Protests and strikes: What would Mahinda have done if he was in power?

he yahapalana government won the elections on a promise of democracy and prosperity. Now it seems to assume that its modest achievements in restoring democracy should serve as an excuse for not delivering on the economy. That is a dangerous misgiving which threatens the sustainability of on-going democratic reforms in the long run. That also makes people, especially the Sinhalese majority, feel nostalgic about the authoritarian but orderly past under its predecessor.

Under the current administration, economic growth has hit below five per cent. It is expected to be around 4.5 per cent for 2017. However, that may not, necessarily, be a measure of the government’s economic handling since lower growth numbers are in part a result of the government addressing much needed fiscal reforms, which were overlooked by its predecessor. However, set against this tightening fiscal conditions and a debt trap inherited by the former regime, the indecisiveness and vacillation of the government over mega development projects are mind-boggling. It is the FDI that could fill the gap in the absence of state-led infrastructure development that propelled the growth under the former regime and was abandoned by the current administration due to the looming foreign debt. However, Cabinet papers on major development projects are being amended and re-amended for the umpteenth time. Investors complain about policy inconsistencies. None of the major foreign-funded development projects has moved forward from where the Rajapaksas have left them.



Proposed public-private partnerships and equity swaps of indebted foreign-funded projects (Hambantota Port, Mattala Airport, etc.) have led nowhere. Instead, they have become the most poignant reminder of the crippling policy paralysis within the government.
The government is the primary organ that is responsible for the state policy. When the current administration fails in that primary task, others like the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), university students, joint opposition, exploit that vacuum. Their regular protests and trade union action could well be a manifestation of the new found democratic climate. But for a country with our socio-economic conditions, they are also a recipe for a greater socio-political instability.
The difference between the current administration and its predecessor was that the Rajapaksas had the political will to act decisively, which the Yahapalanaya is lacking. Mr. Rajapaksa’s political will and courage were crucial in winning the war and putting up much needed infrastructure in place. However, even then, his administration was handicapped by its own composition. Until he assumed the presidency, Mr Rajapaksa was better known as a populist street fighter rather than a sound economic manager. And as the president, he was surrounded by political yes men and economic cave men, who either lacked knowledge or willingness to address structural shortcomings that besotted the Sri Lankan economy for a long time. They hesitated to tell the president that some of his economic designs were not sustainable. They were complicit in ruining the SriLankan airline. Had their biggest misadventure — the bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota — been successful, we would now be bankrupt as a nation. Also, had Mr Rajapaksa won power for another term and continued with his economic model, we would have faced an economic meltdown of the sort that has swept across Latin America, courtesy overspending by their previous leftist governments.
This government has the right people and right policies, but, it is handicapped by a sheer lack of political will to implement its economic and political vision. It tells all the right things, but does very little. One reason for this is the party-political calculations that create something akin to a ‘prisoners dilemma’ in the dealings between the two main constituent partners of the yahapalana government. Neither UNP nor the SLFP seems to be genuinely interested in cooperating with each other; their party considerations often overwhelming the national interest. However, even when those factors are excluded, the government’s record is not so good. It has not been able to address basic policy matters. Its vacillation over formulating basic guidelines on private medical education is in part responsible for the regular strikes and protests, turning a minor issue over SAITM into a major inconvenience to the public.

How would Mr. Rajapaksa have addressed those issues had he been the president? Most likely, he may not have encountered protests of this magnitude for that would have attracted a high retributive cost. Doctors would not have dared to take chances. University students may have protested, but not at a frequency as they do now. However, white vans and thuggery were not the only ways that Mr. Rajapaksa got things done. He opted to a pragmatic framework of things. For instance, where land acquisition was needed for development projects, a perennial problem in this country, is concerned, he offered compensation at market prices and alternative housing, but since people do not necessarily comply with the policy and could well sublet the government-provided house and return to their old place, he used the military to evict them. Such interventions, at times caused ugly scenes of mini riots, but viewed in an utilitarian context, i.e. greater public good even at the expense of a few, his policies were right. Also, his authoritarian development model did not dent his standing among the Sinhalese majority; in fact he won more votes than President Maithripala Sirisena in the South.

This government is in the habit of discrediting everything associated with the Rajapaksas. It has dismantled the structure Mr Rajapaksa put in place, but, has failed to evolve a system of its own to address those complex social problems that are intrinsically associated with development. The resultant vacuum is now threatening social instability and economic future of the country.
This may not be the most politically correct thing to say; but some of Mr Rajapaksa’s authoritarian tendencies were more in line with socio-economic conditions of the country and the urgency we have to economically uplift the people, than everything this government has achieved during its two years in power.
Some policies are too good to be practical, whereas some less palatable policies do indeed work. Gandhi and his self-reliance did little to uplift the miserable living conditions of India’s teeming millions of poor. But Narendra Modi’s did. So did Augusto Pinochet and Deng Xiaoping. None of the latter trio would be your ideal leader of an ideal government. However, the world is not a utopia and the leaders have to take tough decisions if they are to truly serve the long term interests of their people.
That however does not mean the yahapalanaya should resort to white vans and locking up dissidents. But, where it is mandated, it should make use of legitimate coercive power of the State to make its future vision for the country a reality.


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