The tragedy of a ‘national’ budget

At the heart of the crossovers and political enticements that is taking the country by storm, there is what is called a ‘budget debate’. Nothing could be further from the truth. November is supposed to be a month of heightened legislative activity, where government members must justify their proposed statement of expenditure and income for the forthcoming year, amidst queries, legitimate challenges and disagreement from those seated in the opposition benches of parliament. We have seen far too little of it this past month and even less, in the week that just ended, ahead of tomorrow’s key budget vote that has become crucial for both the government and the main opposition. In fact, the budget per se has taken a distant second place to the sagas surrounding it, dusty and forgotten amidst the dramas that have shaken parliament over the last week.

It is a strange thing indeed, not to hear of progress on debates regarding the key areas of the budget as it happens every year. The defence budget, the President’s estimates, the costs incurred to sustain Mahinda Rajapaksa’s already massive, rapidly expanding cabinet and other crucial information has been lost in the noise and the public are left very much in the dark about how their tax money is to be spent in 2008. At best there are tiny news stories in the national media, almost always overshadowed by the far more interesting wheeler dealing that has come to mean more this year than the budget itself. While Sri Lankans may thrive on this kind of political enactments which spice up their otherwise gloomy, overburdened existence, it is also important to point out the downsides to being in the dark about the crucial twists and turns the nation’s economy will be taking over the next year, especially in light of gross mismanagement of fiscal matters and the overall negative economic impact of a return to war.

Keeping the public in the dark, or hoodwinking the masses with sugar coated bitter pills has been the modus operandi of successive governments in this country and the people’s gullibility and resultant apathy remains one of Sri Lanka’s greatest problems. If not knowing how the government is going to spend our money in the next year is not a serious problem for the citizenry, it certainly should be, if for nothing else, simply so that we know exactly how badly we’re being ripped off by the powers that be.

As for the politicians, busy cutting deals and playing hopscotch, it wouldn’t hurt to realise even occasionally, that there has to be a country left to play politics in and make some small effort to ensure it does not go down the path of no return. The government, in its last ditch attempt at survival has pulled out all stops to win the numbers battle in parliament. The main opposition UNP more desperate if anything, is hoping against hope that things will go its way instead of working to effect the necessary change. The JVP, so quick to spew rhetoric about the terrible state of affairs in the country, is likely to fold up at the last moment and take steps to protect the administration – even if that means voting for the budget. Caught between the political forces that care naught for the overall welfare of the state, the public must soldier on, without a rallying point, without voice and most of all, without leadership.

The ‘national’ budget has resulted in unprecedented divisiveness in the body politic, in terms of the Rajapaksa administration. For a country that is for all intents and purposes at war and is being compelled to wage war on so many other fronts, including human rights abuses and skyrocketing prices in essential items, a fractured polity makes everything infinitely worse.

The crossovers fiasco looks poised to continue until moments before the budget vote is taken at this rate. The tragedy here is that not a single crossover, apart from perhaps that of COPE Chairman Wijedasa Rajapakse, was motivated by noble causes or love for the country. The tragedy is that Sri Lankans have been unwise in choosing their representatives and therefore have been left leaderless today. The need of the hour is a leader who can unify the country, bring all forces together. It needs a leader who will prove genuine in his determination to end the north east conflict, uplift the economy and address the just grievances of the Tamil people. Sri Lanka needs leadership that will cut through party and factional politics, ethnicity and religion, a man or woman who will put Sri Lanka and our ‘Sri Lankanness’ at the very top of his priority list. Our tragedy is that there are no takers.