By Ravi perera –
“After he had talked of the excesses of the President’s rule-the cruelties in the villages, the harassment of the Asian community, the censorship of the press, the regimentation of the students in the university-the lawyer (Indian origin) went back to talking of the qualities he had admired in the president. It was as though, in spite of everything he had said, he had reached a personal point of rest and reconciliation, and had a bright vision of the future” – (an East African post-independence experience) – A Way in the World- VS Naipaul
History may not judge either of them eminent, however that Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa have occupied a central space in the Sri Lankan political landscape of recent times is undeniable. After all, Mahinda Rajapaksa has been elected President of the country twice, while Ranil Wickremesinghe is the President today.
Dissimilarities in dress and manner aside, they share more commonalities than usually recognized. Methods could vary, the goal is the same, power by any means. Power is not something new to them, for nearly twenty years now, they have headed alternate governments. They want more, a craving that cannot be gratified. Going on their record, neither deserves power, economically as well as socially, the country is on its knees today; surely in these twenty years, something could have been done to avoid this plight or in the very least, forewarned the country of the impending disaster.
Both are home grown, having no life experiences outside of this island. Hail from unlike backgrounds maybe, however when it comes to the art of politics in this country, they are part of the same narrative; political families, the highly romanticized secondary school experience, close connections to past leaders, early political ambitions – as early as their teens, all adding up to manufacture a self-serving tradition. For them, the claptrap they have lived with all their lives is a standard, the preferred way to do politics. In fact, they are the system in this country, tinker with it they may, but cannot ever be outside of it, a scheme of things which has advantaged them throughout. Why change a game, stacked in your favour?
Today while an impoverished nation stands marooned on a shore of despair, the duo remains unrepentant and unperturbed. After more than half a Century on the public stage, a good part of it in very high positions, they are unbelievably facile in the face of a broken nation, failed institutions and a hopelessly stagnant economy. This must be the only country where two seventy-year-old men are calling for new beginnings and fresh initiatives!
Such is the misfortune of this nation, for nearly two decades, the only credible choice before our voter has been the Rajapaksa led SLFP/PA or the Wickremesinghe dominated UNP. They made a mockery of the concept of choice; having the respective political party in a vice like grip, offered each other when the election time came (or their proxy, if the occasion demanded it). What one may lack, the other was supposed to have oodles of Rajapaksa may have been socially unsophisticated, Wickremesinghe according to the Colombo hotline could advise the British Royal family on etiquette! While Wickremesinghe had no sense of the public pulse, Rajapaksa was painfully commonplace, personifying the lowest common denominator. Thus were the putative alternative before us, and they called it democracy. After all, the people have voted for us, says they!
An outsider encountering our so called leaders could well assess them charlatans. If he goes a little deeper to look at Sri Lanka’s statistics, the monumental incompetence of these men will be laid bare. In the country however there is a different narration; we are possessed of an unsurpassed leadership class! The duo, catching in on the opportunities this Alice in Wonderland like perception provides, encourage the pseudo- historical mythology, let the people soak in the inanities of native elitism that this poverty-stricken island nation is awash with! The people must know that the blood running in the veins of their leaders have a special quality!
If Hambantota has its leadership myths, Colombo has even more. In both places, rural Hambantota as well as urban Colombo, there is talk of traditional leadership, a description used with a heavy meaning. The image created is that of a larger than life personality; wise, able and honest. Big families, generation after generation selflessly serving the helpless nation, upholding the culture and defending the religion. There are additional attributes: deliberate, far-sighted, has attended a “good” school, perhaps carries a graduate degree from the UK. The narrator in Hambantota will draw comparisons between his idol of today and the legends of the kings; for the Colombo storyteller his hero runs parallel with the Churchills and the Roosevelts of the world. It matters not that after seventy years of self-governance, Sri Lanka’s record shows no such leadership, remaining a deeply troubled poor -income country, with an approximate per Capita of a mere US $ 4000.
Rajapaksa was not always considered an elite, most of his political career while anchored in the rural South, was inclined, although in an unanalysed manner, towards an anti-establishment posture. But there was always a hint of a rough country man on the make about him, eagerly reaching out to the comportments, comforts and the conveniences of the city; Christian schools(private), the English game of Rugby, and a life style loudly urban is preferred for his children. With his rise to the Presidency things changed rapidly, the Rajapaksa family came to enjoy, with the zest of the new comer, all the good things that power and money can bring.
The elite status is a heady drug, especially when all about you are a poorly crowd, effortlessly dazzled with what the President can dangle before them. They may not be possessed of the social acceptability, the earlier more recognized political families commanded, nevertheless, with his elevation, the Rajapaksa family had arrived.
In the mature democracies, we rarely see the Head of State, upon relinquishing his office, coming back to parliament as a member! Not only does this diminish the stature of the first citizen, it reduces the constitutional validity of that office. Not one, but we have two former Presidents in parliament today. One of them, Mahinda Rajapaksa, successfully manoeuvred his own bumbling brother to the office of the President, a distasteful manipulation of the democratic process, for which the country paid dearly.
Ours is an unmade society, mostly flotsam and jetsam; a doubtful elite, discredited institutions, undigested ideas, crude adaptations and clumsy rituals hopelessly floundering in an ocean of want and ineptitude. In this churning chaos, Rajapaksa became a new brand, successfully blinding the people with its garish light for more than a decade. Eventually, the true nature of the fantasy maker is revealed; reality could be suspended for a fleeting hour, but it cannot be denied for ever.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has essayed for himself a role for which we know of no parallel. There have been leaders in history whose claim to lead had been based on strength of character, ability to inspire, charisma, even sage like qualities, but a person whose leadership claim is based on “perfect” knowledge?
The scope of his self-claimed knowledge is awe-inspiring: various constitutional and legal requirements of the country, the way to develop our economy (with the additional skill to rescue it when in trouble like at the present), world history, geo-politics, to the minuet workings of international organizations such as the IMF, global businesses, the stock market and sovereign bonds. In other words, nearly everything to do with men and matters.
Most leaders would set a broad policy, exhorting their bureaucrats/technocrats to work towards them. The minutia of the thousand and one things inherent in any complex effort is beyond the mastery of one person. Reading a book or two will not make an amateur into a master of a given subject. Lacking the background, he is bound to miss the wood for the trees. It is frightening that there is a man who claims to have all answers. Such an attitude can only confound, if not paralyse the workings of a system.
One of our hard-pressed cardiologists may not be able to claim as an impressive knowledge spread like Wickrdmesinghe, but his particular discipline will enable to him to serve satisfactorily in any part of the world. He can attend to a heart patient in Namibia with the same competence he may display in Norway.
Clearly, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s strengths are not as broadly applicable as that of our cardiologist. For example, no one in Britain will think of recruiting Wickremesinghe to advise that government in their hour of crisis. Nor will his skills come into play if asked to jump-start the moribund economy of Afghanistan or that of the deeply troubled Lebanon. His self-acclaimed expertise is peculiar to this country. An illusionist’s puff of smoke, perhaps more a representation of a nation’s intellectual disability, than an ability in Wickremesinghe.
As we know, Economics, like governance, is not an exact science, their subject matter being human society, there are too many incalculable factors. In the workings of both an economy as well as a government, ultimately it is the quality of the particular people, their ingenuity, energy, discipline and attitudes that matter. For example, the presidential system of government may work well in one culture, in another it could be a disaster. Similarly, in an economy, there are many imponderables, making it impossible to be certain of the outcome. Policies that flourish one time in one country, may be catastrophic in another. A country may do everything possible to create a successful export economy, only to find a neighbouring country doing the same thing, with a lower labour cost.
Now the International Monetary Fund is spoken of as our only saviour. We cannot be certain of all the consequences of such a bailout, the full impact of long term credit takes decades to reveal themselves. In general, for the success in any credit situation, the conduct of both the creditor as well as the debtor is fundamental. When the debtor is a country, the situation is extremely complex. While the IMF has played an important role is stabilizing certain situations, not all are convinced of the long term desirability of its arrangements.
Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-Prize winning Economist has critiqued the IMF as a primary culprit in the failed economic policies implemented in some of the poorest countries. He has argued that many of the economic reforms the IMF demanded as a condition for lending such as -fiscal austerity, high interest rates, trade liberalisation, open capital markets have often proved unproductive and devastating for local populations. Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argues ‘We cannot reliably know whether the consequences of the IMF policies were worse than whatever the alternative would have been”
Other economists have pointed to IMF successes –the stabilizing of the Asian financial crisis (1997-98) being one. In some countries, IMF policies have helped recovery and subsequent growth. In 2002 Brazil not only stabilized after IMF intervention, it even repaid the loan ahead of schedule.
These are true professional opinions, with many ifs and buts and grey areas. Unlike our amateur economists, for the truly learned, certainty is a luxury.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the short lived British Chancellor of the Exchequer has the kind of credentials the Sri Lankan elite are wont to put on a pedestal. Of Ghanaian origins, he is an only child, with a Barrister mother and an Economist father. The family became British citizens in the early 1960s. Kwarteng has had the best possible training for the job; Eton, Cambridge and a stint at Harvard. For some time, he was also a columnist for the respected Daily Telegraph. The economic policies adopted by Prime Minister Liz Truss and Chancellor Kwarteng did not go down well with the markets whose very negative reaction brought down their government. Obviously, these are not policies just dreamt up by Truss and Kwarteng overnight. Many economic advisers, academics and think- tanks would have worked on their formulation. But these two took the responsibility for the failure, and resigned from their posts.
In the larger perspective, the current economic disruptions in Britain may prove to be a mere blip. Going by their history, the British have repeatedly chosen prosperity over poverty, strength over weakness, institution over personality. Public affairs devoid of principles or standards will become plunder; not only of money, the people’s value, self-respect and the future is taken away.
The prompt and dignified exit of both Truss and kwarteng affirms a tradition, where there is renewal, there is hope.