YOU CAN’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

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By 2017-09-14

By Dr. Nalaka Godahewa

"Sir, after all those contributions to the nation, how could you lose the election?" a very emotional senior citizen asked the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a public event in Kurunegala just a few days ago. Rajapaksa gave an interesting answer to the senior citizen, "After the war, we focussed totally on the development of the country and particularly the North and East. We lost the election primarily because the Tamils and Muslims voted against us in large numbers. It looks like we forgot to do politics where it mattered most". This perhaps was a reasonably good answer to a question that most people are still searching for an answer. Rajapaksa and his key advisors forgot that Sri Lankans in general and Sinhalese in particular, have very short memories.

Apparently, the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran used to remind his cadres about this weakness of the Sinhalese all the time.

By January 2015, 6,217,162 people had forgotten that they had been suffering from a 26-year-long war until 2009. They had forgotten the fear and the hardships they had to endure for so many years due to the conflict. They had forgotten that they were facing frequent power cuts until President Rajapaksa built the Norochcholai Power Plant. They had forgotten that travelling long distances within the country was a nightmare until Rajapaksa built the highways. They had forgotten that Colombo was once a dirty city and all the canals were smelly. They had forgotten that a large number of farmers committed suicide every year unable to buy fertilizer for their paddy fields. They had forgotten that unemployment was as high as 8 per cent when Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 and it had been reduced to 4.3 per cent by 2014. They had forgotten that telephone penetration in the country was only about 3 per cent in 2005 and by the time Rajapaksa was defeated there was 20 per cent more telephones used in the country than the actual population. They had forgotten that inflation, which was in double digits when Rajapaksa came to power, had been reduced to 3.3 per cent by 2014. They had forgotten that poverty which was at 15 per cent in 2005 had been reduced to 6 per cent by 2014. They were just unhappy. All they wanted was a change.

Weaknesses

There are no perfect leaders in the world. All the great leaders that we know of in the history have had their own weaknesses.

Even Emperor Asoka, who contributed so much to the spread of Buddhism in India and the rest of the world, was a brutal killer until he converted to Buddhism. Deng Xiaoping who is considered the Father of Modern China had blood on his hands due to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. There were enough criticisms about the dictatorial approach of Lee Kuan Yew who transformed Singapore from a fishing village to a super power. Dr. Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia and Dr. Abdul Gayoom of Maldives, who changed the fortunes of their respective nations, also had their share of weaknesses.

But history was kind to these leaders. They had enough time at their disposal to transform their countries so that most people remember the good side of them than their negative aspects.

Unfortunately, Rajapaksa didn't have that luxury. He was ousted at a peacefully held election four and a half years after he ended the 30-year-long war in Sri Lanka. Despite early accusations from some lowly politicians about a coup, there was no such effort to retain power by force. The former President accepted defeat gracefully and left for his village even before the final result was announced.

Political strategists

As Rajapaksa himself admitted in Kurunegala, the political strategists in his camp had completely forgotten that they need to keep addressing different segments of society. Even though so much development work was carried out in the North and East, there was no machinery in place to win the hearts and minds of the Tamil people living in those areas. Muslims were not reminded of the hardships that their communities had to undergo under the LTTE rule. They were not reminded how much President Rajapaksa had done to support the Muslims even internationally. The elite in Colombo were another group of people who were not addressed effectively. When the Opposition started brainwashing the middle class and the floating voters, the response of the Rajapaksa Government was far below expected.

That's how the Opposition, armed with financial support and strategic input from their international allies, could muster a sufficient number of voters to defeat President Rajapaksa. They managed to convince the voters that there is a need for better governance in the country.

A beautiful picture was painted during the election campaign. People started believing in the rainbow alliance that was emerging.

Voting Rajapaksa out and voting Sirisena in appeared to be the simplest solution to make Sri Lanka great again. Just look at the expectations that were created. The country would prosper at a much faster rate than before. Corruption would be completely eliminated. Foreign investors would rush to Sri Lanka. Stock market would thrive. Industries would boom. One million jobs would be created within five years. Law and order would be restored. The country would be drug free. Cost of living would be reduced.

The national debt will be completely eliminated by 2023. Education sector would receive 6 per cent GDP from the budget allocations while the health sector would receive 3 per cent of GDP.

Beautiful picture

A beautiful picture indeed! Who would want to miss this? That's probably how the 6.2 million voters who fell for these promises thought.

But after two years and nine months since the new government came to power, even those people must be realizing that something has gone wrong. As the old saying goes a book cannot be judged only by its cover.

Let us do a reality check to understand the ground situation today.

The government, which came to power promising a corruption free society, is already in serious trouble having to defend the biggest financial crime of the history of this country. The bond scam is one of the most spoken of topics at every forum. According to the State Minister of Finance Lakshman Yapa, the direct and indirect cost of the bond scam to the country is over Rs 1 trillion.

The total economy of this country is only Rs 11.5 trillion and the loss due to bond scam is almost 10 per cent of that according to this assessment of the State Minister. Even though some people tried to discredit the minister, saying he has got the numbers wrong, it can easily be established that the facts are stubborn.

Bending the law

Instead of restoring law and order as promised by the government leaders when they were in Opposition, the new Inspector General of Police (IGP) has publicly explained how he intends to bend the law. There are ample examples of bending the law from the time the new government came to power. The government seems to be bending the law at will to protect its supporters and also to harass its opponents. The Police and the Bribery Commission have not touched a single person connected to the bond scam yet, though they are busy investigating thousands of people connected to the previous regime.

Instead of new jobs that were promised, the country has lost even the jobs that existed before. A comparison between employment statistics of 2014 and 2016 in the Central Bank Annual Report of 2016 shows that the loss is as high as 476,000 jobs within these two years.

The government came to power promising a reduction in the cost of living. But it has not happened. In reality, the government has increased taxes by 40 per cent during the initial two years in power. This amounts to an increase of Rs 414 billion per year. Ultimately all these taxes are paid by the people of this country directly or indirectly. With the introduction of the new laws, the tax burden of the people will increase further.

National debt

Even though the leadership of the present government keeps talking about a debt trap created by the previous government, in reality it is the present government, which has increased the national debt by 32 per cent within just two years. According to the Auditor General, the national debt had increased from Rs 7,391 billion in 2014 to Rs 9,865 billion by December 2016. If taken as a percentage of GDP, then the debt burden has increased from 71.3 per cent to 83.3 per cent within just two years. What is important to note here is that national debt as a percentage of GDP had reduced from 102.5 per cent to 71.3 per cent during the 2005-2014 period. Once again it has started climbing up and it is not a good sign. In 2016, the government had been borrowing at a rate of approximately Rs 3 billion every day.

We can keep highlighting more facts but they are not going to please the reader. Indeed it is a really gloomy picture.
On 4 September 2017, the government introduced the latest economic policy document at a mega function held at the BMICH.

We have to call it the latest because the previous economic policy document was introduced just one month ago on 22 August 2017. In fact the current leadership of the country has presented nine policy documents since they entered the election campaign in late 2014.

How long are we going to believe these fairy tales of the government?

Dr. Nalaka Godahewa is a former Chairman of Sri Lanka Tourism and of the Securities and Exchange Commission of Sri Lanka. He has three professional qualifications in Engineering, Finance and Marketing and also an MBA. He holds a PhD in Economics

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