Appointed Prime Minister five times since 1993, Ranil Wickremesinghe now serves in that capacity for the sixth time. Constitutionally he serves as the most unpopular leader Sri Lanka has ever had in its 74 years of independence. The crisis he has tasked himself with seeing through and resolving is, as he put it in his interview with the BBC, one the country has never encountered, even under the Dutch and the British. PM Wickremesinghe concluded his special statement on Monday night with a reference to Grusha, the protagonist of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk who carries a child along a thin bridge. His own task is no less severe. If he succeeds, he will cross the bridge. If he does not, we will fall with him.
Wickremesinghe oversees an economy that has been battered beyond belief. At the beginning of 2020 foreign reserves stood at USD 7.5 billion. Now the Government can’t find even a million. The country’s total debt stands at more than USD 50 billion, of which USD 8 billion must be serviced this year. A sovereign bond of USD 1 billion will mature in early July. Though the island officially declared a soft default in April, the July payment, or rather non-payment, will complicate the situation further. Prices continue to hike unbearably, but the queues aren’t getting any smaller. Although Wickremesinghe says he has got assurances from those he calls our foreign allies, the cash is yet to come.
The Central Bank has done what it can to ease the situation. Under Nandalal Weerasinghe, an institution that once harboured an unsavoury reputation for politicisation has steered clear of the tumults of Colombo’s politics. He has succeeded in keeping it that way so far. This has instilled much needed credibility to his policies, including interest rate hikes and bans on open accounts. The STF may or may not be working to put these policies into effect, but it is fast cracking down on the much derided undiyal market. That has enabled the Bank to soft peg the currency and print money, unforgivable in the eyes of Colombo’s neoliberal commentariat, but absolutely essential in light of what is to come.
Austerity to follow
And what is to follow? Painful austerity, of course. Although the exact degree and extent of this austerity is yet to be determined, there’s no doubt that it will be painful. In his speech Wickremesinghe hinted at some of his measures. These include the privatisation of
SriLankan Airlines, a move that has the firm approval of a vast section of the population, and cost-reflective prices for public utilities and essential commodities, a move that does not. He was very clear on the losses incurred by Sri Lanka’s forever haemorrhaging SOEs; more than Rs 80 for petrol and Rs 115 for diesel by the CPC, and more than Rs 30 by the CEB. He didn’t mention other utilities, like water, but these too will not be spared.
In his speech Ranil Wickremesinghe mentioned Brecht. In Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Andrea, the astronomer’s assistant, comments that a land that has no heroes is an unhappy land. Brecht’s hero replies immediately, arguing that it is a land in need of heroes is an unhappy land. Sri Lanka is now desperate for a hero, and although the Aragalaya against Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been going on for more than a month, a not insignificant number of people are looking for one. They are tired of politicians, but they have no choice. Having been let down by a man they elected to power in the hopes of securing security and prosperity, they have turned to his Prime Minister. Wickremesinghe may be Grusha carrying a child along the bridge, but is he also the hero that Galileo was talking about?
This is, of course, an indictment on the country’s political consciousness. Used so much and for so long to personalities, Sri Lankans invariably associate political figures with policies. That is not the case in other countries, but Sri Lanka has always stood out as an exception in that regard. Since 1977 at least, moreover, the idea of political parties representing specific ideologies has given way to the cult of the figure. This is why we still bank on saviours and heroes, even as we say we don’t want to, and that is why the bar came down so bad that Wickremesinghe’s assurance that he would keep us fed three times a day, and spare us from shortages and queues, hardly greeted with relief, if not bemusement.
Complicating this even more, of course, is the absence of a viable alternative. Whatever plans Sri Lanka may have had for State-led industrialisation, which Shiran Illanperuma in a riveting account of the protests in Jamhoor Magazine attributes to the appointment of W. D. Lakshman in 2019, will now be ditched. Radical reforms, possible a year or so ago, but never really looked into by the Government, are on their way out. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, the Inter University Students’ Federation released a list of 13 proposals on the same day as the Prime Minister’s speech, charting a way out of the crisis. While most proposals, including the resignation of the President, have been endorsed, many others, including the nationalising of privatised assets, have been almost universally ridiculed.
The middle-classes that led the protests in Colombo are dispersing. In part, this has been owing to the appointment of a new Prime Minister. It’s not just Ranil Wickremesinghe the man; it’s the principles he represents. Colombo’s middle-classes, for all their radicalism and liberal anarchist rhetoric, have always abided by those principles; that is why, while a week or two ago they could applaud the IUSF’s march to Colombo, now they condemn it for trying to bulldoze through what they consider as “impractical” suggestions.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has emerged as a clear winner in all this. Though despised by Sri Lanka’s upward aspiring middle bourgeoisie, he is seen as the only man to see through the reforms Sri Lanka will implement in the coming few weeks and months. That is, of course, no different to the nationalist imagining of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as a saviour, a hero, an invincible terminator. Time only can tell whether Wickremesinghe will deliver. If he does, he can safely cross the bridge. If he does not, we will fall down with him. The latter is not an option we can afford, anymore. At all costs, it must be avoided.
The writer is an international relations analyst who can be reached
at [email protected]
By Uditha Devapriya