Many people hoped that the change of regime at the beginning of this year would provide a sense of direction for the country. Given the wide-ranging challenges that the people are faced with, the political leaders of diverse ideological persuasions were expected to respect the people’s verdict and allow the newly elected government to implement the plans that the leaders presented before the voting public. But, what is done after the election has been determined as much by the newly elected government as by the party that was defeated by the voters. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution that was passed by the Parliament showed this in no uncertain terms. One of the most important promises of the leaders of the present government was to take legal action against those who were alleged to have engaged in corrupt practices in the recent past. But the Opposition leaders today do not seem to want the law to take its own course. They see such measures only as malicious revenge.
This tendency creates the impression in the minds of ordinary people that we can never expect to re-establish rule of law in this country. Many Opposition leaders also see the new Government as a product of an anti-nationalist, pro-western, American-led international conspiracy. While there is no doubt about the fact that many governments around the world; be it America, China, Russia or India, are driven as much by their national interests as by their diverse ideological inclinations, it is stupid to assume that the leaders of the present regime are simply busy preparing the ground for the Western powers to implement their plans in this country. For the autonomy of a country today depends as much on the ideological inclinations of leaders as on the degree of economic dependence of the country concerned. We all know how the previous regime managed the economy and how independent or dependent we became in the context of external economic relations.
"good governance and rule of law are necessary to create a level playing field for everybody"
The present political debates in the country follow the usual nationalist and liberal ideological fault lines. Those who embrace liberal ideas are branded as pro-western, while the nationalists who often show scant regard for the principles of good governance present themselves as patriotic, interested only in safeguarding national interests. The latter have no humility to admit that there were many serious shortcomings on their part.
What all Sri Lankans, irrespective of their ideological inclinations, have to accept is that good governance and rule of law are necessary to create a level playing field for everybody. This is the only way to ensure equality of opportunity to all in such diverse fields as education, employment and business. What is equally important is to recognize the need to manage public affairs in keeping with a set of sound public policies rather than allow individual politicians and Government officials to do what they like in diverse fields that come under their purview. But most people in this country today seem to have lost sight of this larger picture. Most of the public discussions and political debates pay little or no attention to the larger issues of governance and development such as institutional development and public policy. Unless we address these larger issues, we will not be able to create conditions that are conducive to economic and social development, national unity and human security.
" Most of the public discussions and political debates pay little or no attention to the larger issues of governance and development such as institutional development and public policy. Unless we address these larger issues, we will not be able to create conditions that are conducive to economic and social development, national unity and human security"
As I have discussed in several articles, there have not been any serious attempts in the recent past to restructure the local economy in order to create productive employment for a majority of people. Unsustainable expansion of the service sector and foreign employment at the expense of productive employment in the country has not only contributed to inflation and resultant high cost of living, but also made many families vulnerable due to diverse circumstances. Similarly, distortions within the education system have adversely affected many children and youth and prevented them from attaining their full potential in terms of life chances. These and many other issues remained unaddressed largely due to poor governance and its consequences. Meanwhile, during the last regime, the attempts on the part of Opposition parties, civil society groups and independent media institutions to criticize the powers that be were branded as part of a western conspiracy against a patriotic government. The leaders of the previous regime, even following their defeat, continue to remain wedded to this ideological position, largely because Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups by and large accept the above interpretation. As the results of the last election showed, this constituency is large and comprises mainly of the rural and suburban lower middle-class directly coming under the influence of nationalist ideologues.
"The leaders of the previous regime, even following their defeat, continue to remain wedded to this ideological position, largely because Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups by and large accept the above interpretation"
Many upwardly mobile members of this class were accommodated by the previous regime in various institutions. They naturally feel threatened in a more competitive environment where privileged urban elites are likely to have the upper hand. Widespread animosity towards a UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is perceived as a leader representing the interests of the privileged urban elites is a reflection of the above perception.
The present state of confusion and complexity in local politics reflects the conflicting ideas and interests that guide the thinking and behaviour of different groups in society. But the future prospects of the country and the people depend on how we face up to the bigger challenges of economic restructuring and institutional development, not on how we protect the interests of parochial groups in society.
We need to regain the lost policy space and take prudent measures to deal with the pressing issues in the country. The need of the hour is a truly national perspective, not a sectarian one: the latter can in fact produce an outcome that is antithetical to national interests, quite contrary to the argument advanced by nationalists.