“This is a sign of just how managerial and technocratic we have become; so much so that mediocre utilitarianism confuses itself with professionalism. And all of this is in place of what could be called humanism.”
— John Ralston Saul, ‘Voltaire’s Bastards’
From President Sirisena’s whistle-blowing ‘State bank privatization plot’ speech to the surrounding social anomie, we are living through “a great variety of morbid symptoms” which appear “in this interregnum” as described in Antonio Gramsci’s classic passage with the opening definition “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.”
Is the post-2019 future to be a rightwing “Authoritarian Populism” as Stuart Hall named the Thatcher (or more broadly the Thatcher-Reagan) phenomenon? Or is it to be a left-of-centre, progressive and democratic populism in which nationalism is part of the protean mix? Is the patriotic populist vision of a strong State and strong leadership, to be of the centrist Putin-Erdogan variety or the rightist Trump-Netanyahu variety?
Any design for a new vision for Sri Lanka should centrally and explicitly address the mounting social crisis. A front page lead of an English language newspaper (May 27) disclosed that 40% of Colombo’s children are malnourished. The overall malnutrition figure for most provinces is a shocking 25%-30% i.e. 2 or 3 out of every 10 persons! The report was based on a presentation on May 24 to a Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender and the Children’s caucus, by Dr. Thusitha Wijemanna.
The same newspaper reported on May 30 that the Global Nutrition Report (GNR) 2017, a World Health Organisation (WHO) publication, documented that in Sri Lanka ‘Anaemia among women of reproductive age’ i.e. ages 15-49, had risen to 33 per cent as at 2016, when compared to lower figures of 25.7 per cent as at 2011.
Early in 2015, when the Yahapalana Government took office, a noteworthy economic conference was held in Colombo. Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Prof. Joseph Stiglitz, sat next to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and urged that the key to optimal economic development in Sri Lanka should be regarded as the question of equity. By January 2016, Prof. Stiglitz had written a key article containing his recommendations. He has proved prophetic:
“Some suggest that Sri Lanka turn to the International Monetary Fund, promising belt tightening. That would be hugely-unpopular. Too many countries have lost their economic sovereignty in IMF programmes. Besides, the IMF would almost surely tell Sri Lankan officials not that they’re spending too much, but that they’re taxing too little.” (https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/sri-lanka-development-growth-by-joseph-e–stiglitz-2016-01)
So far, Stiglitz’ recommendations have been ignored by the UNP and its Alt-Right challengers. The vision for Sri Lanka articulated by Joe Stiglitz, the world’s most renowned economic policy intellectual, pays particular and repeated emphasis to precisely the “public” rather than the corporate/private: “public goods,” “public investments,” “public infrastructure,” “public services,” “public transport” etc. His recommendations for Sri Lanka stress the public factors and dimension rather than the private sector, the “market realities” or public-private partnerships:
“…Likewise, another frequently proposed strategy, public-private partnerships, may not be as beneficial as advertised. Such partnerships usually entail the government bearing the risk, while the private sector takes the profits. Typically, the implicit cost of capital obtained in this way is very high. And while the private sector can, and frequently does, renege on its contractual obligations (through bankruptcy) – or force a renegotiation under the threat of reneging – the government cannot, especially when an international investment agreement is in place.”
“…Heavy public investment in infrastructure, education, technology, and much else. Indeed, such investments are needed for the entire country…”
“…This gives the country the opportunity to create model cities, based on the adequate provision of public services and sound public transport and attuned to the cost of carbon and climate change.”
“Sri Lanka, beautiful and ideally located in the Indian Ocean, is in a position to become an economic hub for the entire region – a financial centre and a safe haven for investment in a geopolitically-turbulent part of the world. But this won’t happen by relying excessively on markets or under-investing in public goods.” (Stiglitz, Ibid)
Godfrey Gunatilleke is the most distinguished Sri Lankan development thinker-practitioner alive. Volume 1 of his selected essays ‘Towards a Sri Lankan Model of Development’ (May 2017), contains a final chapter entitled ‘A Vision of Sri Lanka 2025 and 2035: from High Human Development to Very High Human Development.’ Anybody who attempts a vision for this country should study it.
The latest vision statement for Sri Lanka rolled out at the Viyathmaga event at the Shangri-La by Gotabaya Rajapaksa is one which does not mention, one single time, any of the following keywords and core concepts: ‘citizens’/‘citizenry,’ ‘social,’ ‘public,’ ‘poor’ (except for ‘poor returns’), ‘poverty,’ ‘inequity,’ ‘unemployment,’ ‘rural,’ ‘peasantry,’ ‘agrarian.’ This is by no means a centre-left, moderate or middle path policy paradigm.
What Sri Lanka needs is not to mimic, adopt or adapt a model from the US, India, China or anywhere else. What it needs, firstly, is a deep study of its own realities and development experience, and a balance sheet of the positives and negatives of each development episode/phase, with a view to combining the best practices adopted by all Sri Lankan governments hitherto. Secondly, this study must be informed by a creative application of the best development practices in other parts of the world, insofar as they are relevant.
Development is not a spectator sport, where the majority of citizens watches and cheers while corporate profits and high-rise buildings ascend, as their own quality of life declines or stagnates.
The foreign policy component of the Viyathmaga sessions completely-omitted the main challenges: how do we successfully combat – not merely decry and denounce – the threat of universal jurisdiction and unilateral sanctions? How do we reverse the diminution of our “soft power”?
Sri Lanka’s international relations cannot be insulated from Sri Lanka’s nationalities question. The Tamil question was globalised decades ago and is now more globalised than ever. No serious discussion on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy can ignore this problem and omit the political solution we propose, which is vital in managing our relations with India — without which we lose international space and are strategically-vulnerable.
In 2015, Sri Lanka broke with the settled traditions of its democracy and brought Right and Centre together in a coalition government with ghastly results: we inhabit a decadent, fraught, ‘Weimar moment.’ Will Sri Lanka return to the successful democratic conventions and traditions that have prevailed since 1947 (including over the JVP and LTTE): the competitive alternation of centre-right and centre-left that propelled our high social welfare and sustained our pluralist democratic freedoms? Or will we see post-2019, roughly the same pattern, that we did post-1977—an euphoric ‘new beginning,’ a great economic upswing initially, a harsh authoritarian interlude justified by calls for stability in the cause of rapid economic advancement, and a culmination in multiple conflicts, internal and external, with foreign troops on our soil?
The most effective political struggle against the rightist-dominated government has been waged post-2015 by a progressive, broadly centre-left opposition. Which ideological tendency, progressive centre-left, moderate–centrist or neo-nationalist right, prevails in the broad oppositional space and as the opposition’s option, will depend considerably on the SLFP’s new course.