Gotabaya Autocracy: Inducements And Impediments

By Kumar David –

Prof. Kumar David

It has been a constant if annoying refrain of this column that there are powerful class, political, military, cultural and racial-religious forces pushing Lanka in the direction of an autocratic state. Up to now I have taken pains to delineate the factors encouraging autocracy while neglecting those impeding it. This was for reasons of electoral exigency – the country has had two elections on its hands and theoretical nuances needed to be set aside so as not to cloud practical urgencies. I will now depart from this constraint and discuss both push and pull pressures. This essay is going to be controversial but if it evokes healthy debate and provokes constructive comment it is worth the risk.

Let us not fool ourselves, the call for discipline, strong government and a no-nonsense autocrat at the helm has been widespread and gained further ground during the Gota presidency. Regarding COVID, confronted with the choice between biological survival and economic benefit Gota made the right choice. Hence his popularity is not limited to power hungry military-brass, slavish media, crooked and obnoxious SLPP politicos who spotted a messiah to pull their nuts out of the fire, and Viythmaga-Yukthia upstart professionals seeking sinecures. No, it is more widespread. Autocracy-philia spread like a pandemic and penetrated the public mind as a Gota love-in; the abstract concept found personal incarnation. Over 70% of Sinhala-Buddhists and more than a usual number of Eastern Province and Vanni Tamils and Muslims voted for pro-Gota tickets.

A critical feature of this process that I will comment on anon is the emerging relationship between the Buddhist clergy and the hardening autocratic process. I am by no means convinced that the monks will one and all adapt to it. The history of the Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka has been rebellious. It did not get on well with Kasyapa and has a record of obstinate opposition to all colonial rulers. The conflict between the Abhayagiris and the Maha Vihara in the 12th century is not at all similar to the current imbroglio but it does show that transformative political events profoundly disrupt the clergy. More on this anon.

Sleaze has been widely commented on so I can keep my harangue brief and pithy. The elections have proved that the public has no interest, absolutely none, in choosing parliamentarians of financial integrity with a proven work ethic. Please let this sink in! It is criminals, rogues and buffoons that are the squad of choice. Twenty to thirty such MPs are government, a few are SJB. All meet at least one, often more than one of the following criteria: murderer on death row; alleged murder; arrested, remanded and/or indicted for theft in some cases of tens of millions of rupees; criminal breach of trust as stock-exchange chairman; passport forgery; abuse of state property and vehicles; unlawful use of firearms; assault, making false statements to the authorities (police or courts), and on and on. Writeups and a rogues-gallery of some photos is in Sunday Times 9 August in a piece by Namini Wijedasa; a fuller list can fill a page. Gota’s Cabinet includes about ten clean and competent choices but also ten others are publicly named and freely identified as “hora, jathivadhaya or buruwa”. The inclusion of so much muck in the Cabinet undermines Gota’s “I will set up a clean and competent administration” message.

On the obverse side of this ugly story is the tragedy that among the defeated MPs were those ranked among the best by Vertite Research an independent agency, say Sunil Handuneththi and Nalinda Jayatissa. Other upright ones too were voted out to make room for scoundrels. I need to make it clear that I am not here discussing the moral debasement of the voting public, though that is horrific. My concern relates to the topic of this essay, the swing to autocracy. Why do people have so little concern for the quality of their MPs? Because their greatest desire is that the Rajapaksas wield supreme power. There is empathy between the cultural character of the people (mainly but not only the Sinhalese) and Rajapaksa mystique. What the Rajapaksas evoke is what Lanka is. It is simplistic to reckon that war victory still enamours Gota to the masses. No, it’s a deeper psyche than that; the Sinhala masses gel with what the Rajapaksas symbolise; what the Rajapaksa phenomenon emanates is what our polity breathes. This will not reverse until the economy collapses; at least till then Rajapaksa state power stands secure.

The UNP was wiped out and Sajith defeated not because of yahapalana’s ineptitude or the bond-scam. There are far bigger and bolder rogues per square centimetre in the SLPP than the UNP or Sajith’s outfit. Nor can the defeat be explained by the split, hugely biased media coverage, campaign restrictions due to the pandemic or the larger turn out of saffron for the Rajapaksas than for Sajith or Ranil. These things mattered but they were not decisive. Even if Sajith and Ranil did not tear out each other’s jugulars, even without the bond-scam, with better media coverage and more saffron robes on stage, still there would have been a huge swing to MR-GR because Sri Lanka psychologically wanted it. Pissu-Sira, had he been on an SJB or UNP ticket would have lost his deposit, shirt and underpants, but on the Rajapaksa bandwagon he romped home with more than 100,000 votes. This proves my message better than words. This is the truth; it is an ugly truth and we are stuck with this ugly truth. 

The seamless blending of Gotabaya mystique into Sinhala consciousness, this symbiosis of the personal with political culture, this choreography of the drama, is what brings the masses into line with an experiment in autocracy. He is the strong man who Asgiriya hailed as an Asian Hitler. The motto of the government going forward will be Gotabaya adoration more than Sinhala-Buddhism. Hold it! What was that, what did I say! No, no, I don’t think it will be that simple because if Gotaism seeks to supplant Buddhism as the nation’s hegemonic faith much of the clergy will revolt. But you see the point is that autocracy needs an autocrat and an autocrat is built by a paraphernalia of mythologies about the Great Leader, the Helmsman, the Saviour. It is not possible to create an autocratic state without a great autocrat at the helm and that is not possible without an “overdetermining” ideological creed to prop up the Great One. Stop for a moment and consider – Tiberius was deified, Napoleon crowned, Mussolini glorified, Peron hyped and Stalin mummified! 

A Gotagaya autocracy too will need the mythology of an overweening nation-wide Gota cult, but precisely this will be in tension with the “leading role of Buddhism”. Signals of alarm at Gota glory’s overreach can already be detected in the saffron-set. Maybe instead of provoking an indomitable foe the proponents of autocracy may reduce the scope of their project and tone down their cult. For this and other reasons – this is one of the controversial hypotheses in this essay – there is a possibility that Gota and his inner coterie may think it tactically wise to retreat a little on their authoritarian mission.

On the political side an agent that may stall the project is class opposition, especially the working class in the state sector. Take the East Container Terminal slated for joint development with India. Assume for argument’s sake that it is a good joint-venture and assume also that far-reaching commitments have already been made to India. On the other side trade union hostility is implacable – the deal the unions struck with Mahinda only bought time. A second example: While in opposition and during the runup to this election the SLPP hyped the notion that the MCC was a sell-out to imperialism; the usual crap at the hustings. Now by hook or by crook GR-MR salivate for the $480 million. But the dogs they unleashed will turn around to bite. There are other examples of how a GR-MR autocratic project may come in conflict with radicals and unions. What will the state do; take the guns out of the armoury?  No one can be sure. That’s why you call these scenarios “Known Unknowns”. The point is this, while a non-autocratic state can climb down, autocracy cannot without eroding its own credibility. 

Everybody says “The economy will be the government’s and a would-be autocrat’s undoing” so I can be as brief semiquaver. Using a broad-brush approach there are three crises; foreign debt servicing, fiscal deficit and third employment. I look at each in relation to what it has in store for the GR-MR outfit over the next one or two years. Dollar debt servicing over the next 12 months (not six, that’s the first course) threatens the very existence of the government, but it is also what it may be able to get around. Yes, we have to find some $4 billion before the end of the year and a like amount next year. If we default the rupee will crash, in that event the Sri Lanka foreign bond yield (effective dollar interest rate) will rocket to . . . 20%, 30% . . . I dread. But the Paksa siblings (all four) will beg, bow, plead and weep for a moratorium on repayments, new loans, enter into SWAP deals, IMF grants and throw themselves at the mercy of Father Confucius, Uncle Sam and Mother India. These gentle worthies will not let us sink; each for his own reasons does not want bedlam in this island. The conditions imposed may be tough, the belt tightened, but in the words of the hymn “We shall be Saved” before we drown in helpless hopeless default.

On the other two concerns – fiscal deficit and employment – I am not whistling so happily in this dark night. I can’t see a way out that does not provoke mass unrest and chaos on the streets. I predict that the deficit will stay for years. Expenditure will exceed revenue by10% of GDP in 2020; countries reaching 15 to 20% are called basket-cases. Lowering expenditure means reducing welfare (Samuradhi etc), cutting wages, “labour market reforms” (euphemism for easy firing, reducing wages and employer friendly labour laws), and cutting spending on health, education and subsidies. Forget it, it can’t be done unless Gota’s Brigades are prepared to spray grape-shot in the streets. Raising revenue implies enhanced economic activity, steeper taxes on the rich and higher sales taxes – on all counts, dream on! 

Economists are those queer chaps who sonorously, and in all seriousness, tell you that if your lovely old aunty had balls she could become your respected uncle. Their chorus right now is “Export, export, sadhu, sadhu, export”. How the devil to dramatically raise exports within a year or two in the midst of a global downturn, a turning inward to the domestic economy in the US and even Europe and when some 60% of the value of our manufactured exports are imported raw materials and machinery? Yes we must look outwards and integrate more, not less, with global partners but since the focus of this essay is short-term political prospects, I conclude with the comment that prospects are bleak. Furthermore. the deficit in the balance of payments will exceed $3 billion in 2020 and 2021 – everyone knows why; I don’t need to elaborate. So it will be hard going for any guns and thunder regime.

To dwell at similar length on the bleak employment outlook would need several more paragraphs. Autocracy and constitutional reform is a topic all of itself. This essay has been an analysis of “What Is” it has not touched on “What Is to be Done”, another huge topic. Editors like imams are frugal about column inches so I have to cut it short and stop the flow midstream despite my enlarged prostate. 

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