The scramble to make a scapegoat of Ravi K



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Ravi Karunanayake


As we went to press, speculation was rife that the long spoken of cabinet reshuffle may materialise on Monday. However with this government, nothing is certain until it actually happens. So we wait passively to see what happens. There is little point in holding our breath because no cabinet reshuffle is going to make any material change to the situation in the country. There was stiff resistance from within the UNP to making any changes in the portfolios held by them which means that originally, the reshuffle was to be limited to the SLFP group in the government. But now it is said, that the UNP portfolios also may be shifted around. Be that as it may, this whole debate about a reshuffle ensued because of the feeling within the SLFP that Ravi Karunanayake should be shifted out of the Finance Ministry. It appeared that any cabinet reshuffle that takes place without a change in the finance portfolio would not be considered a cabinet reshuffle.


 It is not difficult to see why attention has zeroed in on the finance ministry in that manner. The economy is in a mess and the country is on life support waiting for the proceeds of the Hambantota port lease for survival. So the belief seems to be that the head of the finance minister should roll for having got us into this mess. What is surprising however is that despite the presence of so many analysts in the print media and in the websites, nobody has posed the question whether Ravi K can be actually held responsible for the economic mess the country is in. The prevailing view arrived at for evrybody’s convenience seems to be that he holds the finance portfolio so he must be responsible for all this. If one inquires into why the economy is in the state it is at present, the turning point can be traced back to the mini-budget of February 2015 where the new government increased the salaries of all government servants by Rs. 10,000 and reduced the taxes on fuel, gas and several foodstuffs. These however were not measures taken by Ravi K on his own. They were all part and parcel of the presidential election manifesto put out by Maithripala Sirisena.  Ravi K basically implemented what was in the manifesto that the entire yahapalana camp had agreed on.


 The imperative at that time was not on examining whether a massive increase in government spending while simultaneously taking huge cuts in tax revenue was sustainable, but doing something to ensure that the yahapalana camp would be able to win the parliamentary election that was to follow. The rhetoric spewed forth by the yahapalana camp during the presidential election campaign was that the Rajapaksas were taxing the country dry to finance their profligate lifestyles and that the government could easily do without high taxes on fuel for example. It was also said that once the waste of the Rajapaksa government was eliminated the savings effected in that manner alone would suffice to increase the salaries of all government servants. Inquiries made by this writer confirmed that quite a number of people had voted for the yahapalana camp just to get that Rs. 10,000. Even though nobody took pledges given in election manifestoes too seriously in the past, things were different in 2015.


 Maithripala Sirisena won the election on the majority received from the north and east. In the districts outside the north and east, Sirisena had lost by well over 200,000 votes. It was not practicable to go for parliamentary elections in such a backdrop and something radical had to be done to change the mood of the Southern electorate and the new government resorted to bribing the constituency. This in fact is what enabled the UNP to win the 2015 August parliamentary election. Even though the immediate political objective was achieved, the election related largessese of the government sent the economy into a tailspin from which it has never recovered. The increased salaries precipitated a spending boom with a massive increase in the import of goods like cars in 2015 and the crisis in government revenue spead to the balance of payments with imports increasing, the price of the dollar appreciating and foreign reserves having to be utilised to defend the rupee.


 


 Karapincha theory


 Foreign and domestic borrowings increased massively. As a Central Bank official stated recently before the Bond Commission, money was printed like never before. Trying to manage this mess under IMF tutelage has proved to be a wrenching experience. Taxes were increased on vehicle imports, liquor and tobacco and the VAT was increased. If Ravi K became popular by increasing salaries and slashing the prices of fuel and gas during the first 100 days of the government, when it came to recovering the money spent (or at least a part of it) by increasing VAT and the taxes on liquor, tobacco and cars, it was now his turn to become unpopular. In the ding dong battle that went on between the finance minister and the trading community about whether VAT should be applied to the lower levels of the retail trade, Ravi K even earned the sobriquet of ‘VATman’. Yet it is clear that none of this was due to any bungling on Ravi K’s part at a personal level. All this stemed from the original sin of the lies uttered and the inflated, impractical pledges given to the people by the yahapalana camp.


 If anyone is seeking to oust Ravi K on the allegation that he destroyed the economy, that would be a clear case of offering him as a sacrifice to save the skins of others. In this context, the fact that the UNP closed ranks behind him to at least delay his ouster is commendable. Whether they can sustain that resistance, is yet to be seen. Ravi’s fate will be the fate of the UNP in microcosm. It has been painfully obvious that within the yahapalana camp, every unpleasant thing is blamed on the UNP while the SLFP group and the Maithripala camp claim the credit for any good thing that happens. If now Ravi K is going to be ousted because he allegedly destroyed the economy, the UNP too will have to shoulder the blame for having ruined the country while Sirisena plays the role of passive onlooker who gets to know everything through the newspapers. The UNP has been in headlong retreat from the time they failed to hold their own in the distribution of portfolios after the parliamentary election of August 2015. As a result of this, the SLFP group and the Sirisena loyalists who contested on the UNP lists ended up holding the best portfolios and the UNP got the leftovers.


 This has created immense problems for the UNP rank and file and the situation that has been building up within the party is far worse than anything seen in 2001-2004. Back then, it was a 100% UNP government and governing politicians could find ways to keep the rank and file happy. If nothing could be done they could at least issue a letter to another ministry requesting them to help the bearer. Still, that government lost the parliamentary election that was called just 30 months later because of the disillusionment of the UNP voter with the government they had brought into power. Today however with the best ministries held by the SLFP, the UNP ministers aren’t able to do even what they were able to do in 2001-2004, and resentment is building up within the party by the day. The UNP leadership itself is responsible for this situation by not being able to control the outsider they made president. If the UNP provided two thirds of the votes that got Sirisena elected, they should have been able to ensure that they got at least two thirds of the ministerial portfolios, but what they have got is numerically half but quality wise more like one third.


 Most people outside the government feel that any cabinet reshuffle at this stage could precipitate the breakup of the government. Any change in the portfolios held by the UNP may well bring about that result because many in the UNP have little to lose and are at the end of their tether. A cabinet reshuffle within the SLFP group is more feasible but of little use in practical terms. In these circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine why the higher ups in the government thought it was necessary to have a cabinet reshuffle at all except to throw someone to the wolves to save their own skins.  


 Back in 2015 after the August parliamentary election when there was a long stand off between the UNP and the SLFP being unable to agree on the distribution of portfolios, this writer was invited to a discussion on Sirasa TV with the other invitee being parliamentarian S.M.Marikkar. At one point in the discussion, This writer stated that in 1994, the PA won 105 seats in parliament and the then President D.B.Wijetunga invited Chandrika Kumaratunga to form a government. In 2001, the UNP got 109 seats and Chandrika Kumaratunga invited Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a government. So when the UNP got 106 seats in parliament in 2015, Maithripala Sirisena should have invited Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a government. Marikkar argued against this and said that just because the ‘wrong thing’ was done in the past, you don’t have to do it again and that nobody got a mandate to form a government and the President therefore has a right to form a government! What was most worrying about this was not the absolute servility that was shown by this statement, but the danger that this groveling pusillanimity posed to the whole democratic system in this country.  


 


 Modi’s damage control tour


 In the meantime, the spate of street demonstrations that one saw in the streets in Colombo seem to have petered out after Vesak. The only demonstration that we had after Vesak was the anti-SAITM demonstration by university students. The demonstrators themselves seem to have come to the realization that nobody could keep track of who demonstrated against what. Now we seem to have entered a period of strikes instead of demonstrations. The GMOA has called a strike against the manner in which the student demonstration was dispersed last week and the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation unions have warned of a strike without advance notice against what they state was the Prime Minister reneging on the pledge given to them about the Trincomalee oil tank farm. 


 Things have not been helped by the picture of Modi holding up the arms of Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Norwood rally. It is very clear from the photograph that it was Modi who was raising the arms of the Sri Lankan leaders to greet Sri Lankans. If a picture could replace a thousand words, this was it. That picture would be useful for Modi to show Indian audiences that he was still in control of things in Sri Lanka after the RAW operation to oust the Rajapaksas. The fact that he was not allowed to address public meetings in Nepal but he addressed crowds in Sri Lanka also sends a message to the Indian public. However, the same photograph would do immense damage to both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. That photo is doing the rounds on facebook with various uncomplimentary captions. It was quite clear that during this visit that Modi was thinking of himself and not his allies in Sri Lanka.


 When Modi was campaigning for the general elections in 2014, he went to Tamil Nadu and addressed the people there in Hindi. The only Tamil word he uttered was ‘Vanakkam’. In  India, when politicians from the North come to Tamil Nadu, the protocol was that they would address Tamils in English because of the deep seated antagonism to Hindi in Tamil Nadu. But even at election time, Modi dispensed with the established practice and addressed the Tamils in Hindi. He knew that even if he addresses the Tamils of Tamil Nadu in English, that is not going to motivate many of them to vote for him so he addressed the Tamils in Hindi and won more support for himself in the Hindi belt states. However when Modi addressed the Up-country Tamils he spoke to them in English probably because he believes this is a Tamil constituency that he can win over.


 Modi’s meeting with former President Rajapaksa also obviously enables him to score some points back in India by demonstrating that he is in touch not only with the government in Sri Lanka but also with the opposition. Incidentally, that meeting with MR, GR and GLP that took place at India House in the night was the first meeting with Sri Lankan leaders at which Ajit Doval was seen to be present in recent times. From the time things began to go wrong in Sri Lanka, with the very government that they brought into power falling at the feet of the Chinese and offering them much more than the Rajapaksas ever did, Doval has maintained a low profile so much so that three years after Modi came into power in India, his National Security Advisor is still an almost unknown figure in Sri Lanka. It is interesting to note that MR has been invited to India despite the possibility of strong protests from Tamil Nadu.


 This is a clear sign that the loss of control over what is happening in Sri Lanka is causing the Indian central government much more concern than anything going on Tamil Nadu. The ongoing economic crisis in Sri Lanka has made her open to the highest bidder. The Indians probably suspect that if the right price was offered, the present government in Sri Lanka would even offer Trincomalee to the Chinese notwithstanding the fact that it had been pledged to the Indians. One of Doval’s main strategies in dealing with enemies is to buy them over. He openly argues that India’s GDP is such and that they can outbid their rivals. What has been happening in Sri Lanka since January 2015 is that Chinese have been applying the Doval doctrine to Sri Lanka with spectacular results. The Indians can’t compete with the Chinese. The Indians have bailed out the cash strapped Sri Lankan government with currency swaps on three occasions but they just don’t have the money to be able to keep a middle-income country afloat.


 


 Govt. helping Basil along


 With the three PC elections in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern provinces due later this year, PC members have been weighing their options as can be seen from the instability that has emerged in the provincial councils outside the north and east. The events that took place in the North Central Province is a harbinger of things to come. When the majority in the provincial council defected to the opposition in anticipation of the election that is to come at the end of this year, President Maithripala Sirisena took some extraordinary steps to preserve his hold over the NCP. When a group of PC members tried to submit affidavits to the Governor of the NCP claiming that they had the majority, the Governor had received instructions from ‘above’ not to accept the affidavits. Making use of the time, gained some of the dissidents were persuaded to come back to the side of the government.


 The Joint Opposition has been saying that the defections were engineered by showering them with various privileges and ministerial portfolios. The point in trying to shore up a provincial council that was going to stand automatically dissolved in a few months time was that on the one hand, this province was the home province of the President and he could not lose control over it without losing face. Then again, it would not be feasible for a ruling party to go in for elections in a province where the opposition had seized power even before the election is held.  Confirming a suspicion that the opposition and the general public have had for some time, the dissidents who had been persuaded to rejoin the governing party had been told that the PC elections would be postponed so that all PC elections could be held on the same day. This appears to have given these people the hope that they will be able to retain their positions for a while longer which seems to have acted as an incentive to rejoin the government.


 Given the fact that this government went to extraordinary lengths so as not to have to contest a provincial council election after having lost power in that council, it follows logically that they will be even more wary about going in for a national election after having lost provincial or local government elections. If they are to face the next national level elections at all, they will have to ensure that there are no elections between now and then. If they go for the next elections with a string of defeats under their belt, there would be no point in contesting at all.


 Ironically, everything that the SLFP leader has been doing has been strengthening the hand of the Joint Opposition and its new political party the Sri Lanka People’s Front. Sirisena’s continuous sacking of SLFP organizers and replacing them with lesser individuals means that a permanent rift has been created between the SLFP and the members of the Joint Opposition. No reconciliation is now possible between the SLFP and the JO because the newly appointed SLFP organizers cannot be dislodged for the ousted organizers to come back. Everybody now takes it for granted that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna is a permanent feature of the political landscape. The government has done much to help the SLPF in its meteoric rise. For example in the run up to May Day, members of the government went out of their way to describe the Galle Face rally as that of the ‘Pohottuwa party’ instead of the Joint Opposition. When that rally outdid all other rallies put together, it is the Pohottuwa paty that got all the credit.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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