Taking the nation back to the cross-roads?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

There is a problem with political parties in elected Governments. After coming to power, they do not know what poll promises to keep, and what to keep only as promises for the future. The fact is that in a one-sided election as the nation witrnessed first in the presidential poll of November last and even more that for Parliament in August, the voters expectations for the Rajapaksas did not possibly include the latter’s own reiterated promises – with the result, post-poll, the Opposition is able to attract national attention on the issues of choice of the new Government.

The voter wanted change from the mess of the previous five years, they wanted to feel secure and safe even more, after the Easter serial blasts last year. They did not want terrorists of any kind back in their midst. The Rajapakas, Mahinda and Gota as a team fitted their bill. The interregnum between the two elections also showed to the voter that the Rajapaksas had not lost touch with public administration the way President Gotabaya and Prime Minister Mahinda managed the Covid management.

Public administration, it now seems, comes naturally to Brothers Rajapaka. Unlike their divided Opposition from the immediate past, they actually disproved charges of dynastic rule by showing how their sibling unity was also the strength of the nation – first in the fight-to-the-finish against the LTTE in the previous decade, and against the even more deadly Covid pandemic in this.

But public perception-management is another cuppa. The controversy about 20-A was eminently avoidable for President Gotabaya, whose tough-talk image and imagery should be shown in the work of the Government, as with Covid management. Making it a topic of public discourse and debate is another thing, where the Opposition is past masters.

When they see an opportunity to embarrass and harass the Government, the Opposition does not miss it. Just now, that’s all they are capable of doing too, to stay on in the front pages. In the Opposition, the Rajapaksas were still confident of retaining the single largest electoral constituency. They did not explore or exploit the social media as much as the undivided UNP, for instance, did ahead of Elections-2015, which as incumbent President, Mahinda R lost.

Avoidable temptation

A two-thirds majority, with the possibility of more members joining, is a tempting proposition for the Government. From the Rajapaksas perspective, 20-A was a poll promise, but from a voter perception it was a promise that the Rajapaksas made to themselves, for themselves. The voter would not mind, if it did not divert national attention and that of the Government from the daily chores of running the administration in difficult times.

It is anybody’s guess, why the Rajapaksas wanted 20-A, when they had the two-thirds in the House, and could have pushed through it at any time of their choosing. There may be specific provisions in the proposed Amendment that may be worthy of early consideration, but it should have been handled gentler. Even then, it could have also done with better timing, even more.

Yet, there is no denying that then Prime Minster Ranil Wickremesinghe had drafted the disabling 19th Amendment only with the Rajapaksas in mind. The ‘dual citizenship’ targeted Gota, the 35-year old minimum-age for contesting the presidency, at Namal Rajapaksa, and the restoration of the two-term upper-limit, of course, at Mahinda, who had lost his quest for a third term, under 18-A piloted by his Government before 2015.

Wickremesinghe should have heeded TNA boss R Sampanthan, who pointed out how despite freedom for an incumbent to contest a third term, it was for the people to decide if they want to give him or her a third term. Sampanthan proved prophetic as Rajapaksa contested a third term and lost. So, even now the Opposition should have no problem endorsing the restoration of multiple terms for a President, under 20-A.

Looking back, Wickremesinghe had covered 19-A also with provisions that imagined him to be the next President, when he also hoped to control Parliament through the UNP that he led at the time. Today, the Presidency, Parliament and even a residual UNP is there after the SJB break-up, but Ranil Wickremesinghe is not to be seen, both inside and outside Parliament, and also in the front pages of newspapers.

National problem

Similar is the case with the ethnic issue, the ‘national problem’. The Tamil voters gave a fractured mandate for the Tamil parties, but included three pro-Rajapaksa MPs from the North. The ‘Thileepan memorial’ controversy has united the mutually-adversarial Tamil parties faster than they were otherwise capable of.

Rather than banning the ‘provocative’ memorial through a court order – or, not stopping with it – the Government should have also extended an open invitation for the Tamil parties with their own propositions for a political solution – better if they came up with a single memorandum, the better. Diversionary tactics apart, that is the one that any Government could take it up if it has to find a permanent solution to the ethnic issue.

If any unity of the Tamil kind had to be scuttled, if that is the Government’ agenda, there are sophisticated ways to do it. In the post-war scenario, after his re-election, President Mahinda’s announcement for early parliamentary polls did a similar Tamil unity move – and for good.

Turmeric prices

After rice, salt and onion, turmeric is one food additive that every housewife uses constantly, morning, noon and night in her kitchen. Banning the import with the promise of protecting and promoting local farmers is fine as long as there is no shortage in the market place. Turmeric shortage, smuggling, black-marketing and steep price-rise for the item will get discussed in every dining table, in the homes of the rich and the poor alike – a sure-fire way for the Government to lose popularity.

The alternative would have been for the Government to procure local produce of turmeric farmers at a minimum support price for one or two seasons by offering an affordable rate for the farmer, build a buffer stock, and then ban imports after a year or two. Then, both the farmer and the consumer would have benefited, and the market too would not have suffered short supply.

After all, turmeric and luxury cars do not belong to the same club. Nor does turmeric import save as much foreign exchange in times of shortage, this one induced also by Covid pandemic, as a ban on the import of cars do. Just as promoting turmeric-farming in the country, the Government should also actively consider promoting automobile manufacture, by third countries, for third-country consumers. Neighbouring India’s Economic Reforms success story, for instance, began there!

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)