Old Wine in Older Bottles

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Cabinet has taken some substantial if not final shape, the question arises if the old wine in an older bottle or bottles tastes matured or sour. That it’s only old wine in older bottle or bottles, there can be no two opinions about it. But for all those who have been protesting for a systemic change at their G-3 venue in capital Colombo’s Galle Face Green beach-front, it should taste bitter. Rather, it leaves a bitter-sweet taste thus far, not knowing what even the next sip, leave aside glass, has in store.

The same applies to the 11-party coalition that is shaping up after 40 MPs in three groups had walked out of the ruling SLPP-led alliance. Some of those 40 MPs have already left to join the Government. There again, it’s the same old face, the same old approach to politics. The question here arises if they had jumped when the felt the seeping sea water in their feet, or to offload the ship of extra burden to make the vessel lighter and better navigable until it reaches safety.

In either case, it is very unlikely that any new concepts, ideas or political behaviour would flow out of the existing institutional framework and the participants therein. It is true of the Opposition SJB and the scores of minority parties of every shape, size and hue. There is little or no hope for change even in the much-maligned JVP, which underwent some sweeping leadership changes when the current team upstaged the never-ending term of the much-forgotten Somawansa Amaraweera, years ago.

Descending from heavens

There is a new guy on the bloc in the form of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), which broke away from the JVP a decade ago, but is yet to make its electoral mark. The FSP contested the presidential polls of 2019 and parliamentary elections a year later, as an independent entity without a registered symbol for the voters to identity the party with. Rather, the FSP is more in the news over the public protests of recent weeks, with the social media giving multiple interpretations to its role and goal.

Unmindful, FSP founder Premakumar Gunaratnam is ploughing a lone furrow for now, meeting and talking to leaders of the SJB, TNA and possible other parties, too. Neither side in these talks seem to know where they are heading together or separately.

If the GotaGoGama protestors still think that someone is going to descend from the high heavens to protect them and the nation from the existing crop of politicians and also save the economy from complete ruin, their hopes have already come a cropper. Granted that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa heeds their demands and quit, and also Parliament votes two-thirds for advance elections to Parliament, what kind of new leadership that the G-3 protestors have in mind.

Do they have a single name in mind, leave aside scores of others to man ministerial positions and parliamentary memberships outside of the current crop? Someone with a combination of administrative expertise and political experience who can raise above the multiplicity of divisive forces and ideas and can deliver over the short to medium terms? Maybe, he may not be around to look into the long-term issues, both on the economic and constitutional fronts – that should be the order – the solutions for which the incumbent Government hopes to initiate?

Inevitable decimation?

Unacknowledged by most Sri Lankans, what used to be known as the three major political parties of the Sinhala South have all been affected by splits over the past decade.  Yes, it began with the formation of the FSP out of the JVP, but more visible and critical were the break in the long-time Opposition SLFP followed by the one in the UNP, the nation’s very own GoP.

Today, the UNP is back in the news, not as a party but because its lone parliamentarian is seen as the most and possibly the only suitable candidate for the Prime Minister’s job in these testing times. Likewise, the SLPP is being talked about not because it is the ruling party but because it is the ruling party with all wrong traits. Even then no one is talking about the parent SLFP.

The greater irony is that of the Opposition, which lacks the imagination and tactic required to stay relevant in the ever-changing political milieu. If reports are to be believed, infighting is already on in the SJB, over Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa’s decision not to take over as Prime Minister as long as President Gota remains in place. Detractors from within say that the party should be around long enough for them to dream of leading a Government without Gota as President.

Of course, the same cannot be said of the JVP, which has withstood the FSP storm relatively better. Rather, the party has had nothing much to lose in terms of votes and seats. Loss of cadre, the party acknowledged when the FSP was formed, when it shut down its youth and women wings for being what they should be. Today, there is no clarity as to where the JVP ends and the FSP begins in terms of their perceived contributions, cooperation (?) and competition in the organisation that went into the GotaGoGama protests, which are of course peaceful and peace-loving.

Haywire brain-wave

The question still remains as to who these new faces are going to be, and what is their ideology, if any, or governing principles. Elsewhere, the forced exit of elected rulers (or, even self-anointed rulers) has not produced great alternatives, be it men or their methods. Sri Lanka of today is no place for experimentation, especially if he or she is going to be another Gota, whose haywire brainwave has done the nation in.

Possibly, without Gota or without Covid even more, the economic crisis might have taken more time to incubate. Remember, without Gota, without Covid, the nation faced a bleak economic future with the ‘Easter bomb-blasts’ in 2019. That was because the economy was already hit hard and it needed the rulers of the day only a legitimate excuse to divert the nation’s attention from their collective failures of omissions and commissions.

Yes, the then Maithri-Ranil duo’s ‘government of national dis-unity’ did inherit its own share of problems from the predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa dispensation, especially in terms of big-ticket Chinese investments that was indicative of ‘jobless growth’ more than a debt-trap, as is often alluded to, in the international community and their media. But they did contribute their might in word, deed and action – without any element of, or attempt at mitigation.

As Prime Minister in his combined fourth and fifth terms, 2015-19, Ranil talked about going to the IMF, but himself did not take the plunge. It was not because it was not time yet, but because it was not a politically correct position for him to take in years of successive elections, either those that were held or those like the PC polls that were indefinitely postponed, for an infinite number of times.

As President, Gota only added to the long list of omissions and commissions of all his predecessors from JR downwards, like overnight switch to organic farming, cutting tax-payers’ numbers and revenue, and the like. But then, given his own charter for himself, he had to outdo the rest, and prove that he and he alone was capable of doing it. He did precisely that. Amen!

(The writer is a Policy Analyst & Commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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