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Legitimate criticism and mindless opposition

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by Uditha Devapriya

It’s not really Basil Rajapaksa’s fault. When the country’s Finance Minister announced that the government had requested IMF for advice and expected a team to arrive in the country a week or so down the line, Colombo’s free market advocates thought debt restructuring was in the air. Some praised Rajapaksa, others praised the government, while everyone noted the necessity of going to and seeking (debt) forgiveness from the IMF. A few, though not very few, listed down what the regime ought to be doing: privatisation, austerity, public sector divestment. In other words, belt-tightening for the masses.

They were in for a severe disappointment: the government hadn’t asked for IMF assistance, merely advice. After Rajapaksa made his remarks, Ajith Nivard Cabraal clarified that he had been talking about “a routine Technical Assistance Program” for the Ministry of Finance’s “new Macro-Fiscal Unit.” I checked what Macro-Fiscal Units do: according to the IMF, they are “the government’s key unit for elaborating sustainable medium-term fiscal objectives and policy orientations, and for assessing fiscal risks.” So while Rajapaksa’s Ministry is still not going to the IMF, it’s not shirking the IMF either. In any case, reading between the lines, it’s clear that Rajapaksa and Cabraal weren’t contradicting each other.

I think the episode revealed the desperation of those who want the country to toe the IMF line. Advocates of debt restructuring, at least most of them, are so besotted with the idea that they’ll do anything. They’ll even mute their criticism of the government. This is why not a few among them publicly urged the SJB and UNP not to oppose the status quo, to support it for the greater good. Implied in these statements, of course, is the assumption that what we need now is not political transformation, but economic reform, and that so long as these reforms are implemented, those implementing them should be supported.

That the economy needs major restructuring can’t be denied. But what does restructuring entail? Most of these prescriptions seem simple enough: stabilise prices, reduce public sector wastage, eliminate corruption, and the like. The problem, though, has to do not so much with the solutions being recommended as with the manner of their implementation.

Price stabilisation, to give one example, is obviously necessary in a context where essentials are becoming luxuries. Yet what would happen if the government stopped printing money, or contacted the money supply? What would happen to interest rates, working capital loan payments, private sector investment, and the future of the middle-class?

People have a right to know about the consequences of these policy proposals. If the free market bandwagon are serious about implementing them and want the government to heed their call, they need to come out with what prescriptions like “austerity” would mean for the masses. They also need to insert the all too important caveat that these reforms will generate a significant backlash, and that even the most neoliberal government would have to scuttle them if they want to continue in power. In a word, the pro market crowd need to be clear about the political consequences of economic reform.

If the past should tells us anything about the future, it’s likely even the biggest neoliberal hawks in the UNP would, were they in power now, not go ahead with the policy proposals being advocated by the pro market crowd. The yahapalana regime is a case in point. While much hope was placed on the UNP’s ability to enforce market reforms, in the end it never really delivered. Advocates of market reforms point, very correctly, at the present regime’s tax cuts, which deprived the Treasury of much needed money when the pandemic came. Yet similar concessions were granted by the yahapalana government also, despite the stridently pro-market rhetoric of its budgets, in particular the 2017 Budget.

Certain critics of the government point at Bangladesh. They note that despite the worst health crisis to hit the subcontinent since the Malaria Epidemic, Bangladesh managed to not just survive, but thrive, defying the most dismal predictions. The same cannot be said for Sri Lanka, partly because, as those who keep pointing to Bangladesh contend, of government action and inaction. But it’s important to note the differences, to understand that the issues being highlighted in this regard go deeper than one supposes. Other countries did thrive, Sri Lanka did not. Yet why that happened needs to be contextualised.

Sri Lanka suffers from the unenviable conundrum of shrinking tax revenues and expanding public services. To put it in layman’s terms, from whatever money the country earns, a great deal goes to the public sector, in particular services like hospitals. It goes into paying public sector workers, including PHIs, nurses, and teachers, the latter of whom were paid in full despite the months-long closure of schools. That teachers and doctors want higher salaries notwithstanding their security of tenure, then, can tell only one thing: they feel underpaid and want more. What austerity would mean to such groups, in light of hiking costs of living and declining standards of living, is anybody’s guess. Yours is as good as mine.

Sri Lanka’s public services aren’t exactly stellar or up to the mark, but they have earned just praise and commendation internationally. Literacy rates, poverty levels, and wealth and income gaps are better than they are elsewhere in the region. In countries like Bangladesh about a fifth of the population live below the poverty line; in Sri Lanka less than five percent do. Sri Lanka’s public education sector has given the country a literacy rate of more than 90 percent. In Bangladesh the comparable figure is a little more than 70.

In Bangladesh, the initial response to the pandemic was to go about business as usual. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, health professionals had to constantly urge and engage with the government to enforce lockdowns and restrictions. When things got out of hand, the regime eventually complied. In Bangladesh garment factories, the backbone of the economy, were kept open despite much criticism. In Sri Lanka they were kept open as well, attracting similar criticism, but this happened on an arguably much smaller scale.

The point I am making here is the same point I make to people comparing Sri Lanka to Lebanon: context matters. We can lament the state of our economy and identify problems to be resolved, but without contextualising them and placing them in their historical and social perspective, no prescription, however well it may have worked for other countries, will work out. Scaling down our public services, for instance, will make no sense if all it does is generate a huge backlash and impose even more austerity on the poor.

There’s a fine line to be drawn between legitimate criticism of the government, which is what political commentators and intellectuals in general should engage in, and mindless acceptance of each and every policy prescription thrown in the way. The outcry over money printing is a case in point. The urban and suburban middle-classes almost universally decry it, but no one mentions what will happen if the State stops printing money or contracts the money supply. This is largely because the public – and by that I include supporters of the government – are so beholden to orthodox theory, whether of the Left or the Right, that they think whatever has worked elsewhere will work here.

What’s dangerous about this is that those supporting such policy proposals avow that it doesn’t matter who’s implementing them; so long as they are being implemented, their assumption runs, the country should and will benefit. Here, too, we see that tendency to dichotomise politics and economics, to think that economic reforms are what count and that their political consequences are, at most, a secondary concern. Reality, however, has a way of working around, and against, such assumptions, a point which does not as yet seem to have dawned on Colombo’s pro market and civil society circuits.

Sri Lanka desperately needs a critique of the powers that be which goes beyond obsession with market imposed austerity on the one hand and obsession with parading yourself as the superior of everyone else on the other. But these two broad trends seem to be dictating the direction of the Opposition, be it the UNP, the SJB, or the JVP-NPP. The regime would like nothing better than a disorganised Opposition, an Opposition incapable of winning hearts and minds. Yet that is what we are seeing here, now, and for all intents and purposes, it may be what we’ll see for quite some time. This is deeply distressing.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@ gmail.com



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Politics

PROPPING-UP THIS PRESIDENT IS A PRESCRIPTION FOR POLITICAL SUICIDE

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

In one dimension, Sri Lankan politics is a tale of cross-party political collaboration that should have taken place but didn’t, and those that shouldn’t have taken place but did.The two varying yet intermittently intertwining story-lines have widely discrepant endings, though. Collaborations that should have taken place but didn’t are stories of what might have been and wasn’t. What might have been is often better than what actually was.By contrast, stories of collaboration that should not have taken place but did, are stories of disasters that were avoidable but weren’t.

Sometimes the collaborations that should have been preceded those that should not have been but were acted upon. These are particularly poignant because an alliance or political equation that had the potential of leading to something positive, was immediately substituted by an equation which culminated in catastrophe.

There is another, inner connection. It is the causal link between the alliances that should have been made and weren’t, that led to lost potential, which was then sought to be offset by alliances that should not have been entered into but were, with worse consequences than the stagnation sought to be avoided or offset by entering into them.

The Left was never as strong as it was after the General Election of 1947. If the discussion at H. Sri Nissanka’s residence ‘Yamuna’ succeed and a bloc had formed of the three left parties—the LSSP, CP and the BLP—and the independent progressives, Ceylon would have had a left oriented Government which would have taken the country on a Nehruvian or ‘left-Nehruvian’ path.

Having rejected that option, the same leftist parties were later reviled, and correctly so, for having clung to “Sirima’s sari pota” and electorally decimated where they remain to this very day. Just recently, and incredibly, their residues voted for Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Emergency under which the Aragalaya activists are being arrested.

After the magnificent Hartal of August 1953, the political parties that participated and supported it failed to unite in a single bloc. The result was that SWRD’s SLFP fell prey to the temptation of Sinhala Only, lobbied for by a civil society caucus led by Prof GP Malalasekara and the All- Ceylon Buddhist Congress he chaired, riding the surf of the Buddha Jayanthi and the ACBC report.

When SWRD tried to compensate by course-correction through the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, the Left didn’t come forward to enter a bloc with him in support. Ironically the same left entered a united front with his far less progressive widow and enthroned Sinhala only in the 1972 Constitution.

The Left finally entered a United Front in 1963, accompanied by the unification of the left-led trade union movement. The united left won the Borella by-election that year. In 1964 the LSSP broke the left front and joined Mrs. Bandaranaike’s cabinet. In 1968, in place of a reunified Left, the CPSL joined the LSSP in a coalition with the SLFP, holding a joint rally in Bogambara.The resultant vacuum on the left permitted the birth and rapid growth of the JVP.

Fifteen years after the LSSP’s co-optation and nine years after the CPSL’s, the entire old left had been electorally wiped out, with Philip Gunawardena who had joined a UNP cabinet, having been electorally eliminated earlier in 1970.I could go on. The moral of the story is simple. Left unity is a good thing and left disunity is not. Left and the unity with progressive independents is a good thing and its absence is not. The Left uniting with a center party under left dominance is bad but doing so on an equal footing, isn’t.The Left uniting with a dominant center party, i.e., with the SLFP in 1964 and 1970-1975/’77, is a terrible thing.

A center-left or center party uniting with a rightwing or center-right party is a bad thing. President Sirisena and the SLFP learned that lesson the hard way and the current trend of the SLPP opting for Ranil Wickremesinghe over Dullas Alahapperuma, the SLFP and the 10-parties being drawn into President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s orbit, having voted for his draconian Emergency (the SLFP was absent), will prove electorally fatal.

TAMIL PARTIES

The Tamil parties have a sad history of supporting the rightwing UNP which inevitably winds up unpopular and the target of a huge backlash. The presence of the Tamil parties in a bloc with the UNP, unfortunately facilitates an utterly reprehensible entry of Sinhala chauvinism into the anti-government backlash.

It is utterly counterproductive for the Tamil parties to be in an elitist UNP bloc. It was the presence of those parties in the UNP-led seven-party national Government of 1965-1970 that facilitated the opportunistic or semi-spontaneous injection of Sinhala ethno-populism into the Opposition campaign of the second half of the 1960s, which even more horridly, culminated in the official Sinhala racism after it assumed office, e.g., media-wise and district-wise Standardization of university entrance, the hegemonistic status of Sinhala and Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution.

The Tamil parties should think twice before being enticed into an alliance, de jure or de facto, with the unelected, illegitimate president Ranil Wickremesinghe who will cause a further spike in unprecedentedly high social disaffection by his economic “shock therapy”. It could cause a toxic cocktail as Sir John’s Delft speech did.

TODAY’S OPPOSITION

What would have happened to any Opposition political party that joined, propped up or let itself be drawn into the orbit of the hawkish UNP administration of Sir John Kotelawala after the Hartal of August 1953?

What if SWRD Bandaranaike, having left the UNP in 1951, helped it in 1953, after chairing the Hartal rally on Galle Face Green, though the SLFP didn’t participate in the Hartal?

The answers of these counterfactual history questions are obvious. Any such party which became a de jure or de facto prop (“mukkuwa”) of the Hartal-hit Establishment which had a harder-line post-Hartal leader, would have been committing political suicide.Had SWRD Bandaranaike done so, he would not have been the beneficiary of the anti-Establishment tectonic shift caused or denoted by the Hartal and swept into office through the Silent Revolution of 1956.

Why then are the Opposition parties of today doing or contemplating something even more colossally stupid, of joining, supporting or collaborating with the UNP leader of the Aragalaya-hit Establishment? It is suicidal for two reasons:

Firstly, the leader in question is utterly unelected, totally devoid of a popular mandate, and is therefore a completely illegitimate (though not illegal) ruler.Secondly, he will drive through a controversial and polarizing economic program, which will sink any party associated with it.Meanwhile, the failure of the pro-Aragalaya parties, the JVP, FSP, SJB and TNA, to unite is a repetition of the failure of the pro-Hartal parties to do so in 1953-1956.

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Politics

THE SYSTEM CHANGE THAT CAN ENABLE SRI LANKA TO RECOVER FROM THIS MASSIVE CRISIS

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by Prof.Tissa Vitarana

The massive crisis that has affected the lives of nearly all classes in our society, specially the poor and middle, in Sri Lanka is not new to us or to most other countries. It is an inherent cyclical feature, occurring at about seven year intervals, due to ‘boom and bust’ nature of the global market driven capitalist economic system brought on by over production. Periodically it may get out of control, like the Asian crisis of 1997 when a whole region was badly affected.

The affected countries that overcame the crisis by their own effort have learned to tide over these crises with minimal disruption. At an international conference in Cairo I had the good fortune to have a lengthy chat with Dr.Mahathir Mohamed (facilitated by us both being doctors turned politicians). He advised against succumbing to IMF pressure at any cost. This was because it is committed to the Prof. Friedman neo-liberal doctrine which facilitates the exploitation of our countries through an import dependent open economy that USA-led Imperialism controls.

The loans given lead to a debt trap which is the root cause of our situation. Sri Lanka’s foreign debt has reached US$ 52 billion and debt servicing last year was six billion dollars and this year seven billion. Hence the shortage of dollars and of essential imports like fuel, gas, chemical fertilizer, medicines and food items. To ensure that at least six months of these imports are obtained the Foreign Exchange Reserve (FOREX) has been maintained at US$ seven to eight billion. Now it is down to zero, and thus causing this severe crisis.

The answer is the development of a national economy with maximum self-sufficiency which is Government regulated in the real interest of all the people, not a few super rich. This was done by Dr. N.M. Perera as Minister of Finance in the 1970/75 SLFP-LSSP-CP coalition government. Since the neo-liberal UNP Government led by J.R.Jayewardene took power in 1977 the country has gone into a situation of economic crisis. While the rich have got richer, the poor have got poorer.

Now it is estimated by nutritionists that about 70% of all families are living below the poverty line and have inadequate food and other essentials. The level of malnutrition has gone up above 20%. It is with great difficulty that the adults of many of these families survive on one meal a day, and provide two meals for their children. Many go to bed at night hungry. The productivity of the economy has gone down and, due to the economic crisis the closure of factories and other work places, has led to massive pay cuts and job losses.

The farmers harvest outputs have dropped due to the shortage and high cost of fertilizer and other inputs. Due to the fall in the import of fuel the shortage and high price has disrupted the transport system, the operation of factories, and the use of machinery in agriculture and in the fishing industry. The economy is on the verge of total collapse.

In the midst of such crisis where the system itself is collapsing, clearly the country and the world requires a system change. Unfortunately those in power are content to tinker with the existing system and make both minor and some major changes, but the outcome has not been adequate. It is my opinion that there needs to be total change of the system that benefits the whole of society and not the few who can manage with the limited but expensive tinkering process.

Society itself needs to be driven not by the profit motive which largely benefits the rich but also by being re-organized to provide the needs of everybody. That is a society based on socialist principles. For instance the high cost of food (due to the massive food inflation) is an outcome of the profit motivated production, distribution and marketing system that exists today. Further, in Sri Lanka for instance due to the high cost of inputs the farmer has to take large loans to cover his cost. He gets into debt and at the time of harvest he has to pay the capital cost along with the interest.

The farmer generally takes big loans from the trader or from institutions (like banks) that provide credit. Many poor farmers in this country find it easier to obtain credit from the traders thereby avoiding the red tape they have to face when they go to institutions that provide credit. But this leads to further problems as the trader often demands that the produce is sold only to him at an amount below the prevailing market price. At times this does not even cover the actual cost of production. And the farmer gets caught up in a cycle of debt from which he has no escape. A majority of the farmers in this country are deeply in debt. They are trapped in a situation of perpetual poverty.

The same problem is faced by small and medium scale entrepreneurs. As a result value added industries too do not develop in the rural sector. There must be a new system which gives the farmers and the entrepreneurs the necessary credit, if possible at no or very low interest at the time that he needs it. This will have to be done by the Government which should ensure that bureaucratic pressures such as the taking of bribes is firmly eliminated.

The LSSP favours a truly cooperative system. There should be producer cooperatives and consumer cooperatives, and they should directly deal with each other without any intermediaries. In the prevailing private enterprise system the producer is exploited by a series of middlemen who jack up the price, so that the consumer has to pay a far higher amount than what the producer gets. This middleman system must be eliminated and the transaction should be directly between the producer cooperatives and the consumer cooperatives.

Thus the consumer will only have to pay the cost incurred in taking the produce between the two without any profit. Such a cooperative system is not a dream but it works in many countries abroad, specially those in Scandinavia. But this has already worked in Sri Lanka too, during the time that Dr.N.M.Perera was Finance Minister in the Government of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Unfortunately the cooperatives that are still functioning in this country are cooperatives only in name operated by mudalalis. All the members of the producer and consumer cooperatives must meet and elect reliable office bearers who will function properly at all times. This system change is vital to bring down the cost of living and end hunger and poverty.

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Politics

Twisting the aragalaya into what it is not

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By Uditha Devapriya

Most analyses approach the crisis in Sri Lanka through the lens of human rights, democratic governance, and accountability. Many of them pin the blame on personalities and parties. Not surprisingly, the narrative has shifted over the last few months. From demonising the Rajapaksas, commentators and analysts now fault President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the country’s problems. More than anything else, they accuse him of trying to harness or tame protesters, citing the raid on Gotagogama in the early hours of July 22.

Internationally, these allegations have found a ready audience. Colombo’s civil society circuits have been given ample time and space on Indian and Western media outlets. The latter have been only too willing to amplify their concerns. In most cases, their narrative follows a set pattern: the government is oppressing protesters, it is using legal and extra-judicial methods to tame them, and it is resorting to militarisation to harness dissent. Such narratives reinforce Sri Lanka’s image as a militaristic State, more or less in line with what was churned about the country at the peak of the separatist conflict.

There is nothing inherently or fundamentally misleading about these claims. Sri Lankans are clamouring for democratic change and they perceive the State and its organs, which include the military, as an affront to their dignity. Yet Colombo’s civil society narratives tend to miss more than a few important points. For instance, they fail to note that while the army has been deployed against protesters, a significant proportion of the latter criticise the army, not for militarising the country, but for acting as vassals of the State. The “People vs Army” line, in that sense, does not really hold when considering how individual soldiers have also joined the protests, to be gleefully welcomed by anti-regime demonstrators.

As far as these analyses go, the military is just the tip of the iceberg. Other narratives include the view that anti-regime protesters all unified under a slogan – #GoHomeGota – because they all had the same demands. These demands included widening access to political power and representation for Sri Lanka’s deprived minorities, not just its ethnic but also sexual minorities. According to this reading, opposition to Rajapaksa brought together different groups, classes, and interests: a welcoming development that can be used to push forward important liberal-democratic political and constitutional reforms.

There is no doubt that, viewed from a certain perspective, and as far as opposition to the State went, the anti-Rajapaksa movement was progressive and liberal. Yet to contend that this alone made the protests progressive would be taking things too far. The truth of the matter is that Gotagogama, out of necessity, lacked a cohesive leadership. This enabled it to play host to different interest groups, not all of whom shared a liberal progressive stance on certain themes and issues. Probably the most important point to take from the protests at Galle Face was that former supporters of the outgoing president formed a significant section there: not really a crowd you’d count on as supporters of liberal causes.

I realised this myself when I paid a visit on July 12, the day before Gotabaya Rajapaksa vacated his office. Towards the evening, when crowds began swarming into Galle Face and emotions were running high, the rhetoric from the centre of the protest zone escalated rather wildly. The centre stood a few feet from a campsite set up for members of Sri Lanka’s LGBTQ community. It was more than a little ironic, then, when an anti-Rajapaksa heckler began shouting slogans which were rather homophobic, throwing words like “butterfly” on the country’s leadership. It was hardly what you’d expect from a protest that was, in every respect, supposed to be aligned with civil society visions of progressive dissent.

In an intriguing essay on the Gotagogama protests (“Sri Lanka’s Next Test”, Project Syndicate), Priyanka Krishnamoorthy raises an important question: was, and is, the aragalaya “a mere marriage of convenience”? In 2019 more than a third of the country gave a whopping majority to Mr Rajapaksa and his party, essentially “endorsing the Rajapaksas’ brand of majoritarian politics.” It goes without saying that the fuel and gas shortages and power cuts have brought them into the streets. But will that by itself be enough to ensure their unity with groups, such as minority rights activists, who have been traditionally viewed with suspicion and tarred as agents for NGO and Western agendas?

In depicting the aragalaya as a swelling of progressive anti-State sentiment, liberals make the same mistake that their nationalist counterparts do: portray the protests as a monolith movement, which it is not. The simple truth is that the aragalaya has hosted gay rights and pro-democracy activists as much as it has homophobes and ultra-nationalists. Liberal outfits may be shy of admitting this, but it’s important to make such a point because the aragalaya needs to be recognised for what it is: a diverse array of political, social, and cultural views and perspectives which do not necessarily cohere with each other, but which came together to oust an unpopular regime: in its simplest sense, a popular uprising.

The same goes for the July 22 raid. By all accounts, the raid was unexpected and, from several standpoints, reprehensible. Yet as the President made it clear, it was his way of demonstrating the State’s commitment to law and order. One may disagree, as I do, with his use of force, and validly concur that it tilted mass opinion against Ranil Wickremesinghe and his government. But then government supporters can claim, as critics like me do not, that in no country has peaceful protests entailed the occupation of public property. This is a deeply divisive debate, one that is yet to be taken forward and concluded.

Civil society and international, particularly Western, media have given the protests the spotlight they deserve. Yet they have also twisted the aragalaya into something it is not. If opposition to the Rajapaksas can be considered liberal, the aragalaya should certainly be lauded for its unyielding stand against the Rajapaksa. Yet to deny its multifaceted character and the complex nature of the situation in the country would be going too far. One must be nuanced in everything. Even when lauding criticism of the State.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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