Parties, Policies And Poll-Time Promises

By N Sathiya Moorthy

During the run-up to the 2005 presidential polls, candidate former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised to find half a million more overseas jobs for Sri Lankan women, if elected. Less than a week later, UNP leader and Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe told Sri Lankans that he would create double that many jobs promised by his competitor.

No one asked either of them how with their kind of governmental experience, they had thought that it is fit to make poll promises that could not be kept. Or, if they were serious about it, what was their proposed plan of action.

Anyway, the two candidates were not promising jobs of scientists and CEOs, but as housemaids. To think that they could get away with such statements, which was demeaning to the Sri Lankan womenfolk, that too when there were frequent reports of misuse and abuse of their class by overseas employers should have made ‘nationalist’ blood boil in shame. None of it happened, and no one, including economists – both practitioners and self-styled – even asked the basic questions that they were/are expected to ask.

Sri Lankans working overseas continue to form a substantial chunk of the nation’s forex earnings and forex reserves. It mostly comprises remittances made by Sri Lankan housemaids, car drivers and mechanics working overseas. Sri Lanka-born CEOS and doctors overseas end up acquiring citizenship in host-countries, like their counterparts from Third World nations. They have the money, but not the mind-set – and there has not been any political initiative, policy or programme, to make them invest in Sri Lanka.


2360800-3x2-940x627Today, when another round of elections is round the corner, some economists nearer home have questioned, if not challenged, the two parties and their leaders, on the credibility and feasibility of their election manifestos. Both the manifestos and doubts centre on the economy. However, in a seamless world as it exists today, national and international economies on the one hand – hence, international politics, too – cannot be distanced from one another.

More to the point, for nations like Sri Lanka, their economy is inter-twined, not to international politics alone but to international money-lending, as well. It’s thus that ‘GSP’ and ‘GSP-Plus’ get linked to human rights, and other yard-sticks of the kind that the western aid-giver in particular puts up from time-to-time. It’s also thus, nations like Sri Lanka end up falling into the waiting hands of those like China, which have funds to spare (more than the West and the rest put together, at times), but with no tags attached.

There is a point or problem here for the friends of Sri Lanka in the West. Independent of the liberal, capitalist mindset of incumbent Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, there is only so much that they could do on human rights and war-time ‘accountability issues’ at fora such as the UNHRC, if they had to maintain sanity and political stability nearer home.

Incidentally, no section of the Sri Lankan polity could be credited with maintaining any international standards of ‘human rights’. The new-generation Sri Lankan voter, Sinhala in particular, is learning how ‘liberal’ the UNP could have been in its earlier avtars in power, once the party had returned to share power at the Centre after the presidential polls in January.

Ask the Tamils – and many of them too would have to be reminded – that it was the UNP that had presided over and participated in ‘Pogrom-83’. It is another matter that the Tamil moderates, then or now, too could escape the blame by shifting it all onto the LTTE. What then is the yardstick the international community is going to measure with ‘Tamil culpability’, particularly from the LTTE past, and the concurrent responsibility and accountability, in a world without LTTE (but the latter applicable only to Sri Lanka, if at all)!

Foreign bank accounts

It is becoming increasingly clear that despite talking tough on China ahead of the presidential polls, the West-inclined the UNP too is going soft on that nation, as far as investments go. In a controversial celebration during the current run-up to the 17 August parliamentary polls, the incumbent leadership has flagged the construction work on a new, China-funded highway, for which the predecessor SLFP-UPFA rival in power claims credit.

No one in the UNP is also talking any more about scrapping the China-funded Colombo Port City Project. PM-aspirant Ranil had whipped up the issue ahead of the presidential polls, if only to lay blame at the footsteps of then President Rajapaksa. Nor has the UNP-led administration followed up on the promises/threats to ‘expose’ Rajapaksa wrong-doing on the China-funded projects.

Today, all of it has come to pass. Rajapaksa has instead started challenging the UNP leadership to expose him, if they could. He has also offered to quit politics if even a single foreign bank account with five dollars to his credit could be brought out. It’s not only about linkages to China. It’s also about post-poll promises of the new government since January, to use US and Indian expertise to expose the foreign bank accounts of the predecessor’s administration.

‘China factor’

It is thus that the China factor is linked not only to the Sri Lankan past in the post-war era, but also to the ‘post-China’ advent of the new liberal administration in the country. Nations dealing with Sri Lanka thus has to acknowledge that there is more to China factor in the local context than their own issues and concerns.

No government in Sri Lanka, now or later, could design its foreign – and hence security – policies, based near-exclusively on the expectations of, or promises, if any, made to other nations or international organisations. It is not necessary that such promises have to be in black and white. Even implied suggestions and commitments would do, not that anything seems to have been made/given.

Likewise, there are limits to which any government in Sri Lanka would be able to give – and take – in terms of ‘accountability issues’. Truth be told, de-linking the latter from power-devolution discourses alone could give, if at all, any hope of success to a permanent political solution to the vexatious ethnic issue. Recall the post-war political parleys between the Rajapaksa Government and the TNA, and the limited success it was beginning to register…

The Government walked out of the talks, that too unceremoniously, only after the UNHRC sword was hung above its head. Till then, the TNA too did not have any problem whatsoever, negotiating with the very same leadership that they now despise. The ground situation viz any elected government leadership on this score has not changed – and cannot be expected to change.

After a point of give-and-take promises, the change can at best be only about change of government leadership, and not the other way round. Remember, what happened when the slain Premadasa, Sr, succeeded the late J R Jayewardene as President. Also recall, how he had to ‘rebel’ against JRJ, precisely for reasons of ensuring support from the Sinhala masses, who have been made to feel eternally threatened, both inside and outside.

There is an un-mentioned extra-regional player’s, scripted imaginatively into what essentially remains an imaginary threat from outside. The ‘Cold War’ contours have not been reversed or re-worked, but only the choice of the global companion has been undergoing change. The latter does not dictate domestic politics. Instead, it’s the domestic political changes that dictate, if at all, foreign and security policy options in terms of extra-regional partners.

‘Singapore model’ and more

It is sad that no government or political party leadership in Sri Lanka is talking about making its economy self-sufficient and self-sustaining. It is not a goal easy to reach, but at least there has to be a national discourse, education and consequent acceptance about where Sri Lanka could aspire and hope to be, in the next five, 10 and 20 years. If it cannot be a self-sustaining or profit-making economy at all, the reasons have to be disseminated, and people prepared for the options and alternatives for the short, medium and long terms.

To the late Lee Kuan Yew, reportedly goes the credit of telling JRJ to follow the ‘Singapore model’ of economic success coupled with political management. Sri Lankans to date continue to take pride in the fact that Sri Lanka’s was a larger economy than Singapore’s once upon a time. They also blame their own political leaderships, purportedly for allowing Singapore to grow at a faster rate than Sir Lanka in the subsequent years and decades.

JRJ seemed to have believed that running the administration with an iron-hand was behind the success of Singapore. Sri Lankans continue to think that Singapore’s success story owes not to any manufacturing sector, which is almost non-existent for the size of its economy, but to the Services sector. They also seemed to have believed that Singapore’s success story owed to the shipping sector, what is now container-shipping traffic and transfers.

To them, Sri Lanka could have duplicated Singapore, though at one time, some even thought Singapore could be replaced, too. Today, they are talking about triplication after the successful Dubai story, also along the crowded IOR sea-lines of communication (SLOCs). Neighbours like Maldives too hope to do it in their time – whether to replicate or compete with Sri Lanka is the question.

Hambantota Port, Colombo Port expansion and Mattala airport, all as a part of Rajapaksa’s ‘Mahinda Chintanaya’ manifesto/agenda with its ‘five hubs’ theory while in power, also may have owed to such thinking. After all, Hambantota was on the nation’s economic anvil for decades before he appeared in the scene, big-time. If they are still unviable still as projects, it also exposes the thinking for what they were not worth.

The success stories of Singapore and Dubai, among other small nations of the kind elsewhere, too, owe not to container traffic and transfer alone. They hid the greater successes of their financial and banking sectors. Medium and long-term successes may be guaranteed, but should and could Sri Lanka take the short and medium-term risks (with possibilities for the long term) is the question that the nation’s polity should be asking itself.

The problem today with Sri Lanka taking to business and financial sectors in a big way is also due to the national apprehension about possibilities of hidden terror-funding (and not just of the LTTE kind) finding its way into the nation’s banking trade, under a changed policy-scheme. With the rest ready to frown upon contemporary Sri Lanka every which way, in the name of ethnic issue and concerns, terror-linked banking is the last thing that the nation would want, unless it has the right kind of blessings from the right kind of nations.

It’s both about political stability and policy-continuity. That is where a one-man or one-party rule might help sustain the success and secrecy of the policies. Sri Lanka, the oldest electoral democracy in Asia, cannot afford to think in terms of becoming either in the foreseeable future – not after Rajapaksa, drunk with the success of the LTTE war, could not keep it beyond five years.

What is thus required is a ‘national consensus’. That is where a two-party system might help than a multiple-entity coalition(s). Sri Lanka is not ready for it, as yet. That is also where the current, PR-based electoral system seemed to be playing ‘spoil-sport’, if that is what it is, if at all. Yet, with smaller parties of all ethnic and political hues – the latter from within the majority Sinhala community, too — accounting for nearly 35-40 per cent of the nation’s population, an unforeseen Third Front of the Nineties’ India kind could not be ruled out, at least in the medium term.

All this also require permanent peace in the immediate Indian Ocean neighbourhood and permanent peace with the Indian neighbour. It is not about the ‘ethnic issue’ or even the ‘China factor’ from the Indian perspective, as understood in Sri Lanka. It’s about Sri Lanka keeping its side of the Ocean tranquil, without non-regional involvement of either the Chinese or the American kind – as identified with the competing political leaderships nearer home. ‘National consensus’ required for national progress involves and should include this element, as well.

It is thus amusing to note that a section of the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ nationalists in the country should see in the revived proposal for a land-bridge to India as an attempt by the larger neighbour to ‘annexe’ their small island-nation. Unfortunately, they continue to live in the ‘Cold War’ past, from which mentality, both Moscow and Beijing have moved light-years away.

They need to understand that ‘annexations’ do not happen that way anymore, just as their ‘Tamil nationalist’ counterparts need to acknowledge that ‘separation’ does not take place, either, for near-similar reasons, and to think that 21st century India wants to dissipate its focussed efforts, insatiable energies, and growing economy in ‘annexations’ of the kind that they are still talking about…

Over-zealous Indian leaders might have flagged and timed the ‘land-bridge’ idea wrong – forgetting that it’s poll-time in Sri Lanka. Yet, Ranil’s 2002 proposal as Prime Minister has a lot more purchase now than the business and people-to-people contacts with ‘South India’ (read: Tamil Nadu) that he might have originally envisaged.

Today, when India is talking about road-link to China in the East and beyond Pakistan in the West, a land-bridge between India and Sri Lanka, would like the latter to the Eurasian land-mass, the world’s happening place just now – and to Africa, the one for the future! Sri Lanka has choice(s) to make, and not only in the  August 17 elections.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

Related posts