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This is my Nation  


 

History set to repeat?
The government on Wednesday rushed through Parliament legislation known as the Revival of Underperforming and Underutilised Assets Bill - also referred to as the ‘Business Takeover Bill - amidst some protests but sans any great drama.
The Bill was passed by a majority of 76 votes but the opposition was understandably furious alleging that the new laws were aimed at victimising political opponents and rendering the business community compliant with the ruling party’s agenda through an unspoken threat of takeover.
A major issue came up for discussion was the listing of Sevanagala Sugar Company as a state controlled entity. The venture is owned by Daya Gamage who is the United National Party (UNP) strongman in the Ampara district. The company was making handsome profits in recent years.

While Gamage went public with his woes, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremasinghe held a discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa requesting him to remove the sugar producer from the takeover list. The President, who also met with business leaders, was however uncompromising.
The government defended its decision to takeover the Sevanagala Sugar Company stating that the company was operating outside its license. It also defended its decision to annex a handful of other profit making ventures citing various other reasons such as the non-payment of taxes.

It was also pointed out that many government enterprises - Sri Lankan Airlines, Mihin Air and the Ceylon Electricity Board among them were incurring losses amounting to billions of rupees. Hence the argument that loss making institutions should be taken over by the state did not ring true.
Another major complaint was that the Bill was fast tracked through Parliament in double quick time hardly making allowances for any discussion or debate. Even the mahanayake theras advised the government against this calling for more time to deliberate on the new laws.

The political implications of the Bill are now emerging: it is clear that for his second term in office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is keen on fashioning a unique course - even if it may at times appear to be at odds with the thinking of some of those in his own United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA). 
If the manner, in which, the President handled the Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra assassination caused some consternation for senior politicians in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), last week’s events relating to the new laws perturbed other allies in the Alliance.

Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which in the past has taken the moral high ground on many issues on which it had its policies and principles, was unhappy with the new laws and asked that they be studied further instead of rushing them through Parliament. At voting time, JHU MPs were absent.
The Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) did not publicly criticise the bill in any way, but it was clear that the party did not wish to be seen as supporting the bill. Instead of taking a stand on the issue, the JNP led by the usually omnipresent Minister Wimal Weerawansa, was also absent at the time of voting.
These are interesting developments because both the JHU and the JNP are seen as being more nationalist minded parties among the coalition partners of the UPFA. Yet, it is these two parties which appear to oppose the state takeover of private enterprisers - an ideological paradox! 

If it is assumed that these parties are indeed not ideologically opposed to the new laws, then their decision to withdraw from Parliament at voting time can only mean that they have grave concerns about the centralising of power within the UPFA among a selected inner circle.
From an opposition perspective, they were completely flummoxed by the astute political manoeuvring that went into passing these laws. They were unaware of the impending legislation and when it was announced as an ‘urgent Bill in the national interest’, it was simply too late.
The Bill had already been referred to the Supreme Court which determined that its provisions were not inconsistent with the Constitution. That meant, a simple majority in Parliament would suffice for its passage through the legislature.

All that the opposition could do in the circumstances was to file several fundamental rights applications - again in the Supreme Court. When the Bill was brought before Parliament, it took up the position that therefore it could not be debated, but this was overruled by Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa.
In the end, despite a heated debate in Parliament, the Bill sailed through. Sadly for the opposition, it lacked the capacity to launch any form of meaningful protest against the new laws, even allowing for the fact that the legislation was hurried through, with hardly a warning.
It will be recalled that only a few months ago, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was able to muster enough support to thwart a Bill that proposed the setting up of a private sector pension scheme. In this instance however, the JVP, riddled with divisions, was reduced to being a silent spectator.
The UNP’s protests came in the form of what has now become ‘usual’ for the party: its media briefing. While these receive their due amount of sound bytes, they do not fire the imagination of the masses - and are not a potent weapon in dealing with a government with a steamroller majority.
For old timers in the UNP who remember the party’s heyday while in the opposition-in the mid-seventies under J.R. Jayewardene, when Satyagraha was the order of the day, this must be a sad reflection of its current state of impotence.

The energies of the party stalwarts being already spent on fighting internal battles and leadership disputes, the ‘grand old party’ couldn’t even muster a ‘tooting horn’ campaign or a ‘coconut smashing’ protest let alone organise a mass scale sit in or a general strike; such was its state of apathy.
The events last week therefore could signal a strong government’s intentions of doing exactly what it wants to do, in terms of laws, policies and political strategy. Many well intentioned governments such as J.R. Jayewardene’s in the late seventies have begun this way, but have floundered later.
That though is not because the government itself was evil but because of the opposition of the day was too weak and ineffective to counter some of the more questionable actions of the then ruling party. Last week’s events may suggest that this aspect of our history could well repeat itself.