Sri Lanka's unfolding tragedy is a warning for India
By Mukul Kesavan | April 3, 2022
Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa brothers photo credit: Getty Images/AFP/L.Wanniarachchi
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a state of Emergency in Sri Lanka on Friday, his stated reasons were public security, public order and the maintenance of essential services. His real purpose was to forestall a popular revolt against his government. The crowds gathered outside his private residence in Colombo shouting, ‘Lunatic, go home’, were there precisely because his government had failed catastrophically to maintain essential services. With thirteen-hour power cuts, empty petrol pumps, a shortage of staple food and basic medicines, spiralling inflation with no end in sight and the danger of sovereign default, the Emergency was not about sustaining the ‘life of the community’; it was about the preservation of a political dynasty.
In a subcontinent that’s dense with political dynasties, the Rajapaksas are in a class by themselves. There’s a remarkable photograph that sums up their political monopoly: Basil Rajapaksa being sworn in as finance minister by his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, watched by another brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president and current prime minister. Four Rajapaksa brothers and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, are ministers in the present government. The Rajapaksa clan reads like a family out of a Mario Puzo novel: the brothers’ late-Victorian ancestors were called, appropriately enough, Don David Rajapaksa and Don Mathew Rajapaksa.
And, yet, to focus on the family is to be distracted from the true nature and scale of Sri Lanka’s tragedy. In the first twenty-five years after the decolonization of the subcontinent in 1947-48, Sri Lanka was the great South Asian success story. High literacy rates, a strong public distribution system, an early commitment to public healthcare and life expectancy much higher than the regional norm made Sri Lanka South Asia’s poster child.
Growing up in Delhi in the 1960s, we were vaguely admiring of the fact that Ceylon had the world’s first female prime minister in Sirimavo Bandaranaike. The other Ceylon-related thing that I knew of as a child was Radio Ceylon’s Hindi service, which broadcast the Hindi film songs that All India Radio opaquely refused to air through the 1950s. In high school, geography lessons introduced us to place names like Nuwara Eliya and Ceylon remained in our imaginations a mildly exotic offshore island. And then it changed its name to Sri Lanka, which seemed both mysterious and odd. We had never encountered a country name with an honorific built into it; it felt a bit like India renaming itself Mr. Bharat.
Many years later, as someone interested in the political history of modern South Asia, I learnt that Ceylon’s renaming coincided with its adoption of a republican Constitution in 1972. Unlike India, it had chosen to be a Dominion when it became independent in 1948 and till 1972, Queen Elizabeth II was Ceylon’s head of State. The change was more than nominal; it marked the country’s formal re-making of itself into a principally Sinhala-Buddhist republic. Besides renaming the country, the new Constitution gave Buddhism the ‘foremost’ place in the new republic.
It is this majoritarian turn that reconstituted Sri Lanka. There is a direct line of descent from 1972 to the entrenchment of the Rajapaksa regime fifty years later. The majoritarianism it sanctioned led to the civil war that consumed the country for thirty years. This, in turn, led to the eventual routing of the Velupillai Prabhakaran regime and the genocidal violence against the Tamils of Jaffna. Mahinda Rajapaksa was president when the Tamil insurgency was crushed and Gotabaya was the defence secretary, widely known as the Terminator for his covert brutality towards political enemies. The Rajapaksas milked the victory in Jaffna for all it was worth, and their domination of Sri Lankan politics is entirely down to their successful polarization of Sri Lankan politics on religious and ethnic lines on the back of the civil war.
When the Easter bombings by Muslim terrorists in 2019 traumatized the country, the Rajapaksas and their party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, were perfectly placed, as the principal avengers of the civil war, to take advantage of the ensuing outrage. Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the presidential election later that year defeating Sajith Premadasa of the United National Party by well over a million votes. In the subsequent parliamentary elections in August 2020, the SLPP consolidated its grip on power by winning a massive two-thirds majority.
We have learnt over the past decade that explicit majoritarian bigotry can be a shortcut to electoral victories. We have seen this with Donald Trump, Imran Khan, Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, Rodrigo Duterte and the Rajapaksas. Politicians elected on the back of these inflammatory campaigns develop a messianic belief in their political capacity to effect sweeping change. Unluckily, their genius for mobilizing voters is seldom matched by an ability to govern rationally. We have seen Imran Khan drive Pakistan to the brink with his genius for alienating every ally, from Saudi Arabia to the United States of America to Pakistan’s army establishment. The shock of Covid was a challenge to every state in the world, but the serial stupidities of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government that created the present catastrophe can only be explained by the delusion of omnipotence that majoritarian success brings in its wake.
In late 2019, Rajapaksa slashed indirect taxes by half while also shrinking the income tax net. This led to a massive loss of revenue on the eve of the pandemic. Stuck with a balance of payment crisis, compounded by the loss of revenue from tourism, Rajapaksa decided to save hard currency by banning the import of chemical fertilizer and in the middle of a pandemic eccentrically pushed for an economy-wide transition to organic farming. Ignoring the desperate warnings about the likely hit to agricultural productivity, Rajapaksa pressed on. The inevitable happened. The paddy harvest failed, the price of rice rose steeply, and the government had to institute a billion-dollar food aid programme, provide two hundred million dollars in income support to devastated farmers, and import vast quantities of rice that, given its debt and meagre foreign exchange reserves, it couldn’t really afford.
It’s not unusual for the modern majoritarian populist, drunk on his own Kool Aid, to offer flashy solutions to complex problems. The delusion that great changes can be instituted by drastic, spectacular policies is common to all of them. Trump’s wall, Modi’s demonetization, Rajapaksa’s organic revolution are classic examples of the majoritarian populist as conjuror, pulling rabbits out of his hat. The inevitable failure of these policies isn’t a disincentive because their success in mobilizing majoritarian passions makes them, in the medium term at least, seemingly immune to electoral defeat.
Rajapaksa won a huge majority in the parliamentary elections after his disastrous experiment with organic farming. Modi won a general election despite the massive dislocation and suffering caused by demonetization. Adityanath was re-elected to office after his government’s epic failure in dealing with Covid’s Delta wave. The difference between Sri Lanka and India is that in a country as large as India, political dominance is never absolute. The word of the Leader is not always law and even when it is, as with Modi’s three agricultural laws, agitation and protest can lead to course correction. A large economy like India’s has the wherewithal to suffer incompetence and stagger on; the economic equilibrium of a tiny island nation like Sri Lanka is more easily overset. That said, size isn’t everything and there is a limit to how much megalomaniacal incompetence any economy can bear. The unfolding tragedy of Sri Lanka is, for all of us, a cautionary tale.
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