“In a year of scarcity…Louis XV was hunting, as usual, in the forest of Sénart. He met a peasant carrying a bier and inquired… ‘For a man or a woman? A man. What did he die of? Hunger’.” – Jules Michelet (Historical view of the French Revolution)
On the sharp edge of the precipice, the UK halted, reversing back to relative safety.
A massive tax cut was the showpiece of the mini-budget of PM Liz Truss and chancellor of exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. Reaction was immediate. Markets revolted. The pound crashed. The IMF issued the kind of rap-across-the-knuckles-statement it generally reserves for the Third World. The Bank of England pledged to buy UK government bonds worth 65 billion pounds (73 billion dollars) in a desperate attempt to reassure markets and save pension funds.
The prime minister and the chancellor of exchequer remained unmoved.
Then the Tory party’s dissent broke out into the open. With the annual party conference in session, more than a dozen MPs aired their disconcert in public. The naysayers included several Conservative grandees. Party chairman issued an implicit threat to deny nominations to those who would vote against the mini-budget. But the rebellion could not be staunched. Opinion polls showed that the tax cuts, especially reducing the top rate from 45% to 40%, and removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses were deeply unpopular with the electorate. More than half the voters wanted Liz Truss out.
Faced with the prospect of losing a parliamentary vote on the mini-budget and a general election, PM Truss backtracked. “We get it, we have listened,” said the chancellor of exchequer who had reportedly celebrated the tax cut at a champagne dinner with financiers. The worst was averted by throwing the most objectionable overboard – the slashing of the top tax rate. Democracy, and the dissent it enabled, saved the day.
Compare this with what didn’t happen in Sri Lanka when the Rajapaksas unveiled their own crazy tax cut. The objectors were few, the UNP and the JVP, some voices from civil society, international rating agencies. But from the ruling coalition, there was not a word of protest. Those who are now busy painting themselves in saviour-hues, from Dullas Alahapperuma, G.L. Peiris, and Charitha Herath to Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Maithripala Sirisena, were as silent as the dead.
Tory MP Damian Green said, “It’s a political no brainer that if we end up painting ourselves as the party of the rich and the party of the already successful, then, funnily enough, most people won’t vote for us and we lose,” (The Guardian – 3.10.2022). In Sri Lanka, the SLPP said nothing about the Rajapaksa-giveaway to the rich, because the Rajapaksas were the party of the Sinhala-Buddhists. The majority safely tethered with minority-phobia, the coming parliamentary election was as good as won.
The Rajapaksas could get away with manifestly disastrous policies for so long because they could count on the backing of a majority of the majority. Another key contributory factor was the absence of inner-party democracy, an autocratic plague common to all Lankan parties. There was also the bureaucracy’s entrenched habit of going along with politicians up to the precipice and beyond. In the absence of the necessary human factor, institutional guardrails became reduced to stage props.
A sovereign default and two popular uprisings later, very little seemed to have changed. The factors that pushed us down the precipice are impeding our puny efforts to crawl out of it, starting with the Rajapaksas and the SLPP.
Politics of hunger
Ranil Wickremesinghe began his premiership by telling the truth to the people about the country’s disastrous condition. That was perhaps his finest hour.
Today the opposite is happening. His ministers, Rajapaksa-acolytes to a man and a woman, have reverted to covering the soiled reality in clean linen. They deny the width and depth of hunger, of malnutrition, of poverty. Listening to them, a visiting Martian could be pardoned for thinking that nothing much ails this country. Most worryingly, even now, these know-nothing politicians can find bureaucrats to corroborate their lies.
This at a time when the FAO and the WHP have included Sri Lanka among the 48 countries identified as hunger hot spots. Recently the Health ministry rejected a UNICEF report on Denial not just covers up the problem. It removes the need to look for solutions, the duty and the responsibility to take action.
Sooriyawewa, that Rajapaksa pocket-borough, is currently in the crosshairs of a malnutrition spat. Medical professionals claim an 80% malnutrition rate. The SLPP part of the Government decry the statistic as calumny. In the meantime, in the Namadagaswewa Maha Vidyalaya in Sooriyawewa, the principal and the staff have set up a food bank to feed hungry children. Teachers bring an extra food packet or two daily and deposit in the bank; needy students withdraw the packets.
This innovative solution was possible because the staff noticed that many students fainted from hunger during school hours. If the staff went into denial, if they blamed the fainting on voluntary dieting or enemy action, the food bank would not have come into being; and increasing hunger would have resulted in mass dropouts.
We must acknowledge the abyss before we can escape it.
Denial is not just counterproductive. It is also stupid. You can lie about growth rates and foreign reserves. But you can’t convince the poor that they are rich or the hungry that their stomachs are full. Poverty and hunger can be hidden only from those who are neither poor nor hungry. And in Sri Lanka, that percentage is shrinking.
We are living in times of dissonance. The IMF chief has warned about people on the streets, again, a global problem. There’s nothing more dissonant than a small percentage of the populace living in the lap of luxury in a time of general want. In his tome on the French Revolution, historian Jules Michelet mentions that for centuries, observers were amazed at the patience of the French people, their acceptance of intolerable economic and political injustices. But there comes a day when even the most worm-like worm turns.
While denying the gravity of the economic crisis and the depth of public suffering, the SLPP is busy pushing for an expanded cabinet. They won the first round when President Wickremesinghe gave in and appointed 38 parasitic state ministers. If he expands the cabinet, he will fail the ‘smell test’ again and destroy his credibility, even among those who are grateful to him for ending fuel and gas queues.
More pertinently succumbing to Rajapaksa pressure will impede President Wickremesinghe’s capacity to implement his economic agenda, to the country’s detriment. After the appointment of that herd of state ministers, the Government has no moral right to talk about inefficient and overstaffed state sectors. Given the public funds squandered on maintaining this herd in a state of luxury, how can the people be asked to tighten their belts any further? The rot is already visible in a tendency to take the easy way out, eschewing the hard road out of the crisis, the one that will address the root causes, the one President Wickremesinghe keeps on referring to in his speeches. The reversion to a disproportionate dependence on indirect taxes and the abolishing of 15% interest rate on deposits by the elderly are cases in point.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a Rajapaksa clone as the more extremist or simple-minded elements within the opposition insist. The ‘Ranil Rajapaksa’ slogan may work as propaganda but it shouldn’t have become the basis of political analysis or strategising. For instance, if the opposition came to a short-term deal with President Wickremesinghe about a common political and economic program and a parliamentary election in 2023, the SLPP could have been deprived of their bargaining and blackmailing power. The Rajapaksas were able to make a comeback partly because the opposition and Wickremesinghe turned their guns on each other. Incidentally this comeback may be electoral as well, going by the SLPP’s huge wins at the Panadura and Gampola cooperative elections. The world provides other worrying examples. In Brazil, more than 43% voted for the incumbent Jair Bolsonaro, bucking opinion polls, pushing the election into a second round.
When everything becomes reduced to survival, that very obsession threatens survival. The high security zone gazette fiasco could have been avoided with a little forethought. But the Rajapaksas are hooked on immediate gratification and their ethos is winning in government circles. In August, it looked like President Wickremesinghe with his economic sanity had the upper hand. By the end of September, he seems to be reduced to a voice in the margins, with the Government walking, talking, and smelling like the Rajapaksas.
In history, art can be omen. This year’s top winner at the Cannes film festival was ‘Triangle of Sadness’. A super luxury yacht filled with jetsetters is engulfed in a storm at sea. The turbulence outside creates an upheaval within. Power relations are upended, with a former cleaner gaining control. Real life is not that neat. The last may not become the first; cleaners may not win in the end. But the time before that revanchist end could become filled with violence, visceral and indiscriminate. The democratic narrative is undermined when injustice becomes entrenched. The virtues of stability and order sound hollow, when poverty and hunger overwhelm a populace.
Political illiberalism and economic neoliberalism: a lose-lose scenario
Tsering Dorje was an ordinary Tibetan man who discussed the importance of the Tibetan language with his brother on the phone. For that ‘crime’ he was detained for a month in a re-education facility by the Chinese authorities.
Re-education or rehabilitation centres sit ill with democracy. Irrespective of the name they masquerade under, these are Orwellian entities aimed at turning thinking citizens into mindless subjects.
After the high security zone gazette departed, in ignominy, came an attempt to set up a Bureau of Rehabilitation. Its targets, apart from the usual terrorists and extremists, would be drug addicts (turning drug dependence into a political crime) and ‘any other group or persons who require treatment and rehabilitation.’ Would the ‘persons who require treatment and rehabilitation’ include the thuggish son of state minister Prasanna Ranaweera? Or the ministerial goons who attacked petrol station attendants in Maharagama for refusing to violate the QR code? If not, why not?
The Bureau’s Governing council is to include the secretary of defence. The current holder of that title has a credible claim to the label extremism. At an October 2017 Viyath Maga confab in Gampaha, retired major general Kamal Gunaratna defined the backers of Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s draft constitution as traitors who deserve death. They should be denied normal last rites as the JVP/DJV did to its victims during the second insurgency, he further stated.
Commenting on this pronouncement, Mangala Samarweera said, “We need not reply to filthy statements of racists, yet, I should voice the concerns of democracy-loving people who stand against the barking of those blood thirsty and power hungry political elements. If they can make such gory comments on a civil platform when they are out of power, people with some sense could imagine the crimes they had committed when they held ruling power.” To take his argument a step further, what kind of rehabilitation will such people implement if the Bureau of Rehabilitation becomes a reality?
Addressing a memorial meeting for Gowri Thavarasa, lawyer and human rights defender, the former director of CID Shani Abeysekara said, “I had produced so many before courts. But I understood what it meant only when I was produced before the courts”. When Abeysekara was persecuted by the Rajapaksas, he was saved by the commitment of civic-minded lawyers like Thavarasa and by a judicial system that retained the backbone. A functioning system of justice and an active civil society are protectors of the last resort for every one of us.
Whatever the faults of liberal-electoral democracy, it provides the best available protection – however inadequate – for the poor and powerless from the depredations of political and economic power-wielders. By keeping avenues of peaceful dissent open, it also functions as a proven safeguard against violent disorder and systemic instability. The UK may have escaped a fate partially similar to Sri Lanka because, unlike Sri Lanka, its electoral democracy is also quite liberal.
Instead of making the Lankan system more liberal, as he did during the 2015-19 period, President Wickremesinghe is initiating or permitting a return to the illiberal policies, practices, and ethos of the Rajapaksa era. By doing so, he is helping to stifle whatever corrective mechanisms and safety valves still exist. At a time a global economic and political storm is brewing, and more and more families are pushed below the poverty line nationally, this mix of political illiberalism and economic neo-liberalism cannot ensure order or save the Government (it can’t even maintain tourist arrivals; an outsized obsession with terror laws and repression is not a lure for tourists). By increasing societal alienation, it will just bring another day of reckoning closer, a more violent one.