After weeks and months of people’s struggle, or ‘Aragalaya’ in the majority Sinhala language, Sri Lanka is limping back to normalcy, though only on the political front for now. The economic crisis has been a legacy issue for every government for decades since its Independence in 1948. A beginning has been made, but it will take years, if not decades, for a full recovery and even more to catch up with the current global trends.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe is third-time lucky. He lost the nation-wide presidential polls in 1999 and 2005 and skipped three more in a row in 2010, 2015 and 2019, anticipating failure. Now, he has made a ‘back-door’ entry through a quick-fix parliamentary vote approved by the Constitution. Like in his six prime ministerial terms in less than three decades, he will not complete the full five years in his dream job of being President; not in this innings.
The Aragalaya protests ensured the wholesale exit of the Rajapaksa clan, but there is no knowing if they will not return in the distant future. It is wrong to conclude that the Rajapaksas lost out only because of economic mismanagement. Some urban opinion-makers have been working overtime since Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005 to overthrow the clan either electorally, like in 2015, or otherwise—as has happened now.
Yet, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who fled, committed hara-kiri by ordering an overnight switch-over to ‘organic farming’, in ‘true Tughlaq style’. This decision took what remained an urban forex-cum-fiscal crisis, understandably attributable mainly to global Covid lockdowns, to every rural home in the Sinhala-Buddhist South that formed the Rajapaksa constituency.
In the process, the Aragalaya became deadly as it combined the traditional right, liberal, anti-socialist and selectively anti-graft, anti-Rajapaksa urban middle-class segments. They started the protests in small groups, along with the more organised left-leaning trade and student unions that remained strong and motivated through the past decades of a market-driven economic reforms policy (unavailable in India since). The Gota-created fault-lines, of which ‘organic farming’ was one of many in recent months, ensured that both groups enjoyed mutual support and much sympathy from the rural folk.
He who had master-minded the military victory over the dreaded LTTE was baffled when it came to deploying the security forces against peaceful protests hijacked by ‘left-leaning, non-violent insurgents’. India’s non-violent freedom movement may not have been an inspiration here, but the results were near-similar, including the yet-to-be probed arson attacks.
In the case of India, in comparison, the country’s political right and left—under not-so-identical circumstances—sought to exploit the unsuspecting anti-corruption initiative of Anna Hazare in what became a long run-up to the 2014 parliamentary polls. In the end, the BJP as a party, Narendra Modi as a leader, and other individuals such as Arvind Kejriwal and Kiran Bedi succeeded.
Sri Lanka took to market-oriented economic reforms in 1978 for the same reasons India was forced to 12–13 years later. The reforms, however, proved a bane for the poor and the middle class and a blessing for the rich in both countries.
In a new-found, consumerist environment, Sri Lanka, an agrarian economy with little scope for industrialisation, and in the absence of the indicated FDI inflows with guaranteed export markets, ended up opening its lifeline farm sector to foreign brands, comprising dairy products and fruits, pharma and white goods. In a way, today, Sri Lanka is knocking at the very door of the IMF, whose entry had started it all.
As if this were not enough, the socialist-era health and education systems, coupled with later-day exposure to the developed world through readily-available low-end migrant jobs, meant that the social sector expenditure of successive governments could only go up.
The current Indian situation is no different. However, unlike in India, the Sri Lankan State is petrified at the possibility of a return of a Sinhala-left insurgency (1971, 1987) and ethnic Tamil militancy (since the mid-seventies), both of which owe their birth to competing socio-economic aspirations fuelled by electoral compulsions.
Post-reforms India learned its socio-political lessons early on. Manmohan Singh, the ‘architect of economic reforms’, quickly acknowledged after the ruling Congress party’s electoral defeat in 1996 that the nation needed (only) ‘reforms with a human face’. This meant that even as the Indian State and its constituents opened up the economy for foreign investors and punters alike, they also expanded their social sector commitments, barring proportionate increases in annual job intakes that a nation of India’s size required.
In India, the Centre, citing Sri Lanka’s case, has ticked off some States over their ‘freebies’ culture. But it has adopted many of them too, especially from States like Tamil Nadu. In the prevailing circumstances, can socio-political protests of the Sri Lankan kind be staged or stage-managed from within the country or anti-India forces from outside to de-stabilise elected state governments?
In a past era without social media presence, Kerala had the Congress-initiated ‘Vimochana Samaram’, or ‘liberation struggle’, against the world’s first democratically-elected Communist government. Then there was the anti-Hindi agitation in Tamil Nadu, the JP movement across Congress-ruled central India, and the Morarji Desai-led Navnirman Movement in Gujarat. States like Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Jammu & Kashmir, West Bengal and Punjab also witnessed mass protest movements.
However, in the absence of a critical mass in India—at least not yet visible—a protest of the Sri Lanka kind cannot be possible against a more-than-stable Centre, now or in the near future. But it is also the added responsibility of the strong Centre to ensure that state governments’ stability is nurtured and not allowed to be rocked, politically or otherwise. Only then can the nation as a whole continue to breathe easy in these times of economic hardships forced by conflicts like the Ukraine War and other domestic misadventures. Opening the Pandora’s Box is simply not on!
Policy analyst and commentator