In colloquial parlance the opening of a soda bottle is quite often compared to something that begins with a bang and slowly fizzles out into nothingness. In that sense, the soda bottle metaphor would be the most appropriate to describe the present state of the JVP in the UPFA government. On many a crucial issue the JVP would bang its fist, rant and rave throwing threats into the air about resigning from the Cabinet and leaving the government. But after the initial outbursts the JVP lions would turn out to be more tamer than purring kittens in the hands of President Chandrika Kumaratunga.
This was the case with several issues in the recent past, whether it is the CEB and CPC crises, the CWE issue and many more. Even most of the pet programmes of JVP Ministers too began like soda bottles and fizzled out without achieving much, like the Dahasak Wew project and the paddy purchasing programme which has run into a mess with farmers complaining that they are unable to sell the last season`s yield.
The JVP`s rhetoric on most occasions is based on utopian premises steeped in ultra-nationalist and pre-modern notions far removed from hard reality. Once faced with hard facts in the liberal economic setup of the modern globalized world order, they have to come down from the earlier stance. They had to dump the now proverbial slogan of removing the World Bank plug and anti-American rhetoric in this manner. The JVP`s lack of understanding of economic matters was very well displayed when they suggested to the donors to pay back foreign loans in Sri Lankan rupees and also when they charged that the depreciation of the rupee was due to a UNP conspiracy using Central Bank officials.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga had understood the JVP mindset very well and played her hand - although a poor one at that - in the best possible manner and it can now be said that she has gained the upper hand over her coalition partner, the JVP, who is more or less acting like a rival. This was very much reflected during the entire CEB restructuring crisis.
Despite blackout threats by the JVP-backed Electricity Board unions, the government did not have any option left other than to restructure the CEB to bail it out from the financial crisis it is facing at present. The government was also left with no other option but to obtain the Asian Development Bank loan of Rs. eight billion, with its precondition to restructure the board turning it into a public company. When the Cabinet Paper was initially presented by the President a month ago, it was shelved for the time being due to protests from the JVP Ministers and threats of sabotage by the unions. On that occasion too the JVP Ministers and its frontliner Wimal Weerawansa were given a dressing down by Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama, who explained the urgency on the part of the government to reform public institutions.
Hard pressed for cash, Amunugama was in the forefront urging CEB reforms, calling the CEB, CPC and the CTB dragons milking the treasury dry. The frustrations of Finance Minister Amunugama were quite evident when he lambasted the CEB workers at a meeting in Kandy over the weekend. An angry Amunugama called the CEB and CPC workers `Kalakanniyas` and rogues. He said there were money-eating mice in the CEB.
In the background of the CEB crisis, the President was also promoting the joint mechanism with the LTTE in a bid to breathe in some fresh air to the peace process, which had come to a grinding halt after the UPFA assumed office a year ago. The government has been often blamed for the no-go situation in the peace process with its lack of coherence on the matter. The President has made it clear that the government would sign the joint mechanism with the LTTE despite the JVP`s strong opposition to it. However with the present interest shown by the President on the joint mechanism it is most likely that an agreement on the matter would be signed between the government and the LTTE before the donor conference scheduled for May 16 and 17 in Kandy.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga`s latest campaign to push for the joint mechanism began with the meeting of the religious committee of the National Advisory Committee on Peace and Reconciliation on Tuesday, addressing religious leaders including Malwatta Mahanayaka Ven. Thibbotuwawe Sidhartha Sumangal Thera and Colombo`s Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera. The New Malwatta Chapter Mahanayaka Thera is seen by many as having an open approach to a negotiated settlement to the North-East crisis as opposed to the usual hard-line stance attributed to the Buddhist clergy on the issue. The President maintained that the joint mechanism with the LTTE, valid for a period of one year, was a come-down from the Tigers` earlier demands and could be used to bring the rebels into the democratic mainstream. Although the religious leaders requested the President to show the document before it was signed, the President replied it was not possible to do so and briefed them on the contents of the mechanism at a closed-door meeting.
On Wedenesday, the President briefed the Prime Minister on the joint mechanism at a one-to-one meeting at President`s House. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse had been completely left in the dark about the joint mechanism proposals, prompting him to make a statement to our sister newspaper the Daily Lankadeepa a week ago, saying that he did not even have an idea about what the joint mechanism was about. The Prime Minister made the statement after he was questioned by people in the South about the joint mechanism. Following the meeting with the Premier, the President met a delegation from the Muslim Peace Secretariat as well, where they raised Muslim concerns regarding the joint mechanism in the East.
With the two sensitive issues concerning the CEB and the joint mechanism being pushed by the President, the Cabinet meeting on Wednesday was bound to run into trouble. The meeting began without the President but later with the arrival of the President the two issues came to the fore. First the President started explaining as to why the joint mechanism with the LTTE should be signed and said there was no reason as to why it should be opposed. She said that it would not breach the country`s sovereignty and certain proposals of the LTTE that were detrimental to the country`s security had been left out.
Afterwards the President presented the Cabinet Paper on CEB reforms and said that the government would be able to obtain necessary funds with the approval of the Cabinet Paper, while mentioning that countries like India and China too had taken similar measures. At that moment JVP Minister Anura Kumara Dissanayake questioned whether the reforms were different. When Power and Energy Minister Susil Premajayantha replied that there were no changes, the JVP Ministers protested.
Explaining the reasons for the CEB reforms, Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama pointed out that restructuring the CEB was not privatisation and that they were only creating a public company enabling the government to raise the necessary funds needed to relieve the CEB of its excessive debts.
The Prime Minister, sensing there would not be a consensus reached on the issue, suggested that the Cabinet Paper be deferred for another occasion when the problems had been resolved.
However the arguments and counter-arguments between the JVP Ministers and the rest led by Saratha Amunugama and Susil Premajayantha continued for more than half an hour at which point the President put it to a vote. The JVP Ministers, sticking to their guns, said they opposed it and that they would rally the people against the restructuring process of the CEB and walked out of the Cabinet meeting.
The JVP Ministers just walked out of the Cabinet, which did not mean anything other than a simple protest. If they were truly against the reforms the JVP Ministers should have resigned from their posts, which did not happen. The Ministers have not said they would boycott Cabinet meetings in the future. If they do so it would be better for the President to get through anything she wants while the JVP keeps on supporting her government - more or less a blank check from the JVP to the President.
On the following day the JVP Ministers, holding a news conference in Parliament, again raised their voices against the CEB reforms, but assured that they would not leave the government. In the same vein, the CEB trade unions too who were bellowing at the top of their voices of `severe` trade union action unless the Cabinet Paper was withdrawn, finally came to a settlement on the matter at a meeting with the President on Thursday night. At the end, it was a big noise over nothing.
On the joint mechanism too the JVP`s action would be the same. The President will move ahead without the JVP`s consent. The President knows too well that the JVP, at the moment, would not and cannot leave the government. If the JVP upsets the government, the President at any moment can dissolve parliament and go for a fresh general election. The JVP`s number of seats are bound to be reduced and they would be in a dilemma whether to contest alone or as the UPFA. In such an eventuality, the odds would be in favour of the UNP. So, the bottom line is, the JVP will not leave the government.
However, continuing to run with the hare while hunting with the hound, the JVP will make noises without endangering the existence of the UPFA. Another such exercise is planned for May 10 with a protest against the joint mechanism. But the ultimate test for the JVP would be when the President signs the joint mechanism with the LTTE.