Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • February 2022
    M T W T F S S

Crafting an alternative to a failing Government

Posted by harimpeiris on February 2, 2022

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island on 02nd February 2022)

A nation was promised “vistas of prosperity and splendor” and about 6.9 million voters, opted for it, subsequently providing a two third parliamentary majority to implement the same. A little over two years later, the reality is experienced by everyone. Shortages of everything, from cooking gas to milk powder, from foreign exchange to crude oil and now the resulting power cuts.

There is little need to expound at length, the economic, social and daily pain that the populace is experiencing. It is a daily experience, which will speak the loudest at the ballot box, when the government musters up the courage to face the polls, be they the delayed local or provincial elections.

This is a government running scared of facing the electorate. Covid is hardly an excuse, we had elections in August 2020 at the height of the first wave and after a long lockdown. We are since, vaccinated, masked and learning to live life with a virus, dengue and a shortage of everything.

What is more useful, is to study the colossal policy and political failures of the SLPP / Rajapaksa Administration, so that perhaps the Government can learn from its mistakes and make a course correction and that a future SJB Administration can avoid the colossal blunders of this Government’s current tenure.

1. Majoritarian ethno-religious nationalism has it limits

It is Samuel Johnson, who in 1745 is credited with the saying “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”. Then as now, what Johnson and other political theorists argued was that it is very easy to play identity politics or ethno-religious nationalism to mask self-interest and ignore sound public policies and prudent governance. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, post war the Administrations of 2010-2014 and 2019 to date, has heightened divisiveness and polarisation in society for political power.

In the discourse on Sri Lanka’s national question, there is often the claim, not without merit, that the British colonial administration practiced “divide and rule” in the then Ceylon as well as in other colonies. In reality, we don’t need to go that far back in history to see divide and rule politics in Sri Lanka. But what the elections of 2015 demonstrated and future elections will demonstrate, is that there is a limit to economic pain and bad governance, that a majority in society will tolerate, notwithstanding the most strident and ardent ethno-religious nationalism. Lesson no 1; Ardent ethno-religious nationalism is not a substitute for sound policy and prudent governance.

2. The Military is not there to run the country

The Sri Lankan military is one of the best in the world and until skepticism set in about our domestic human rights enforcement and safeguards, widely desired for UN peacekeeping roles, as one of the few militaries with actual combat experience.

However, a military like any other state institution and structure has a role and purpose. To pervert that role and purpose is to do a disservice to society and also to weaken the institution concerned. The Sri Lankan military’s latest mandate from this Administration has become “green agriculture”. The Government’s epic failure of overnight denying to both farmers and planters, non-organic fertiliser. One wonders how the light infantry or the heavy artillery, is to be deployed effectively for organic farming.

The government has become heavy on presidential taskforces, the latest one being headed by an ex-convict, that almost prompted the Justice Minister to throw in the towel. The governance of Sri Lanka’s oldest democracy requires as President Premadasa famously stated “consultation, compromise and consensus”. A process and skill, which the governing party, the ruling family and the powerful generals and admirals running the country seemingly have in short supply, if at all. Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions of governance must be allowed to function freely, robustly and independently. That is not really the case today. We do not need a Hitler; we need a Mandela. Lesson no 2; The military is not an answer to every problem.

3. Policy not politics should drive governance decisions

At the heart of Sri Lanka’s current economic woes are two key political decisions of the Administration and not a Sars virus named Covid-19 and its mutations. The first and most negative decision the Government took in December 2019, was to slash and roll back the tax increases which had been painfully introduced by its predecessor Administration. This in a country which has an extremely narrow tax base and a very low tax revenue to GDP ratio, compared with peer nations. We are today going hat in hand to Bangladesh for foreign currency and swap arrangements. The failures of the government’s fiscal policy are not just on full display, its resultant monetary policy implications are now felt in the pain of everyday living as shortages of all imports essential to daily life, from fuel, milk power, medicines, cooking gas and basic food items mount and continue with no end in sight. The second policy blunder, effected last year, was to overnight ban non-organic fertiliser.

The resultant decline in agricultural yields, farmer incomes and increase in food prices, combine to create severe hardship to both rural farmers and urban consumers. Both these decisions ignored the advice of economists, policy experts and community leaders.

For an Administration, which promised technocracy driven sound policy, we have ended up with quite the opposite. A small elite, listening to an echo of its own words.

Lesson no 3. Rome was not built in a day. We do not need shock therapy, that is all shock and no therapy.


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