By Vishvanath

It is now clear that the proposed debate between SJB Leader Sajith Premadasa and his JVP/NPP counterpart, Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD), is a nonstarter in spite of streams of rhetoric let out by both sides frequently. On Thursday (June 06), the state-owned ITN hosted what it had advertised as a debate between Premadasa and AKD. The SJB reportedly informed ITN that its leader would not take part in the programme as he wanted a debate between the economic councils of the two parties to be held first. 

AKD however turned up, and what was to be a debate eventually became an interview. When ITN offered to reschedule the debate, AKD categorically stated that he had given up the idea of having a debate with Premadasa, who had skipped Thursday’s programme. He insisted that it was between the presidential candidates of the two parties that a debate had to be held. On Saturday (08), Premadasa said he and his economic council were ready for debates with AKD and their JVP/NPP counterparts.

Speaking in the parliament on Friday, SJB MP Nalin Bandara tore into both ITN and the JVP/NPP for ‘having enacted a cheap political drama’ the previous day. He claimed that the JVP/NPP and the government had conspired to discredit Premadasa, but AKD had been badly exposed for his links to the government in the process. 

The JVP/NPP has said Premadasa lacks the courage to face its leader in a television debate. Thus, the SJB and the JVP/NPP will now debate whether Thursday’s ITN programme was a conspiracy against Premadasa or a comedown for him, with neither party, true to form, conceding defeat.

The ITN interview with AKD lasted for more than two hours and twenty minutes. Basically, the JVP/NPP leader did not say much that could be considered new, but the interview was not without any takeaways.

Asked why he had not accepted an opportunity that presented itself for him to be the Prime Minister in 2022 and help resolve the economic crisis then, AKD denied the SLPP’s claim that the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had offered him the premiership during the Aragalaya protest. “Do you think the Rajapaksa family would ever have handed over the government to someone like me?” he asked the ITN interviewer rhetorically (in Sinhala). He said he had written to President Rajapaksa, on May 13, 2022, expressing his desire to take over the premiership albeit conditionally; he should be allowed to appoint the MPs of his choice to the Cabinet and an election would have to be held after six months to give the people an opportunity to elect a government. His letter had gone unheeded, he said.

AKD admitted that the IMF bailout programme was a fait accompli and he would adhere to it in case of becoming the President. There had been some alternative ways of resolving the crisis, but the government had in its wisdom opted for an IMF bailout, he said. As a result, assistance from China, India and Japan had now been brought under the IMF programme, he argued. However, the general consensus is that when the government ran out of foreign exchange reserves in 2022, no country offered to straighten up the economy; they only granted some assistance pending an IMF intervention.

When AKD was asked how he proposed to resolve the economic crisis, he said the state revenue had to be increased substantially by streamlining the collection of taxes and import duties. He said the PAYE (Pay as You Earn) tax could be reduced if the tax net was cast wide as what the IMF expected Sri Lanka to do was to increase the tax revenue and not to jack up particular taxes. Corruption and waste had to be eliminated for the economy to be revived, he said. This is what the IMF, too, has recommended, but the question is whether these goals will be attainable anytime soon and whether they alone will help resolve the multifactorial economic crisis. Political parties have promised to streamline state revenue collection and eliminate corruption and waste during the past several decades, but thesegoals are far from achieved due to lack of political will on successive governments, resistance from public officials and practical difficulties. In fact, that was one of the main promises of Maithripala Sirisena, who became President with the help of the UNP, the TNA, the JVP, etc., in 2015.

AKD also pledged to usher in a new political culture and install a meritocracy. He said those who were in the public service had not been born corrupt, and they emulated the political authority, which was corrupt. If politicians led by example, officials would fall in line, he said. This argument is not devoid of some merit, but reforming the public service is bound to be far more difficult than expected for any future government. The task of making politicians uphold integrity and accountability will be even more uphill.

The JVP/NPP has come under heavy criticism for proposingto enable the people to exercise their judicial power at the village level. AKD said his party did not seek to empower villagers to function as judges, and what it intended to do instead was to bring the judicial process closer to the people. He said he saw nothing wrong with that proposal, which, he claimed, had been distorted by his political enemies to discredit the NPP. He however refused to be drawn on what the JVP had done in the late 1980s, when it held kangaroo trials and had its opponents executed in villages. He only said that issue had to be discussed separately.

How can the JVP reconcile its Marxist ideology with the adoption of open market economic policies, which its founder Rohana Wijeweera rejected? This question was put to AKD, and his answer was that Marxism allowed its adherent leeway for adapting to emerging situations. Even Wijeweera, had stressed the need for change while making his last speech on television moments before his extrajudicial execution, AKD said, noting that times had changed since the era of a bipolar world, and the Marxist movements had to adapt accordingly.

In answer to a question from his interviewer, AKD repeated the JVP’s pledge to abolish the executive presidency. He claimed everyone who had wielded it had turned out to be rogues. Sri Lankan leaders lacked maturity to hold such a powerful position without losing their heads, he claimed. He however said the abolition of the executive presidency was not something that could be done in a hurry, and he would do away with it before the end of his first term. This promise is not different from the ones that presidential candidates have made over the years.

AKD basically outlined the JVP/NPP economic plan in Thursday’s interview, and now his opponents can examine it andpick holes in it. The SJB seems to have already done so. This may be the reason why SJB Leader Premadasa has dared AKD to have a debate with him.


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