By Uditha Devapriya
When Ranil Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister a month or so ago, he warned that things would get worse before they get better. Mr Wickremesinghe has addressed the nation at least thrice since then, and on all three occasions he has reiterated this warning. To be fair, he is right: we will hit rock-bottom before we start climbing up.
In appointing Wickremesinghe as his Prime Minister, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took a gamble. The gamble worked for a month. Now, however, we are at a standstill. CPC sheds no longer pump fuel to private vehicles. Until late July, we will operate with less than 5,000 MT of petrol and 11,000 MT of diesel. The president may or may not have foreseen this, but for Wickremesinghe, the tightrope act just got a little tighter.
At the initial stages, his entry helped pacify the protests. Despite parading themselves as non-aligned, Gotagogama protesters had their own beliefs regarding the leadership of this country. When President Rajapaksa let his brother go and appointed a new Prime Minister, he ruptured the protests. Now, with a worsening fuel crisis, it is likely that what was ruptured will come back together again, stronger this time.
In the final analysis, the momentum of anti-government protests depends on the availability or unavailability of essential items. At present, Sri Lanka spends more than USD 600 million on fuel, every month. To get an idea of the magnitude of this expense, one only needs to recall that it represents half the entire annual coal requirement of Sri Lanka. The country spends less than a third on consumer goods, including food, but with the president’s ill-timed fertiliser ban, this too has become an urgent imperative.
Sri Lankans will tolerate all these deprivations only if two conditions are met. First, they need promises of better days to come. Second, these promises must be kept. The issue is that while the government has been quick with promises, it has been slow with action. The fuel crisis is just one example: why it took months to travel to Russia, and Qatar, to make urgent appeals for fuel shipments for the rest of the year, is anybody’s guess.
Sri Lankans typically reward governments that deprive them of necessities – and even some luxuries – by voting them out. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government chose to expel the Left, then made the mistake of extending parliament by two years. This gave an opening to the Opposition, led by J. R. Jayewardene, to woo over discontented voters and reduce the SLFP, sans the LSSP and Communist Party, to a paltry eight seats.
The situation is somewhat different now. The dynamics have changed. People did queue for food in the Bandaranaike years, but they always got a share. Whatever criticism one can make of that government’s socialist policies, they at least ensured a ration for everyone. For his part, the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene made use of middle-class opposition to queues and rations, but it was also deft enough not to promise to dismantle the latter: that is why Jayewardene pledged a weekly quota of eight measures of rice.
Commentators tend to compare Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies to the Bandaranaike regime. Despite certain superficial similarities, they fail to note that under Rajapaksa, nothing has been consistent, and nothing has worked out for anyone.
This is a government that has, since 2020, operated on a laissez-faire basis. The President has done little, apart from dispensing instructions, like the Central Bank allocating dollars for fuel, that have gone nowhere. That is a far cry from the United Front years, when, to quote a leading political commentator, “there was some method in the madness.”
It is this uncertainty which feeds people’s rage. Had there been a plan in place, had the plans supposedly in place not tended to slip away – the fuel token system, vaunted for weeks but discontinued less than a day after being inaugurated, being the best and most recent example – people would have tolerated up to a point. Had the powers that be identified future shortages and adjusted accordingly, people would have given them more time. Had they done more to source funds from other countries, especially our traditional partners, to bring queues down to manageable levels, people would have cut them some slack.
Yet none of this has happened so far, at least not to expected levels. It’s not like the government didn’t see what was coming. We did. Why couldn’t they?
Blaming Wickremesinghe for these failures is hardly fair. But he is the Prime Minister of a collapsing economy. For his part, he has warned the country of a bleak future. This is in stark contrast to the government’s deny-everything approach, which got us into the current mess. Yet issuing warnings every three weeks, though necessary, is hardly adequate. To be sure, Wickremesinghe’s biggest impediment has been the ineptitude of those he has had to work with. This does not, however, exonerate him.
In any case, a key factor for the next three or four weeks will be whether the government gets everything in place before July 10. For daily wage earners, these two weeks will be the toughest they’ve faced in their lives. The economic cost will be unbearable, and the loss of livelihoods, particularly for trishaw drivers, will be immense.
I am confident enough to say that we won’t turn into another Lebanon, at least not anytime soon. Indeed, certain economic commentators suggest that things will get better by September or October, when remittances and export incomes grow. But this will not, and should not, make us forget the government’s ineptitude.
Lankans have, since independence, generally been tolerant of political inaction. Yet as things stand now, the powder keg fuse is burning to its end, and the people are feeling the brunt of the crisis. The day when they will force accountability on this regime, whether through peaceful protests or a re-enactment of May 9, won’t be that far off.