Tamil National Alliance’s Critique on Budget 2017- Time to Introspect for the Opposition Party
Anushree Ghisad

Sri Lanka Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake presented the first reading of the Budget 2017 on November 10. The second reading debate and committee stage debate are scheduled to be held within 26 days in the months of November and December. In the light of the many economic challenges Sri Lanka is currently faced with, the Budget 2017 remains vital in outlining the Government’s plans for the next year and play an important role in regaining public confidence (or at least diminishing the negatives) in the government’s policies. Overall, the Government has allocated over Rs. 1,819 billion for 2017. While the total current expenditure is placed at Rs. 1,208 billion and total capital expenditure at Rs. 610 billion,1 Government has increased several taxes to raise revenue. The overall budgetary deficit has been reduced from Rs. 670 billion in the previous year to Rs. 625 billion. Consequently, the percentage of budgetary deficit to GDP ratio is kept at 4.6 percent in 2017 estimates as against 5.4 percent in budget 2016.2

As expected, the budget proposals earned several accolades as well as criticism from within the government and outside it. Ceylon Chamber of Commerce hailed the moves to cut deficit and provide new capital incentives for investment. But various political parties, including the ones in ruling coalition, were quick and upfront in criticizing the government. Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) labeled it as a ‘frugal budget’ which would shrink the economic process instead of expanding it. It pointed out that even though the government expected an economic growth of 7 per cent, it had not formulated any action plan to achieve that target.3 In fact The Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President and current MP Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) decided to vote against the Budget 2017. While MR cited that that the budget had nothing substantial to offer the public, JVP went a step further, describing it as an anti-people budget based on the conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund.4

While most of the criticism from different political quarters underlined the perceived negative repercussions of the budgetary provisions, what appeared odd was the response of Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which diluted the role of constructive opposition by wearing a hat of ‘Tamil only party’. TNA, in its critique on the National Unity Government’s budget for 2017 while rightly pointing at some of the major issues, has tried to link the budgetary provisions with the reconciliation process, focusing mainly on development in the Northern Province. Along with other scathing observations, TNA MP and spokesperson M.A. Sumanthiran noted that ‘absence of consultation with TNA is reflected in the lack of concern for reconciliation in the budget.’ He criticized several infrastructure initiatives in the Northern Province on various grounds and cautioned, ‘we cannot afford another social upheaval as a result of social inequalities.’ One of the criticisms of TNA was that the Finance Minister had not consulted representatives of the people of the North and East when budgetary proposals were drafted. Similarly, TNA has also raised the demand for a separate budget head for Tamils even though the national budget is meant for entire country.

Being a national opposition party, TNA is expected to articulate interests of all Sri Lankans including the Tamil citizens. By conspicuously imparting Tamil angle to almost every criticism on the budget, TNA was risking to lose public credibility as ‘National Opposition Party’ which, in turn, would legitimize Joint Opposition’s (JO) claim as the only ‘Sinhala Opposition’. Hence, however rational and just criticism TNA might come up with, it will lose its credentials as yet another attempt to whip regional sentiments. Sumanthiran’s contention that the neglected sectors of agriculture, fisheries and animal husbandry, which are the main livelihoods of ‘our people’, could have made greater impact had he addressed the concerns of all Sri Lankan citizens instead of ‘his own people’. Because agriculture is the most important source of employment and livelihood for the majority of Sri Lankan work force and the fisheries sector provide about 540,000 direct and indirect employment opportunities to all Sri Lankans which includes all ethnicities, any budgetary deduction in these critical sector is bound to affect all Lankans alike. Hence the criticism on this issue ought to have been objective, rational encompassing all Sri Lankans.

Observers point out that almost two years past the ‘silent revolution’ of January 8, 2015 and over one year post parliamentary elections, it is time for TNA to assess its role, relevance and responsibilities as a national opposition. By painting a gloomy picture of current political dispensation which is likely to be bought at its face value by the Tamil diaspora, TNA is rendering great disservice to Tamil interests by multiplying the obstacles for the Unity Government. The present political dispensation is far more committed and more action oriented while keeping up with the promise of justice and reconciliation as compared to the former regime. If opposition turns the Unity Government against it, then what plausible options have they been left with? That doesn’t mean toeing the line of government but going overboard with unnecessary criticism without introspection can weaken the case for the ruling coalition.

It is further mentioned that for three consecutive years, TNA government in the Northern Provincial Council has not fully utilized funds already allocated, with staggering underutilization at 38% of the funds allocated for 2015 till the month of October. This claim by Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) has neither been contested by the TNA leadership nor did it bother to give reasons for the underutilization of funds. Thus, the accusation against the Union government for scant disregard for basic needs of people is being characterized as reckless since TNA cannot escape its own responsibilities in not providing social infrastructure to people despite the availability of funds. This is where TNA’s allegations that the proposed $6.7 million vertical building project in Jaffna and Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Vavuniya will encourage large scale business and not meet the needs of local people, stands contradicted, as meeting the needs of locals is as much a responsibility of Union as that of provincial council. Notwithstanding some of the pertinent criticism, this stark contradiction between TNA’s demands from Union and its lack of action in Provincial Council set up, tends to discredit its entire budgetary criticism as mere rhetoric.

In context of the current state of affairs within TNA, it is aptly observed by N. Sathiya Moorthy, that ‘TNA cannot ask the majority Sinhala Buddhist polity to unite in the Tamil’s cause for political equality and equity as the case may be, and not unite all Tamil polity and society from within.’ All the four political parties constituting the Tamil Alliance are not on the same page on many issues and the widening schism between R. Sampansthan and C.V. Wigneswaran has become highly obvious. TNA’s failure to provide a single voice for Tamils and trying to hijack the larger Tamil welfare cause by Jaffna dominated northern political elites, puts a big question mark on TNA’s standing as the sole champion for Tamils.

In the context of the budget, TNA has taken exception to the ‘grossly inadequate’ allocation of Rs. 180 million for reconciliation work. However, it is pointed out that mere budgetary allocations cannot be the yardstick to measure extent of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a non-tangible non-mechanical process whose success cannot be quantified. It requires a long term commitment to revamp the structural flaws and political will to establish truth and ensure justice; something that goes beyond budgetary allocation. The Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government might have been slow on its delivery but it is widely agreed that its commitment to reconciliation cannot be questioned even by their staunchest critics. At this juncture, it is moral obligation of all moderate forces to strive to create an atmosphere wherein notions augmenting alienation, fear psychosis and identity crisis are given a firm blow.

M.A. Sumanthiran pointed that ‘we cannot afford another upheaval as a result of social inequalities’, but his detractors counter this by asking, can Sri Lanka afford any other upheaval steaming from perceived communal disharmony? All political parties are well aware that this budget was crafted under tremendous external pressure, given the bad shape of the Lankan economy and the urgency of fiscal consolidation as per the IMF conditionality. Thus it won’t be a bad idea for all political parties including the TNA to pull back a bit, fix the problems within, fulfill their own electoral mandate first and weigh in their actions in this light. It is the need of time to strengthen the hands of the Unity Government by acknowledging their merits and constructively criticizing demerits for the sake of national development. TNA would indeed be welcomed by all sections of society if it can effectively articulate grievances of all Sri Lankan citizens by participating actively at national level as a mature national opposition.

Endnotes

  1. ‘Budget 2017: Education Down, President’s Expenditure Up’, CassendraDoole, roar.lk, November 8, 2016

    http://roar.lk/reports/budget-2017-education-presidents-expenditure/
  2. Sri Lanka 2017 complete budget report, ColomboPage, November 10, 2016

    http://www.treasury.gov.lk/documents/10181/28027/Budget+Speech+2017/a092...
  3. ‘Budget 2017 will shrink, not expand the economy :JHU’, Lankanewspaper.com, November 17, 2016.

    http://www.lankanewspapers.com/news/2016/11/100087.html
  4. ‘JO, JVP to vote against budget 2017’, November 12, 2016

    http://athavaneng.com/?p=262604

Published Date: 13th December 2016, Image Source: http://english.reporter.lk

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