From the moment long queues for food and fuel appeared on the streets, especially in urban Sri Lanka, the pitiable cry of the population for one meal, one cylinder of LPG, one strip of medicine or one litre of petrol or diesel, all have taken an all out political colour. Egged on by the scenes from the Sri Lankan streets, as they get to see, the international media, including those in neighbouring India, have focussed excessively on the ‘Go Home Gota’ kind of demands for the ruling Rajapaksas to exit early and with whatever grace that they could still retain. Or, that is the message they all have been propagating, knowingly or otherwise, pushing the economic crisis almost into oblivion.
The protests, whether for essential goods or the exit of the Rajapaksas, have drowned the real sorrow that the Emerald Isle has become. Today, the daily schedule of protests and specific venues, both inside capital Colombo and outside, are publicised through social media and individual groups, including school students, doctors, lawyers and even the Catholic church. They are taking turns, indicating a certain organisation that was not visible in the early days.
The weekend saw what became ‘Occupy Galle Face Green’, the main beachfront in the capital Colombo, where people from all walks of life gathered, to protest outside the president’s secretariat– some of them staying overnight in the heavy rains, to press their demand for the exit of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the abolition of the Executive Presidency. The UN has defended the people’s right to protest and UNICEF has defended children’s rights too in this regard. A week earlier, the UN had also cautioned against protests turning violent.
The nation still needs fuel for generating electricity and restoring public transport, LPG for cooking, food commodities from rice, wheat, sugar and almost all condiments for the dining tables of the rich, poor and the middle class alike. The government has promised 24X7 all-island power supply on 13–14 April, when Tamil and Sinhala (Avurudu) New Year Day coincide almost as always. Overnight, the nation has been plunged into an egalitarian society of the kind no socialist had dreamt of, and not certainly in a way that anyone wished for.
As a caring sibling for whom economic integrity and political stability of every small neighbour is a cause for concern, India has been pumping in aid and assistance of every kind, as sought by the Sri Lankan government. It will continue to do so whoever is in office, now or later.
The Indian concerns for the neighbourhood include the eternally adversarial and ever-plotting Pakistan, where a politico-constitutional crisis of a different kind is rocking the nation. India and the rest of the world, and Pakistanis too can only hope for the restoration of political stability and constitutional clarity in the aftermath of the parliamentary vote ordered by the nation’s supreme court, overturning the decisions of discredited Prime Minister Imran Khan.
For the Lankan crisis that is unfolding at present, it is now too late in the day, more so for those outside the country, to fix responsibility for the nation’s economic mess and forex shortage. The pandemic-driven global lockdown that hit the nation’s forex-earners like tourism, tea, textile exports and also inward remittances can take only a part of the blame—and they were all more than visible when the width and depth of the Covid crisis became known in the first few months.
Sri Lanka’s economic problems are more basic and structural; it is a legacy issue, which was passed on from one elected government to the next, after adding their own share of problems. This legacy, they passed on to the next-generation leadership after adding their own share of problems, without either of them acknowledging it or wanting to do anything to fix them.
It began with the much-touted market-driven economic reforms of the western kind killing what still remains an agrarian economy, with the informal dairy industry taking the biggest hit early on. That was when the government allowed the import of milk powder and other dairy products for the elite ‘Colombo Seven’ tea and dining tables, a fashion that has since caught on with the urban middle class, which has also taken to bread and sandwiches for breakfast. It became a status symbol for the wannabe urban elite in rural backyards, even before the relatively recent social media revolution began dictating everyday life, politics and perceptions in these years after the decades-old ethnic war.
To this, the Rajapaksas, in power nearly for 13 of the past 17-plus years, added their own set of problems when war-victor President Mahinda R (2005–15) invited Chinese investments in port, power and expressway projects. Initially, there was record GDP growth, but as was predictable, it was a ‘jobless growth’ because the Chinese brought in all the men and material, at least a part of which should have belonged locally.
The Rajapaksas’ adversarial successors in office, the ever-quarrelling Maithri-Ranil duo (2015–19), while blaming it all on the Rajapaksas, did little to reverse this particular trend. It was so even when they converted the Hambantota construction-concession into a debt-equity swap-deal, handing over Sri Lankan territory and part-sovereignty to non-regional alien care on a 99-year lease. If the two leaders were united on anything, it was in taking further loans from China for the latter to build more expressways that had already proved to be as unviable for repayment as Hambantota. To this, President Gota, elected in 2019, added his own senseless subsidies ahead of the parliamentary polls in 2020. His Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna combine would have won the elections anyway. However, in the name of the continuing Covid-induced fiscal crisis, he offered huge tax and duty cuts that have since cost the exchequer 25 per cent of the revenue.
Gota’s decision to go in for organic farming without preparation and education of the end-user, and inexplicable import of uncertified organic fertiliser from China not only caused eyebrows to rise but also destroyed plantation and plains agriculture alike. In the midst of the damage wrought by the Covid crisis, it proved to be as insensible as it was imprudent in economic terms.
Sri Lanka today needs a lot of fuel, food and pharma supplies, say, at least for the next two or three years, until the local situation stabilises. There is also greater-urgency for boosting forex reserves, and debt restructuring. All of it, especially the last one, only a government in Colombo can initiate, but it cannot wait, either.
With great and inexplicable reluctance attributable to ideology, the Rajapaksas have finally agreed to revive the predecessor’s idea of knocking at the doors of the IMF, which alone can cushion the badly-needed forex reserves. However, the sacking of Finance Minister Basil, another Rajapaksa, with the family bowing to public and political pressure from within and outside, followed by the one-day wonder of a substitute in Ali Sabry, a half-hearted politician who was earlier Gota’s personal lawyer and was made justice minister, was to have left a headless team for the IMF to negotiate with.Thankfully, Ali Sabry is staying on, at least for now, and has begun talking sense.
The recent changes in the character of foreign investments mean that India’s public and private sector can boost local production of cost-effective forms of renewable energy, which can also create jobs and generate family incomes for the domestic population. Against this, the government, for once, has approached China for credit facilities without linking them to jobless infrastructure projects that had proved to be white elephants in the past.
Yet, the way the street protests are going and the way a reluctant and equally divided political opposition, including breakaway group(s) from the ruling Rajapaksa-led SLPP combine, have been going about it, they have only triggered unprecedented and unsolvable political instability without any key and achievable end goals in sight. Yet, the perceived parliamentary dead-lock, which seems advantageous to the Rajapaksas in the numbers game just now, does not guarantee their victory in polls, whatever and whenever they are held. A clearer picture is not expected to emerge until later this month as the opposition is mulling a no-confidence motion against Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s small team, when Parliament reconvenes on 19 April.
India can supply food and fuel, yes, in abundance, if it came to that. On food, India has adequate stocks. On fuel, India has taken a huge risk in the midst of the Russia-Ukraine war, just as it did with Covid supplies without providing first for meeting domestic needs, as part of its ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy and the larger concept of ‘Vasudeva kutumbakam’ and ‘Yaadum Ooraye, yavarumkelir’, both meaning, ‘the world is one big family’.Yet, it is only so much India can do.
There is little that India or anyone else from outside Sri Lanka can do to restore the people’s confidence in their government and systems, and in the process, the political stability that the current crisis has unwittingly rocked without providing for sure-fire alternatives. In this department, New Delhi is more handicapped than most, as every such initiative would be propagated locally as India wanting to subjugate Sri Lanka one way or the other.
Before the economic crisis took a political colour, the opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya party, had questioned Indian project fundings, at times attributing motives openly to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as far as the Adani investments in port and renewable energy projects were concerned. But then, whatever the dynamics and accusations, India in particular cannot afford an unstable Sri Lanka, particularly at a time when there are signs of restlessness in common neighbour Maldives and visible disturbances in Pakistan.
In theoretical terms, India has the power, economic and otherwise, to set matters right, at least in the IOR neighbourhood, but is stymied by political realities and diplomatic niceties. Even the perceived violation of the same can cause more harm than good to bilateral relations and regional stability. It is particularly so at a time when Sri Lanka is seen as having moved equidistant between China and India from a visible pro-Beijing tilt through the past 15 years, going beyond the two innings of Rajapaksa regimes.
India is powerful as a self-sustaining regional leader and helpful when needed. But in having to restore political stability of whatever kind and under whichever leadership the Sri Lankan people want, New Delhi is powerless, and hence helpless. That is a reality that Indians have to be aware of and also alive to.
Policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai