From Colombo, some lessons for South Asia
Nepotism and corruption bring ruin. Closed political systems produce bad policy choices. China’s economic engagement is predatory. Reckless economics will have consequences. And power is fragile
A democratically elected semi-authoritarian regime. A political dynasty with complete grip over the State apparatus. A majoritarian polity marked by entrenched discrimination against minorities. A willingness to enter hazardous geopolitical pacts for reasons of domestic political consolidation. A process of myopic economic decision-making at a time of grave global and local economic challenges. An absence of checks and balances and the stifling of independent institutions. An unwillingness to acknowledge simmering public discontent and address distress. A crackdown on peaceful protests that further inflames passions. An assertion of people power.
And then the regime crash.
The script that has played out in Sri Lanka in recent weeks — culminating in Gotabaya Rajapaksa fleeing the country and then resigning as president last week — has stunned the subcontinent. From Kathmandu to Male, Islamabad to Dhaka, every policymaker is closely looking, with a sense of dread, at the unmaking of what was once a role model of developmental economics in the region. Every politician is looking, with a sense of fear, at how the political lives of those considered invincible can end suddenly as tragedies.
And from the geopolitical perspective, no capital is as concerned with the instability right across the straits as New Delhi.
It is too early to draw larger conclusions from a story that is still unfolding. Sri Lanka is far, far away from the endgame of the current crisis. While Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as the interim president on Friday, it is unlikely that public sentiment will settle for a someone who, fairly or unfairly, is seen as representative of the ancien regime. Both constitutionally and politically, there is no easy pathway to establish a credible government with legitimacy and appoint a leader with the ability to take tough decisions.
The economic situation remains dire, with shortages of essential commodities, ever- shrinking foreign reserves, and a macro-economic collapse that is the stuff of nightmares. Without a functional and effective government, the international community’s ability to help is diminished. And with the future of Sri Lanka’s political order and economic security at stake, it is inevitable that geopolitical competition will continue to be a central feature in the coming weeks.
At the same time, the collapse in Colombo offers enough cautionary lessons for Sri Lanka and for the rest of the region. It also throws up a challenge for India and Indian diplomacy.
First, this must mark a moment of political reset in Sri Lanka. It is clear that business as usual is not sustainable. The end of the Rajapaksas is also the end of a political model that rested on Sinhalese chauvinism, select patronage networks, vanity projects that made little economic sense, rampant corruption, family rule, and viewing a State as a personal fiefdom. But while the old has collapsed, the new is yet to take roots. No leader or party has any magic wand. But what Sri Lanka must embark on is a process of political and economic reform.
In the short-term, this will entail the formation of a unity government with a credible leader who has to win the trust of Sri Lankan citizens across ethnicities and then the confidence of the international community in working through the economic crisis. It will mean ensuring that while popular rage is acknowledged and addressed, forces that seek to use the moment to create further instability don’t get the opportunity to do so.
In the medium-term, this will require reworking the political system in a manner that makes the concentration of power as seen during the Rajapaksa years difficult and creates a more robust democracy. And it will require a new social contract that takes into account the aspirations of all segments of society, including Tamils and Muslims, for without a degree of social unity and ethnic reconciliation, economic revival will be next to impossible.
Second, for leaders across the region, Colombo offers a lesson in the imperatives of political moderation and economic wisdom.
Far too many political leaders across South Asia find the temptation of majoritarian ultra-nationalist politics to consolidate their electoral prospects hard to resist. They then use this political power to treat dissent as anti-national. This is supplemented with the weakening of feedback mechanisms and the creation of a culture of fear where it becomes hard to tell the truth. With China keen to work with precisely such regimes in smaller countries and aid the erosion of democracy, these leaders find a willing international partner which provides political support but is economically predatory. And then when an economic crisis hits, they lack the courage to introspect and resort to short-term populist measures which further drains the exchequer and causes acute distress.
But as the saga of Rajapaksas shows, there are limits to this strategy. At some point, the material basis of people’s lives will become the foremost basis of their choices. Pushed to the brink, they will resist. If they find the system does not have the space to channel their grievances, they will take recourse to other channels of protest. This does not just threaten the political survival of leaders responsible for the ruin in the first place, but shakes the constitutional system.
The brutal Myanmarese junta, an increasingly authoritarian government in Bangladesh, the reckless political elites of Nepal who change political alliances every year and swing from courting one neighbour to another, and the toxic polity of Pakistan should all take note. If you fail to deliver on people’s wellbeing, and your policies lead to deprivation, there will be consequences. And chauvinism against internal minorities and fear mongering against a foreign hand won’t save you.
And finally, Colombo is a test for Indian diplomacy.
In a striking coincidence, India has an ambassador in Colombo who has now seen not one, but two massive people’s movements leading to regime collapse. Gopal Baglay was a young press officer in the embassy in Kathmandu in 2006 when a mass movement heralded the end of an autocratic monarchy, followed by an extraordinarily difficult political transition. The context is entirely different in Sri Lanka. But today, Baglay is the high commissioner in Colombo who, in a fluid context, has to relay accurate information to Delhi and engage with the turbulent politics of the island where he serves. India also has, in S Jaishankar, an external affairs minister who has served in Colombo. The Indian intelligence set-up has deep ties across the board in Sri Lanka. And over the past year, India’s economic policymakers have also gained a deeper appreciation of the roots of Sri Lanka’s economic troubles.
Delhi will have to bring all of this institutional memory and the expertise of its personnel to navigate the crisis in Sri Lanka. India will be right to feel vindicated, for it had seen much before anyone else the perils of the Rajapaksa model of governance. It will also be within its rights to feel smug about the lesson Sri Lanka offers to other neighbours if you enter into an unthinking tight embrace with China. But beyond that, the challenge is enormous.
The Indian approach, so far, has been sensible. Be seen as non-interventionist as far as politics is concerned. Step up support as far as economics and relief is concerned. But in both respects, more needs to be done.
Sri Lanka needs a variant of a Marshall Plan to rebuild its economy. While the International Monetary Fund and other international donors have to play a key role, India should seriously consider how it can step up its assistance and whether, in consultation with Sri Lankan authorities, once a new government is in place, it can offer a massive medium-term, multi-sectoral assistance package that helps Sri Lanka rebuild its finances and economy. This is the moment to be generous. And that generosity is not necessarily driven by altruism. Stability in the island is essential to prevent refugee flows and for regional security. Goodwill through aid will win geopolitical points in the contest with China, which is down but not out.
And then there is the more tricky element of politics. Delhi, whether it likes it or not, will have a role in shaping the power balance in Colombo. It needs to do so in a quiet manner that nudges Colombo towards an inclusive government in the immediate term and a more inclusive polity in the medium term.
Sri Lanka has entered a new phase. If the war ended in 2009, the post-war phase has ended in 2022. What comes next is unclear, but economics, not ethnicity will define its future. Colombo must convert the crisis into an opportunity. And the world must help.