Ranil Wickremesinghe and the politics of incompatibility
By Uditha Devapriya
A recent World Food Programme report underlines the magnitude of the food crisis in Sri Lanka. The report shows that 36% of the country’s households are effectively food insecure, while 76% are engaging in “food-coping strategies.” 35% of the country’s households are “facing insufficient food consumption”, while female-headed households (44%) are “faring worse” than male-headed ones. Worryingly, food insecurity rose by four percentage points from September to October, its worst effects felt by marginalised communities like estate workers. Quoting the report, Ada Derana reports that with “limited purchasing power, over 50% of households are purchasing food on credit.”
These are all damning indictments on an administration that is yet to be punished, legally or electorally, for its crimes. They are all traceable to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s disastrous if not misconceived fertiliser policy. They are more or less the work of policymakers and advisors who should have known better. They continue to bedevil the country, which continues to pay for the sins of its past. Yet what is interesting about the WFP report is its breakdown of the situation across provinces: between September and October, six of nine provinces saw a rise in food insecurity. While 48% of all households in the Southern Province and 45% in the Sabaragamuwa Province have become food insecure, the North and the East face much less of a problem, with scores of 26% and 25%. This is a significant gap.
What it shows is that the food crisis is affecting the Southern half of the country much more than it is the North and East. What it reveals is that the poorest regions – from Badulla to Moneragala, across the Uva and Southern Provinces – are faring worse than the rest of the country. In other words, the Southern peasantry, the core constituency of the SLPP, led by the Rajapaksas, has become the biggest victims of this government. The government for its part has pledged repeatedly to eradicate a food shortage in the coming months. It has little choice in the matter: no administration can afford to stay in power if it fails to pacify a food-deprived South. A failure there can only spark an agrarian crisis in future.
In that context, it is worth noting that Sri Lanka has not one, but two, National Questions. The first has to do with its Tamil (and Tamil speaking) communities. The second has to do with its agrarian and largely Sinhala speaking community. The first has to do with language and constitutional reforms; the second has to do with radical economic reforms, the need to industrialise across the country. The first is concentrated in the North and East; the second in the South, and by extension the North-Central and North-Western provinces. Both issues remain unresolved and unaddressed, because successive administrations have attempted to resolve and address the one without properly looking into the other.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has implored Tamil parties to help him resolve minority grievances – in effect, the first National Question – and set out a programme before the country celebrates its 75th Independence Day next month. His enthusiasm for this predates his election as President: as D. B. S. Jeyaraj reports, Wickremesinghe called Mano Ganesan, the Tamil Progressive Alliance and SJB MP, to alert him on “his intention to resolve the Tamil National Question.” This was on July 19, two days before the SLPP voted him as President in the parliament. What surprised Ganesan, Jeyaraj writes, is that the “interim president” did not canvass his support for the election. Jeyaraj comments that this shows Wickremesinghe is aware of the need “to resolve issues affecting the Tamil people.”
But just how will Wickremesinghe resolve these issues? The Tamil National Alliance has laid down a three-tiered strategy. The first involves the resolution of outstanding issues such as the release of political prisoners and the return of lands appropriated from the North; the second involves the implementation of the 13th Amendment; and the third involves political and Constitutional reforms aimed at more devolution and power-sharing. The President has already convened a conference and the TNA has already had its say on these matters there. It is reasonable to assume that he will see their proposals through.
On the surface, therefore, these matters seem easy to resolve. Civil society has repeatedly contended and pointed out that during a crisis, it is vital to bring Sri Lankans together on matters concerning minority rights. By that yardstick, the crisis we are facing now is a near-perfect if not perfect platform on which the President and his administration can put into effect long dormant political reforms aimed at the country’s minorities. In this he can count on the support of not just the SLPP, but also minority parties, which have, since September, sent mixed if ambivalent signals, to say the least, about their support for him.
Interestingly, these parties have lent their support to the President even though the latter’s legitimacy rests of the support of a ruling party that has itself splintered into two factions. They have not fully understood that the President is trying to resolve one National Question while not doing enough to resolve the other. As long as the government he leads imposes burdens, in the form of more taxation and welfare cuts, on the people, and goes ahead with unpopular measures, like the privatisation of state assets – which, as Asoka Bandarage has correctly pointed out, are being sold to state owned enterprises in other countries – he will find it difficult to handle the pressures that are bound to follow from his actions. The WFP report implies this well: the North and East can be pacified with political reforms, but the South has become a hotbed of economic insecurity. For all intents and purposes, however, the Tamil parties supporting him have ignored these considerations.
Here, one can discern a disconnect between the SLPP’s core constituency – the Sinhala and largely Buddhist peasantry and middle-classes – and the general thrust of Wickremesinghe’s reform proposals, which centre on minority communities. This is not really a contradiction. Since last year, the SLPP has lost the support of its core constituencies and it is, for the lack of a better way of putting it, seeking greener pastures elsewhere. The person it chose to elect as president over even its own candidate, Dullas Alahapperuma, has been seen by civil society and the Tamil political mainstream as more amenable to their causes and interests than the rival SLPP faction and the Opposition. Yes, the SLPP may not be comfortable with the direction Wickremesinghe is taking them in, but they have little choice in the matter: he saved them after the events of July 13, and they must now return the favour.
Whatever his intentions, then, there’s no denying that Wickremesinghe’s proposals are ambitious. They aim at no less than the resolution of issues that divided the electorate and pitted much of it against Wickremesinghe’s party, the UNP, in 2019. Back then, the SLPP used fears of the country being divided and sold to foreign interests to defeat that party. Now that the tide has turned and the man derided as a traitor has sided with the outfit that derided him as such then, the ruling party has reversed course. From a practical perspective, it thus makes sense to support these measures, because they have been left unaddressed far too long and because nearly every party, including the Opposition, is united on them. As far as the president works on them and ensures their implementation by early February, the opposition should support them – even if their support is conditional.
The latter point, however, is crucial. Why? Because neither the SLPP nor the UNP has come out with a proper programme to address the second, more urgent, National Question: the question of food security, economic well-being, and social equity.
These issues concern the country in general, but the WFP report clearly indicates that it is affecting some parts more than others. Yet, as far as economic issues go, the government seems hell-bent on imposing austerity on the people and doing little from their end to ease the suffering of the many. Against such a backdrop, whatever support the Opposition gives to the President, for his reforms on minority rights and power sharing, has to be contingent on his taking more proactive, radical measures to resolve the country’s economic problems. The President should know that this is in his interests as well: pacifying one region without doing enough for the others, after all, can only deepen his lack of legitimacy, and contribute to even more chaos, disorder, dissent, and rebellion, in the long term.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.