The UNP didn`t boycott this budget like they did Sarath Amunugama`s last effort; and for good reason. Mahinda Rajapakse had won the election and was fully entitled to hand round the goodies promised in his Chintanaya given that he has a strong mandate from the Sinhala Buddhist rural heartland, even if he did score a wafer-thin majority in the whole country thanks to an LTTE move on the political chessboard that belied the alleged Ali ? Koti deal. Last time round, the new president who was then the prime minister and the UPFA`s presidential candidate wanted the budget to further his election prospects. Amunugama, no doubt encouraged by the loku nona as the JVP was pleased to call the lady, was not going to play ball especially with regard to the fertilizer subsidy on the Chintanaya scale. So he`s left the so-called treasury bench in the House by the lake but fortunately retains important cabinet responsibilities for which he, unlike many of his colleagues both past and present, is well endowed.
For that we have to thank the new president who has an enormous talent to get on with everybody. He did not behead Amunugama though he took the finance ministry under his own wing. He didn`t even go the full distance with Anura Bandaranaike although baby Bandaranaike, as one of our columnists once called him, did not get the prime ministry for good and understandable reasons. Rajapakse is a man who can work with everybody and he`s already talking to the UNP in the form of Prof. G.L. Pieris, who contrary to some reports is not going to do what headline writer love to describe as ``the jump.`` Pieris has had a long conversation with Rajapakse, importantly at the president`s initiation, with the full blessings of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, and had briefed both Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya on what transpired. A respected commentator who has served as a diplomat and held senior positions in the foreign ministry on this page makes the very valid point that any agreement with the LTTE cannot be restricted to the UPFA and the Tigers alone and urges that there must be UNP input. He has specifically named Pieris, Milinda Moragoda and of course Wickremesinghe in this regard.
The budget held no surprises. It was populist as widely predicted and offered much to rural people. Some approving noises have been made by business leaders who cannot be expected to do otherwise given that a new president most of them did not back has been elected. But there are some very pertinent questions that arise from the figures that have been presented in the budget. One such arises from the promises to tsunami orphans and children schooling in underprivileged areas which an economic analyst writing in this page has raised. Ex facie something appears to be seriously wrong with the numbers presented in the budget speech and it is imperative that the finance ministry quickly responds to these matters. It is the lot of the Sri Lankan people that our politicians and bureaucrats tend to ignore uncomfortable questions raised in the press. They act on the premise that a stony silence will eventually result in such matters being forgotten. We must admit that the press itself is at fault on this score because we do not persistently demand the answers and that helps those who want to evade that responsibility.
Two other columnists, Mahoshada in this section of the paper and former Civil Servant R.M.B. Senanayake who contributes a column to our business pages have also raised questions of the workability of the budget. Mahoshada pertinently asks ``Who gains, who pays and will it work?`` As cynical as it may sound, the short answer to ``Who gains?`` is ``the politician.`` It is he/she who, whatever party or government he belongs to, has sought to win votes for himself/herself by mis-utilizing the ever-diminishing resources of the country by promising many handouts and delivering few. ``Who pays?`` One word will suffice to answer that question - ``everybody.`` Many of the more affluent in our society who grudgingly pay income tax suffer the delusion that they are the country`s only taxpayers. They most certainly are not. As one of Sri Lanka`s best known editors once said, ``you`re paying taxes every time you flush the toilet.`` Taxes are ubiquitous and omnipresent. The rich and poor alike are taxed on the purchase of every good and service however big or small. Because the poor constitute the multitude and the rich the minority, poor people pay more taxes they cannot afford than do the affluent segments of society who can afford their taxes. So everybody will pay for the goodies that the budget promises to hand around with gay abandon in terms of inflation, eroded savings and what have you. Whether the economy, without recourse to the printing press, will be able to deliver is another matter which the three columnists (fussbudget is the third) deal with in this issue.
These are yet early days and the flush of victory has not yet dimmed despite the LTTE`s best efforts. So the UNP will not be voting against the budget although Mr. Bandula Gunawardene who was its finance-minister-in-waiting had in his speech on the first day of the budget debate given a number of reasons on why it should. Nobody wants to be a spoilsport so the green party, like the tortoise, will withdraw its head into its shell, bide its time and see where we are headed at least in the short term. The president has cannily sugar coated the pill the JVP would wish him to administer the rich by installing as his advisor Ronnie de Mel (with an office in the Treasury), who once famously admitted that the Central Bank ``massages some figures.`` We wonder what de Mel will say of the 7.3% (of GDP) budget deficit proclaimed in Thursday`s speech. That was pre-tsunami. Post-tsunami it will be 9.1%. If that wasn`t ``massaging`` anybody would be hard pressed to say what it is.