Neither realist head nor humanist heart

Thursday, 14 October 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In his Saliyapura speech, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that next year he would introduce a new Constitution and electoral system. Why did he speak about a new Constitution, electoral changes and agrarian policy, issues not usually classified under strategy/security/defence, at the Gajaba regiment’s headquarters rather than at a traditionally civilian-democratic venue and on a civilian occasion?


Making an upbeat and determined speech on the 72nd Army Day at the Saliyapura home-base of his old unit, the Gajaba regiment, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pointed out that the country’s President, current

Secretary/Defence and Army commander were from that regiment. 

The Gajaba regiment seems (at least) as much the President’s family as the Rajapaksa clan.

Everything they learned about leadership, they were taught by General Vijaya Wimalaratne, he said. Those familiar with the quite distinctive approaches of Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa (Sandhurst, RCDS) and Gen. Wimalaratne can read the code. 

Clearly the hard-charging Gen. Vijaya Wimalaratne has been a far greater influence and inspiration than Mahinda Rajapaksa on President Gotabaya. That’s great for warfare, but for politics, economics, diplomacy and post-war peace-building, not so much. 

It was an open secret among Editors (including my father) that the ultra-hawkish, anti-devolution columns advocating roll-back of the Indo-Lanka Accord and imposition of Israeli-style demographic change in the north and east, featured in a Sunday newspaper under the pseudonym Prince Vijaya, were authored by Gen. Vijaya Wimalaratne. 


New power equation


In his Saliyapura speech President GR declared that next year he would introduce a new Constitution and electoral system. 

Why did he speak about a new Constitution, electoral changes and agrarian policy, issues not usually classified under strategy/security/defence, at the Gajaba regiment’s headquarters rather than at a traditionally civilian-democratic venue and on a civilian occasion? 

The President’s very last card being the military (especially his old regiment), perhaps he intends to play his penultimate card: the Constitutional declaration of Sri Lanka as a Sinhala-Buddhist State, de-coupling from the Indo-Lanka Accord with its “multiethnic” preamble, abolishing the 13th Amendment, shrinking provincial devolution, and denouncing those who oppose the new Constitution project as traitors. 

Why does President GR need a new Constitution, now that he has the 20th Amendment? Why not another amendment? 

It may seem that the pathway with the most natural camouflage to unilaterally dismantle or downsize the 13th Amendment, is a new Constitution. Either the Provincial Council elections won’t be held under the 13th Amendment or even if they are, the PCs will be downsized by the new Constitution. India’s abolition of Article 370 will be used as justification. 

That justification or pseudo-parallel is logically untenable. While Kashmir had a special status which has now been altered and Indian Kashmir has been bifurcated, this means Kashmir’s exceptionalism has been abolished, while the provisions of the Indian Constitution, that of a secular, quasi-federal state, apply to the bifurcated Kashmir too. However, if the 13th Amendment providing a measure of semi-autonomy of the provincial councils is unilaterally tampered with, the Tamils have no similarly secular, quasi-federal Sri Lankan state to inhabit.   

The new Constitution’s re-patterning of the state may bring it into conformity or compatibility with the state configurations of China’s allies Pakistan-Cambodia-Myanmar, facilitating durable docking with the rising Great Power and patron, de-linking Sri Lanka doctrinally, systemically and structurally from the great democracies in the Indo-Pacific.  

Degrading Northern and Eastern provincial devolution will facilitate an unimpeded push up to India’s southern border by the competitive Great Power, President GR’s patron.

The new Constitution would reflect the regime’s policy of tactical cooperation with India and grand-strategic alliance with China. 

However, such a Constitution would internationally de-legitimise the Sri Lankan State, legitimise secessionism and invite intervention (e.g., Kosovo, parts of Georgia and Ukraine).

If the Opposition gets its act together, it can at this time of economic downturn and hardship, call for a protest vote, emphasising that a victory for the Government would be taken as an endorsement of the suffering imposed upon the people and a license for more such imposition.

The Chilean military dictator, President Pinochet held a Referendum at a time of economic crisis and was defeated, after which his days of incumbency were numbered. 

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa should alert President GR that Madam Bandaranaike’s United Front government which enjoyed a two-thirds majority, promulgated a new Constitution in 1972. It also extended its term by two years. Neither move prevented it from being wiped-out in 1977 by an Opposition that obtained a five-sixths majority and promptly buried the 1972 Constitution under a new one in 1978. Had the election been on schedule in 1975, the SLFP wouldn’t have been beaten by the TULF. 


Head and heart


As in the case of any human being, it is also best when a government uses both head and heart. One can be moderately satisfied if either is manifest.

This Government cut budgetary allocations for Health when a global pandemic prevails and world opinion prizes the investment made in public health, while increasing Defence expenditure. It also has made a lower outlay on Education than on Highways, while it has been statistically proven worldwide that the best return on investment is that on education, especially the education of the girl child. 

“…The Defence Ministry has been allocated Rs. 373.1 billion for the year 2022, a Rs. 18 billion increase from the fiscal year 2021, making it the highest allocated sector…The Highways Ministry has been allocated Rs. 250.1 billion, while the Education Ministry has been allocated Rs. 185.9 billion for the year 2022, which is…still below the amount allocated to the Highways Ministry, which was the case last year as well. Despite the pandemic, the Health Ministry has been allocated Rs. 6 billion less for the year 2022, in comparison to the fiscal year 2021...” (Appropriation Bill for 2022: Defence gets highest allocation; Health reduced –

Where’s the head or heart in increasing defence expenditure in peacetime while cutting health expenditure in a pandemic? 

The citizenry now knows what to expect if Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa runs for the presidency and wins.

If our Ministry of Defence hadn’t coughed up $ 50 million to the Israeli Avionics Industry for upgrading our Kfirs, there needn’t have been queues for essential commodities—an experience and a sight that will not be forgotten by the traumatised electorate. 

The Gotabaya presidency’s and the Pohottuwa administration’s economic policies are not a mere throwback to the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-NM Perera era of the closed economy and import substitution. That is only one dimension. The other dimension consists of foreignisation of assets, a savage capitalism including abolition of price controls of essentials, that no previous administration dared to unleash.     

The present regime adopts and implements the worst aspects of both the ‘closed economy’ and the ‘open economy’. It is a hideous hybrid.


Active social volcano 


In his 72nd Army Day speech President GR defended with conviction his decision to convert the country to “organic fertiliser” for a “green agriculture”. He made it obvious that he has no intention whatsoever to reverse it. 

Withholding chemical fertiliser, weedicides and pesticides from farmers is as rational as withholding vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic would have been. 

Any government which does not conduct a feasibility study by experts, establish one or more pilot projects and map out a transition to the conversion of the country’s agriculture from one mode to another, and instead, does so instantly cannot be said to have a head or if it does it certainly has not used it. 

Any government which launches a ‘shock and awe’ of a fertiliser ban on the peasantry, knowing its large and crucial presence in the island’s social formation, economic structure, cultural and civilisational cosmology and consciousness, and above all its centrality in the governing party’s vote base, certainly doesn’t have a head or has sent it on leave.   

Any government which watches day in, day out, the lamentations and curses of peasants, including old men and women, and remains unmoved into reversing its policy, cannot be said to have a heart. 

Sri Lanka after Independence never had a rebellious peasant movement, though it has a long history of peasant associations. Though the JVP-led peasants union does play a part, the motive force in the struggle are older peasants, men and women, who are both desperate and outraged, because in their decades of farming, this situation has never befallen them before at the hands of a government. They are angriest because they elected this President and government and are fully conscious of the fact. Thanks to the President’s policy, unresisted by the PM and Cabinet, that is a mistake they will clearly never make again.

At a single stroke, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has alienated the southern peasantry and damaged probably beyond repair the base that his father, uncles, cousins and elder brother had built up over many decades.

The peasant resistance is growing as seen and heard by their refusal to accept the water for irrigation by the traditional opening of the sluice gates, unless they are given the fertiliser, weedicides and pesticides, that they, their crop and the soil are used to. They know from practical experience, what works in their fields, for their crops. As an old peasant with a steel grey moustache and hair exclaimed: “My hair has grown white by farming most of my life. I know what I’m talking about, but do the men on top who made this decision?”

The peasant resistance, the open defiance of the bureaucracy at the conventional conclaves that precede the season, the walkouts, and the boycott water slogan, all come from older peasants, mostly in sarong, not from young men in long trousers. This is a spontaneous, organic movement springing up from the muddy paddy fields. Organisationally the most important drivers are the decades old peasant associations, the ‘Govi Samithi,’ that have long interfaced with the bureaucracy. 

The island’s south has seen two violent insurrections while the Northeast has seen one long rebellion. None of them were peasant rebellions. Unlike in other parts of Asia, not to mention Latin America, the island’s peasantry remained passive while their rebellious children took up arms.

If crops fail, it is likely that medium and small-holders who employ a modest labour force will retrench agrarian workers. That alone will crunch domestic demand while sharpening the edge of polarisation and protests.

Now, for the first time, thanks to the President’s entrenched unilateralist policies, we have the discourse and prospect of real (unarmed) peasant militancy. 

Lenin famously said that a revolution occurs when the rulers cannot rule in the old way and the ruled cannot live in the old way. President GR’s 20th Amendment, militarised task forces and militarisation of the administration, and his new Constitution project, show that he cannot or is unwilling to rule in the customary way. Presidential policies have ensured that the peasantry cannot cultivate—and live—in the way they have been accustomed to at least for a lifetime. Between the President’s dogmatism and the peasants’ despair, a social volcano is set to erupt.


Neoliberal naiveté


Many economists and technocrats ignore Political Economy. The Lankan neoliberals cheer J.R. Jayewardene’s economic ideas of 1966 and 1977 and call for a replay, ignoring the historical fact that these ideas were part of a ‘double-vaccination’ package proposed by JRJ in 1966, the other jab being the Executive Presidential system which was needed to stabilise the economic policy regime. 

Today’s Lankan neoliberals fail to defend the executive presidency albeit with the necessary democratisation—something between the 19th and 20th Amendments; perhaps a modification of the 17th Amendment. 

Instead, they advocate the notion that the open economy goes better (or is possible to sustain in Sri Lanka’s context) with the Westminster model—a notion JRJ explicitly ruptured with.

The combination of abstraction and empiricism in the neoliberal-globalist economists’ playbook ignores the reality that the economy is embedded in a historically evolved sociopolitical matrix and that the human being is not merely an economic but even more so, a political and social animal.  

There are ideas pushed by those who fit Joseph Stiglitz’s characterisation in The Great Divide as “naive market fundamentalists”:

1. The economy should be market- driven and private sector led.

2. The aim should be further globalisation; further integration into the world economy, ‘the global production chain’. 

3. The ethnic conflict blocked further liberalisation; Sri Lanka should have liberalised further and should do so in future.

 The 2008 global meltdown proved to the public and certainly to the best scholarly minds in economics (including two Nobel-prize winners, Stiglitz and Krugman) that an unqualified market-driven, private enterprise led model leads to catastrophe and ruination of people’s lives.

The COVID-19 crisis proved the importance of investment in public infrastructure, such as Britain’s NHS. 

While globalisation is a good thing, the neoliberal model of globalisation— and the economic doctrine of ‘neoliberal globalism’—caused such social devastation, that strong unilateralist backlashes often charged with ultranationalism, broke-through: Brexit and the Trump triumph. 

COVID-19 and the interruption of global supply chains caused a realisation of vulnerability and added to the dynamic of recalibrating the ratios of global and local production, global and local markets, thereby rebalancing economies between globalisation and self-reliance/autonomy, seeking a better, more equitable model of globalisation. 

The notion that the ethnic conflict held up Lankan liberalisation is one-dimensional. Intellectually one of the most brilliant social scientists that Sri Lanka produced, Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, argued the case of the nexus between the post-1977 economic model and Black July ’83 in his landmark essay ‘The Open Economy and its Impact on Ethnic Relations in Sri Lanka’ (Lanka Guardian, Jan1st, Jan 15th, Feb 1st 1984).  


Multi-sector model


The schematic “market-driven, private sector-led” formula fails to explain the biggest reality in contemporary economics. Nobel laureate Joe Stiglitz writes that “no country in recorded history has grown as fast—and moved as many people out of poverty—as China over the last 30 years.” (‘The Great Divide,’ p 346)

Former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr. Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, now a consultant in Singapore, has recently emphasised:     

“…China’s economy has been doubling every seven years, growing at double digit figures for much of the past three and half decades…It is now slated to overtake the US by 2030 having already done so in terms of Purchasing Power Parity.” (‘The Remarkable Rise of China,’ Dhaka Courier, 8 October 2021)

Any economic policy discourse without reference to China resembles a doughnut. Any discussion of China without reference to the leading and guiding role of the state, is dishonest.  

A superior synthesis was proposed in April 1973 by a 48-year-old Opposition MP of the UNP, representing Colombo:

“…We should evolve a scheme under which the public sector, the co-operative sector, the private sector and a combination of all these three sectors – a joint sector – could function in competition with each other. Such competition will bring the maximum benefit to the people who need not become slaves of either a public or private monopoly…” (Ranasinghe Premadasa, A Plan for Sri Lanka, 4 April 1973 address to the Colombo West Rotary Club, republished as People’s Participation in Government, SAARC Special Supplement, Ceylon Daily News, 

21 November 1991.) 

For President Premadasa, liberalisation, markets, the private sector, even growth were not policy goals but policy instruments. The goal was growth with equity.

Recent columns