As the National Unity government completed two years in office, there was much focus on what it had achieved and where critics had said it had been found wanting. Whatever its accomplishments, it surely has been lacking in its ability to communicate these to the masses – and that is an issue on which the government must take a long, hard look at.
Consider for instance, two development projects that were promoted by the government recently: the automobile assembly plant in the Kurunegala district and the Hambantota Industrial Zone. Both these projects, worthy as they are, ran into a storm of controversy and probably didn’t yield much goodwill for the government.
The automobile plant was an election promise of the government. Even before it began, the opposition was pooh-poohing the concept and claiming that Volkswagen would never set up a plant in Sri Lanka. Then, that company itself ran into some difficulties after having been found guilty of having falsified results of emission tests, resulting in massive financial liabilities.
At that stage, the government should have taken the initiative to alert the public of the status of the project and the fact that another, different company would take over. That was not done and it would prove to be a costly lapse.
When the factory was opened by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a private television channel created mischief by contacting Volkswagen’s head office which categorically declared that it had no plans to set up an assembly plant in Sri Lanka.
It was left to the Prime Minister to put the record straight. He had to clarify the issue and even though he did so, by then the damage had been done. The opposition was claiming that this was a cover up and unfortunately for the government, there will be people who believe that story.
The opening of the Hambantota industrial zone was a similar fiasco. This was a brainchild of the previous government. It was always bound to be a contentious issue because the expenses incurred at Hambantota were criticised by political parties during their election campaign against the previous regime.
Precisely for that reason, the government should have made it very clear to all concerned, including the people living in the region as well as the general public, what its plans were and why it was doing what it was doing. After all, it could not let billions of rupees invested in infrastructure development in the region lie idle simply because it was initiated by another political party.
In fact, that was just what the government was trying to do: convert the colossal expenses of the previous regime into something worthwhile by creating an industrial zone that would yield a return on the investments made so far.
Unfortunately though, the message did not appear to have reached the masses and fuelled by an opportunistic opposition, the controversy continued. There were questions as to whether Hambantota was ‘sold’ to the Chinese and about the extent of land being made available to them.
Therefore, when the project was inaugurated last week, the government ran into a storm of protest which then turned ugly with some being injured and needing hospitalisation. The only consolation was that no one was fatally hurt.
In hindsight, the opposition has got away, criticising the government for continuing a project that the opposition itself had initiated when it was in power – that is the ridiculous extent to which the government has been found wanting, not in its performance but in communicating what it is doing to the general public!
In this day and age, social media is all powerful, we are in a 24-hour news cycle and anyone with a smartphone and access to the internet can create news. So, communication is absolutely vital for a government, if it wishes to get its viewpoint across to the people. Otherwise, the opposition can do so far more effectively using these tools.
So, instead of shooting the messenger, the government must learn to use it well, or else all its efforts will be in vain.