two counts over the past several weeks.  First, the Government had to decide whether or not to flirt with Eelamist machinations to ward off Eelamist-driven anti-Sri Lanka moves that could cause domestic difficulties that may in turn translate into political setbacks for the regime. As things stand, and going by the wording of the Joint Media Statement by the two External Affairs Ministers of India and Sri Lanka, it seems that the regime has decided to play ball. 

Secondly, and more in-your-face, was the pension bill for the private sector.  It was not just saluting IMF prescriptions but an undisguised attempt to enable the Treasury to lay its hands on ETF funds.  It was a business deal with the business class. It is unthinkable that the fallout was not anticipated.  The entire process gave a leg-up to the beleaguered JVP, antagonized large sections of the working class, horrified the rest of the citizenry and probably disappointed the loyalists.  It also took the life of a protestor.  The resignation of the Police Chief, Rs. 1 million worth of compensation, funeral-house visits by all MPs in the province, withdrawal of the proposal etc., were probably necessary damage-control measures, but they do not add up to ‘sufficient’.      In short, conversations that ought to have taken place before tear-gassing, when held later, are less effective. 

There is also the vexed issue of university lecturers demanding higher salaries whose resolution is taking a mighty long time.  ‘Leadership training’ for first year undergraduates is a programme has attracted expected flak from the JVP-led Inter University Students’ Federation.  My sense is that greater care should have been taken in the design, implementation and relevant communication. As things stand, good intention seems to have come a cropper in the eyes of the public.  

It is as though the movers and shakers in the Government have passed an unanimous vote of no-confidence on the people of this country, especially those who brought it to power and backed it to the hilt against all forces, local and foreign, in the praiseworthy effort to defeat terrorism.  It was not the business class that stood with President Rajapaksa during those dark days of doubt with respect to outcome.  It was not the devolutionist who supported him.  It was not the TNA that helped make up the numbers to get the budget passed in 2008.  It was the ordinary people of this country, especially the working class, the tillers of the soil, who stood with him. 

Mahinda Rajapaksa can be assured of one thing.  When push comes to shove, he will be dropped by the TNA, the business class, the devolutionists and the UNPers in his cabinet.  He’s taken the constituency for granted.  It seems now, he’s shifted loyalties.  If power rested on popularity and trust then, it will soon slip to a dependence on the instruments of coercion. 

The LTTE was defeated for the people and most importantly this result was made possible because the President adopted a ‘with the people’ policy framework. That’s what will help him in the future too. And it’s abandonment is what will destroy him.

Whether or not Mahinda Rajapaksa has the courage and humility to acknowledge this reality and correct course, respectively, only time will tell.  The issue is, there isn’t too much time left.  As things stand, he’s clearly said ‘no-confidence’ with respect to his constituency.  It won’t take long for the constituency to say ‘Ditto, Mr. President’.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer.  Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com.  Twitter: malindasene