Ultra-Nationalist Propaganda And Running Effective Governance
The government has faced severe backlash after the Finance Ministry announced the first Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) secured by the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa administration, which was the USD 250 million mixed development project for the construction of a 30-storey commercial tower, which will include 700 new residencies as well as facilities for retail and food outlets.
The investment will be made on a plot of state-owned property located between the Beira Lake and Shangri-La Hotel, on Baladaksha Mawatha, at the heart of Sri Lanka’s commercial capital.
According to the Finance Minister, now headed by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the land for the project will be leased out to a Singaporean company, Perennial Real Estate Holdings Ltd., with the government receiving USD $ 43 million in exchange.
How did this seemingly innocuous project plunge the government into an embarrassing situation? This is due to the opportunistic and duplicitous manner in which the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has approached the project since 2018.
The project was first pursued by the UNP-led administration in 2018 and that point the SLPP was up in arms against the deal with their trademark patriotic and ultra-nationalist rhetoric.
Addressing a press conference, MP Kanchana Wijesekera, now a State Minister in the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa government, said the objective of the UNP was to hand over the state-owned land to the Singaporean company Perennial Real Estate Holdings Ltd.
Wijesekera went on to say that the state valuation for this land was Rs 12.5 million per perch and if the government called for tenders to lease out this land, they would be able to get a better price.
It is obvious that Wijesekera, a relatively junior member in the Rajapaksa camp, convened the press conference at the behest of his party seniors. This reflected that the SLPP, led in de facto by Mahinda Rajapaksa at the time, was fundamentally opposed to the deal.
But in a strange twist to the plot, it was the same project the SLPP-led government approved as the first FDI project secured by the new administration. Wijesekera, a staunch critic of the deal when it was first mooted, is now stoically silent.
The SLPP patriotic rhetoric has disappeared into thin air. An investment that was deemed “fundamentally wrong” under the previous government has suddenly become a “prize catch”.
This amply demonstrates the political opportunism on the part of the SLPP, which carried out a deeply divisive and polarizing campaign in the run-up to the last Presidential election.
The same trend could be seen when some prominent members of the government adopted an equally duplicitous stance on the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) pact.
MP Udaya Gammanpila, a vociferous critic of the MCC pact when he was in the opposition, stated at a recent press conference that 70% of the agreement was positive.
After Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s ascension to power, none of the ruling party MPs dared to criticize the MCC agreement, strongly indicating that the government had no qualms about bending over backwards to secure the USD 480 million grant.
Initially, the government talked about revisiting the lease agreement with China on the Hambantota Port claiming some of its clauses were detrimental to Sri Lanka’s national interests.
However, during his meeting with members of the Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) of Sri Lanka, President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa took an about-turn and said there was “nothing wrong” with the agreement.
It is now becoming increasingly clear that the SLPP’s patriotic and ultra-nationalist rhetoric is rapidly losing relevance in the face of political realities. The emerging middle class and “floating voters”, who were swayed by the SLPP’s ultra-nationalist propaganda at the election, are coming to the realization that they were duped.
Their disillusionment will spell doom for the government in the long run. Although it is easy to ride a populist wave and grab power, it is an insurmountable task to keep pandering to the populist-nationalist sentiments while running an effective government. My understanding is that the current government will learn this invaluable lesson the hard way.