Following is an article appeared in the Island of 02.05.07. The views are entirely the writer`s. I have my own
by C. A. Chandraprema
The 14th death anniversary of President Premadasa fell yesterday. Many newspapers have carried appreciations of him written by his followers, for whom Premadasa could do no wrong. In this context, I thought it pertinent to pen a view from the other side of the barricades. In my view, the country is still suffering the consequences of the serious political mistakes he made. The first major political mistake he made was to send the India
n Peace Keeping Force back. The Indians were fighting the LTTE
at their own cost, and Premadasa put an end to it, and for the past 20 years, we have been suffering the consequences of that decision. The Indians don`t have to bother about human rights when they are suppressing rebellions, and their services should have been made use of. The other great mistake that he made was to cause a split in the UNP
as a consequence of which the party has been in the doldrums for the past 15 years.
Premadasa was a popular man when he was Prime Minister under J. R. Jayewardene, but after he became President, his personal popularity declined rapidly. The first thing that contributed to his decline was the policy of appeasement that he adopted towards both the JVP
and the LTTE. During his Presidential election campaign, not only did he go around the country saying that there was no proof to show that it was the JVP that was behind the killings in the country at that time, but actually went to the extent of releasing nearly 2,000 hard core JVPers immediately after he became President. Thereby, he added fresh impetus to southern terror. In fact, one of the things that historians such as K. M. De Silva have noted is that there was no political leadership at that time in the country for the war on terror - except what was provided by the late Mr. Ranjan Wijeratne.
On top of all that, came his policy of appeasement towards the LTTE. Just as he went around the country saying that the JVP was not responsible for the killings, he also went around the country telling the people what a strong organisation the LTTE was. He was seen as being accommodating towards terrorists, but harsh and strict to those under him. In last week`s Ravaya Victor Ivan says that the public service functioned better than at any time before or since during the Premadasa years because of the fear he instilled in people. When such a man follows a policy of appeasement towards terrorists, that gives people the impression that he was bullying the weak and bowing down to the strong - not a good image to have. In the conflict between President Premadasa and the Gamini Dissanayake-Lalith Athulathmudali duo, it was clearly the latter who won public sympathy, because their struggle was seen as being justified, and President Premadasa had created an environment in the country where opposition to him could thrive.
Premadasa is, in fact, a good example for all future politicians to study, so as not to repeat the mistakes he made. In a sense, Premadasa is a tragic figure of Macbethean proportions. In his willingness to go out of his way to do things for the people, such as building houses, improving roads and giving relief to low income families, he was unrivalled, not just in the sheer volume of work done, but in the personal interest he took in all his projects. One day, I was standing near the main gate of the Upali Group office complex at the Bloemendhal Road having a political discussion with a staunch supporter of the PA, and at one point, this gentleman pointed to the Sugathadasa Stadium and said, `Even if Chandrika
rules this country for 50 years, she will not be able to build one of these. We know that, yet we support her.` And sure enough, Chandrika ruled the country and retired, but she has not left much to talk about.
There was yet another top professional (once again, a staunch supporter of the PA), who told me that he visited Anuradhapura frequently and every time he went there, he invoked blessings on Premadasa because it was he who had improved the road network in the country. His housing schemes for low and middle income families have been an unrivalled addition to the housing stock in the country. Victor Ivan says that he laughed when President Premadasa started giving incentives for garment factories to be shifted to rural backwaters, but those factories have channelled a deal of money into the rural economy. The country is still suffering the consequences of the political mistakes that Premadasa made, but the people are also still reaping the benefits of the good work he did.
His hands-on approach to things stood him in good stead. He took a personal interest in the activities of the private sector and he got his Secretary to the Treasury Paskaralingam to meet regularly with business people and sort out whatever problems they may have with the administration. As a result, the entire business community was eating out of his hand. That was one solid bloc of support that Premadasa had until his demise. One would have thought that with the split in the UNP, the business community would switch their allegiance to Gamini and Lalith, who were closer to them in class terms and had a valid political case against President Premadasa. Despite the split in the UNP and the subsequent anti-Premadasa ferment in the country, the business community stood solidly behind Premadasa. This shows that the business community appreciated the personal interest he took in their affairs.
Premadasa was always a good economic manager. It was he who began privatising state owned enterprises - a project that J. R. Jayewardene did not venture into despite all his free market credentials. It was Premadasa who also liberalised foreign exchange restrictions - another field into which JRJ never ventured. Throughout the Jayewardene years, there was a very restrictive limit on the amount of foreign exchange that could be taken out of the country. Today`s relatively free exchange regime is a legacy of Premadasa. Premadasa`s finest hour with regard to economic management was the way he handled the economy in 1989, his first year in power. At the time he became President, the country was literally in flames, with the Sri Lankan army fighting it out with the JVP and the Indian Army fighting it out with the LTTE. Tea factories were being burnt on a daily basis by the JVP and there were frequent curfews imposed both by the government and the JVP.
There was no money in the country and I was told by a top public official, that the day to day needs of the various government departments was being met with money from the development lottery which was being shifted around. At a time like this, President Premadasa went around the country during the 1988 presidential campaign saying that he would introduce the Janasaviya scheme, which would be a combination of poor relief and micro enterprise promotion among the public. Premadasa told the people his `papol` story: Under the Janasaviya scheme, people would start growing papaw and that those who did not eat papaw would then start eating papaw. That was the Premadasa theory of raising living standards. We all laughed at this `papol` story and asked where Premadasa was going to find the money to implement Janasaviya in a situation where the JVP had virtually brought the country to a standstill.
But, to Premadasa`s credit, he started implementing Janasaviya even in a small way from his first year onwards. Despite the circumstances in the country, he never told his voters to `tighten their belts`. Premadasa was never a lazy man, and he would always find a way to get things done. When he was Prime Minister, he would borrow money from the Colombo Municipal Council for his Gam Udawa projects and repay the money when the next year`s budget allocation came. J. R. Jayewardene had got special approval of the cabinet for Premadasa to do this. He was adept at shifting money from one place to another and getting things done. In contrast to this, when the UNP came into power in 2001, they stopped all recruitment from the local government level upwards, and cut subsidies and funding for development work. This was called `financial discipline` and there was some logic in that argument.
Even without foreign aid, Sri Lanka still has a huge income. Our problem is that our expenditure is greater than our income. If expenditure can be curbed, then the budget deficit is reduced and the country is on an even keel. In the meantime, when young people ask for jobs, you simply tell them, `There is no money to recruit people and pay salaries, so please go away!` When farmers come to you and ask for subsidised fertiliser, you say simply, `There`s no money for subsidies!` When the destitute come asking for handouts you say `There is no money, please tighten your belts!` Any country in the world can become economically viable if they can persuade the poor and jobless to commit suicide. As Rajitha Senaratne once said, it will take more than 10 years for the people to forget the Wickremasinghe method of economic management. That kind of economic management does not need politicians, any clerk picked up from a bus stand is capable of doing that. In this respect, Premadasa really worked for the salary and perks he got.
It was our misfortune that he lost the plot in politics.