By Gamini Weerakoon
(Gamini Weerakoon is former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island and Consulting Editor of the Sunday Leader)
Politicians and lovers have a common failing: Politicians fighting for survival at elections and lovers during ecstatic moments make rash promises which they haven’t the foggiest notion about fulfilling when the time comes.
Lankan politicians and lovers are more fortunate on this issue than their Western counterparts. In Western democracies, big election pledges are taken seriously and if elected to office, unless the promises are not kept are thrown out at the next election. So, it is with Western women. Making a false promise is considered ‘cheating’ and if not kept, they are out by the ear in next to no time. Lankan lovers are blessed by more tolerant women who value the sanctity of marriage than the credibility of the Lotharios.
General Election 2020 is bound to be a tougher proposition for any party that is elected to office. Levels of the Treasury reserves have hit rock bottom. A near three-decade ‘war’, the JVP insurrection, elections — provincial, parliamentary and presidential elections — the tsunami, looting of government funds by VIPs, money laundering, luxury vehicles for politicos multimillion dollar rackets in addition to the billion-dollar narcissistic projects for perpetuating immortality of some rulers and finally Covid-19 have left the country bankrupt. All that happened without a single significant income generating development project being installed after the Mahaveli project was completed.
The call to rally round the Lion Flag evokes much sentiment and emotion and the response for beach cleaning and tree planting and home garden campaigns is laudable but all that is woefully inadequate for the nation to be put back on its feet.
Let’s assume the Pohottuwa Party of the Rajapaksas emerge the winner. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s manifesto under the optimistic and grandiose title ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’ is detailed and worked out by experts of his own choosing for villages, towns and cities. Most governments since Independence have had such plans but the problem has been implementation. The Majors General he has brought in to top civilian posts may be for that and other purposes.
But nationalism, determination, self-confidence and the belief in the capabilities of one’s own people will not be enough to get the Sri Lankan economy going again. President Rajapaksa can’t defy the laws of physics or that of nature by pulling himself up by his own boot straps. He needs a ‘push-start’ — or Thallu Start as old Morris Minors and Austins needed. That push can only come from Uncle Sam and Big Brother Modi or Our dearly beloved Xi Jinping who has given us so much, in loans.
All that is more easily said than done. Sri Lanka takes great pride in its Non-Aligned foreign policy and there are devotees to this policy who will accuse any one of selling his heritage if we stray away from this path of Non-Alignment. Non- Alignment is supposed to mean we must stay equidistant from the two power blocs of today – the US and its allies India, Japan and Australia and their rival China. But these are the only world powers that have resources to put disabled countries like Lanka back on their feet. But if we hold hands with China, Donald Trump is likely to put roadblocks on trade with his country — our largest export market. And if Lanka plays ball with the US and India, Chinese assistance may not be forthcoming.
This is what Lanka has been bequeathed with consequent to the wonderful Non-Aligned foreign policy which Lankan diplomats of the Bandaranaike era vintage still swear by together with some diplomatic neophytes in the foreign ministry and NGOs of foreign policy ‘tutories’.
The foreign policy of a country, it is believed, should be a projection of its domestic policies. Non-Alignment was a foreign policy that emanated from Indian leaders like Jawahalal Nehru and Krishna Menon in defending the interests of India.
Solomon Bandaranaike the slavish admirer of Nehru swallowed it, hook line and sinker. But not all Lankan politicians. Nehru had the gumption to ask Sir John Kotelawala, then Prime minister of Ceylon, when he attacked Soviet imperialism at the historic Bandung conference, why Sir John had not shown his speech to him before delivery. Kotelawala put the Indian sage in his place by asking: Why should I show you my speech man, when you didn’t show me yours?
Sirima Bandaranaike carried the Non-Aligned baton for Lanka but she was in reality doing it for her dear friend Indira Gandhi.
Indira Gandhi’s Non-Alignment was markedly tilted to the Soviet Union which was India’s main armaments supplier. She voted in favour of almost all resolutions for the Soviet Union and against the United States and the Western bloc. Sirima Bandaranaike was her Non-Aligned flag bearer at international fora such as the UN-sponsored Indian Ocean Peace Zone conference.
Countries in East Asia such as ASEAN members Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia adopted free market economic policies and boomed while Non-Aligned Sri Lanka faithfully followed India’s ‘mixed socialist economy’ and stagnated.
On a personal note, this writer consistently challenged the Non-Aligned foreign policy of Sri Lanka and queried as to what benefit it was to the people of this country, in another publication in the 1980s, 1990s and early years of 2000 but only earned the sobriquets of ‘India baiter’ and a ‘heretic’ in foreign affairs. The Pundits prevailed.
What benefit did this sacred doctrine of Non-Alignment bring to this ‘Thrice blessed country’? Other Asian countries that ignored the Indian beckoning prospered as is evident today.
But are we still Non-Aligned? We now speak of being ‘neutral’ although the implication is still not clear.
With just three days to go for elections we ask: Whither Sri Lanka? Sri Lankans have been stuck to this one sacred thought of Non-Alignment and dare not deviate. We, for over three decades, have been stuck to one position and swayed as the geopolitical winds blew.
The lines of Bob Dylan’s song come to our mind: The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…
Are we still swaying?