By Ameer Ali –
“We must celebrate the 75th Independence Day, otherwise the world will say that we are not capable of even celebrating our independence”, said President Ranil Wickremesingh(RW). Won’t the world also ask Mr. President, why spend on a tamasha when people cannot afford one full meal a day even?
In a few days, Sri Lanka will mark its silver jubilee year of independence from the colonial master Britain, but in a state of despondency and deprivation caused by a historic economic crisis and political uncertainties. President RW justifies the millions of rupees to be spent on this occasion as “investment in the country’s future”. But in actual fact, it is not going to be a celebration of independence, but inauguration of an era of dependence on a new master, IMF. How long would this dependency last depend on how quickly the economy is rebuilt and, more importantly, system changed.
Strengthening this dependency is the India factor. It in the context of Indian Ocean geopolitics, India’s latest verve of economic assistance to Sri Lanka, such as the $4 billion worth credit facilities on generous terms, financing assurances to IMF and a number of growth positive economic initiatives, all couched in terms of civilizational duty and neighbourhood love, had not only created an atmosphere of optimism regarding IMF funding and financial assistance from other multilateral agencies, but also sparked a flurry of activities internationally, such as the visit to Colombo by Victor Nuland, the Under Secretary of Political Affairs in U.S. Department of State to meet RW, meeting between Ambassador Beth Van Schaack, Head of Global Criminal Justice in the Department of State, and the Canadian Tamil Diaspora, regarding resolution of the Tamil national issue, to which RW has made commitment , and visit by Ban Ki-Moon, former Secretary General of UN, for discussion with RW on climate change. All these indicate international support to the IMF backed RW’s One Policy Framework (OPF), which in geopolitical terms is meant to draw Sri Lanka into the Western camp via India, and to the chagrin of China. Thus, a new dependency is evolving and Independence Day celebration will inaugurate that that new era.
But the irony of the situation is that no political party or coalition of parties including NPP, which are united in attacking the current regime and want to capitalize on the popular discontent arising from the harsh reality of 2023 budget, has put forward a better alternative than the IMF solution. Therefore, the only choice left to voters at the next election, if and when it is held, is to choose a party or coalition of parties that would manage this dependency wisely so that in the long-run at least the economy would stand on a strong footing to benefit future generations. However, it should be noted at the same time that implementing the IMF plan without changing the underlying system and its political culture may help stabilize the macro foundation of the economy and set it on a growth path for some time, but there is no guarantee that there would be no reversal in the future. The system with its pernicious political culture is prone to mismanagement, misadventures and miscalculations.
It is quite normal for any economy operating in a global environment of open markets to experience fluctuations periodically owing to factors beyond its control, a phenomenon known as cyclical in economics. But cyclical fluctuations are one thing but disasters caused by systemic weaknesses are quite another. The latest episode of financial and economic disaster in this country is the cumulative effect of systemic weakness and product of its political culture. Unless this culture is abandoned RW’s grand ambition to transform this economy into a First World miracle with assistance from IMF would remain no more than a phantasy. This is why credit must be given to the aragalaya youth for understanding the systemic origins of the crisis to raise their call for SYSTEM CHANGE. RW regimes’ unreserved acquiescence to the IMF agenda, with overtures to unite the country by resolving the so-called national question with full implementation of the controversial 13th Amendment would not bring system change, but at best may end up smoothening few of its rough edges.
Of all the parties and coalitions that are vying for power, only Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) and his National Peoples Power (NPP) has categorically denounced the reigning political culture and vowed to get rid of it, which in other words mean system change. That riddance would put an end to a number of other evils associated with it, such as corruption, government unaccountability, politicization of public institutions including judiciary, mafia power, organized political lobbying along the corridors of power, and so on. It is this political culture that has ruined the country’s welfare system, including public health and education. RW’s OPF has no intention of changing this culture. Yet, NPP also has to work within the IMF economic framework. That framework in fact, has now become sine qua non for any party or coalition of parties that seek to capture power.
Only a government with a technocratic cabinet and market friendly policies based on principles of economic democracy and inclusive national identity that could mitigate the severity of hardship emanating from IMF agenda and make the dependency short lived and more beneficial. So far, only NPP with its technocratically capable team promises that possibility. Contrary to the propaganda that NPP is the rump of the insurrectionist JVP of previous century, it represents instead the voice of a new generation of young Sri Lankans who, like their counterparts in many other parts of the world, want a socio-political and economic system that guarantees every citizen dignity, freedom and economic justice.
But the challenge facing this party is whether it would be able to sweep the polls in the next election. It was Alexander Hamilton who said that “people get the government they deserve”. Although the voting public in Sri Lanka had changed governments several times in the past, it does not mean that they are politically discerning to make the right choice. There is therefore the possibility that they would succumb to the same ethnonational tantrums propagated by the reactionary elements and may end up choosing a government that they do not deserve. Yet, there is a glimmer of hope for a surprise outcome this time in the wake of the epochal aragalaya. The younger generation is politically discernible, better educated and technologically savvy, unlike their parents and elders. What is more crucial is that demographically they hold the winning votes in almost every electorate. They are committed to system change and they could be the decisive factor in choosing the next government.
AKD is brimming with confidence, and RW realizes the danger. Although the President is wooing the youth to join his 25-year marathon, the best way to avoid a possible calamity is not to disturb the political status quo. India and its international allies also seem to support that choice. To the UNP-PPP coalition therefore, inaugurating the new dependence seems to be the best way to celebrate independence. RW’s warning to the people not to disturb his programs, when addressing a crowd at Sri Maha Bodhiya in Anuradhapura on 28th January is testament to his determination not to allow any election at the moment.
*Dr. Ameer Ali, Murdoch Business School, Murdoch University, W. Australia