Economic Downturn Best For Political Reform

By Malladi Rama Rao
Indian bureaucracy retains the jest for springing surprises. A case in point is the treatment meted to Pirabhakaran’s ailing mother. She was deported soon after she landed in Tamilnadu from Malaysia on a medical visa. When the issue became a political football, she was allowed to come back but a number of dos and don’t are prescribed. Topping the list is the ban on visits to her hospital bed by the likes of V Gopalasamy, who, in the true tradition of the state, is a leader from the outside, his protestations not withstanding.

To what extent he could have made a political capital out of the visit is not germane to our discussion. These are the days of cellular telephones; land phones by the bed side have become relics of the past. And it means the street smart politician Gopalasamy will have no difficulty to have a word with the old lady and derive whatever mileage is at stake. Yes, he will not have the photo-op; he can afford to take the ‘miss’ in his stride. That is why the ‘surprise’ from the Indian bureaucracy misses the sting.

The renewed ban on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also falls in the same category. Like the speculation in the Lankan media and a section of Indian press that prospects of Tamil Nadu becoming the venue for Tigers’ revival had prompted the proscription for a further period of two years.

In his Heroes’ Day Speech of 2008, Prabhakaran ‘cordially’ requested the people of Tamilnadu to ‘take appropriate and positive measures to remove the ban which remains an impediment to an amicable relationship between India and our movement’. His wish remained unfulfilled. And, there is no possibility now of ‘Eelam campaign which turned to ashes in the Nandikadaal Lake being restored to life by the Tamil Nadu people’. Then, why the ban, one may ask. Well, it serves a purpose, legal and administrative.

The Tamil film industry is a powerful enterprise. It depends on the Tamil Diaspora for its box office collections. This is what had prompted the big daddies of Tamil film word to hit the streets in an expression of solidarity with SL Tamils from time to time in the past. And to the decision to give a miss to the Indian Film Industry’s show in Colombo. Maniratnams and Kamal Hasans will always be a bigger draw in Colombo than Salman Khans and Shahrukh Khans.

Mani Sir, as Maniratnam is addressed in the film fraternity, has invested heavily on Ravanan, his latest flick in three languages. As Shahrukh Khan’s recent tryst with his ‘My Name is Khan’ shows, a motley crowd is enough to spell disaster. So searching for ethnicity in Mani –Kamal speak (non-speak?) is like searching for a shade in a treeless Colombo avenue in the hot summer.

Historically speaking, Tamil Diaspora played a key role in the scheme of LTTE. There is no denying. Whether they stood by the Tigers out of love or fear is a much larger issue that only sociologists and political scientists can grapple with. Now that the Tigers are no longer there, there is no fun in still continuing with the old world view of these ethnic Lankan Tamils.
The Tamils had left the shores of the land of their parents and grand parents in search of an El’dorado for serenity and serendipity. All of them are not Raj Rajratnams. Before his great fall last fall, the Galleon Group founder’s net worth at $1.3 billion made him the 559th richest person in the world, according to Forbes Magazine. Many of the Tamil Diaspora are in a position to render unto the mother land their service in the way only an expatriate can do. Tapping their pockets, unlike approaching the IMF, entails no political price. It will only boost the Lanka scrip in value.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), whatever be its trappings, is the modern day Shylock. Its every dollar to a third world country with no big political voice brings miseries to the deprived in the country. The 10-day inspection visit of IMF mission has brought this reality in to sharp focus.

On the one hand the IMF team headed by Dr Bryan Aiken said they were ‘encouraged’ by the government’s planned measures to cut the budget deficit. On the other hand they said the IMF would continue to ‘withhold’ the third installment of its $US2.6 billion loan ‘until after the government delivers further spending cuts in its long-delayed 2010 budget’, now planned for June 29.

The austerity measures are not spelt out. But, going by the experience of several Asian and African countries, (lately European too – Greece has just taken a bail out), public spending will be slashed drastically, taxes will look northwards, and market forces will get a free run to the dismay of the toiling and sweating masses, who have been living to see the ushering in of a socialist democracy.

The Rajapaksa brothers should weigh the options carefully.

Fiscal deficit of 9.75 per cent and the public debt at 86 percent of GDP give number crunching high to Ajith Niward Cabrals and make the IMF programme appear as ‘the anchor in today’s day and age’. Such despair always has a rub off affect. But politicians are not economists; they are accountable to the people, who have reposed their faith in their leadership.

Restructuring, revamping, and reforming appear tantalizingly close to nirvana (like they did to India in 1991- the year when it had to mortgage its gold for a few million dollars in the land of material comfort). But, it is not nirvana per se- for the political master and the proletariat alike. Certainly, in these days, when the presiding deities in the land of opportunities have picked up the long forgotten Third Word rhetoric – job securities and protections at the market place.

So, instead of getting bogged down in the search for a Stephen Solarz DNA in the ICG report, the Rajapaksa brothers will do well to get down to governance of the country. Painting India as the villain pushing Colombo for the full execution 1987 Accord serves no good. Selling dreams and Chintanas are passé. It is time for action to achieve a quick turn around of the economy.

Instead of bending backward to satisfy the IMF with a subsidy less road map, energies should be diverted to win over the Tamil Diaspora with the big pockets and big seats of influence. Economic down turn is the best time to push ahead with political reforms. And to achieve political empowerment that enthuses the ethnic minorities at home and abroad.

Brand names matter little more so since devolution, like federalism, is a bad word in the Lankan lexicon, with sections equating devolution with lunacy. What matters is the end result – clarity of vision and capability to carry the marginalized sections into the mainstream.

Delays will lead to frittering away the gains of May 2009.

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Journalist, South Asian Analyst

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