This Government does not need foes when friends are doing the job for them. Months after the controversy attending on the ‘Hambantota Port equity-swap deal’ had died down, comes veteran Shipping and Ports Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe’s admission that Sri Lanka had sought the ‘facility’ from China, and not the other way round, as his colleagues would have wanted the nation to believe.
Maybe, Minister Samarasinghe was seeking to direct public discomfort and political criticism on the rupee-linked economic distress at the predecessor Rajapaksa Regime, to claim that it’s all because of the uneconomical port scheme in the first place, but the ‘converted’ on this score are already on the Government’s side, and the rest would not want to ‘convert’, now or later – not certainly on this score.
Samarasinghe’s admission matters because this was precisely what former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his SLPP (JO) second-line was charging this Government with when the ‘swap deal’ was hot news, late last year. UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sought to deflect at least some of the criticism on this score to the bad economic decisions that the Rajapaksa Regime had made in the first place – not all of it stuck, however.
Yet, even Wickremesinghe did not play up the fact that he had sought the ‘facility’ from the Chinese Leadership. If anything, he seemed to have made only a passing reference on the issue, who between the two sides blinked first, and mooted the ‘swap deal’ as a way out for reducing the nation’s ‘debt-burden’ and stalling the process of Sri Lanka falling into a ‘debt-trap’ after all.
Against this, Mahinda R’s hammer-and-tongs attacks on the Government in the matter implied that he was clean on the ‘swap deal’ issue at the very least. As may be recalled, in the months preceding his 2015 election defeat, the social Media and sections of the mainline Media had reports claiming that the Rajapaksa Regime was in the process of effecting one.
In his attacks on the incumbent Government on the swap-deal, Mahinda reiterated time and again that his leadership had refrained from doing anything close to it. Since then, the global economic situation, as also the incumbent Government’s dismal performance on the economic front, may have given the non-committal voters, who decide the fate of elections in the country, that Mahinda R might have been honest, after all!
That’s all in the past. However, what might help the Rajapaksa Camp just now is the claim/charge that the present Government did not know how to handle the economy. They have also been claiming that while in power they also had long-term plans to repay the debt, taken from China and the rest. Elections-2015 did not provide for it, according to them. Otherwise, they did not provide for an upset result in Elections-2015.
Waiting it out
The politico-electoral problem for the present Government Leadership in context could be complex and simple at the same time. Would such admissions as Minister Samarasinghe’s, and Mahinda R’s repeated assertions that they had a solution to the economic problems, but were not given enough time, turn the ‘non-committed’ voters in particular to his side in the next Presidential and Parliamentary Polls?
“Give the devil its due,” may be one way of putting it. But whether it is angel or devil, a vote is a vote and an electoral victory is an electoral victory. That cannot be wished away, by heaping criticisms of every kind on the victor. It just does not work.
The Rajapaksas found the truth in the results of Elections-2015, but then, they also waited for the public mood to change before they began attacking the Leadership of the present Government. Given the huge monetary costs involved in organizing such political protests and public rallies, UNP’s Wickremesinghe has become a past-master at waiting out for the public mood to change before targeting his political adversaries – whether CBK or MR, in their respective times.
There is another angle to the Samarasinghe kind of public admissions. Even while learning to work its way up to the top of the incumbent Government, considered adversarial to their Sri Lanka cause, by the ‘international community’ (read: West) and also the common Indian neighbour, China has consistently claimed that the ‘development debts’ from the nation amounted to only 14 per cent of all debts of Sri Lanka.
The world refuses to purchase the Chinese claim, though no critic of China, inside Sri Lanka or outside, on this score, has sought to disprove such claims, backed up by numbers. It is not necessarily China’s problem.
Instead, if the Sri Lankan voters were to trust those figures, if at all they care about the ‘swap-deal’ kind of ‘complex issues’, then China would have won, hands down – whoever gets elected to power in Sri Lanka.
But, how ‘complex’ can those issues get? The economy, forex, and foreign debt may all be complex issues even for the ubiquitous educated, urban middle-class voter to fathom. The fact that Sri Lanka is getting increasingly urbanized, at least as far as the voter’s exposure and mindset goes were proved in Elections-2015.
It was an election where the social Media part-won the Poll for candidate Maithripala Sirisena, now President. But then, it might have also been the last election where the social Media might have place a ‘constructive’ campaign role. People have had too much of it, and this Government itself blocked social Media at the height of the twin, ‘Batticaloa-Kandy anti-Muslim riots’.
Instead, it may be an election where price rise and inflation may speak, after a long time. It is where the Government Leadership would be on the defensive all the time, whether they are united electorally or not. The Rajapaksas were seen as being weak on ‘economic administration’ while in power, and sympathizers would attribute mammoth and uneconomical China-funded projects as borne out of inexperience and lack of expertise on their side. Others too may now want to pardon them on the China front, at least as far as economics goes.
That cannot be so when the issue is projected as a ‘sovereignty’ concern, where the nation’s ‘territorial integrity’ also becomes a talking-point. It became evident when the Government had to strike down the clause in the ‘Hambantota equity-swap’ contract draft, which provided for Chinese security for the ‘Chinese territory’ that Sri Lanka was creating on its own territory, outside of the Chinese Embassy building in Colombo.
Now, the Hambantota Port and land security are in the hands of the Sri Lanka Navy, and other arms of the nation’s armed forces. So, did the Government end up denying exclusivity to China at the controversial Rajapaksa era project of ‘Colombo Port City’.
However, the present Government did not talk about stopping the Port City Project, even though the likes of UNP’s Wickremesinghe had said in public rallies in pre-poll mood. Again something that might still reverberate in global capitals, where the confusion is to conclude which of the two, the ruling combine or the Rajapaksas, that are friends of the West and the rest, when China is the clincher.
The world had come to accept that post-Cold War, when the US economy, too has been tottering from time to time and Third World nations were beginning to see through the IMF-World Bank conditionalities, there would be space for another global lender. China fitted the bill, and they were not unwilling to accept it.
In the case of Sri Lanka, it did not matter whether Rajapaksa or anyone else was in power, if China were to put in big money, without geo-strategic conditionalities of the military kind. In a way, thus, the controversial visit of two Chinese naval submarines to Sri Lanka, was the bone of contention. Here, the present Government Leadership may have an inherent advantage of ‘transparency’ and ‘credibility’ of viz individual members of the international community than the Rajapaksas could manage in their time.
It was an issue of ‘political culture’, not ‘economic viability’ or anything close to it. With the result, if there is anyone who wants to make China an electoral issue in Sri Lanka, he may not be there in Sri Lanka – but possibly, elsewhere!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.