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A challenge for President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: The societal, economic and political debt


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Tuesday, 28 January 2020 01:05


While President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is attempting to introduce a new political culture, his biggest challenge would be the fundamental weaknesses of the country’s democracy, particularly where the expression of democracy is limited to voting, and the currency for power and influence is the vote, and how many of them a politician can bring to a political party at an election – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


 

It is necessary to recognise the exclusionary and discriminatory character of our society and economy, a creation of largely of differences arising from caste, ethnicity, religion and other group identities. But to design appropriate remedial policies, an understanding of contemporary forms of discrimination in multiple spheres and their consequences is very necessary – Sukhadeo Thorat, Economic and Political Weekly

The challenges before President Rajapaksa in balancing and striving towards balancing the societal, economic and political balance sheets is enormous. Although shown separately, these three are interconnected and interdependent, therefore requiring a holistic approach to achieve the objectives.

The problems inherited by him and this Government are not only the deficiencies of the previous government, and a good starting point might be to accept this in framing policies and programs for the future, and importantly, a code of conduct for politicians. 

The previous Mahinda Rajapaksa Government and the ones prior to that also made mistakes and the consequences of such mistakes have formed the accumulated societal, economic and political debt this government has inherited. Many associated with the previous Rajapaksa Government are in the current Government, or they influence the workings of the current Government, and they too have been contributors to this debt.

While President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is attempting to introduce a new political culture, his biggest challenge would be the fundamental weaknesses of the country’s democracy, particularly where the expression of democracy is limited to voting, and the currency for power and influence is the vote, and how many of them a politician can bring to a political party at an election.

 

"The country’s economic debt is huge and with it, the impingements on the country’s independence and sovereignty. Despite Sri Lanka’s show, and on occasion, bravado, about its independence and sovereignty, the reality is that such a show is akin to an emperor walking without his clothes. It is not debt per se that is and has been the issue, but the return on the debt investment. Whatever the debt, a government should be able to repay that debt and its interest with the economic return that the debt investment yields, and not by furthering its debt to repay debt. A country cannot treat its debt like personal credit card debt, borrowing from one card to pay another"

 



This reality has seen cracks in the President’s undertaking to bring in competent people into government institutions including boards of government corporations. The issue is not family relationship or personal friendships, but whether that is the sole qualification that has governed appointments. A competent relative or a friend, competent for a particular job is vastly different to an incompetent relative or friend who is fundamentally a fool.

This problem has bedevilled not just this Government but all previous governments. President Rajapaksa’s determination to overcome this folly is commendable and has to be supported if the country is to reduce its societal, economic and political debt. 

It goes without saying though that the success of this depends vastly on those who are able to bring in the currency, the votes, that will determine who will govern the country after the next general election. If they continue the family and friends first practice, one person cannot succeed however good the intentions are.



Despite an outward display of all segments of the society being content and at peace with each other, or wishing to project such an image, underlying currents of discord do exist and they surface and have surfaced from time to time. It can be said that this is primarily due to an inability of the society to come to terms with the reality that Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, bilingual society with their own history and culture. While the Sinhala Buddhist component of this society is a numerical reality, how exactly they could relate to others, and how others could relate to them has created an accumulated societal debt.

On the eve of the country’s 72nd independence anniversary, there is a debate whether we should be inclusive or exclusive in voicing the country’s national anthem. The Tamil community that has its origins since around the 2nd century BCE stated to be so according to anthropological and archaeological evidence, continues to be excluded as a distinct ethnic, linguistic and cultural identity in the county’s national anthem. This is a symptom of the malaise that the society is yet to come to terms with. Some argue that what was good 72 years ago should still be good despite evidence that even the blind would see that the county’s society is not settled, and there are under currents arising from its practice of exclusivity.

The Muslim community, admittedly with their own faults and shortcomings in not being wedded to a national code of conduct, is a community that is far from being comfortable and safe in the wider multi ethnic, bi lingual society. This community lives in apprehension of periodic surges of violence against them.

 

"It is high time that a national dialogue commences on issues, real and imagined, that bedevil the Sri Lankan society and adds to the existing mistrust amongst communities. It is best if religious and political leaders are left out of this discussion as they, more than any other, have contributed to this situation and are using whatever disquiet that exist amongst communities, to perpetuate it and safeguard their own existence and influence at the expense of the ordinary folk of the country. This societal debt is substantial and economic development alone will not address it and reduce it."

 



It is high time that a national dialogue commences on issues, real and imagined, that bedevil the Sri Lankan society and adds to the existing mistrust amongst communities. It is best if religious and political leaders are left out of this discussion as they, more than any other, have contributed to this situation and are using whatever disquiet that exist amongst communities, to perpetuate it and safeguard their own existence and influence at the expense of the ordinary folk of the country.

This societal debt is substantial and economic development alone will not address it and reduce it.

The country’s economic debt is huge and with it, the impingements on the country’s independence and sovereignty. Despite Sri Lanka’s show, and on occasion, bravado, about its independence and sovereignty, the reality is that such a show is akin to an emperor walking without his clothes. 

It is not debt per se that is and has been the issue, but the return on the debt investment. Whatever the debt, a government should be able to repay that debt and its interest with the economic return that the debt investment yields, and not by furthering its debt to repay debt. A country cannot treat its debt like personal credit card debt, borrowing from one card to pay another.

Borrowings for infrastructure development such as roads, bridges etc., should be as long term debts as the returns are not necessarily quantifiable in the immediate term or in a conventional way. Borrowings for projects that are expected to yield dividends in the shorter term have to be based on costed, independently evaluated proposals based on the projects own ability to repay the debt without being a burden on the national debt.



There is much debate about the extent and the reasons for Sri Lanka’s massive debt. 

The Central Bank should apprise the country’s citizens on the foreign and local debt that successive governments have heaped on the shoulders of its citizens, present, and the generations to come, so that the citizenry would be better able to judge the promises and performance of governments. Such an analysis of the country’s debt could only be done by a truly independent Central Bank which is responsible for the monitory policy of the country and which reports only to the Parliament.

In terms of political debt, the current system will only perpetuate it as bags of votes are determinants of power and as amply demonstrated by many, means to an accumulation of vast amounts of ill-gotten wealth. Unless this system changes and with it, changes to the political culture, political debt will continue to bury even the most well-meaning politicians and political leaders.

Changing the current system to a yet undefined and untested system, could have its own risks. A shorter term opportunity might be for political parties and indeed President Rajapaksa, to inject fresh unspoilt blood into the system with the hope that there will be a gestation period for such people to turn into the dregs of society like their predecessors, but during which they may do some good for the country, or, with the hope that some of them will know the meaning of ethics and morality and advance the course of the country and not their own.

Will the country’s balance sheet be ever balanced? We may have to ask Nostradamus, who unfortunately is dead.


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