In what appeared to be a major policy shift, Democratic Left Front stalwart joint opposition MP Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who once stood for self-determination, said the leftist allies had decided to advocate a Unitary State with the Provincial Council as the unit of devolution. He said it was a stance taken after he moved from the Nawa Sama Samaja Party (NSSP). Excerpts of the interview are as follows:
Q How do you assess the unfolding political situation?
Basically, the government is in a bad wicket in respect of fiscal situation, foreign reserves and debt servicing. Therefore, the opposition has been strengthened. Particularly, the joint opposition (JO) has an advantage in the political arena at the moment. The JVP has a role to play. It is presently critical of the government. When it comes to a decisive moment, yet the JVP stands more opposed to the joint opposition than to the government according to their own reasoning. As a result, the government has a political cushioning from the JVP.
Q You referred to debt serving as an area in which the government is struggling. The government leaders repeatedly say the debt burden is what it inherited from the previous government which you represented. What are your thoughts?
Whatever the reason might be, they are faced with heavy borrowings. Debt has increased by many folds over the last two years for whatever reason. I do not want to go into detail. The crux of the matter is that the government has to face a serious debt servicing problem. How do they face it? They have to find concessionary funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. The IMF has agreed to provide monetary assistance. It is conditional. The government has to reduce the fiscal deficit. It means the government has to cut spending or increase revenue. Tax reforms are called for. It means tax net has to be widened. A large number of people who are not paying taxes should be brought within the net. Instead of doing it, what is happening is taxing the already-burdened. Individuals as well as organistions that already pay taxes are targeted. They are within the target area of the government to increase revenue.
In the meantime, the tax threshold has been expanded. The government faces the task of increasing its revenue. Then, it has to pass a major burden on to the people in order to collect revenue. That is the condition of the IMF. Here, the IMF targets a large number of black money holders. They have to be brought within the ambit. In contrast, people are burdened by increasing indirect taxes and fees, special commodity levies and so forth. All these mean a cumulative burden on people in a serious way. I cannot even imagine to what height cost of living will rise in this context later.
Q In your view, what is the reason for the present crisis?
Simply, the global economy has a gloomy outlook. It does not show any sign of recovery in the US economy as expected. European economic growth is sluggish. The Japanese economy is even worse. Therefore, the global economic downturn has affected the entire world. Primary commodities have become reduced to a level which is incredible. Commodity-exporting countries are now reeling. Brazil is facing a serious crisis in this respect, for example. It has affected our tea, rubber and other agricultural produce. The area in which the government has some hope is the attraction of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). As we know, it is not flowing in abundance. Therefore, our reserves are in bad shape. On the other hand, our economic activities have failed. If there is any growth in our economy, it is due to consumer demand.
Interest rates are increasing. With that, there will be difficulty for people. Credit availability will be expensive. They have to increase the interest rates in order to bring consumption down. Then, there will be no other factor to stimulate growth. Anyway, consumer-driven economic growth can be a strain on the reserves. The government has a difficult choice. On the one hand, it has to control consumption, and on the other, there is no alternative way in which economic growth takes place. In this very difficult situation, the government has only one option. That is to extract more from people. That is the only way; unless they get some special favours from any of the countries. I do not think any country is in a state to give that kind of financial assistance. Or else, it has to happen in the form of military aid. May be, there is thought given to joint patrolling of sea lanes of the Indian ocean together with the United States. This combination will ultimately give Americans the base to come in to berth in Trincomalee as part of operations to protect the sea lanes with the Sri Lanka Navy. That strategy is to give high leverage. Then, money will come in the form of military aid.
I do not know if that will go well with India. Indians are not happy with Americans directly handling Sri Lanka in the way they engage the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Northern Provincial Council. It will make way for a greater autonomy to the North. India will not be happy with it.
Q Then, how does the JO stand up to the situation?
The joint opposition will take advantage of the situation. What we should do is to dislodge the government at the earliest possible. How it could happen is by the contradictions going to a point of collapse. It could soon happen with the increased loss of legitimacy for the government. That will be when the local government elections will bring out results. If it is a serious defeat to the government, it will happen.
"The government has a difficult choice. On the one hand, it has to control consumption, and on the other, there is no alternative way for economic growth "
Q How challenging is it for you to unseat the government in that manner?
When the government loses legitimacy with a serious defeat at the hands of the joint opposition, from that point onwards, the government will find confrontations with people in respect of their demands. For example, air traffic controllers took a confrontational line. Then, the minister responsible talked to them. Subsequently, non-academics took a similar stance, and the government conceded. Likewise, after defeat and loss of legitimacy, it will happen. When the government goes for the Private Public Partnership model for reforming the State sector, workers will revolt. Workers will not be able to accept the model which gives more leverage to the private sector.
Q How certain are you of winning the election because central rule of the country is in the other side?
We can win the elections. How convincingly we can win is not clear yet. We are winning anyway. The cooperative society elections are coming in.
Q How representative are such cooperative societies in terms of general public opinion?
It throws some light on the mood of people. It is some form of gauge. Social media indicate anti-government tendencies.
Q How do you progress in the direction of forming a political entity for the JO?
We will form an alliance for registration and take a symbol to contest the election.
Q How far have you made progress?
It is all set now. All needs are met in order to register the alliance. As for Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) members, I am asking them to fight to regain control of the party rather than forming a new one.
Q As long as the President is the SLFP leader, will it be difficult for them to get hold of the party?
Legally, we cannot get it. But, when the combination of the UNP and SLFP section with the President is convincingly defeated, the mass response will hold sway. It will determine who owns the SLFP politically.
Q What is the position of the TNA’s demand for power-sharing arrangements?
The joint opposition thinks the arrangement with the TNA will undermine the unitary character of the State, paving the way for separatist tendencies to arise.
Q It means you stand for the unitary character of the Constitution?
Yes, I do.
"The Sinhalese have to concede the rights of Tamil people for governance through the local bodies and provincial councils by devolving power. Actually, it is by progressively devolving power with
Q Is that a stand taken later by you as a leftist politician?
Yes, it is a stand taken later. I moved out from the Nawa Sama Samaja Party (NSSP). We were for the right to self-determination when in NSSP. We did not care about the Unitary State. A Federal State was acceptable to us. After we left the NSSP, we discussed the national question and ultimately how we could unite the country. The Sinhalese have to concede the rights of Tamil people for governance through the local bodies and provincial councils by devolving power. Actually, it is by progressively devolving power with mutual confidence and understanding within a unitary framework. That is the maximum you can expect from the Sinhalese. On the other hand, no unity will come without the consent of Tamil people. Therefore, this mutuality has to be found between Tamil people’s rights and the sense of insecurity of Sinhalese. Sense of insecurity has to be met and laid to rest at the end. Tamil people have to be won around by the Sinhalese and vice versa. This is the meeting ground we see in the provincial councils within a unitary framework. If the Unitary State is abandoned, disintegration of the country will be inevitable.
Q Some powers have already been devolved to the Provincial Councils. Do you advocate more?
The Provincial Councils within a unitary framework are the basis. What is to be given and taken is a process. We will arrive at unity in the process.
Q How do you see eye-to-eye on this?
The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) is with us. The Communist Party is divided. Some want to support the government to carry out Constitutional reforms. We say the government must be defeated on all accounts. The Constitutional reforms are sought as part of arrangements with the TNA. It will undermine the unitary character.