By Ameer Ali –
Is there a more precious gift a family patriarch, who himself a former ruler, could expect to receive on his 74th birthday, than to see his own brother becoming the supreme head of the country he ruled? The victory of Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) as the seventh president of Sri Lanka was an unforgettable birthday gift to his elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR). On the 18th of November, while the new president took his Oath of Allegiance, not in front of members of the legislature, but in Ruwanwelisaya Stupa, a historic Buddhist precinct at Anuradhapura, his family patriarch, MR, celebrated his birthday, the day after. What a joyous coincidence and what a heavenly omen! In short, to the Rajapakse clan, this victory and the one to follow soon at the next General Elections are a double bonanza to mark the dawn of a new era. But, what about the country, its economy and the masses?
Ethno-Religious Divisions Deepen
In spite of all the colourful manifestos published and circulated among voters and outlandish promises made to them, the one issue that undoubtedly decided the winner in this contest was ethno-religious nationalism. Bitter and lingering memories about the civil war, its pestering wounds yet to heal and the shock of an Easter infamy inflicted by a bunch of Muslim lunatics in April this year, all were marshalled by the ethno-religious Buddhist nationalists to create and present an image to the Sinhala public that the two minorities are a clear and imminent danger to the security of this nation. While politicians of the two minorities, Muslims openly and Tamils silently, hoped for a 2015 repeat scenario when their votes decided the winner in a tightly fought presidential contest, and threw their support behind Sajith Premadasa (SP), who did not even carry the full support of his own party leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, an uncompromising but ultra-nationalist section of the institutionalised Buddhist clergy spearheaded a campaign to deprive the minorities of that privilege and rallied Sinhala Buddhist voters behind Gotabaya, who in their view will be the man to save Buddhist Sri Lanka. (It was more than a coincident that almost immediately after the Easter bombing, GR announced that he would be the man to take care of the security of the nation). Sections of both main stream and social media in cahoot with Buddhist business interests also joined that campaign, which in the final analysis emerged as a battle between the Buddhist majority and minorities. While SP won handsomely in the Tamil and Muslim concentrated Northern and Eastern provinces, GR registered victory in all others. On the whole, he won by an absolute majority of 52.25%. In this victory, Buddhist nationalist campaigners has given a clear message to the winner that this is a totally Sinhala Buddhist country, and that he does not need the support of any minority to govern, a disturbing message indeed. Unlike the previous presidential elections, this one has deepened the ethnic and religious divisions in Sri Lanka. The victory of SWRD in 1956, which also saw the energetic role of political Buddhism, pales into insignificance when compared to the victory of GR. Minorities are obviously stunned and are forced to rethink of their political strategies to cope with a rejuvenated Buddhist supremacist wave. Even though the words of the new president, spoken immediately after taking his oath of allegiance, ‘to uphold the rights of all citizens, create a country where all religions and cultures can coexist’ are somewhat soothing to a fearful minority, there are many hurdles he had to cross if he were to deliver on this promise. One can only wish him well.
Issues of Governance
Attempts are already underway to make MR the Prime Minister and to revisit the constitution to amend or re-amend in order to empower the new regime to undertake any change it wants, except, as the father of that constitution said, to make a man woman and vice versa. In one of my previous pieces to this journal (“The Coming Duumvirate & Economic Challenge”, 5 Nov. 2019) and published a day later in FT, I alluded to the possibility of personality differences and clash among members of ruling families. In monarchical regimes, both in distant past and in recent times, such clashes had led to palatial revolutions, patricides, matricides, fratricides and even coup d’etats. Even if one dismisses such extreme outcomes, one cannot totally ignore the destabilising effects of personality clashes in family ruled regimes.
GR is known for his military style discipline and for being a taskmaster. The way he cleaned up Colombo when he was attached to the Ministry of Defence is proof of these qualities. He has promised to form a technocratic cabinet, but an essential prerequisite for technocracy is meritocracy. The technocrats should be selected on the basis of merit. If he were to deliver on that promise, then, one can expect the size of that cabinet be a lot smaller than what this country had witnessed in recent times, hopefully less expensive and therefore more productive and highly efficient. A government run by such a cabinet can be expected to be free of corruption and nepotism, the two evils that has ruined this country and bankrupted the treasury. The big question however is, whether his brother prime minister and members of the clan would allow GR a free hand to undertake such fundamental changes. What are the constraints?
The size of the legislature has more than doubled from 95 elected and 6 appointed representatives, between 1940s and 1972, to the current figure of 225 of whom 29 are unelected. The increase in the size of population is the primary reason to increase the number of parliamentary representatives. However, the quantity and quality of cabinet members depend on the quantity and quality of the representatives. The low educational qualifications of a large number of current representatives, their inability to even comprehend the essentials of complex problems facing the nation, and the unethical behaviour of these members are all an index of a continuous deterioration in the quality of our politicians. Given this situation, how will President GR create a technocratic cabinet, introduce meritocracy, clean up corruption and nepotism, and increase performance efficiency unless he brings such technocrats through the backdoor or set strict quality conditions at the outset for candidates contesting the General Election from his party? Will his brother PM, who is a populist and a man for the gallery with readiness to bend rules to favour his supporters and cronies agree to go along with the demands of a disciplinarian president? Only time will tell.
Ballooning budget deficits, continuing trade deficits, falling productivity and rising debt burden both public and private, have made the economy the victim of callous mismanagement. The wealth gap has widened so rapidly and the pain of living has become so unbearable to a vast majority, that suicide rate in the country has been noted increasing. The president’s promises to reduce tax burden and provide inducement to investors are to be welcome, but they have to be part of a co-ordinated economic plan, which is not there yet. The neoliberal open economy paradigm has to be revisited to make certain fundamental changes to fit Sri Lankan environment. In the meantime, public expenditure needs pruning, but how can that be done amidst all welfare promises dished out by MR and company during the campaign? The task facing the new regime is monumental and measures needed to rectify the situation have to be comprehensive and systemic, and not uncoordinated and spasmodic.
Economic growth and development are not simply the function of mathematical models and some combination of micro and macroeconomic variables. They are, in the final analysis, the product of people participation. There is no better asset to an economy than its people. This reality must be understood by policy makers. In a plural society like Sri Lanka every component of that plural make up must be energised to participate and benefit from the growth game. This is the secret behind the success of tiny Singapore. Singapore economy was built by Singaporeans and not by Chinese. Likewise Sri Lankan economy has to be built by Sri Lankans and not by Sinhalese Buddhists alone. The president may not have received many votes from the minorities, but they have to be brought in into the growth equation to achieve economic prosperity. To marginalise them in order to satisfy the hegemonic desires of ultra-nationalists is to deprive the economy of invaluable resources.
From Latin America to Middle East and from Europe to Southeast Asia, public unrest caused by economic injustice and denial of political participation and absence of basic human rights, is spreading. There has been a growing fear among groups of intellectuals, thinkers, writers and journalists in Sri Lanka about a looming authoritarianism under the GR-MR duumvirate. Subtle authoritarianism with participatory democracy, economic justice and rule of law, as in Singapore and some other Southeast Asian countries has no doubt produced economic miracles. Bereft of those positive and harmony enhancing complementarities political authoritarianism alone will end up in perennial disharmony and economic disaster as witnessed in parts of Africa and Latin America.
Politics of Minorities
This presidential election has taught one valuable lesson to the Tamil and Muslim minorities, and that is, neither of them jointly nor separately have the capacity and strength to decide the political destiny of Sri Lanka in the future. As mentioned in one of my previous articles in this journal (“Political Buddhism, Presidential Race & Minorities”, 25 October 2019), there had been a “tectonic shift in the Sinhala mindset” after 2009. It was this shift that produced the Buddhist supremacists and it was their campaign and message that primarily ensured GR’s victory. Ethno-religious nationalism has taken an aggressively supremacist turn at least among some sections of an articulate Sinhala Buddhist public, which is extremely intolerant towards ethnic minorities playing a role in national politics. These supremacists will no doubt carry a disproportionately heavy weight in the administration and policy making of the new regime, in spite of GR’s promise of egalitarianism. How should minorities respond to this new challenge?
Ethnic minorities with exclusive ethnic parties can never find satisfactory solutions to ethnic issues in post-2019 Sri Lanka. They have to continue their struggle but by joining hands with other cosmopolitan political groupings that are deeply rooted within the majority Sinhala community. Without empathy from the majority, minorities will be left out in political wilderness. Among the forty-eight percent who did not vote GR, the vast majority were Sinhala Buddhists who, like the minorities, were also stunned at the outcome. They obviously did not agree to the racist propaganda spread by the supremacists.
Similarly, the most shocking result, from this author’s point of view, was the abject performance of the progressive party NPP, represented by Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD). Of all the candidates, he was the only one who was relentlessly advocating a multipronged and comprehensive agenda for the country’s economic recovery with readiness to settle the ethnic issue. He was also the only candidate who was advocating a plan to redistribute income and narrow the wealth gap. However, in the avalanche of crass communalism, his voice was also swept away.
The time has come for minorities to look for a better future and plan their strategies to face the forthcoming parliamentary election. Although SLPP’s victory momentum cannot be stopped, it is important that it should confront a formidable opposition in the parliament, at least “to keep the bastards honest”, as one Australian politician once said. As a prerequisite, all ethnic parties must be dissolved, and Tamils and Muslims should work in alliance with progressive forces amongst the Sinhalese.
Finally, NPP should reorganise itself, widen its reach among all communities and resume its campaign without delay to counter the new challenge.