Sunday, June 16, 2024

While we wait

by malinga
June 2, 2024 1:10 am 0 comment 1.5K views

Sri Lanka is now substantially a country in waiting. There are no parallels. There are other countries in waiting, on the lookout for election results and elections that are poised to change the political landscape substantially.

Sri Lanka however is a nation in waiting for a cause. It’s also a nation in waiting for an outcome, before a still more definitive outcome. Will there be elections? Yes of course would be is the answer. But there is underlying suspense over that basic issue as well. The country is in a limbo as there is an uncertainty that’s tacitly perhaps being preferred by most, beneath their fondest wishes for radical change.

Some – with the stress on some – seem to prefer uncertainty because certainty may signal tectonic shifts, which may do damage to the social fabric. Most are apparently clamouring for elections. But they are also telling themselves they must be careful what they wish for.

A lot is in limbo. There are leaders in waiting who may in fact be waiting for Godot. It has never been quite like this before. There may be a democracy in limbo as well. But Sri Lankan democracy has been structurally malleable. J.R Jayewardene inflicted so many shape-shifts to that democratic structure that he left the democracy he had inherited quite unrecognisable from the one he bequeathed. That was quite the feat.

UNWILLING

But not content with that, his shape-shifting of the democratic apparatus took the form of redefining democracy on his own terms. He asked for a mandate for a long Parliament, and got one. It was not a brand of democracy that anyone was used to. But he was able to adduce an argument that it was democracy nevertheless.

Is the country facing a similar period of shape-shifting? At the time of writing, a UNP spokesperson has said the party would be happy with a two year postponement of elections by recourse to a Referendum.

Is this a feasible option for the current UNP as it was for the UNP led by J.R. Jayewardene? People may have their anxieties over what may be the outcome after an election in this country, but would they give voice to those anxieties by voting to postpone elections at a Referendum?

By all accounts the mood in the country is not that which prevailed under J.R. Jayewardene’s leadership of both the UNP and the nation. Those were heady times. Sri Lankans had not yet gone through the wringer of serial insecurity, as during the wars on two fronts with the LTTE and Wijeweera-led Southern insurgents. The economy hadn’t knuckled under repeated stresses and was on the contrary extremely buoyant, though only still growing very gradually.

Certainly it was not a country in waiting, at that time. When people are unsure what’s around the corner as they are now, the reactions are mostly mixed. That’s a reality most politicians on all sides of the divide are unwilling to come to terms with as we wait.

On the part of the conventional political parties, there is an apprehension that conventionally held elections may change the shape of everything. They may feel as if democracy itself is at risk, with elections held, ironically, and not without them. They are not sure that the type of radical change that may occur at an election would be sustainable in this country. So they are willing to experiment, at least with statements that are suggestive but likely will not be followed through, such as the desire for a Referendum.

The NPP types are the outliers. Obviously, they feel this is a time the country is in waiting simply because everyone is waiting for them to start governing. From their vantage, there is a limbo, but only because the conventional parties and systems are in their death throes and the nation is currently manifestly in transition.

But which mood is reflected on the ground? It’s hard to say as the people on the whole seem ambivalent. In sum, they recognise that they and the nation are in limbo and some would even be fond of staying there for an extended period.

It’s because in a state of limbo there is a defined ecosystem if you will, that favours survival. While people wait, they may want to make the best of difficult circumstances and could be risk averse. People under these circumstances expect that problems would be solved incrementally. They would think that even vexed problems could be solved on a staggered basis.

But if there is radical change on the other hand, vexed issues may be addressed all at once. We have never been there before. For instance, we as a polity never viewed things on the balance. We reevaluated the development initiatives that we had undertaken only because we had to go to the IMF.

We should have done these re-assessments on our own, but the problems were too far gone for that. If after all in India they are building highways for the average cost of 8 – 9 Indian crore per kilometre it means we could indeed entail a massive saving on our development and infrastructure projects, if we reassess our projects in the light of such reality.

Reassessment

Is any new Government willing to do a reassessment of project costs and make instant adjustments? It is not likely. Our commitments are in a way cast in concrete just like our infrastructure, and nobody will be able to extricate themselves from them in a hurry, even if they try.

How is it that in India they are able to build highways at such relatively lesser expense? There is no mystery there. They build them on their own while our highway systems have relied on so much foreign input due to lack of know-how, and inability to domestically tackle such large schemes by ourselves.

The savings we could entail in a way if we follow the Indian model of highway construction are phenomenal. That cost outlay seems to be substantially less than what we may be spending now for some projects.

But yet we can’t get to that place in a hurry, even if we have left everything in a limbo and development projects are so much in abeyance that parts of expressways are falling slack, even falling apart in some places.

We had an overpass crashing down recently for instance, and it was fortunate that it was not a functional road and nobody was using it at the time of the collapse, either as a highway or a roof above their heads, a la “Kelani Palama”.

People have a vague idea about state expenditure but their own expenditures for general upkeep are tangible in their heads. They are spending more than they used to due to inflation and they ask themselves whether change or radical change in governance could ameliorate these conditions. Millions of people think drastic change alone would address their economic concerns. But do a majority of people feel this way?

Not strangely, a significant sampling of the population would prefer the current limbo we are in. Nobody is sure if these super-cautious folk are in the majority or those who prefer drastic change at an election outweigh them in numbers. But whose voice is more powerful anyway? That of the change-agents, or those who prefer some sort of continuity? That’s a different calculation altogether.

Those who prefer the current limbo, and at least a new dispensation after elections that is not much different from what obtains today, may feel we can only cut our losses and carry on. They would feel a suture would be in favour of stability, whereas a complete cauterisation and surgery could kill the patient. They are making this calculation for themselves and not the country i.e if there is a patient in need of cure, they are that patient they’d think, and not the State which they feel would fend for itself one way or another.

In these circumstances of mixed aspirations, a babble of voices are being heard these days. On the surface at least there is nothing close to a unanimous response in the community to the immediate challenges and hurdles faced, including those of elections. As always, some voices may be heard louder than others. Only time can tell whose aspirations prevail, whenever we end this rather eerie game of ruminating while we wait.

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