By Kumar David –
The spirit of my heading is not a mocking: ‘He can’t get anything done; his Interim Administration (IA) is an exercise in futility’ gesture. Not at all, it is a serious even bookish question about what RW’s IA with a bit of luck is likely to achieve and what, even a congenital optimist will grant, it cannot do. And in between there are a raft of maybe and may-not-be options. I have never been a UNP supporter but I will not let my political views stand in way of the assessment offered here.
I think RW will pull a few rabbits out of the hat and get a few things done re the impending catastrophe. Maybe that’s one reason why he said “the next two months could be the worst”. If he eases the pain he can crow “See I did it!” Tamil Nadu has flagged-off ship-loads of rice, milk-powder and medicines and Delhi flagged-off mercy-tankers of petroleum/oil. Japan has offered a $1.5 billion grant which we will not be able to repay. The IMF and the Americans have not yet dropped anything in the begging bowl but charity is being pondered. For some incomprehensible reason, though we know we are a crummy lot, the rest of the world has a soft corner for Ceylon-Sri Lanka. And then there are the virtues of nonalignment. If RW plays coy he can get the Chinese and QUAD to compete for mating rights. Petrol and gas shortages may ease and if so RW will claim credit and wolf-whistle at Sajith to come over for a cuddle and a tumble. This is not unrealistic; it is a possible two-month subplot; indeed so far he has outsmarted the SJB. However, crucially, if he fails to ease the fuel snarl up within two weeks he will be toast; public opinion will turn against him and there will be more trouble on the streets.
If this subplot seems manageable, the next is much tougher. Food! Gotabaya’s imbecile fertiliser dogma has brought the country to the threshold of starvation. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres singled out Afghanistan and Lanka as countries where people will go hungry this year. Furthermore, even if we had dollars the global scene is very bad. Many UN agencies warn of a food crisis; between 1.5 billion and 400 million will go hungry. An FAO information note points out that Russian wheat accounts for 16.8% of world wheat exports and Ukraine’s share is 11.5%. In 2021; either Russia or Ukraine (or both) ranked among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil. (China and India, in that order are the world’s largest wheat producers). Russia is the world’s top exporter of nitrogen fertilizers, second in potassium fertilizer and the third in of phosphorous fertilizer. The UN warns of an unavoidable dire fate. Bread price in this Gota-blighted island has doubled. RW et al can do nothing about any of this except pray harder.
Why not make a conspiracy-theory movie with a plot that our fertiliser scuttling imbeciles were working in cahoots with Russia and Ukraine to hold the world to ransom? I have a grumpy buddy in Australia who will buy the global rights if it’s gloomy enough. Seriously though, the Treasury and the Central Bank have been robbed dry by the villainy or idiocy, respectively, of MR plus Royal Family, or GR. This then is RW’s third hurdle (after fuel shortages and the food calamity). The nation’s reserves are gone, the future is bleak and RW and his merry-men cannot overcome this. At some stage people will say of RW either: “The bugger tried and did a few things, but the real villains are the goddamn Paksas”, or they will roll him up with the Paksa-brigands and nearly-225 other sons of bachelors and damn him too.
Alas I am not done with bad omens. The worst pertains to a medium-term programme to rebuild the nation’s economy. In a series of columns spread over weeks I have made some points that people have agreed with. Prominent is the inescapable fact that we as a nation consume and have for some 70+ years consumed more than we produce. Ceylon-Sri Lanka is broke because we ate our way through much more than the output of our economy. A significant cut in consumption is already in full swing. Steep inflation, hefty increases in fuel prices and a fall in the value of LKR by 50% without an increase is wages, amounts to substantial restructuring of the economy away from consumption. Savings of all description, insurance and pensions, indeed anything monetary in public hands have de facto been slashed in value. Inevitably there will be more to come. Cutting the consumption side in economic restructuring is well underway; but production, productivity, restoring a fiscal primary-balance and a positive current-account are issues that still have to be addressed.
Does this sound like taking the side of the well-heeled against the yakos? No, the capitalist class was into crooked games up to its eyeballs. The worst was JR’s neoliberal period (RW was a part of it), oiled by anti-Tamil pogroms, subversion of the judiciary and an authoritarian constitution. But to stay within the narrow remit of the economic argument, the JR era of neoliberal opening-up for much sought-after global investors and unchecked laissez faire in domestic economics was a disaster. Investors did not arrive in anything like expected numbers, plunder of national resources was heightened and pauperisation of Northern and Eastern farmers was a factor in the rise of Tamil nationalism.
Having got this anti-capitalist harangue off my chest, the question remains “What to do now?” Two things that will have to be done even if God Almighty becomes Finance Minister is consumption will have to be pruned and production and productivity raised. The left will wail at the first; but what the hell comrades Lenin did it, Stalin did it with an iron fist, Stalinist governments did it in Eastern Europe, the great helmsman tried in China but mucked it up because he was half-mad by then, Castro did it fairly successfully (think healthcare, education and poverty alleviation) though US aggression undercut any thought of democracy. The big difference is that Lanka is not a post-revolutionary society; our task is to push in progressive social-democratic directions. The left, if faithful to its past, will not steal; furthermore it can help people understand why they are sacrificing and that the usufruct will be ploughed back for the benefit of their children.
To get back to RW. Ok I am prepared to grant that he is not a crook, unlike the Paksa-Plunderers, SLPP hangers-on and the majority of current MPs and one-time Provincial Councillors – you know what I am saying; adverbs and adjectives fail me and my Editor has a phobia against four-letter words. The question at issue is can an Interim Administration led by RW, buttressed by cross-overs from here and there and everywhere, with a less than second-rate Cabinet, carry through a programme curtailing consumption and engendering increased economic output? The answer is that the question is beside the point because the IA has no mandate beyond dealing with urgent tasks pertaining to the prevailing crisis. RW plus alliances he concocts (the SJB has now put its head down offered to back the IA) must win an election to gain legitimacy for any medium- or long-term programme on his drawing board. So, in tennis parlance; point-and-set to early elections.
The other bourgeois-democratic option, the Sajith bandwagon, cannot form a government till it wins a general election or cobbles together a working-majority or teams up with RW in an electoral front. That makes it ‘game’ too to early elections. Now let’s give our mind to match-point. What will appease an angry populace and mollify Gale Face Green? I cannot imagine any government without an electoral mandate surviving and executing a programme of reforms and reconstruction, unchallenged, for a goodly length of time. That surely is match-point for holding an election as quickly as the Elections Department can arrange it.
Do I have a programme I will stick my neck out for? Well here goes. “Gota Go” is unconditional, but timing is negotiable within limits provided the funeral date is announced now. That will appease the masses and mollify GFG. Every day Gota stays is perilous; he will undercut Aragalaya and conspire with fellow Ganna Akka deifying devotees in the military. So long as he remains at the helm, emergency, curfew and military-on-the-streets will be Lanka’s lot. Rumour has it that a crisis about draft 21A where the President is not debarred from holding a ministry. A section of the SLPP it alleged is making a last ditch attempt to resuscitate Paksa-Power via a Basil reincarnation. If true these cut the ground under RW who will be pressured into an alliance with Aragalaya? Good but does he have Imran Khan’s fighting motivation? All this, including crucially the indispensable abolition of the Executive Presidency, belong to the political domain. All are no-brainers.
Far, far more complex is the economic dimension; we need a via-media acceptable to the mass and feasible in prevailing circumstances. Switching this essay to a left perspective, I have aimed these last three paras at the NPP, JVP and Frontline, but iit will interest others as well. I concede that the state-form will retain capitalist features for the foreseeable future; but what capitalism? There are as many “capitalisms” (and “non-capitalisms”) as there are fingers on my two hands; Egypt or England, Pakistan or Peru, (and Vietnam or Venezuela). The concept of state-form has become complex and convoluted the world over in this era, especially in the last forty years. However this is not the occasion for a review of state theory in the Twenty-first Century.
What kind of semi-capitalism in Lanka; neoliberal, laissez faire, state-directed, franchises to the capitalists or populist concessions to the masses? Markets do indeed rationalise production decisions and up to a point investment options; neither central planners nor computer algorithms can replicate that. But markets also need to be regulated, controlled and directed in the social interest. This is a balance that calls for intelligence, expertise and vision. To manage a Twenty-first century economy one needs a core cadre with adequate internal expertise at the heart of political power, but one also needs relationships with assemblies of experienced specialists outside.
In addition to old economic skills, to run a government one must understand non-fungibles that have risen to prominence in recent decades; finance-capital, monetary policy, global trade and institutional practices. In addition there are intangibles; design, research, digital systems, technical innovation. I do not expect a left political entity to transform itself into a panoptic faculty of specialists, nerds and wizards; of course not! What it needs, aside from a competent core, is to stimulate sympathetic connections and external working relations in these domains. This way of thinking is a paradigm shift for Lanka’s young-left, but there’s time enough to adjust. The left contingent elected to parliament at the next election will be large; a sign of things to come and a portent of responsibilities it will have to bear in the future when it comes into administrative office.