17 June, 2024


Understanding The Country’s Problems

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Among critics of the regime, much tends to be made of the point that the electoral system favours two parties and that an alternative is needed. Anti-corruption has become the call of the hour, while many of those who say that we should vote the government out hasten to add that shouldn’t vote or get the Opposition in.

In other words, while critics of the SLPP aren’t necessarily supporters of the SJB, they have become critics of the system. Insofar as this has pushed them towards a party, these voters are increasingly turning to the JVP and its parliamentary avatar, the NPP.

Given that nearly every class has turned to these establishments, it comes to no surprise that most diagnoses of the present situation recommend an overhaul of the system, a point on which everyone seems to be agreed. Recommendations include abolishing the Executive Presidency, replacing it with a parliamentary system, increasing oversight over parliament, and making asset declarations compulsory for MPs. These proposals reflect the distrust with which the masses view MPs today, which is why it should surprise no one that the JVP has noted them in its manifesto in the most idealistic tones possible.

Such critiques of “The System” are, of course, not unique to Sri Lanka. Anna Hazare built up an entire movement around the theme in India, bringing down the Congress government and propping up Narendra Modi. More significantly, across the transatlantic world of the 1990s, socialist and social democratic parties reinvented themselves as Third Way centrists by tapping into the electoral potential of “deradicalised” anti-establishment politics. This eventually spread to centre-left parties in the Third World, turning most if not many of them towards an ideology rooted in a distrust of politicians.

From Clintonian Democrats to Blairite Labourites, distinctions that had once prevailed between right and left across the Atlantic were dispensed with, on the grounds that the post-Cold War conjuncture had made them unnecessary. Politics, in other words, was no longer about enacting policies, but rather about achieving consensus.

In giving way to these trends, these parties let go of much of what had defined them, in particular their commitment to state-directed social equity. Like their counterparts in the Third World, which included the Freedom Party in Sri Lanka and the Congress Party in India, these outfits abandoned their raison d’être on the pretext of adapting to a new order. This process is still ongoing, and as Tariq Ali has noted in The Extreme Centre, its effects continue to be felt. It is one of the principal legacies of the collapse of Communism.

The result was one grand unholy mess. Policy formulation, at its very inception, requires ideological orientation. Without a proper ideology to call their own, Third Way Centrism floundered, eventually shifting to the right. Thus, in the lead-up to the 1997 election Tony Blair and his deputies in the Labour Party promised to reverse the policies of Thatcherism, while at the same time assuring Big Business that a Labour government would be amenable to their interests. In the same vein, Bill Clinton promised to ditch the Reaganist legacy, only to continue with Reaganist policies to their logical conclusion. Closer to home, the Congress Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party embraced free market economics, determined to strike a compromise between their ideological roots and post-Cold War realities.

To consider anti-corruption as a preserve of Third Way Centrists or Radical Centrists would of course be reductionist. Yet there are traces of Giddensian Centrism in many of the claims made by politicians, political outfits, and NGOs who campaign against corruption and graft. The underlying message in these claims is that, at its very inception, politics is tainted by sin, and a citizens’ movement is needed to defeat them. In other words, it is the political class that is responsible for society’s problems, the obvious solution being an alternative to not so much mainstream parties as the political system itself.

There is very little difference between these claims and the claims of free market advocates who contend that a society’s problems are rooted as much in politics as in government, and the way out of the mess is reducing the size of the State. Hence the same activists who call for greater accountability from bureaucrats recommend the privatisation of national assets and the easing of price controls. To them there is no contradiction between these proposals: in politics as in economics, they believe less is more. This is why many of our political liberals are also economic liberals or more correctly neoliberals, and why even left-liberal discourses are notoriously vague on issues like debt restructuring or going to the IMF.

Of course these ideologues, and the politicians supporting them, aren’t all that clear about what they want for themselves or the country. The Opposition’s attitude to price controls is a case in point. When controls were eased two months ago and rice oligopolists decided to escalate prices, the anger on the streets was too much for SJB MPs to claim, as free market advocates on Twitter did, that it was the right thing to do.

Today the SJB is divided between MPs who want such measures extended and those who think we need to stop them. As Devaka Gunawardena has observed in a perceptive article, neoliberal elements in the SJB explicitly sympathise with the ordinary consumer. Yet as their social media feeds make clear, privately they are not in disagreement with the general tenor of such policy reversals, and in fact advocate more of the same.

These developments have infected the Left too, which is why the NPP’s proposed solutions, tentatively titled “Rapid Response”, are not a little vague on points which need specification and elaboration. The NPP does identify the Open Economy as the root of all evil and does go about recommending solutions such as import substitution and making unaccountable elites pay their due. But in themselves, these are hardly enough.

Indeed, in more than one section the document leaves much to the readers to figure out, while in others, like the section on “Culture”, there’s hardly any solution. When it comes to important issues like debt repayment, all the authors can say is that the party will “[d]evelop a formal plan for the next five years.” But why wait? Why not develop it now?

I think I understand the NPP’s strategy: to have no coherent strategy at all. I know this is a little cruel, but it is vital to understanding what the NPP wants.

The NPP wants to bring together a broad coalition of anti-regimists. Now, the clearer its policies are, the more specific its target audience will be. Hence, by limiting proposals like import substitution to words, it can leave the task of specifying them to the future, after it wins elections. The plan here is to keep as many as possible happy with its opposition to the government, thereby targeting what I call the golden mean of disgruntled voters.

Three decades of Third Way Centrism should make us aware that this tactic can only lead to electoral suicide. An obsession with reaching a compromise may win votes in the short and medium term, but in the longer term it can only deprive parties of the radical potential they require to propose a way out. Why the NPP, of all parties, should opt for such a path, when recent developments in Latin America point to other strategies, boggles me.

Already neoliberal think-tanks in the country are recalling and critiquing the JVP’s policies under the Chandrika Kumaratunga government. Already blue-chip executives who professed admiration for the likes of Anura Kumara Dissanayake and Sunil Handunheththi are expressing their disappointment with their proposals. What is the NPP’s response to such turnarounds? We obviously need to know, but we don’t yet have the answers.

The Opposition’s strongest point is, of course, its opposition to the present political set-up. Some are calling for a different political system, others for a different face in a reformed status quo. Almost none of these reformists suggest an alternative to the economic model we have enforced since the 1980s, which on the one hand has generated discontent and on the other deprived the government of tax revenues to finance welfare.

Couching reform in terms of cutting down social welfare, while not doing anything to address economic inequalities, would be the height of folly. Yet this is the neoliberal right’s preferred way out, which neither the social democrats in the SJB nor the left-liberal activists in the NPP are contending with, much less contesting, even less disputing.

It is certainly unfair to single out the current administration, though it has to share much of the blame for the crisis we are in. A better proposition would be to recognise the nature of the crisis we are in and call for alternatives on issues that directly affect the people, such as food prices. That is the sanest solution we can articulate, the only one worth proposing. But how many in the Opposition, the SJB and the NPP included, will concede this?

*The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Latest comments

  • 3

    This author seems to be highly biased and even unfair when commenting on the economic plan of the NPP’s Rapid Respobnse to the Current Crisis? He says, “The NPP does identify the Open Economy as the root of all evil and does go about recommending solutions such as import substitution and making unaccountable elites pay their due. But in themselves, these are hardly enough’. Then he says the NPP strategy is to have no strategy? What a misrepresentation of the NPP strategy? In the first chapter titled A Thriving economy Instead of a dependent economy,the document states the following:

    Our Approach
    We advocate a value-added economic approach that considers which products and services should be manufactured, which produc on methods should be adopted, which technologies to use, how to u lise human and physical resources, how foreign trade structure should be shaped and how bene ts of the manufacturing process should be shared among the people. At the same me we envision a new approach that takes into account humanity, social jus ce, eco- friendliness, economic sustainability, the speci ci es of our history and culture, public par cipa on, op mal resource u liza on and economic democracy.
    • A comprehensive na onal plan on economic development goals to be achieved in the short, medium and long term
    • Prepare the human resources required to implement the above plan

    • 3

      A curious fact is that these “unaccountable elites” are the backbone of the current export economy. From garment factory owners to wheeler- dealers like Nadesan and the owner of the airplane that MR “borrowed” recently, these guys have their feet firmly on both sides of the political divide. There was one of them in the Pandora Papers. They are all very good but amoral businessmen. If the JVP plans to move in on them, it simply won’t work, as Mrs. B found out in the 70’s. Sinhala Buddhists simply don’t have the skills for that.

      • 2

        Great. All the Lankan business elite have managed to take country money, crrated industry (nothing original of course), generated a few jobs for the suffering masses, and made a few billion $$$ for themselves to invest in off-shore accounts.

        Sufferring masses never got a decent pay-wage in comparison to the Elite $$$’s.

        Nothing is wrong with the Centrist way ; nothing wrong with the Free and Liberal Market. Plenty is wrong with the Lankan Business Monetary Law Structure.

        Therefore, only JVP-NPP can ensure Super-Profits are not concentrated at the top ; Profits are to be put into a quadrupling of current worker wages.

        Fear not: Once all Elite greed is three-quartered down, a new standard will be set for these Elite to rival with each other on. After all, they merely installed systems that other countries like America did the original creations on….it was not much brain and/or sweat on their part. And so, not much monetary incentive is needed to stimulate any creative juices in them. Give an ordinary business graduate of the masses, some $$$ amount to work on, and he will willingly create the same profits within an honorable Business Monetary Law System.

      • 2

        If the JVP comes to power,there will be plenty of economists and other experts who will come to assist. A new government can seek help from other countries,interpol as well. By the way JVP and NPP will be a composision of supporters from all ethnic groups. See the ranslation of Anura’s interview. He talks about Sri Lankanness. Lal Wijenayake in the kandy District Conference alked about the lack of a SL identity. So the picture is more complex.

    • 1

      Very good set of plans of the NPP.

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