by Uditha Devapriya
Almost exactly a month after the government imposed emergency regulations on essential food items, it capitulated to rice mill owners who just happen to be led by the brother of a former president. In doing so, it got itself mired in a crisis of legitimacy; if all the memes on social media are anything to go by, its critics are celebrating this setback.
Yet what happened should be seen for what it is: a democratically elected government, enjoying a 2/3 parliamentary majority and enhanced presidential powers, being snubbed by oligopolists. There is very little to celebrate here, except probably the administration’s fall from grace. Well deserved as the latter prospect may be, even this offers no consolation: in welcoming the downfall of one form of authoritarianism, we end up celebrating another. It tells us a lot about the priorities of certain critics of the regime, then, that many if not most of them prefer a much derided oligopolist to a much derided president.
What we are being offered here, simply, is a choice between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Far from taking sides, I don’t see why such a choice has to be made at all.
If the government was wrong to enact emergency laws, the fact of their constitutionality should theoretically not lessen the severity of the decision. Setting aside the usual concerns about human rights and democracy, the regime could have thought of alternatives: it could have, as Sajith Premadasa suggested, gone for the Disaster Management Act.
But in doing what it did, it acted within the powers of the Constitution. You can question the wisdom of such a decision on the (valid) grounds of whether it was taken in the country’s interests or the government’s, but the decision was ultimately the latter’s to make. Indeed, insofar as these regulations were enacted to resolve a crisis, and an all too real one at that, I’d even say it was a desperate response to a pertinent issue.
Critics of the government are justifiably jubilant about Gotabaya Rajapaksa being brought down to earth by the rice oligopolists. But if the emergency regulations it enacted were not wholly outside its powers, were rice mill owners right in sidestepping the administration and dictating prices? Was their decision to determine those prices hours after the regime went back on its gazette notification acceptable? These are not your typical price hikes: regardless of how futile the government’s efforts at keeping them below the market rate were, once it rescinded these regulations, they broke through the ceiling. How fair was that?
I am a realist, not an ideologue. On a balanced note, however misconceived the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime’s hopes about controlling the market may have been, it’s undeniable that there were hoarders, and that they were creating shortages. If they did go ahead and hoard rice regardless of emergency laws, and the more influential among them refused to release stocks even after the army caught them in the act, that tells us something about the nature of this regime’s authoritarianism, the identity of those calling the shots in the economy, and the measures the State will have to take vis-à-vis private oligarchies.
In saying that, I am not condoning the government’s actions. From the day the pandemic entered the country, it operated on the mistaken belief that it could resolve everything and anything with the power of the military. To be sure, the military has done much to help with the government’s vaccination drive: I see no one, except probably one disgraced ex-Prime Minister, contesting its right to play a role there. But a distinction has to be made between what the army can do and what it should. Unfortunately for the present regime, this is a line that is yet to be drawn. The fracas over the hoarders and mill owners thus shows, not a little deplorably, the limits of using the army for even emergency purposes.
What explains the rather confusing contrast between the perceived authoritarianism of the regime and the apathetic measures it has taken to resolve these crises? Several reasons can be posited, most importantly the pandemic, but to me the answer is quite clear: since 2015, the government’s scope for authoritarianism has been diminishing.
Partly, this has been due to the measures the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government took in constraining itself, including the Right to Information Act and the 19th Amendment. These measures did much, whatever their critics may say, to buckle the State. It is a testament to those who drafted them that, to give one example, while the 20th Amendment backtracked on the 19th Amendment, it has not gone back to the situation under the 18th: it emboldens the current president, yes, but not to the extent of his brother’s presidency.
To his credit, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has not yet tampered with these reforms: thus journalists continue to use the RTI, even as the CID summons and interrogates them. Indeed, if recent outcries over journalists being questioned in the open and the Media Minister’s conciliatory remarks are anything to go by, it’s clear that the government is paying at least lip-service in public to the ideals its Ministers and officials are honouring in the breach. For all its talk over social media misinformation, it is yet to draft legislation that resembles anything of the kind that Narendra Modi has enacted to draconian effect in India. This is as it should be: evolving critiques of the previous administration, of which there are many, should definitely not blind us to the good they did via these basic, fundamental reforms.
More importantly though, such a shift has been due to the growth of a new consciousness, predominantly among a suburban middle-class, which views sceptically whatever the State does and cuts it down to size. The speed at which supporters of the previous regime turned into its biggest detractors should have warned the present administration that, in the face of gross incompetence, all hosanna-singers would turn into vengeful critics. But it chose not to heed the wind. It got a well deserved chance to go back on this trend and legitimise itself in the eyes of its people with its competent handling of the first wave. Yet having claimed a thumping victory at last year’s parliamentary election, it threw caution to the wind with the second wave. The results have been predictable: public discontent continues to grow, while a radical Left formation has broken into the Rajapaksas’ working class base.
The point I’m trying to make here is that since 2015, the Sri Lankan government’s room for impunity has reduced drastically. It is certainly ironic that a regime widely considered to be autocratic has failed to live up to the reputation of a Bolsonaro or a Modi, or for that matter a Putin. By no means, of course, has it refrained from deploying its powers, especially with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act and emergency regulations. But judging from the long line between what it threatens to do and what it actually does, it seems that a crisis of legitimacy has brought it down to its knees.
That crisis of legitimacy has largely been its doing: having assimilated Colombo’s blue-chip bourgeoisie to the near total exclusion of its agrarian and working class base, the SLPP let go of its ability to balance and mediate social classes. The Rajapaksas’ greatest strength lay in their Bonapartist balancing act, at which Mahinda was most talented. This Gotabaya seems to have let go, if not wilfully abandoned, partly because of the contradictions thrown up by the pandemic. This is obvious to anyone who has viewed the recent spate of strikes. As the teachers’ demonstrations show well enough, SLPP allied trade unions have been reduced to a minority. As the farmers’ strikes show equally well enough, the ban on chemical fertilisers has failed to generate enthusiasm for a much needed shift to organic varieties.
Yet seeing through all these failures for what they are and what they continue to be, it is becoming increasingly obvious that while the government is not listening to its critics, those critics are gaining traction over the government in the public sphere: not just on Facebook, but more crucially, on the streets. Quite in contrast to what is happening in India or Brazil, demonstrations continue to give way to more demonstrations, with no prospect of a clamp down or purge. The usual theatrics of sudden arrests and bail-outs aside, what we’re seeing here is a populist administration in danger of losing its populist credentials. Insofar as these have enabled healthy dissent among its critics, such trends are to be welcomed.
The danger lies with groups that do not have the country’s interests at heart upending the government’s best laid schemes. The rice mafia is one such group. Why I say this, simply, is that in light of the worst loss of face a government has suffered since the Easter Attacks, its critics are turning more and more to alternatives. These alternatives can and should come in the form of democratically elected outfits, like the SJB and even the JVP. But one can hardly consider the private sector food mafia, who are being turned into heroes on social media by Sri Lanka’s irrepressible political memers, in the same category.
Already online circles are afloat with the idea of mill owners contesting for political slots in the future. “Between an autocrat and an oligopolist, I would choose the latter,” one person replied to me on Twitter the other day. It is in the country’s best interests that we do not let criticism of the government deteriorate into valorisations of dubious rent-seekers. The food hoarding fracas, and the State’s inability to control private sector mafias, should hence point us to the dangers of these prospects. It should also make us aware of who’s really calling the shots and running the show, and convince us that we deserve better.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org