A glorious day passed without much funfair. Two years ago on November 16, 6.9 million Sri Lankan voters elected as their executive president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the wartime defence secretary cum the presidential brother. Younger Gotabaya Rajapaksa was anointed as the candidate of the newly formed Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) by the elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was deprived of the chance to run for a third term - or even fourth or fifth like the peers in Africa and Russia and now in China - by the 19th amendment. Yet Mahinda knew how important it was to keep the post within the confines of the family.
Though handpicked by the elder brother, Gotabaya soon built his own brand and fellowship, the kind of folks who believed Gotabaya, a former military man and a political outsider (which he isn’t) as the panacea for the ills of Sri Lankan politics. His Sinhala Buddhist credentials were seen as the icing on the cake.
Having rescinded his American citizenship to run for the presidency, Gotabaya campaigned on a patriotic platform, prioritizing national security and offering prosperity. Elsewhere, his campaign was replete with Sinhala Buddhist exclusivist rhetoric, anti-minority dog-whistling and pledges to defeat many concocted foreign conspiracies.
His election spurred a burst of great national rejuvenation as artistic youth took to splash city walls with patriotic painting. The president was sworn in as the eighth executive President in the Sacred Ruwanweli Seya. He didn’t forget to remind his erstwhile followers that he won the election solely on the Sinhala Buddhist vote.
Two years is not a long time. But those golden days of national pride feel as if light years ago, a fleeting memory of a distant dream.
"His Sinhala Buddhist credentials were seen as the icing on the cake. Having rescinded his American citizenship to run for the presidency, Gotabaya campaigned on a patriotic platform, prioritizing national security and offering prosperity"
Now as the farmers, probably the largest chunk of his constituency protest and demanding chemical fertilizer, a subsidy that was taken for granted until recently and when the public stand in long queues to buy an elusive cooking gas cylinder, in a twist of destiny, President Rajapaksa’s sleek campaign song- Weda Karana Ape Viruwa (our hero who gets things done) is playing in the back of their memory.
To add insult to injury, naysayers have dubbed footage of long queues and despondent farmers with some of his premature jubilations - Mama thamai hodatama karala thiyenne (I am the one who did best).
One cannot blame President Rajapaksa for giving up his patriotic mission in his own warped worldview. Recently he appointed Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera, who was earlier released from jail by his predecessor, as the head of the ‘One Country, One Law’ task force. The fourth tallest stupa in the country was declared open last week.
However, this time around there are not many willing buyers. His once faithful electorate is now hungry and poorer. Even in the standard of politics in this part of the world, it is extremely rare for a leader to inflict a food crisis upon a nation reeling from a colossal debt crisis. President Rajapaksa did exactly that.
Yet, he could still claim credit for the country’s modest success against Covid-19 and mass vaccination effort, for which he says he used his good offices with China to secure the vaccine in sufficient numbers.
The pandemic should have been his primary challenge, yet he navigated it with caution, initially. When he choose to go by his own calculations, or those of his generals, instead of medical experts, in April this year and opened the country that gave into the worst phase of the pandemic. Yet, the mass vaccination should be a deterrent for the future and could have poised Sri Lanka to a V-shaped economic recovery.
Alas, that seems to be wishful thinking. His government’s egotistical disdain to go to IMF for debt restructuring is prolonging the economic crisis. A Central Bank mandated exchange rate has worsened the shortage of essential items and robbed whatever the competitiveness of the local industry.
There is no end to the current economic crisis until the foreign debt is restructured. Until the president fathoms that unsavoury reality, the public will suffer. Until then Sri Lanka’s investment potential could well be confined to the advertising brochures. The foreign investor sentiment could be gauged in zero response to the UDA’s much-publicized offer of prime state land for development.
"President Rajapaksa is not known to be corrupt, a rare distinction from his brothers. Yet the economic crisis, he is partly responsible for perpetuating, has resulted in runaway corruption by the rent-seeking businessmen associated with his party"
For one thing, President Rajapaksa is not known to be corrupt, a rare distinction from his brothers. Yet the economic crisis, he is partly responsible for perpetuating, has resulted in runaway corruption by the rent-seeking businessmen associated with his party. There are even allegations that the last ditched purchase of Nano nitrogen from an Indian company has been made at the multiple of the market price in India.
When the president was elected, he had the best of both worlds: a loyal following at home, and an international community, especially the West and America that were willing to give him a chance despite their reservations. The president squandered both these opportunities.
His government snubbed the United States over the Millennium Challenge Grant of nearly half a billion dollars - Recently the minister of finance signed a loan agreement with the world bank for the same amount ostensibly for the development of transportation. The difference though is Sri Lanka would have to pay back the loan, and the grant, we won’t.
His government has been self-distancing itself from the democratic West and America. The latter’s reaction seems to be in the same kind, probably due to not so glamorous rights record of its counterpart.
As a result, foreign conspiracies are hard to come by these days. Otherwise, the president and his spin doctors could have saved the country from a few of them.
The president started his term by dismantling probably the only seminal constitutional achievement in recent memory, the 19th amendment and pulled the country out of its co-sponsorship of a UNHRC resolution. None of these acts served the country’s interests at home or abroad. Sri Lanka is now fighting a losing battle with the office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights. Probably it would be his successor who would have to foot the bill for these misadventures.
It is sad that things turned out this way. However, the country should not and cannot continue along this perilous path.
Probably the President’s serial policy mishaps stem from an echo chamber of yes men and cavemen, the latter who suddenly found relevance under his regime. He might have to look beyond them for saner counsel. The starting point and the bare minimum would be coming to grips with the reality of the economic crisis. Failing that, the self-inflicted pain and suffering of the masses will see no end.
Ranga Jayasuriya, Journalist and Researcher in International Politics.
This article was originally published on Daily Mirror online. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.