By Kumar David –
Gota knows no other way than to talk tough, hand authority to Army Silva and military brass, undermine confidence of civilian authorities and via 20A erase the democratic ethos that has caught on in Sri Lanka since Independence. Mind you, it is true that democracy has landed us in pretty much of a mess; it has empowered racism and been the midwife of economically damaging populism. Yes, Sri Lankan democracy has been a disappointment – look at the composition of Parliament, if we can’t do better than that, I shudder. I will not repeat the all too well-known riposte ‘Democracy is the worst of all systems except for all the others’ because it smacks of smartarse.
I argue Gota’s post-20A authoritarian status and the prospect of it evolving to dictatorship will undermine public Institutions (the military excepted); it may damage relations amongst communities, undermine political stability, drive corrode finance and deplete the nation’s human capital which I call expertise (intellectual base, innovation, expertise and free exchange of ideas). I attempt to show this in as table. We could conveniently place Institutional, Social, Financial and Expertise as four vertical columns and use four sharply concretised contemporary goings-on as rows to depict how authoritarianism will bring Sri Lanka to a sorry pass. The events or goings-on that I propose to use are COVID-19 (CV), Direct Post-20A outcome, Rebuilding the Economy in the medium term of three to five years and fourthly Political Stability to build my direction-finder Table.
Clearly CV is the dominant issue now and will remain so in 2021-22 and I was intending to make an evaluation when Dr M. M. Janapriya published “Corona Resurgence Is A National Emergency, Wake Up & Act Swiftly & Decisively” In Colombo Telegraph on 31 October. I have not known of Janapriya but he speaks with the authority of an expert so he must be one though I wish he had offered a sentence or two to help readers locate his professional role. His case can be summarised thus: Victory in the first leg of the fight against CV was commendable but lulled the authorities. A military task force cannot comprehend or lead against so complex a challenge. “Seemingly the task force did not meet for two months”. The spread of CV in India posed a hazard that was neglected. Janapriya then makes two technical points “Viral genome sequencing of the second wave virus seems wanting” and “Realistic numbers of random tests are not being done”. The implication of this critique is that political preoccupation with 20A trumped national interests and furthermore the public is not being told the truth. I endorse the first censure without hesitation but I don’t know enough about the second.
Moving along the first row of my Table, Institutional scores D (poor) to F (failure) because militarisation of the Task Force undermines civilian norms and institutions; Society scores a B in that not much harm will done to relations between communities by CV and there is no visible social unrest against tough anti-CV measures and will remain so unless the second-wave leads to debacle. CV will harm the economy so Finances should score an F but for a reason I will explain later I compromise at D. Since I don’t expect the CV mess to drive away intellectuals or harm innovation in businesses, I leave the last box on the first row at a harmless C. This is the logic behind the first row of my table.Potentially, rankings on the table can range from A to D and F; don’t dismiss the exercise as a children’s game since it is useful as a compass or as a direction-finder. Readers can change entries, or change the columns and rows to reset the table and reflect their own priorities. The point is to make assessments of the impact of authoritarianism objective and less arbitrary. True the entries are not hard numbers or statistics but filling out the table enforces mental discipline and forces people on whichever side to reason with care.
Having spelt out the barebones of a methodology I can proceed to fill out the rest of the table. The second row considers the direct effects of 20A within the next two years. I rate its Institutional impact (influence on state and corporate institutions, judiciary and apparatus of state repression) bad. The de facto military seizure of the top echelons of decision is Institutionally harmful – vide Egypt, Burma and the Banana Republics. The people of this country are now not capable of mass movements – except pogroms abetted by the police and military against minorities. In the foreseeable future there is no reason to believe the bourgeoise domestically, or internationally China, India or US will abandon Sri Lanka because it is authoritarian or a potential dictatorship. For these two reasons, I rated it B along the second row in respect of both Society and Finances. The C for Expertise at the end of the row is a shot in the dark; honestly, I am not sure whether innovation, smart-business, broad-human talent and intellectual excellence will desert the country in fear of putative dictatorship. On the third row the across the board C rating for the Economic Factor follows from my negative outlook for economic recovery under a dictator; talk of a tough Gotabaya executing wise economic programmes is partisan myth. Finally, every worm will turn one day hence my across-the-board D index on the last row; that is to say, the people will protest against dictatorship at some point in time and then the guns will come out. The D is meant to signal not current but I fear unavoidable future unrest.
It seems that the Gota autocracy which we much fear will be stillborn because of the two points I make in the next paragraph and also because, despite the Sajith Circus bungling the parliamentary vote, there is strong and deep opposition to 20A in the country. Religious orders, civil society and almost the entire intellectual classes have deplored the amendment and condemned its provisions point by point. There is more fear and opposition within the government than the parliamentary vote indicates. Many opportunist ministers who have sold their souls and sold themselves for a portfolio which is their highest aspiration in life our perturbed by 20A for the reason that it tilts the balance against their personal interests or political implications. All this adds up to two opposite possibilities; either the attempted autocracy will be weak and have little clout, or alliteratively driven by its own weaknesses the regime will lash out in ever more pernicious directions.
I would like to close with broad brush remarks about prospects for the posr-20A authoritarianism regime in Sri Lanka. The regime’s supporters are over the moon about two expectations: (a) public services will be reorganised, disciplined and put right, (b) economic development of the nation will take off. This is where a simple matrix like the table gives a snap-shot overview of the lay of the land and the direction in which things are likely to go. My take on both accounts is discouraging. There can be no dispute that though the public service inherited from colonial times served Ceylon and the classes that mattered in the post-independence decade, it is now inefficient, dysfunctional and corrupt. Modernising and restructuring the public services and changing the mind set of public servants is a daunting staff; it is easy to say Gota and his military cohorts have do not have the visions and that the legislature and judiciary (some cases have been dragging on for a generation and the bottleneck in the courts is a nightmare) are useless but the task is gigantic. In the two Asian territories that have top-class government administration the colonial administration was obliterated by Japanese occupation in WW2 and a brand-new model was burnished and installed in the 1950s and 1960s. Not only is Sri Lanka but in India, Pakistan and all across Africa the public service seems irreformable.
Economic renewal and growth on a capitalist basis, that’s what we are talking about is also a daunting task at the beast of times. We need “creative destruction” (Schumpeter), a lot of useless activities, processes and even jobs have to give way. New product lines, new ways of integration into global supply chains, stronger ties with regional economies and the uphill tasks of raising productivity and benefitting from the digital-economy are gigantic challenges. More sharply, at this juncture Sri Lanka is tossed by surging seas and buffeted by stormy winds. The ocean on which ship Lanka is tossed hither and tither is a restless sea of Chinese, Indian and American agitation, and to make things worse no one can be sure how this second and future waves of the corona virus will pan except to say that year 2021 is likely to be another year of little achievement for nation and government.
There is no need to expand on either because so much said about both and the razor thin margin in the presidential election will not change US foreign policy much and will not reduce the intensity of the “Thucydides Trap” that is containing the rise of China as a parallel world power. Gota is unlucky to be buffeted by these two tidal waves so early in his presidency. But it is also an opportunity; if he overcomes both and rises to high presidential stature he would make a mark, but I have argued in this essay is that by showing a mind set much dependent on command thinking and relying on the military Brass as his delivery vehicle, he has lost the plot in advance. Then we the people would have given away our democratic freedoms in exchange for nothing.