Sri Lankans – Smiling or sneering
Who remembers the speech made by Ravi Karunanayake, the new Minister of Finance on 29 January 2015, presenting his 100-day Interim Budget? If you do, you will know what this is all about.
This is not about the non-event that was labelled a Cabinet reshuffle. If the Prime Minister was serious about infusing new talent he could have drawn inspiration from his uncle JRJ. Except for himself and his Prime Minster, his entire Cabinet was made of first-timers.
Ranil is different. He is a practical leader. He selects his ministers in the manner of Bourbon monarchs. His Minister of Tourism is now a seasoned tourist. Minister John attends all trade fairs. Now the Prime Minster has concluded that national development needs a forensic mind.
This essay is only a retrospective assessment of the past two years that precipitated these utterly ridiculous cosmetic patchwork. As that iconoclast Malcom Muggeridge observed of Anthony Eden who bungled the Suez invasion, in politics as in womanising failure is decisive. It sheds a retrospective gloom on earlier endeavour which at the time was full of promise.
“Sri Lankans are smiling again. The smiles portray freedom, liberty and courage. It is refreshing, the release from a bonding of family rule and crony nepotism… All are enjoying the serene breeze of change. A change for the better, a change to be cherished. A rule of compassion – A Maithri Palanaya.”
These elegant expressions of sanguine hopes were penned and later pronounced in Parliament by Ravi Karunanayake, current Minister of Foreign Affairs in his maiden speech as Minister of Finance of the 100-day ‘Yahapalana’ on 29 January 2015. He was presenting the Interim Budget.
Sneering at incompetence
Sri Lankans are not smiling. They are sneering at the incompetence of the Government. They are scowling at the crony rent-seekers who surround the new regime. They are frowning in puzzlement over the nonchalance of a Prime Minister who cannot read the writing on the wall.
To repeat, Sri Lankans are not smiling. They are grimacing at the pain of betrayal by the present lot. They are wide-eyed and gobsmacked at the real prospect of a return of the Rajapaksa caliphate.
The speech made by the new Minister of Finance in presenting the Interim Budget of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government is an important document. At the time, it summed up past folly and charted a new path. Today, a retrospective reading tells us the story of the duplicity of the Maithri-Ranil coalition.
In January 2015, Ravi Karunanayake was not only the Minister of Finance. His role in bringing about the change was widely recognised. It was his initiative that hatched a lame duck egg in to a graceful swan. Both Ravi and Mangala were firm in their convictions that only a common candidate other than Ranil Wickremesinghe could defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa.
What went wrong?
The new Minister of Finance of the first 100 days expounded on the philosophy of power. On 29 January 2015, he told Parliament: “Power is temporary. Official positions are also temporary. As trustees of our voting public, our duty is to honourably serve the nation. We must not forget that we are servants of the people and it is our bounden duty to be of service.”
What went wrong? The political altruism of Ravi Karunanayake on 29 January 2015 was either profoundly heartfelt or fervently false. This writer opines that it was neither. Power is given by the people. There it ends. From thence it is power and authority over people. Ravi K is simply a victim of the paradox of power. A Spartan king once said: “The man who wants to rule many men must fight many.” The path to power is paved with daggers.
Somebody wanted the ministries swapped between Ravi Karunanayake and Mangala Samaraweera. It was most definitely not an idea that appealed to either of them. There is no doubt that Mangala Samaraweera, courageous and outspoken, will now tell us how much we are indebted and why. In time, he will also tell us who hocked what and to whom.
Karunanayake never made himself coherent to the masses on the predicament we were in. For that matter even this writer finds the most lucid description of Sri Lanka’s debt trap is given by Wade Sheppard, author of ‘Ghost Cities of China,’ writing in the Forbes magazine:
‘The official estimate of what Sri Lanka currently owes its financiers is $64.9 billion — $8 billion of which is owned by China. The country’s debt-to-GDP currently stands around 75% and 95.4% of all government revenue is currently going towards debt repayment.’ Sheppard begins by asserting that the crisis is so bad, that the Government does not even know how much it owes.
Mangala may not be a match for Bandula Gunawardene’s well-informed gibberish and unimportant essentials. But we can rely on him to give the people a jargon-free assessment of the problem. That of course entails other measures as well.
Mangala Samaraweera is a courageous politician who knows the bridges he needs to cross and those he needs to burn. This is a road that both Minsters have been forced to take. Sometimes destiny awaits on the road that one takes reluctantly.
Karunanayake in 2015
Karunanayake had a clear grasp of the problem at the early stages. If he wavered later, that is another story. This is what he said on 29 January 2015:
“The 8th of January 2015 will also be remembered as the day the nation regained its freedom. Freedom from family rule, freedom from corrupt rule, freedom from crony miscreants, freedom from bad governance, regaining of independence of the judiciary, police, public service and freedom from misrule where the rule of law was abused at will. As such, it is our bounden duty to guard and foster the freedom regained.”
He knew that we had to mend our ways and eliminate financial profligacy. He set out to explain the new path. “Today, I am proud to say that, with these initiatives, we have been successful in showing an alternative way to the nation and we are marching slowly but steadily along that path. It is a path to compassionate Maithri governance, path to a stable country, a path to prosperity and more importantly, a path to freedom, humanity and dignity.”
He made frugal financial discipline a governance imperative. “The line ministries have been structured to secure the maximum outcome with minimum expenditure in formulating a Cabinet of Ministers. We need to reallocate the resources to newly created Ministries and seek the approval of the Parliament to formalise the new structure.”
When Ravi Karunanayake took over the Ministry of Finance, it was obvious that he found that the Government had too many vehicles. He accordingly proposed that “State-owned vehicles which were not being used will be sold at an open auction.”
He knew that the National Airline was an economic disaster. He promised to merge Mihin Airlines and SriLankan Airlines and increase its productivity.
Between 8 January and 29 January 2015, the new Minister of Finance had a reasonably accurate picture of the task ahead. “Officials and economic experts have looked into the figures and now the economics of deceit and falsehood had surfaced. The bad news is that economy is in a sad state, and the good news it is not beyond resurrection and is in safe and sound hands. We had managed to decipher the correct status of the economy which is being explained in detail.”
Profligacy of the present regime
Therein lies the rub. The profligacy of the present regime has made the people sceptical of the accusations directed at the former ‘King ‘his ‘family’ and ‘court.’
The Government that wanted to sell excess vehicles at a public auction, now routinely presents supplementary estimates to import new vehicles. Another ‘Yahapalana’ pioneer Dr. Rajitha Senaratne is on record claiming that a people’s representative cannot do without a SUV to traverse the roads carpeted by the brothers.
After two years in office, this Government is yet saddled with SriLankan Airlines after a bungled attempt to attract an investor. SriLankan Airlines in the last financial year spent Rs.22 billion on its employees. That works out to Rs. 5,000 from each passenger’s ticket fare. During 2010-2015 it lost Rs. 95 billion. Its debt servicing exceed Rs. 5 billion a year. Divesting is the least priority of the present management. They do not lose sleep over its debt.
Now, that state of affairs is not the doings of Ravi or Mangala. The new CEO of the loss-making airline is the brother of Charitha, the indispensable ‘Chanakya’ in the current dispensation. The other Brahmin pulling the puppet strings is ‘Pasky,’ the mandatory advisor.
Lao Tzu said: “Those who speak do not know. Those who know, do not speak. Sincere words are not fine; fine words are not sincere. The master of one is not a jack of all; the jack of all is master of none.”