By Col R Hariharan
Interim Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, on his sixth term, has just completed a month in office. Nobody expects the newly anointed PM to come charging on a white steed like a modern-day Sir Galahad to save the country from economic bankruptcy. From the start, there is a lot of skepticism about his success as PM as the fully empowered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is riding on his back. Many protesters see him as a proxy of Gotabaya, who refuses to resign.
A second reason for doubts about Wickremesinghe’s credentials as PM is that he is serving at the pleasure of the president, who is seen as the source of Sri Lanka’s economic woes. The PM draws his parliamentary support from Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its cohorts, as well as the UNP’s traditional political rivals, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The last time Wickremesinghe served as PM of the uneasy UNP-SLFP coalition, with SLFP leader Maithripala Sirisena as president, the Yahapalana (good governance) government did not cover itself with glory. The president and the PM spent more time wrestling for power than delivering the good governance they had promised the people. They had no time to heed early warnings of an impending attack by homegrown Islamic terrorists that led to the infamous Easter Sunday attacks which resulted in the avoidable death of nearly 300 people. In a way, the Easter Sunday attacks paved the way for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to be elected president and the Rajapaksas to bounce back to power with massive support from Sinhala nationalist voters in the last presidential and parliamentary elections.
In this respect, Wickremesinghe’s handicaps remind one of Sammy Davis Jr, the legendary American pop singer of the 90s. When asked about his golf handicap, the singer quipped: “My handicap? Man, I am a one-eyed Black Jew! That’s my handicap.”
A SWOT (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Threats) analysis of the PM is revealing. Wickremesinghe’s strength is his political experience of over half a century. During this period, he has ridden both the crests and troughs of Sri Lanka’s elitist politics and its by-products—cycles of ethnic conflict, revolutionary insurgency, political violence and periodic assertion of hegemonic Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to the detriment of religious and ethnic harmony.
Probably, the secret of Wickremesinghe’s survival in the acrimonious island politics is his mastery of using the Middle Path of Theravada Buddhism (Majjhima-patipadā in Pali). It advocates avoiding the extremes of self-gratification on the one hand and self-mortification on the other. Middle Path in politics can be construed as not taking hard decisions that could tread on many feet. It has not only helped him to survive, but also remain relevant as a man for all seasons both in victory and defeat in the turbulent politics of the island nation.
This is perhaps one reason why President Rajapaksa chose him for the PM’s post despite the disastrous performance of the UNP under his leadership in the last elections. Agreeing to become PM after the ignominious exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM when the ship of state threatens to capsize requires a lot of self-confidence. Wickremesinghe seems to have plenty of it, though the elected representative of the UNP is absent in the parliament, perhaps for the first time.
On the flip side, that is also his weakness. His political past is strewn with the failure of many well-meaning efforts. The 2002 Norwegian initiated peace process with the LTTE is one example. If successfully implemented, it could have saved at least 1,00,000 lives which were lost in the Eelam War 4.
During the peace process, the political and personality differences between Wickremesinghe and President Chandrika Kumaratunga were taken advantage of by LTTE leader Prabhakaran, leading to its collapse. Similar leadership weakness led to the failure of the Yahapalana government, under Wickremesinghe’s joint stewardship with Sirisena. These are just a few examples of Wickremesinghe’s failure to deliver upon his promises.
However, it is to the PM’s credit that since coming to power, in his public discourses he has repeatedly warned the people of privations and shortages that would continue for some more months. Even conservative estimates look at six months to one year lead time for the economic process to firm in.
The PM’s cabinet that is supposed to implement the national recovery plan is a mixed bag of good, bad and ugly. In the one month, the PM has achieved some semblance of stability after seeing the exit of Basil Rajapaksa, the finance minister. He is out of the cabinet, but he still influences the SLPP and is capable of pulling the rug. Prof GL Peiris, the foreign minister, had been active to cash in on the international goodwill Sri Lanka enjoys. But there are elements in the cabinet that bring no credit to any government.
Wickremesinghe is one of the few Sri Lankan leaders acceptable to a wide cross-section of the international community. That includes most of the Sri Lanka Tamil bodies abroad, with whom he had struck a working equation during his earlier avatar as PM of the Yahapalana government. President Rajapaksa must have realised that he needed him in his team when the country desperately needs international goodwill and support to rescue the beleaguered economy.
Within a month of Wickremesinghe becoming PM, there has been a positive international response to Lanka’s economic woes. Of course, Sri Lanka is not the only country facing the after-effects of Covid. This, compounded by the Ukraine War has crippled the economy and endangered the livelihood of the people everywhere.
Of course, India has extended a lifeline to Sri Lanka, providing over $3.5 line of credit to import fuel, medicine and essential food supplies. A separate credit line of $500 million has been extended for the purchase of fuel. But help is also flowing from unexpected sources in India. Tamil Nadu is donating 40,000 tons of rice, over 100 lifesaving drugs and 500 tons of milk powder. Tamil Nadu’s ruling DMK party has donated Rs ten million and its MPs have pledged a month’s salary for CM MK Stalin’s fund for assistance to Sri Lanka.
In a rare gesture, the ambassadors of the US and China met in Colombo on May 13. They “had a friendly discussion on broad topics of mutual interest”, according to a tweet from the Chinese embassy. It added: “China and the United States could work together to help Sri Lanka to overcome current difficulties.”
The meeting is significant because the same day, US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken spoke to Wickremesinghe and discussed Lanka’s current economic and political challenges. According to the State Department spokesman, the Secretary affirmed the US’ commitment to the Sri Lankan people during this challenging time and the importance of supporting reforms that address their concerns, including democratic governance and human rights. The PM’s media unit said that the PM in his conversation explained the current status of the discussions with the IMF and looked to work closely with the US.
But foreign aid can only flow if Sri Lanka pays attention to international concerns over its poor accountability for violation of human rights, war crimes, absence of rule of law and ethnic strife.
There are three threats that could vitiate Sri Lanka’s return to stability. First is the leaderless protests that have snowballed into a national movement, a sort of colour revolution. The GotaGoGama (Gota Go Village) protestors are established firmly in the minds of youth and the middle class, who are disillusioned with the political class as a whole and the Rajapaksas in particular. Their main demand now is the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They are watching from the wings to see how the government goes about organising the essential supply of food stuff, fuel and sustenance of the poor. The government cannot afford to ignore them, lest nihilists take over the protests to spread disorder.
Second, is the demand to curb the executive president’s powers to make him accountable to the parliament. This has near unanimous support of the public and almost all political parties, including sections of the ruling SLPP. The president also seems to have realised this. This requires the abolition of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution introduced by President Rajapaksa soon after he came to power. There are two drafts of the 21st Amendment floating—one proposed by the PM and the other from the SJB opposition. Its passage in parliament could be problematic. Even after the amendment is passed, implementing it both in letter and spirit with Gotabaya on top is going to be a problem. It will require a sagacious leader to do it. People are still looking over the horizon for such a leader.
The third problem is sustaining public support for implementing the common economic recovery plan for at least a year. There are a few drafts of such a plan evolved by civil society organisations. One is the Common Minimum Programme for Economic Recovery drafted by the National Movement for Social Justice. It examines eight underlying aspects of the crisis: macroeconomic stability, revenue consolidation, primary expenditure control, public sector and state-owned enterprises management, social safety net, energy and utilities, trade and industry and specialised legislation critical to recovery. Any economic recovery plan will be on a similar model, with short, medium and long term goals to be achieved in a time-bound manner.
Without going into the nitty gritty of economic reforms or legislation, the moot point is the ability of the government to sustain the plan for a year. It will not only require leadership commitment and continuity, but holistic support of the political class to see through the crisis. Good governance, rule of law and corruption free administration can only sustain such an effort. If Sri Lanka can do it, under any leader, it would be a great achievement.
For the present, PM Wickremesinghe is saddled with the job. He cannot do the “Candy Man” act (to quote the lyrics of Sammy Davis Jr’s 1985 classic) to “take a sunrise, sprinkle it with dew nor cover it with chocolate and a miracle or two” or “take a rainbow and wrap it in a sigh, soak it in the sun” to make “a groovy lemon pie”.
Wickremesinghe has the unviable task of maintaining stability of the country to keep it going, feed the hungry, encourage investment, resuscitate tourism trade and agriculture and keep the money flowing. As the country’s pointsman, it is going to be an ordeal by fire. He will need more than good wishes; solid support of the people to see through this arduous task is what he needs. And that means less political bickering and more action.
Absence of rule of law has vitiated governance in Sri Lanka for a long time. The present government is no exception. Recently, the Colombo High Court sentenced Sri Lanka’s newly sworn-in minister for public security and tourism Prasanna Ranatunga to two years rigorous imprisonment. He was found guilty of threatening businessman G Mendis and demanding Rs 64 million to evict unauthorised occupants of a land and to refill the land.
The High Court also imposed a fine of Rs 25 million on Ranatunga and ordered him to pay Rs 1 million to Mendis as compensation. If the minister fails to do so, three more months will be added to the prison sentence, which, of course, has been suspended.
It is not surprising that Ranatunga had a victorious smirk on his face when the media clicked him after the trial. Thereafter, the man on suspended sentence for a criminal offence entered the parliament and sat with cabinet ministers.
The writer is a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies