By Rajan Philips –
There is a tide in the affairs of politics.
Which, taken at the flood, might lead on to positive change;
Omitted, all the voyage of politics
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
Three articles last week by three widely read commentators, Kumar David, Ameer Ali, and Dayan Jayatilleka provide a remarkable instance of convergence in the diagnosis of the current political situation and prescriptions for its treatment. It might be trite and commonplace to say that many people in Sri Lanka are quite unhappy with what the no-longer-new President and his government are doing, or are not capable of doing. But it is a function of the art of politics to elaborate on popular dissatisfaction – its causes, its symptoms, its shared experience and its explosive potentials.
All three writers provide complementary and mutually reinforcing accounts of the current crises, the people’s outrage, as well as the government’s failures due to incompetence in spite of power, and aggravations arising from the corruption and abuse of too much power. There is also much common ground between them in what should and could be done by other political agencies in the current situation. There indeed is a rising tide of political outrage. Who will take it at the flood, and how?
Contours of Protest
In his article, “A fire has been lit”, Kumar David (KD) offers “one long sentence” of the current government’s malaise and its symptoms: “Inability to service foreign debt, painful price increases and shortages, pardoning of drug-lord buddies and murderers, a lunatic instant-ban on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, mishandling of the covid pandemic leading to loss of earning by day-labourers, fishermen and the poorest, abuse of power, interference with judicial processes, thuggish police, attacks on free speech, slavish subservience to China and the regime’s palpable bewilderment and loss of direction.”
Both Kumar David and Ameer Ali see no way out for the government from the deep economic hole that it has dug for itself. KD asserts that “the economy will continue to decline, there is nothing that Magic Basil or for that matter the opposition can do to help even if it wished to.” To this Ameer Ali (in his “Addendum to – A fire has been lit”) adds: “no amount of finetuning by monetary authorities in the Central Bank could postpone the day of reckoning, and the magic wand of an all-in-one Finance Minister is not going to stop the inevitable collapse of the economy.” While KD observes that “confrontation between regime and people has commenced,” and AA is convinced that “the end is nigh indeed for the Rajapaksa Regime and Gotabaya’s Vityathmaga cabal … (and) the people are not prepared to stomach the pain any more,” it is DJ who draws the contours of protests and the rising tide of outrage in the country.
In “Rajapaksa Raj and Student Power,” Dayan Jayatilleka insightfully notes that the peasantry and the students are “important zones” in any “mapping (of) the political sociology of the island.” Recalling that every political leader after independence has tried to “cultivate the rural peasantry” and keep the students out of trouble, DJ contends that “it has taken the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to take on both these social constituencies at the same time.” DJ diagnoses another simultaneity in the Rajapaksa familial power and universe. Unlike anywhere else in the world, what the Rajapaksas have achieved in Sri Lanka is the “simultaneous occupation and domination of state power by a family bloc.” Usually, succession of power occurs sequentially, but the Rajapaksas want state power simultaneously – here and now, and all at once for the entire family, jointly and severally.
Notes DJ: “Throughout history, people have put up with authoritarian political superstructures so long as their standards of living were manifestly improving. That’s how the UNP lasted 17 years in government. Broadly speaking this was also true of the SLFP’s 20 years in office. It won’t work today because (a) authoritarianism has turned autocratic and (b) there is a collapse in the everyday standards of living of the citizenry, unprecedented since the Sirimavo Bandaranaike years—but even she didn’t touch the peasantry.”
Adds AA: “The people are not prepared to stomach the pain anymore, and, in spite of the danger of getting infected by the pandemic, they are coming out in increasing numbers to voice their disgust and frustration and anger. One cannot fool all the people all the time. Yet, the pandemic has given a good excuse for the regime to arrest and quarantine the protestors to prevent protests from escalating. Covid is actually protecting the regime. In any case, barring a de facto military rule with or without Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a regime change is inevitable.”
For over a year, Covid-19 has been the government’s biggest excuse for its wholesale incompetence and pathetic performance. Without Covid-19 Sr Lanka would have achieved at least a quarter of the hyper-promised “Vistas of prosperity and splendour.” That was the political family-line (there is no party-line in the Rajapaksa universe). Now Covid-19 is serving a new purpose for the government. It is providing a new ‘covishield’ to the government. Not the Serum Institute’s Covishield vaccine (the Indian production of the Astra-Zeneca vaccine), but a politico-policing protective shield for the government from the rising tide and anger of protesters.
Already in May and June, the government started banning strikes in the state sector under the Essential Public Services Act. Also in June, control over social media was initiated by giving police the power to arrest without a warrant anyone suspected of publishing “fake news” on social media under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. On Tuesday, July 6, the government took cover under Covid-19 and banned protests and public meetings purportedly to prevent large gatherings and super spreads of the virus. This is after re-opening the economy and public activities without providing adequate safety measures.
After consistently ignoring all the pleas and admonitions of the medical scientific community, including government Doctors at the Ministry of Public Health, the government directed the Director General of Health Services Dr Asela Gunawardena to write to the Inspector General of Police to implement the new (covishield) rule. Two days later, Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara was on his hind legs in parliament, remonstrating that “the police are only carrying out the directives made by the Health Services DG to the Police Chief. If police arrest the protesters, the blame should go to the Health DG not to the police.”
Police moved in quickly after health guidelines enforcement was announced, to break up protests and arrest protesters from trade unions (state employees and teachers); students (protesting against the privatisation/militarisation of the Kotelawala National Defence University); farmers protesting against high fuel prices and the crazy, cowpoke ban of chemical fertilizers; and environmental activists protesting the destruction of the Muthurajawela wetlands.
The legality of police enforcing the health guidelines issued by the Director General of Health Services is being challenged in three Fundamental Rights petitions filed by the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal have been showing an encouraging streak of independence in some of their recent court rulings. The government will have no where to turn if courts were to start calling the bluff of Rajapaksa power.
AJ Wilson used to look for three signs as indications of government fatigue and the electorate’s impatience: university student protests, trade union strikes and unfavourable court rulings. Usually, they arrive in the last year of a government’s mandate. Now they have started arriving, not prematurely, but under extreme provocation even before two years are over after the 6.9 million presidential election and within one year of the two-thirds majority parliamentary election.
“Rural masses vote governments into power, the working class throws them out” – that was how Colvin R de Silva would describe the periodical electoral revolts and government changes in Sri Lanka in the first twenty five years after independence. What is unique and unusual this time is that the government has alienated practically every social stratum and across all its peoples – Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Everyone one wants change.
But unlike in the past there are too many elections now to achieve a simple, one-shot, regime change from one political party to another. People will have to vote in two elections (presidential and parliamentary) within a year before knowing which multi-party alliance is governing the country. And between the two national elections, there are provincial and local government elections. Governments have made a habit of either perpetually manipulating them to keep winning, or indefinitely postponing them to avoid the risk of losing. Overarching everything else is the referendum, which has been threatened many times, but has been called only once – to subvert democracy, not to reinforce it.
What next? What then?
These are the two questions that Kumar David and Ameer Ali, respectively ask, and provide answers to. Dayan Jayatilleka sums up the political mood, citing the title of 94 year old Stefane Hessel’s 32-page (2010) pamphlet published in France: ‘Time for Outrage.’ But outrage expressed through non-violence and peaceful protests. There is general apprehension about what the government will do if protests rise and outrage spills over. But, as KD says, “It is not necessary to incite confrontation between people and military when electoral victory down the line is certain.” DJ raises the call “for a united platform for a protest vote at any referendum on a new Constitution;” and for “all Opposition parties (to) resolve to help each other to form an administration at any Local Authorities and/or Provincial Council election.”
The positions of Kumar David on JVP/NPP and of Dayan Jayatilleka on the BJP are well known. What Ameer Ali has to say about the potentials and roles of the opposition parties is worth repeating: “Is there a credible alternative? Regime change itself is not sufficient. Among the available contestants for power, Sirisena’s SLFP is calculating the odds of deserting the coalition now or later to form a coalition on its own with breakaway elements from SLPP. RW has taken over the UNP captaincy to spoil any chance of SP’s SJB forging ahead. SJB, apart from criticizing the current regime has nothing original and special to offer. Parties of minority communities have absolutely no hope except, as usual, to join one of the winners. There are no other contenders in the arena except JVP, the only party and with an alternative agenda or program for economic revival that is trying hard to convince the masses of the party’s credibility.”
Ali also takes to task “the vicious fear mongering by reactionaries to paint this party (JVP) with the old brush”, while deliberately obfuscating the fact that “the new generation of JVP leadership is not even distantly connected to its 20th century pioneers,” and that many of the party’s current leaders were not even born during the days of the two JVP insurrections, and one or two of them may have been babies at that time.” Ali contends that the JVP’s “new generation has nothing to apologize for.”
Whether it is the JVP, or the SJB, or Champika Ranawaka’s 43 Senankaya, who is going to successfully ride the current tide of outrage, we do not know. We have our own preferences among political parties, but ultimately it is up to the organizations to prove themselves under fire. Their leaders must have fire in their bellies to be relevant at this time, and this is no time for anyone who jumps only when a candle is lit under one’s backside. At the same time there is much that can be done by everyone else to counter the actions of the government, or minimize their ill-effects.
Such actions can be undertaken in multiple spaces – in the media, on the streets, in institutions, and even in social and family networks. Sri Lanka is a closely knit society and it is not inconceivable that the power of a single family can be countered by the collective power of all the other families. Informal social and familial pressures can particularly be effective on public officials and professionals – not to sabotage the government. Not at all. But to do the right thing. More importantly, not to do the wrong thing.