A nation was promised prospects of prosperity and splendor and an estimated 6.9 million voters opted for it, subsequently providing a two-thirds parliamentary majority to implement the vision. Just over two years later, the reality is being experienced by everyone – shortages of everything from cooking gas to powdered milk and hard currency to crude oil and the resulting power outages.
It is not necessary to expose at length the economic, social and social pain that the population is experiencing. It is a daily experience that will speak loudest at the ballot box when the government musters up the courage to face the ballot box, whether it is the delayed local government or provincial council elections. It is a government that is afraid to confront the electorate. Covid-19 is no excuse; we had elections in August 2020 at the height of the first wave and after a long lockdown. We have since been vaccinated, masked and learning to live with a virus, dengue and a shortage of everything.
What is more useful is to study the colossal policy and policy failures of the SLPP/Rajapaksa administration so that perhaps the government can learn from its mistakes and make a course correction and a future SJB administration can avoid the blunders of this government’s current mandate.
Mainstream ethno-religious nationalism has its limits
It was Samuel Johnson who in 1745 is credited with the saying “patriotism is the last refuge of the villain”. Then, as now, Johnson and other political theorists argued that it is very easy to engage in identity politics or ethno-religious nationalism to mask self-interest and ignore sound public policy and prudent governance. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, post-war administrations from 2010-2014 and 2019 to date have increased the division and polarization of society for political power. In the discourse on the national question of Sri Lanka, there is often the assertion, not without foundation, that the British colonial administration practiced “divide and rule” in Ceylon as well as in other colonies. In reality, we don’t have to go that far back in history to see the divide-and-rule politics in Sri Lanka. But what the 2015 elections demonstrated, and future elections will demonstrate, is that there is a limit to the economic pain and bad governance that a majority in society will tolerate despite the most ethno-religious nationalism. strident and most fiery. Lesson 1: Ardent ethno-religious nationalism is no substitute for sound politics and careful governance.
The army is not there to run the country
The Sri Lankan military is one of the best in the world and until skepticism sets in about our national human rights enforcement and safeguards, widely desired for peacekeeping roles peacekeeping force as one of the few armies with actual combat experience. However, an army, like any other state institution and structure, has a role and a purpose. To pervert this role and purpose is to do a disservice to society and also to weaken the institution concerned. This administration’s last military mandate became “green agriculture”. The government’s epic failure was to deny farmers and planters non-organic fertilizers overnight. One wonders how light infantry or heavy artillery can be deployed effectively for organic farming. The government has become heavy on presidential task forces, the latest being led by a former inmate, which almost prompted the justice minister to throw in the towel. Democratic governance in Sri Lanka requires, as President Ranasinghe Premadasa has said, “consultation, compromise and consensus”; a process and a skill that the ruling party, the ruling family and the powerful generals and admirals who rule the country seem to have in short supply, if at all. Democratic institutions of governance must be able to function freely, vigorously and independently. This is not the case today. We don’t need Hitler; we need a Mandela. Lesson 2: The army is not an answer to all problems.
Politics, not politics, should guide governance decisions
At the heart of the current economic woes are two key policy decisions by the administration and not a virus named Covid-19 and its mutations. The first, and most negative, decision the government took in December 2019 was to reduce and reverse tax increases that had been painfully introduced by the previous government. This in a country that has an extremely narrow tax base and a very low tax revenue to GDP ratio compared to peer countries. Today we go hat in hand to Bangladesh for exchange and foreign exchange agreements. The failures of the government’s fiscal policy are not only fully visible; its resulting monetary policy implications are now being felt in the pain of daily life as shortages of all imports essential to daily life, from fuel, medicine and cooking gas to basic groceries, increase and continue with no end in sight.
The second policy mistake, made last year, was to ban non-organic fertilizers overnight. The resulting decline in agricultural yields and farmer incomes and rising food prices combine to create serious hardship for rural farmers and urban consumers. Both decisions ignored the advice of economists, policy experts and community leaders. The administration promised a healthy technocracy-driven policy, but we ended up with just the opposite. A small elite, listening to an echo of their own words. Lesson 3: Rome wasn’t built in a day. We don’t need shock therapy which is all shock and no therapy.