How interim government may be the best way out for stability, continuity and fiscal management-World News , Firstpost

Egged on by the public mood and aided by possible ministerial inputs from the grassroots, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has decided to recast his ministry but without changing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa

The weekend protests across the nation, purportedly launched as a people’s movement but had the unveiled support and organisational inputs of the Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), may have been the best thing that could have happened to Sri Lanka, caught in the midst of an unprecedented economic crisis, snowballing into a political stalemate. Egged on by the public mood and aided by possible ministerial inputs from the grassroots, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has since decided to recast his ministry but without changing Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a two-term president (2005-15), and who used to be the nation’s single-most popular leader and no possible replacement from any side.

The immediate outcome of such an exercise could put off the political crisis within the ruling coalition headed by the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), to another day, if it could help. But that will depend on who the new ministers are and who gets which portfolio. That has been the condition placed by an 11-party combination within the ruling coalition to return to the fold — or, that is the message that its leaders have been sending out. In fact, they want Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa out, dubbing him an ‘American stooge’ as he was in the forefront of bringing around his brothers, the president and the prime minister, to go to the IMF for funding, which is generally agreed as the right and only way out, after friendly nations like India, Bangladesh and China had chipped in their shares.

Sri Lanka How interim government may be the best way out for stability continuity and fiscal management

Basil Rajapaksa. Image courtesy Anuradha Dullewe Wijeyeratne/Wikimedia Commons

The problem is said to be Basil’s purported haughtiness viz minor allies, who wielded disproportionately high influence on policy decisions from the very start when compared to their political influence on the ground and seat-share in Parliament. As may be recalled, President Gota, in an unprecedented move, had begun by giving away prized portfolios like Foreign Affairs, Industry and Energy to minor allies, but this did ruffle feathers among SLPP veterans from their days in the parent Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), now a grudging junior partner, threatening to quit at every turn without actually doing so.

However, the experimentation was acknowledged to have failed when Gota had Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena swap places with Higher Education Minister, GL Peiris, a foreign policy veteran under successive governments. He had Prime Minister Mahinda give up the Finance portfolio in favour of another brother Basil, who was inducted both into Parliament and government precisely for the purpose, that too when the impact of the Covid-driven economic crisis had blown already out of hands. For both Gota and Basil, it was their first time in government, as elected representatives. In the war-time past, the former was the successful Defence Secretary, and the latter a Special Advisor.

It remains to be seen if a recast ministry, coupled with the replacement of at least some of Gota’s bureaucratic appointments that brought in some military veterans to top civilian jobs, would satisfy dissenters within the ruling combine. It’s more so in the case of the frustrated public who had unwittingly begun linking their economic misfortune to ‘family rule’ and ‘securitisation’ of the civil services than even the real causes linked to Covid lockdown, which they had readily conceded in the early months.

The Opposition is not going to give up. From their perspective, whether acknowledged or not, it’s their strategised sporadic protests over the past weeks, culminating in the Sunday (3 April) defiance of curfew sans violence, that has forced the government leadership to play on the back foot for the first time since Gota became president in November 2019. Their presence, starting with the arson incident outside President Gota’s residence a couple of days earlier, has been recorded though they had wanted the world to believe it was a people’s protest and they were only extending their sympathies to the cause.

What shape it all takes in the interim remains to be seen. However, all of it has distracted from the main cause, of managing, retrieving and re-inventing the economy, through the short, medium and long terms. That having been said, perceived attempts, from within or without, to stage an ‘Arab Spring’ kind of people’s revolution may not have clicked this time, as more radical political parties themselves kept away, fearing a return to anarchy across Sinhala South, as happened during the two JVP insurgencies, in 1971 and 1987-89.

Anatomy of a ‘failed state’

One reason why there were inherent reservations to the Opposition-led protests for Gota’s exit owed it to a variety of inter-linked developments. For one, after Afghanistan, Pakistan and at time Nepal over the past decades, another South Asian nation was beginning to be dubbed a ‘failed state’. Sri Lankans did not want it, as during the turn of the century they had despised references to the nation becoming ‘another Somalia’. In comparison, Bangladesh at inception in 1971 was described as a ‘basket case’, as if it were economically unviable.

Today, barring Sri Lanka, which is in the eye of an economic storm that promised to turn political, too, the other three have outlived such branding, to a greater or lesser degree. From being a poor nation at birth, Bangladesh has stabilised in both economic and political terms, not necessarily in that order, and is in a position to extend fiscal assistance, which is also a political investment for the future, to faraway South Asian neighbours like Sri Lanka and Maldives.

According to a Wikipedia definition, ‘A failed state is a political body that has disintegrated to a point where basic conditions and responsibilities of a sovereign government no longer function properly. A state can also fail if the government loses its legitimacy even if it is performing its functions properly. For a stable state, it is necessary for the government to enjoy both effectiveness and legitimacy. Likewise, when a nation weakens and its standard of living declines, it introduces the possibility of total governmental collapse.’

A broad-spectrum definition like this one is aimed at giving the West the elbow room to brand any Third World nation of their choice as a ‘failed state’, one way or the other once a political decision had been taken. Terms like ‘losing legitimacy’ again can be interpreted in very many vague ways, and such designations are seldom contested. The one fact, especially as far as South Asia at least, is concerned that every nation that had in the past been short-listed for such designation had come out of it, one way or the other, with or without flying colours.

The irony in the case of present-day Sri Lanka is that such attempts at branding the nation as a ‘failed state’ have now commenced from within. It may have been picked up by analysts and commentators elsewhere but a section of the political Opposition and the local civil society started it all as a whisper campaign. A ruling combine rebel and sacked minister, Udaya Gammanpilla, may have unwittingly or otherwise contributed to the situation when he claimed that Parliament had the constitutional power to order early parliamentary elections even while President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was otherwise constrained to order one until six months before they are due in August 2025.

Sporadic protests, but…

However, the sporadic street protests in various parts of the island nation asking for the president’s exit, with protestors holding ‘Go back Gota’ placards, had both a societal and political element to it. The frustrations and consequent anger of the population was real. People from all walks of life, including veteran cricketing legends, had joined such protests, whether staged independently or under the aegis of the Opposition SJB. From a purely political angle, the sporadic protests became necessary after the continuing fuel shortage of the past months, caused by the unprecedented forex crisis, meant that people could not be moved to central locations, including the national capital of Colombo, at will after public transport became stalled for weeks together.

Could the economic/forex mess have been avoided if Gota had a better set of advisors? The answer is yes and no. The economic/forex crisis caused by the Covid pandemic and consequent global lockdowns were unavoidable as the inherent weaknesses could not have been offset even with a government leadership committed to doing so, that too at such a short span since Gota’s term commenced in late 2019. But it could have been better managed with a better set of advisors.

For instance, Gota’s decision in the early months of the pandemic-driven economic-cum-forex crisis, to stop imports of essentials, including cooking medium and condiments that are common to all three ethnicities across the nation, made him unpopular. This was so because the import ban came without announcement and without education of the public as to what awaited the economy. This was quickly followed by the decision to brazenly adopt ‘organic farming’ in the place of traditional farming, which was based on imported chemical fertiliser.

As irony would have it, the Gota government then imported organic fertiliser, kept readily available by a ‘friendly’ China, once again without preparing the nation and educating the farming community. The delays caused by the rejection of the Chinese fertiliser by the government’s agro-scientists meant that farmers lost whatever crop that they could have salvaged in these times of dire economic conditions.

Today, the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC), the oldest of the political parties of India origin Tamil estate labour, which is also the only Upcountry Tamil party to be part of the government, is reportedly considering to part company. Already, the CWC, whose young leader Jeevan Thondaman, a junior minister in the Gota team, had stayed away from the All-Party Conference (APC), called by the President to find ways out of the economic mess.

Family rule

The sub-text as during the past months since Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president in November 2019 was that there were one too many Rajapaksas in the government, making it a ‘family affair’ a la Arab sheikhdoms. The list included all three of Gota’s brothers, of whom two-term President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who until the present crisis, used to be the nation’s single-most popular leader, is now the Prime Minister. Under the Constitution, the Prime Minister’s job is ineffectual for all practical purposes, all along.

Mahinda, unlike his brothers, is a ‘political animal’ with a feel for the ground. Expectations, especially of ruling SLPP insiders, that the new President with little or no administrative experience on the civilian side, would utilise the vast and varied political and politico-administrative experience of his elder brother running to several decades were belied almost from day one. Instead, Gota continued to fall back on a bunch of advisors he had pre-election, who like him, have had no real clue either to ground realities, or to political administration.

Sri Lanka How interim government may be the best way out for stability continuity and fiscal management

File photo of Sri Lanka prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. AP

Another brother, Basil Rajapaksa, who still holds Lanka-American dual-citizenship, was made the all-important Finance Minister since the Covid pandemic exposed the nation’s economic and forex crises as never before, as if to manage them. In effect, he has not been able to do so other than organising funding, fuel and commodity assistance from the Indian neighbour, and now taking bold, at last, to knock at the doors of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which ‘Brothers Rajapaksa’ had shied away from, all along.

The oldest of the four Rajapaksa brothers, Chamal is also a cabinet minister with additional charge of disparate departments, his son Sashindra Rajapaksa is a junior minister while Prime Minister Mahinda’s more experienced son Namal R is also a Cabinet minister, purportedly being groomed for future party and national leadership. This apart, there are other Rajapaksa clan members spread across the government, through fresh appointments, made after President Gota assumed office.

Besmirching India

As if this were not enough, Gota, an ex-army man who had effectively managed the government’s civil war in its last phase as defence secretary, caused the liquidation of the dreaded terror outfit, LTTE, also inducted many veterans to key positions in the civilian administration. It was based on precedents of the kind, wherein Executive Presidents before him had filled top positions in the civil administration with ‘outsiders’ of their choice — yet, none went so far as to induct war veterans as the incumbent has now done.

Over the weekend, attempts were made to besmirch India’s fair name, as always under such circumstances. A motivated group of unidentified social media operatives claimed that India had despatched soldiers, post haste, to handle situations arising out of the planned ‘people’s protest’ slated for Sunday, 3 April, to which some Opposition parties, including the mainline SJB, had extended support.

That was after a section of the local media had reported that on-duty policemen outside President Gota’s Mirihana residence in Colombo were half-hearted in preventing protestors until they turned violent, pelted stones and set fire to a bus, used as a barricade. The implication was that the uniformed services too may have lost heart, owing to the growing economic distress, which in turn might have impacted every homestead, including that of soldiers and policemen.

Details of who was/were behind the social media campaign, which reportedly spread like wildfire, would be known only if and when the Sri Lankan investigators identify them. In between, the Indian High Commission in Colombo lost no time in issuing a statement, denying claims of the kind. However, the campaign took time to dissipate.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that political protestors nearer home in Sri Lanka had launched an anti-India campaign on the side. Days before the post-war presidential poll of 2010, when incumbent Mahinda R was facing tough competition from common Opposition candidate, Gen Sarath Fonseka, a whisper campaign began doing the rounds (in the absence of present-day social media), that all Rajapaksas other than the candidate, had been air-lifted to the safety of the Indian Air Force base in Thiruvananthapuram the previous night, by IAF choppers. The bluff was called within hours when the continued presence of all Rajapaksas, men, women and children, got confirmed within the country. Fonseka, who was the war-winning army chief as Mahinda was the political boss, lost by a huge margin.

‘GobackGota’ hashtag

The political protests, which not all sections of the Opposition SJB, approve of owing to its timing in the midst of the severe economic distress, was aimed at weakening the Rajapaksas’ hold over politics and public administration — and also try and force their early exit way before presidential elections became due in end-2024 and parliamentary polls months later in mid-2025. Already, the 11-party ginger group within the ruling SLPP coalition of the Rajapaksas, forced the issue by calling for an interim government, and more so for the exit of Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister. It is not known if Gota will concede this particular demand, or the rebels would accept Basil in any other key portfolio.

There is also an implied call for Gota returning to the US, whose dual citizenship he gave up only after he was confident that the SLPP under brother Mahinda would nominate him as the presidential nominee in 2019. As per the Constitution, re-amended by the previous anti-SLPP government, Mahinda, having completed two terms of five years each, could not contest a third time, as was originally mandated by the Second Republican Constitution, following the American two-term upper limit for president.

As if reflecting on the public mood, Mahinda’s son and Cabinet minister Namal Rajapaksa became the first one to tweet his willingness to step aside if Parliament were to form an ‘interim government’. That was in the middle of Sunday’s nationwide protests. It was also the first time that the nation got wind of the Rajapaksas discussing an interim government, after ruling out a ‘national government’ with erstwhile UNP prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe replacing incumbent Mahinda.

Namal also openly criticised the government for shutting down social media in the midst of the protests under the Emergency regulations, proclaimed ahead of the nationwide protests on Sunday. As it turned out, he was also believed to be the first one to put in his papers or was publicised to have done so, for President Gota to recast the ministry, as the Head of Government and of the Cabinet, apart from being the Head of State and the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

Sri Lanka How interim government may be the best way out for stability continuity and fiscal management

Namal Rajapaksa. Image courtesy Indi Samarajiva/Wikimedia Commons

Exiting from the government at this stage, if it turned out for good, could pour cold waters over the future plans for the Rajapaksa heir-apparent, maybe for good. Anyway, after the present situation, not just the Rajapaksas but even the SLPP combine would have a hard time for years if not decades, as and when elections are held. According to a section of the national media, Namal’s wife Limini Rajapaksa and her family members had left the country for an undisclosed destination. The Daily Mirror also reported if Mahinda’s two other daughters-in-law too had followed suit or not. Namal has since clarified that his wife and others have undertaken a pre-scheduled trip to a European holiday destination. He pointed out how her paternal family was in tourism trade for four decades.

Ahead of Sunday’s protests, the indications were that ahead of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s impending Washington visit to negotiate credit facility with the IMF, the Opposition and the civil society back home is keen on weakening the government and getting as many of the Rajapaksa clan and President Gota’s veteran colleagues in the civilian administration, out of office. While it may have been desired in normal times, protests of the kind, if allowed to continue and turn violent — whoever the perpetrator, whatever the motive — can worsen the tense law and order situation, and the economic situation, even more.

If that were to happen, economic recovery might be delayed more than already and more than what optimists inside the government and outside had hoped for. They had thought that the ready Indian supply of fuel and rice, to be followed by other commodities and medicines, as sought by the Sri Lankan government, would ease the supply situation, all-round — and hence, electricity supply and public transport, too, within days. Already, the government had promised an eased situation by 5 April and there are signs of meeting that deadline.

Post-protests, normalcy has been restored across the country. Indications are that near-normalcy would be restored all round when the India-supplied fuel and rice stocks, ensure electricity, public transport and food-grain sales. The Indian commitment, according to reports, should see fuel supplies for seven months and possibly beyond. Likewise, on the political front, President Gota had requested two sacked ministers Udaya Gammanpilla and Wimal Weerawansa and also their comrade-at-arms, Vasudeva Nanayakara, when they met him on the eve of the nation-wide protests. They may do so, but possibly after seeing Gota’s final list of new ministers — as to who all are in and who all are out.

Breathing easy

Early IMF aid could help the government breathe easy, to be able to begin negotiations for restructuring the existing debt, especially those that are due for repayment or interest payment later this year. It would also encourage overseas investors, beginning with India’s Adani group, which has committed to big-ticket investments, to pump in money, create new jobs and generate family incomes and revenues – which the 15-year-long China-funded infrastructure projects had failed to do.

At the end of the day, and literally so, backed by the political Opposition, whose leaders too had participated alongside, Sri Lankans had defied curfew regulations promulgated under the emergency powers, proclaimed by President Gota, precisely for the purpose, asking him to quit office. It did not stop there. In nations and cities where Sri Lankans lived, emigrant members of the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, staged similar protests, taking the message to the host nations.

Sri Lanka How interim government may be the best way out for stability continuity and fiscal management

Sri Lankans participate in a protest demanding president Gotabaya Rajapaksa resign, before the beginning of curfew in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Saturday, 2 April, 2022. AP

Interestingly, in some places like Australia’s Melbourne, Tamil diaspora members, who used to be daggers drawn with the Sinhala counterparts, owing to deep differences over the ethnic issue back home, joined those protests — as they were more anti-Rajapaksas than most Sinhala-Buddhists. Clearly, grudging the economic situation is no more passe, unlike the political demand for weakening the Rajapaksas, if not forcing their imminent exit, which has taken its place.

All of it are weakening the nation, and weakening the economy even more, thus creating conditions for Sri Lanka to be called a ‘failed state’ — or, at least contributing partially to such branding, all of it under the Rajapaksas, that is, and independent of whatever awaits the nation with a civilisational history dating back to centuries and millennia. Yet, an interim government in place could be the best thing that could happen to the nation, in terms of political stability, administrative continuity.

In purely political terms, the Opposition, if and when elected to power, could blame the failures to the present government and move on with a new agenda and execution — where again, as a nation, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans lack the required commitment and efficiency. Or, so is what the post-Independence past has proved, especially on the economic front.

The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai. Views expressed are personal.

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