by Uditha Devapriya
Advocata Institute’s “A Framework for Economic Recovery” is both comprehensive and succinct. A response to the spiralling crisis in Sri Lanka, its publication has been well timed. Striking a realistic and pragmatic note, it foretells the worst for the country, unless certain urgent reforms are implemented. What it admits at the beginning is that the pandemic only highlighted the need for such reforms; the problems they seek to resolve have been in the offing since independence. If the present government is to address them, it should address two concerns: its fiscal and external current account deficits.
The Framework is in two parts. In the first, titled “Macroeconomic Stabilisation”, its authors propose six reforms based on the six pillars of the IMF’s Extended Fund Facility programme: fiscal consolidation, revenue mobilisation, public sector reforms, reforms of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), monetary policy effectiveness and exchange rate flexibility, and trade and investment. These reform proposals reflect Advocata’s abiding belief that trade, not manufacturing and production, is what will reverse Sri Lanka’s diminishing economic fortunes. Outlining six options for the Sri Lankan government, the authors recommend a debt restructuring strategy, which requires going to the IMF. For Advocata, all other cards on the table, including sovereign default and debt monetisation, remain untenable and inadvisable.
Yet going to the IMF means enacting certain important, far-reaching changes. These the Framework delves into in the second section, titled “Structural Reforms for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth.” The authors propose five reforms: improving Sri Lanka’s Doing Business Environment and global competitiveness, increasing access to land, making labour markets more open and flexible, building human capital through health and education reforms, and developing infrastructure through, inter alia, public-private partnerships. If these proposals are not fast-tracked, we are told, Sri Lanka will keep on consuming more than what it earns and produces. The authors mention 16 IMF programmes we have gone through over 50 years, even though they don’t clarify whether these resolved problems so well that we do not have to go for a 17th. But their message is clear: to the IMF we must go.
Among elite political circles, going to the IMF has become a mantra of the hour. To quote Devaka Gunawardena, there is in general an “unshakeable belief” that doing so will provide “a pathway for Sri Lanka out of crisis.” Undergirding this sentiment, obviously, has been the economic woes of the country. The statistics tell us perhaps half the story, but they do paint a dire picture: on nearly every front, from unemployment to inflation to foreign reserves, Sri Lanka faces a reckoning in the not-so distant future. While the Governor of the Central Bank has repeatedly assured both locals and foreign investors, most recently via an interview with Bloomberg, that the country faces no imminent risk of default and hence will not resort to a debt restructuring programme, this has done little to reassure his critics. In the face of what many consider a deeply unpopular administration, such optimistic predictions continue to be met with scepticism. In short, people are angry, and want a way out.
Opinion regarding the IMF option remains divided, though economists tend to favour it. While Devaka Gunawardena’s intervention (published by the Social Scientists’ Association) does show that civil society views this option critically, elite MPs and policymakers continue to promote it. Their rationale is that we don’t have a choice: to handle economic woes, we need to go for the kill by way of fiscal consolidation. Partly because these policymakers are in a majority, until recently next to no debates regarding this cropped up. Gunawardena’s critique was crucial, in that sense, because it enabled such debates: where once arid winds blew, now a thriving dialogue ensues. Although these remain limited to the English media, there are signs that the Sinhala media is picking them up. What used to be a monologue has thus turned into a conversation, with various stakeholders pitching in.
These debates have entered the political field as well. To say the lines are drawn between the Opposition and the government, with the former for and the latter against the IMF line, though, would be to simplify a complex political issue: the most crucial lines of debate have crept up, not between the SJB and the SLPP, but within the SJB itself.
Hence while the likes of Harsha de Silva advocate Advocata’s proposals, other SJB MPs have stopped short of endorsing those proposals, suggesting in their place welfarist measures like controlling food prices and clamping down on private mafias. In fact the latter MPs seem to resemble their counterparts from the NPP and the FSP, who have highlighted the inexorable contrasts of poverty and affluence that the pandemic has thrown up. Such divisions have in turn opened up rifts within the SJB, between its right and left wings.
Advocata’s point about the futility of denying the crisis is, all things considered, correct: in the absence of an alternative, we may run out of alternatives. But what of the solutions it prescribes? The Framework projects an almost Panglossian belief in the private sector: its whole focus is on tapping the potential of the market. This is a line that has been touted by previous administrations; to a certain extent, even by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s. Indeed, if faith in the efficiency of the market can be considered a good yardstick for the prospects of the economy, those prospects would have improved a long time ago. That they have not, so far, implies that such assumptions and paradigms are not beyond critique.
Perhaps the biggest critique to be made of the Framework is that it reduces the crisis we’re going through to orthodox theory. In saying this, I am not arguing that we should ignore or forego on economic imperatives. Far from it: any way out for the country must be framed with due regard to those imperatives, appealing to reason, not rhetoric.
However, in asserting that we need to liberate the market, it rationalises the crisis we’re in as a failure of the public sector, and neglects every other consideration. What are the social consequences of its proposals? What would, for instance, its suggestion that we “liberalise” the labour market by making it easier for employers to fire workers amount to in the face of unemployment and mass social discontent? Orthodox theory suggests that, in the absence of restraints, the market will adjust and unemployment will resolve itself. But has this been the experience of countries that have dabbled in structural reforms?
Orthodox theory also suggests, or implies, a separation between politics and economics. That is why free market advocates deplore this government’s authoritarianism, yet hail the J. R. Jayewardene administration’s economic reforms as having liberalised and rescued the country. Here, human rights NGOs and advocacy groups have been more prescient than the neoliberal right in pinpointing the link between those reforms and the political tensions they generated. It remains to be seen what advocates of free markets would have suggested when the Jayewardene government was trying to tackle working class discontent in the face of welfare cuts and rising costs of living. Perhaps they would have remained quiet over that administration’s crackdowns on trade unions and its proscription of the Left: actions which contributed to the escalation of the war. Yet to side-step these is to ignore the link between politics and economics. What purpose does that serve?
Consider another of the Framework’s proposals: SOE reforms. Neoclassical theory argues that, as Advocata notes, SOEs place “a significant burden on public finances and are a major source of inefficiency in the economy.” As far as neoliberal theory is concerned, the solution seems reasonable enough: restructure, deregulate, and divest. But the importance of SOEs goes beyond imperatives of costs and revenues: in certain regions in the country, they have not just become a source of employment, but also facilitated linkages with the fabric of their societies and the livelihoods of their people. Privatising these outfits without accounting for such linkages would generate far-reaching externalities for those regions.
In leaving the matter of managing these ruptures to the State, neoliberal policymakers give carte-blanche to authoritarian regimes to exercise impunity in the interests of capital. In the face of the worst health crisis we have seen in decades, this could in all likelihood facilitate authoritarianism of a sort surpassing even the Jayewardene regime. What is ironic is that in light of such paradoxes, no less than the logic of neoliberalism turns in on itself. Put in other words, these reforms tend to lead away, not towards, their intended outcomes.
Take a very simple proposition: that in order to boost exports, we should allow the value of the rupee to come down. On the face of it, this seems clear enough. But as Jeevan Kelum notes in an analysis of Sri Lanka’s tea sector, rupee depreciation has not boosted exports. Au contraire, while tea export volumes have increased, value added as a percentage of GDP has actually declined; plantation companies bemoaning the decision to mandate a rise in wages have, going by this, not delivered. Kelum’s argument that reforms are needed in the private sector, involving investments in technology, might be at odds with the neoliberal solution of retrenchment and divestment in the public sector, but it holds up.
Economic discussions in Sri Lanka has for so long been dominated by neoliberal theorists and utopian populists. The conventional view is that the latter appeal not to reason, but to rhetoric. This may fit in neatly with the distinction that an anthropologist drew between the “arthika” thrust of the UNP and the “jathika” thrust of the UPFA at the presidential election in 2005. Yet as the last 40 or so years have shown well enough, there has been a reluctance to engage with the logic of their reasoning by neoliberals as well.
In claiming the market as the epicentre of society, elite policymakers have both dislodged the State from its place in that society and granted it carte blanche to deploy untrammelled power in the interests of corporate bosses. Hence, their prescriptions, though undergirding an urgent need to chart a way out of the crisis, will only lead to tensions and ruptures. With its history of suppressing dissent, the Sri Lankan State, of whatever political persuasion, will likely wield its baton against workers protesting those ruptures. What we need, then, is not so much an alternative to what we have, as an alternative to what is proposed.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The rights we want
by Uditha Devapriya
Among Sri Lanka’s largely idealistic middle-class, there is an almost foolishly optimistic belief in the necessity of political reforms for much desired change. These reforms are, more often than not, framed in terms of constitutional rights, duties, checks, and balances. This is the rhetoric of term limits, small government, and separation of powers; the idea that a country’s State will function best if its powers are clipped. Once its powers are reduced, so the logic goes, people will be able to do as they want, liberated from the constraints of authoritarian bureaucracies.
From the neoliberal right to the liberal left, these ideas have caught on everywhere, to the extent of dominating policy discussions in the country. That is what unifies the JVP and the UNP in their call for the abolition of the presidential system: the notion that the problems of the country are attributable to the flaws of its Constitution.
The SJB remains divided over these issues: hence while one section of the party allied with the UNP yahapalana project rigidly hold on to these ideas, another section has become more flexible. That explains Bandula Chandrasekara’s and Anuruddha Karnasuriya’s responses to Victor Ivan over Champika Ranawaka’s position on the Executive Presidency. As their replies make clear, far from viewing it as an aberration to be abolished, the Ranawaka faction sees the presidential system as indispensable to the country’s sovereignty.
The notion that the government presents more problems than solutions to a reformist agenda rests on the classic division, made by liberal commentators, between political and civil society: a largely imagined construct traceable to no earlier than 17th century Europe. This division followed from the dissolution of feudal society into capitalist society, a process completed between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Political philosophers, from that period, drew a line between the State and the Citizen, cordoning off the one from the other. It is this phenomenon that Marx examined in his reflections “On the Jewish Question.”
For Marx, there was nothing intrinsically non-political about the feudal order: “the character of the old civil society was directly political”. The transition to capitalism signified a rupture in this order, emancipating the citizen from the government and reducing his situation in life “to a merely individual significance.” The new society made the citizen the “precondition” of the State, endowing him with certain rights separating him from the latter.
These rights were defined in terms of a freedom to do something rather than actual political emancipation. Thus, in the new State, “man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom… [h]e was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property.” It was more or less the gospel of 17th century English liberalism; the philosophy of man at his most egotistic, or what C. B. Macpherson labelled as “possessive individualism.”
What we need to note here is that the distinction between negative and positive rights first emerged from these debates. Distinguishing between these is rather like splitting hairs, but the difference between them has to do with their aims: hence while negative rights prevent others from interfering with your freedom to do something, positive rights recognise a wider role for the government to play in addressing the needs of the marginalised. Neoliberals and even certain left-liberals belong to the former category: those who believe the State’s role is that of a Night-Watchman who sets the rules without playing the game.
Such competing conceptions of rights and freedoms survived the 19th century. In the wake of the Second World War, multilateral institutions began recognising the need to go beyond a negative definition of these ideals. Thus the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, in Article 25, lists down a number of economic necessities such as “food, clothing, housing, and medical care” it deems everyone has a right to. That it left the implementation of these rights to individual States without specifying the manner of implementation did not take away from the point that they were now regarded as a part of the new world order.
These provisions served as the basis for the two most important conventions on economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights to be enacted in the post-war conjuncture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (both 1966). The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the Rio Declaration of 1992 reflected and consolidated these developments, with an important intervention by the Czech jurist Karel Vasek (“three generations of human rights”) confirming the view that contemporary human rights exist beyond mere civil and political principles.
Yet debates between these two schools of thought continue to rage, even in Sri Lanka. Thus advocates of negative rights, who dominated economic discussions in the previous regime, bemoan attempts by human rights groups to constitutionalize ESC rights, comparing activists to collectivists no different from the most unrepentant Stalinist. Their websites and blogs put down every progressive personality, from Roosevelt to Raúl Prebisch, while promoting what Dayan Jayatilleka with characteristic élan calls “antediluvian rightwing thinkers.”
The peak, or nadir, of these put-downs came out in a recent opinion piece that compared economists critical of neoclassical economic theories and assumptions to harbingers of the plague. Reading such screeds, one can’t help but recall the kind of hysteria which dominated economic thinking during the Kotelawala prime ministry, in particular the oblique references to Communists in the Central Bank by editorials and the almost McCarthyist hounding of the likes of S. B. D. de Silva (who later left the Bank) and Rhoda Miller de Silva (who left the country, or rather was forced to) by the then government. It goes without saying that, as Dr Jayatilleka aptly observes, such thinking would find a home in rightwing regimes across Latin America, rather than in Asia’s oldest democracy.
Sri Lanka’s neoliberals are by no means alone in making hysterically crass generalisations: in its criticism of human rights treaties, for instance, the Heritage Foundation compared moves towards legalising economic rights to no less than “the 75-year communist experiment.” If a brief perusal of policy documents and political columns reveals anything, it’s the Sri Lankan neoliberal right’s barely disguised contempt for anyone who advocates a conception of rights that, as James Peck puts it, “has less to do with individual freedom and more to do with basic freedoms.” And yet, to support the latter is not to be a Communist, even less a “Stalinist”: a point yet to be appreciated by Colombo’s neoliberal economic circles.
The hysteria that determines the thinking of the latter does very little credit to their claim of knowing how to solve Sri Lanka’s economic problems. What characterises their thinking is an almost unyielding belief in 17th century European liberalism; they accept, at face-value, what political philosophers from that era are supposed to have said on various matters. That their opinion pieces are liberally littered with references to these philosophers indicates what they believe to be the way forward for Sri Lanka. But in assuming that their preferred way forward is the only path ahead for us, they sidestep two important points.
The first is the very flawed assumption that what held true for 17th century Europe will hold true for the present conjuncture. Of course the argument can be made that these notions of economic and political freedom can be adapted to any context. But then we face the second problem, one identified less by “home-grown” nationalist thinkers than by Western political theorists (to mention three: C. B. Macpherson, Domenico Losurdo, and Charles Mills): that the political system these philosophers supported, in their day, rested on institutions which are out of date and out of place today: to name just one, slavery.
Indeed, far from failing to see a contradiction between their support of liberal ideals and the realities of slavery, they passionately defended the latter and actively took part in the slave trade. Their political system, in other words, provided the foundation for their liberal ideals, even if they drew a fine enough line between political and civil society.
As Shiran Illanperuma has observed well in a series of columns recently, moreover, English liberal philosophers made their pronouncements on free enterprise and free trade, among other abstractions valorised by defenders of negative rights today, at a time when Britain was imposing un-free and unequal trade on the rest of the (mostly colonised) world. This is what Ha-Joon Chang has outlined in his work on economic history as well, most importantly the role played by tariffs – a monstrous aberration, in the books of free market advocates – in Britain’s and later the US’s rise as an industrial power.
The conclusion we can reach from these points is inescapable: that for development to occur in these parts of the world, we need to adopt a fundamentally radical conception of rights and freedoms. What Sri Lanka needs now is not a new Constitution. What it needs now is a radical reset. It needs to acknowledge that the country’s problems are not so simple as to be resolved with a piece of paper. We have gone down that path, many times.
Neoliberals and even left-liberals are only half-right in their argument that corruption has prevented development: the real question is not who engages in corruption, but who funds the corrupt. To ask that is to realise that there is no fine line between politics and economics, that Sri Lanka’s political issues are also economic, and that we will go nowhere if we do not cede more rights to its most marginalised communities.
The State has a considerable role to play, contrary to what the neoliberal and left-liberal caucus believes, in ensuring a level playing field for everyone. The solution is not to restrict access to political power, as some would suggest, but to broaden access to as many fields as possible. We need to talk more about labour rights, affirmative action, and land reforms, and less about abstract generalisations that do very little for marginalised groups. Perhaps a good starting point would be something as simple as better bus services for villages.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
GR SENTENCES 13A: IMPACT ON INDO-LANKA RELATIONS & TAMIL POLITICS
Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
Given the ineluctable facts of geography, this island’s relationship with India is its most important single relationship; the one that has to be most carefully calibrated and curated.
Given the domestic geopolitics of both countries—the similar demography of Sri Lanka’s northern area abutting India and of India’s southern cone facing Sri Lanka—the Sri Lankan Tamil question is and will remain one of the two pillars of the Indo-Sri Lankan relationship.
The second pillar is Sri Lanka’s strategic relationship with any power perceived as an adversary, rival or competitor of India.
Both pillars frame the architecture of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord (ISLA) of 1987. The 13th amendment is the child of the Accord, as enshrined in the ISLA’s clause referring to the implementation of the understandings reached in earlier (specified) negotiations between the two governments.
Given the widespread and hardly unfounded perception of Sri Lanka’s tilt towards China, it is all the more important to carefully manage the other pillar of the Indo-Lanka relationship, i.e., that of the Tamil question.
Instead of doing so, president Gotabaya Rajapaksa has resumed his project of chipping away at that pillar and thereby endangering the architecture of the bilateral relationship.
If the bilateral relationship is weakened or even if it remains at its present level instead of returning to its wartime dimensions, Sri Lanka will not have the benefit of India’s umbrella.
In 2007-2009 Sri Lanka prudently positioned itself at the point of overlap of two big umbrellas, those of India and China. Nowhere was this more consciously constructed by Sri Lankan diplomacy than at the UNHRC in Geneva, where it contributed greatly to our success in May 2009 at the UNHRC’s special session.
In the postwar period, the hawks in the state machine and the cabinet pressurized President Mahinda Rajapaksa and moved us from under the twin Asian umbrellas, away from India and towards China, in a choice that was not forced upon us by China.
That choice was made by those ex-military personalities in the Sri Lankan state who had a traumatic memory of Indian intervention, the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987 and the 13th amendment that issued from it.
Never once did they draw the correct lesson that had the understandings reached between the Sri Lankan and Indian Government between 1984 and January 1987 been turned into law before the Vadamaarachchi operation, there would not have been an Indian intrusion.
It must be said that they pretended that they understood, which is why the then Secretary/Defence Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as a member of the troika, repeatedly reiterated during wartime, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s assurance to India that the 13th amendment would be fully implemented once the LTTE was defeated. This secured India’s support for the outcome or non-interruption of the outcome.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa looks set to renege on that promise and indeed to reverse it.
President GR’s Pronouncement
The statement issued by the Presidential Media Unit following the call paid on President GR by the visiting Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh V Shringla contains the following sentence:
“The President pointed out the urgent need to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the 13th Amendment and act accordingly.”
It is a single sentence in a statement but has crucial implications for Sri Lanka’s most important external relationship and therefore Sri Lanka’s relations with the world as a whole.
This needs to be unpacked so as to understand its full meaning and implications.
Why is the “need to understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the 13th Amendment” quite so “urgent” and from whose point of view?
Who will “act accordingly” and how?
Still more substantively, what are the implications of “understand the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the 13th Amendment and act accordingly”? Does it mean the weakness will be eliminated and the strengths retained? Or does it mean that if the weaknesses are deemed to be greater than the strengths, the 13th amendment will be scrapped? Who will decide on “the weaknesses as well as the strengths of the 13th Amendment”, when and how?
It appears that the ongoing process of drafting a new constitution could be the agency for this adventuristic, unilateral revisionism.
What then will the Tamil parties do? They cannot expect India to do for them what they will not do for themselves. They have to adopt a triadic strategy consisting of Unity, Realism and Alliance/Partnership.
(i) Unity: a broad united front and a united platform;
(ii) Realism: a realist stand that is exactly coincident with India’s officially declared policy i.e., the full implementation of the provisions of 13A
(iii) Alliance/partnership: As Lord Soulbury advised C. Sundaralingam, the best option is to support the main democratic Opposition in Parliament (at the time in the 1960s, the UNP, now its successor). It can only be achieved on the basis of the defense of the 13th amendment and its full implementation. No less, no more.
A run-of-the-mill administration
by Uditha Devapriya
Almost exactly a month after the government imposed emergency regulations on essential food items, it capitulated to rice mill owners who just happen to be led by the brother of a former president. In doing so, it got itself mired in a crisis of legitimacy; if all the memes on social media are anything to go by, its critics are celebrating this setback.
Yet what happened should be seen for what it is: a democratically elected government, enjoying a 2/3 parliamentary majority and enhanced presidential powers, being snubbed by oligopolists. There is very little to celebrate here, except probably the administration’s fall from grace. Well deserved as the latter prospect may be, even this offers no consolation: in welcoming the downfall of one form of authoritarianism, we end up celebrating another. It tells us a lot about the priorities of certain critics of the regime, then, that many if not most of them prefer a much derided oligopolist to a much derided president.
What we are being offered here, simply, is a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Far from taking sides, I don’t see why such a choice has to be made at all.
If the government was wrong to enact emergency laws, the fact of their constitutionality should theoretically not lessen the severity of the decision. Setting aside the usual concerns about human rights and democracy, the regime could have thought of alternatives: it could have, as Sajith Premadasa suggested, gone for the Disaster Management Act.
But in doing what it did, it acted within the powers of the Constitution. You can question the wisdom of such a decision on the (valid) grounds of whether it was taken in the country’s interests or the government’s, but the decision was ultimately the latter’s to make. Indeed, insofar as these regulations were enacted to resolve a crisis, and an all too real one at that, I’d even say it was a desperate response to a pertinent issue.
Critics of the government are justifiably jubilant about Gotabaya Rajapaksa being brought down to earth by the rice oligopolists. But if the emergency regulations it enacted were not wholly outside its powers, were rice mill owners right in sidestepping the administration and dictating prices? Was their decision to determine those prices hours after the regime went back on its gazette notification acceptable? These are not your typical price hikes: regardless of how futile the government’s efforts at keeping them below the market rate were, once it rescinded these regulations, they broke through the ceiling. How fair was that?
I am a realist, not an ideologue. On a balanced note, however misconceived the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime’s hopes about controlling the market may have been, it’s undeniable that there were hoarders, and that they were creating shortages. If they did go ahead and hoard rice regardless of emergency laws, and the more influential among them refused to release stocks even after the army caught them in the act, that tells us something about the nature of this regime’s authoritarianism, the identity of those calling the shots in the economy, and the measures the State will have to take vis-à-vis private oligarchies.
In saying that, I am not condoning the government’s actions. From the day the pandemic entered the country, it operated on the mistaken belief that it could resolve everything and anything with the power of the military. To be sure, the military has done much to help with the government’s vaccination drive: I see no one, except probably one disgraced ex-Prime Minister, contesting its right to play a role there. But a distinction has to be made between what the army can do and what it should. Unfortunately for the present regime, this is a line that is yet to be drawn. The fracas over the hoarders and mill owners thus shows, not a little deplorably, the limits of using the army for even emergency purposes.
What explains the rather confusing contrast between the perceived authoritarianism of the regime and the apathetic measures it has taken to resolve these crises? Several reasons can be posited, most importantly the pandemic, but to me the answer is quite clear: since 2015, the government’s scope for authoritarianism has been diminishing.
Partly, this has been due to the measures the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government took in constraining itself, including the Right to Information Act and the 19th Amendment. These measures did much, whatever their critics may say, to buckle the State. It is a testament to those who drafted them that, to give one example, while the 20th Amendment backtracked on the 19th Amendment, it has not gone back to the situation under the 18th: it emboldens the current president, yes, but not to the extent of his brother’s presidency.
To his credit, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not yet tampered with these reforms: thus journalists continue to use the RTI, even as the CID summons and interrogates them. Indeed, if recent outcries over journalists being questioned in the open and the Media Minister’s conciliatory remarks are anything to go by, it’s clear that the government is paying at least lip-service in public to the ideals its Ministers and officials are honouring in the breach. For all its talk over social media misinformation, it is yet to draft legislation that resembles anything of the kind that Narendra Modi has enacted to draconian effect in India. This is as it should be: evolving critiques of the previous administration, of which there are many, should definitely not blind us to the good they did via these basic, fundamental reforms.
More importantly though, such a shift has been due to the growth of a new consciousness, predominantly among a suburban middle-class, which views sceptically whatever the State does and cuts it down to size. The speed at which supporters of the previous regime turned into its biggest detractors should have warned the present administration that, in the face of gross incompetence, all hosanna-singers would turn into vengeful critics. But it chose not to heed the wind. It got a well deserved chance to go back on this trend and legitimise itself in the eyes of its people with its competent handling of the first wave. Yet having claimed a thumping victory at last year’s parliamentary election, it threw caution to the wind with the second wave. The results have been predictable: public discontent continues to grow, while a radical Left formation has broken into the Rajapaksas’ working class base.
The point I’m trying to make here is that since 2015, the Sri Lankan government’s room for impunity has reduced drastically. It is certainly ironic that a regime widely considered to be autocratic has failed to live up to the reputation of a Bolsonaro or a Modi, or for that matter a Putin. By no means, of course, has it refrained from deploying its powers, especially with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations. But judging from the long line between what it threatens to do and what it actually does, it seems that a crisis of legitimacy has brought it down to its knees.
That crisis of legitimacy has largely been its doing: having assimilated Colombo’s blue-chip bourgeoisie to the near total exclusion of its agrarian and working class base, the SLPP let go of its ability to balance and mediate social classes. The Rajapaksas’ greatest strength lay in their Bonapartist balancing act, at which Mahinda was most talented. This Gotabaya seems to have let go, if not wilfully abandoned, partly because of the contradictions thrown up by the pandemic. This is obvious to anyone who has viewed the recent spate of strikes. As the teachers’ demonstrations show well enough, SLPP allied trade unions have been reduced to a minority. As the farmers’ strikes show equally well enough, the ban on chemical fertilisers has failed to generate enthusiasm for a much needed shift to organic varieties.
Yet seeing through all these failures for what they are and what they continue to be, it is becoming increasingly obvious that while the government is not listening to its critics, those critics are gaining traction over the government in the public sphere: not just on Facebook, but more crucially, on the streets. Quite in contrast to what is happening in India or Brazil, demonstrations continue to give way to more demonstrations, with no prospect of a clamp down or purge. The usual theatrics of sudden arrests and bail-outs aside, what we’re seeing here is a populist administration in danger of losing its populist credentials. Insofar as these have enabled healthy dissent among its critics, such trends are to be welcomed.
The danger lies with groups that do not have the country’s interests at heart upending the government’s best laid schemes. The rice mafia is one such group. Why I say this, simply, is that in light of the worst loss of face a government has suffered since the Easter Attacks, its critics are turning more and more to alternatives. These alternatives can and should come in the form of democratically elected outfits, like the SJB and even the JVP. But one can hardly consider the private sector food mafia, who are being turned into heroes on social media by Sri Lanka’s irrepressible political memers, in the same category.
Already online circles are afloat with the idea of mill owners contesting for political slots in the future. “Between an autocrat and an oligopolist, I would choose the latter,” one person replied to me on Twitter the other day. It is in the country’s best interests that we do not let criticism of the government deteriorate into valorisations of dubious rent-seekers. The food hoarding fracas, and the State’s inability to control private sector mafias, should hence point us to the dangers of these prospects. It should also make us aware of who’s really calling the shots and running the show, and convince us that we deserve better.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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