After the presentation of a budget by the finance minister, the attention of the House, and indeed the country, turns to the first speech made on behalf of the Opposition.
In the good old United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) days, this task fell on Dr. N.M. Perera (NM), with his double doctorate in economics. For well over a decade, NM’s analysis of the budget held the country spellbound by its comprehensiveness, lucidity, and economic savvy. Even his opponents could ‘scarcely forbear to cheer’ those classics, which are now enshrined in the Hansards of that time.
It must be stated however that his observations were not taken seriously by his opponents who were acting according to their own ideologies, which were different from NM’s Marxist convictions. Not only that – when NM presented his budgets as Finance Minister of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s Cabinet, they were criticised by his own Cabinet colleagues like Felix Bandaranaike, backed by the then ‘power behind the throne’ – the PM’s London-returned son Anura. Eventually, the SLFP ministers got together to dismiss NM and his Cabinet comrades Colvin R. de Silva and Leslie Goonewardene. This was another step on the way to the SLFP’s crushing defeat in 1977.
Formidable asset to the SJB
This time around, the responsibility of making the opening speech for the Opposition fell on Dr. Harsha de Silva, who, like NM, also has a doctorate in economics. Through well-researched and earnestly-articulated speeches on the economy, Harsha has earned the respect of the House and is an asset to the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), which has a large middle class following.
Harsha and Eran Wickramaratne have enviable reputations for integrity and intelligence. With a middle class and rapidly-urbanising electorate, they have found a niche in local politics and are a formidable asset to their party and Leader, who also aspires to be taken seriously as a student of economics and developmental theories and loves to flaunt technical terms to bewilder the back benches.
‘A good UNP budget’
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s (RW’s) current Budget poses many intellectual and moral challenges to the Harsha-Eran combine. They were the understudies of RW when he was the Prime Minister under the Yahapalanaya regime and helped in formulating economic policies that were unveiled a few days ago in Parliament.
Though early in the Yahapalanaya Government Ravi Karunanayake ruled the economic roost as a reward for persuading his Leader RW to stand down and support a common candidate named Maithripala Sirisena, he blotted his copy book in the bond scam. Ravi brought a budget full of goodies that increased State expenditure as well as borrowings to bridge the fiscal deficit. His arbitrary revenue measures inhibited many investors and added to the crisis that we have to confront today.
The RW-Harsha-Eran combination formulated an economic programme which constitutes the bedrock of RW’s present Budget. This reality was encapsulated in the cross talk between RW and Harsha during the debate. When Harsha was in critical mode, the President intervened to say, “But you called this a good UNP budget,” which left the former speechless. He recovered by saying that the economic programme was good but more should have been done to cushion the vulnerable groups. It was an embarrassing moment for Harsha.
SJB and Sajith’s challenge
RW’s appointment as President and his Budget is a challenge to the SJB and its Leader Sajith Premadasa. When Sajith was offered the premiership by Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR), he faced two difficulties.
One was the role of GR himself. If Sajith accepted the premiership under GR, he would have had to face the wrath of the country. Hence his demand that GR resigns before he accepts the premiership. GR was not willing to accede to this request and Sajith demurred at that time, much to the satisfaction of his party and the country at large.
But then fate played an unexpected hand. Though neither RW nor Sajith anticipated the exit of GR, the Aragalaya surprised even itself on 9 July when the elected President fled the country. By then RW was already Prime Minister and Sajith had missed his chance.
The second issue was the possibility of a quick recovery from the almost impossible economic situation we were in at that time. A soft default was not contemplated. The Indian intervention by providing $ 3 billion was not on the cards.
Opting out and letting the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) stew in its own juices seemed a better bet. Rumour was that Harsha himself did not recommend the bold step of accepting the challenge because any failure would lead to a rout of the SJB. But whatever the drawbacks, RW has managed a partial economic and political recovery that many, including the SJB leadership, thought was impossible.
RW’s success may be due to a more rational management of our meagre resources – anything was better than the Basil-PBJ-Cabraal combine – or it may be because the soft default saved us the funds that would have been lost to the Treasury as loan repayments.
The acute shortages of fuel, gas, electricity, and basic goods have been overcome and the protests of the Aragalaya have lost steam. It has also helped the Rajapaksas to dream of a comeback, much to the discomfiture of the Opposition. They now have to rethink and bring new slogans in the post-Budget era.
Harsha has already flagged two in his speech – namely, anti-corruption and the need to widen the social safety net. Notwithstanding the speeches made by our ignorant MPs, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is not averse to both these initiatives. But due to their dilly-dallying, they have lost the initiative.
The SJB has to now skate on thin ice. Already Rajitha Senaratne, who is rumoured to cross over and retake his old Ministry of Health, has stated publicly that the SJB should not obstruct RW’s attempt to provide basic services to the longsuffering people. Harsha de Silva, who has had to grapple with his conscience, now must face what philosophers have called an ‘existential reality’.
His career depicts the type of political representatives we deserve to get instead of the village louts who are increasingly populating our political universe and are interested only in their own well-being. Should he not help to further a programme that he helped to create?
Or should he obfuscate as he did in his speech, hoping that his own solutions should fail under RW and bring his party and its Leader to power?
Would not half a loaf be better than an increasingly uncertain one?
That is his dilemma. His future depends on calling the correct shots.
Who is Harsha?
Harsha is the son of Haris de Silva, a popular personality at Peradeniya University who read history in the ’50s and joined the Archives Department, ending up as the Chief Archivist. He was not only a scholar but a man of fierce integrity who made difficult but moral decisions in his life. Haris is legendary both for his own research into post-colonial Sri Lankan history and the help he provided to numerous scholars of the social sciences in this country.
His only son Harsha studied at Royal College in Colombo and his classmates, who now hold key positions in Colombo commerce, have been his faithful vote bank, which puts him at a great advantage in the hustings in the Colombo District. He then enrolled in the University of Missouri in the US and obtained a doctorate in economics. On returning, he joined a commercial bank in a senior position.
The UNP was fortunate in having Harsha and Eran – two top bankers – among its ranks and much credit goes to RW for nurturing them.
They have contributed to raising the level of debate in the House as well as playing a vital role in making the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) a useful instrument for overview of management and finance of State enterprises. He is in effect the ‘Shadow Minister’ of Finance of the SJB.
Will Harsha back the Budget?
In his Budget speech, RW forthrightly hailed the economic opening which began under J.R. Jayewardene (JRJ) in 1977. His pointed criticism was of SLFP policymakers who had ruined the economy which held much promise at the time of national independence. He had no good word for the SLFP or the SLPP.
A dispassionate viewer had to feel sorry for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s stoic behaviour in the front row of the House when all his political and economic beliefs were being torn to shreds by President RW, who stated clearly that our economic malaise was due to the policies followed by the SLFP and SLPP which were dominated by him and his kith and kin. In other words, RW and Harsha are on the same page when it com19es to saving our economy.
RW will need the support of the majority of SJBers to give effect to his proposals. Will Harsha, like a good party man, sacrifice his integrity and block the good and practical aspects of RW’s budgetary proposals from seeing the light of day? Or will he, together with a group of his party colleagues, defy the party whip and support the Budget proposals with the intention of taking the country, which has been ruined by the crackpot economics and corruption of Mahinda and his ilk, on a new path to rapid economic growth?