Development sans Democracy?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Now that the long haul has begun all over again, the Government’s focus will go back to the forgotten post-war development agenda. Going by the past record of the Rajapaksas’ regime, their purported belief of development of the China kind sans democracy has not worked thus far, nor will it do so in the future. In the contemporary Sri Lankan conditions, even democracy without devolution of powers for the ethnic Tamils, too would prove to be a non-starter on the development front.

To begin at the beginning. What’s the kind of development that the nation envisages? At least from the day President J R Jayewardene opened up the nation for Economic Reforms, the one-point agenda is not to create jobs and generate family incomes. Instead, it ended up even shifting farming jobs and incomes overseas, in the form of mindless import of both agriculture and dairy products.

Under the Rajapaksas, beginning with President Mahinda R, it all changed. Rather, it became worse. Not only were the pawned out jobs not taken back. Instead, giving those jobs to foreign workers of the Chinese kind on Sri Lankan territory, has made it all a cruel joke. Apart from not creating jobs for the locals, the development of the China-funded kind has only meant that physical infrastructure of the expressway kind, and not much else.

Sure enough, a booming economy requires fast-tracked internal and external transportation facilities to catch up with the outside world. Sri Lankan ports having been acknowledged as among the major international and regional hubs, the Indian neighbour forms its major hinterland. Sri Lankan products for exports and imports are limited both in terms of quantity and value.

Yet, there is no denying that Sri Lankans who are working elsewhere across the world, even if as fitters and mechanics, household helps and chauffer for most parts, too, could with better and faster expressways for daily transportation inside the country. But those expressways don’t seem to be making the kind of money required to pay back the credit dues (with interest) within the foreseeable future. The other option in the Hambantota kind of debt-equity swap, Amen!

The real route to development, in terms of industrial investments, even if for the big-ticket foreign investor to attract overseas markets, should be fine, provided they bring in jobs and incomes for the locals in a very big way, and also huge revenues for the Sri Lankan State. The Government should also be facilitating local SMEs with high-quality products, to meet the standards set by the manufacturers, for the latter to rope in the locals for ancillaries-supplies.

That is not happening now. There are not enough overseas investments over the past decade. If someone wants to believe it had something to do with the Rajapaksas, and their ‘Development over Democracy’ argument, that’s a fallacy. Predecessor Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the self-confessed friend of the West, too, could not bring in a penny that was worth jobs for the locals. All that he did was to hand over Sri Lankan territory to China, in the name of the Hambantota swap deal.

Acting with introspection

Something is thus rotten in the State of Sri Lanka. There is a need for the nation to introspect, and act – and not act without introspection, as has remained the case through the past decades. But development without democracy is not an option for the nation. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s high-pressure socialist agenda, which included nationalisation and anti-democratic pressures on the local industry leaders only put off the nation away from her SLFP for two full decades.

It was not otherwise in the case of the Rajapaksas, after the won a second term for incumbent Mahinda, in the name of war victory – but just one, the very next election that came only weeks and months away from the elimination of the dreaded LTTE. Five years down the line, they were gone.

If the Rajapaksas have since retured to power, it is only in the normal course of political events and electoral developments in the country, in a two-party democratic scheme. Current presidential incumbent, Gota Rajapaksa’s election in November 2019 owed to anti-incumbency against the predecessor regime of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. It had nothing to do with the war, other than in the Tamil-majority North and multi-ethnic East.

What the nation now needs is development, good and proper, not that of a frontal façade of a filmi kind. There are deep structural issues, which the Government should boldly address. It need not mean giving up on the Welfare State model or even the current mix of socialism and market capitalism. That may be a worthy mix, instead.

What should matter is that this healthy mix cannot be achieved through a non-democratic government, a la China. The fact is that China has never made any claims or pretensions to democracy. Every Sri Lankan prides himself as the inheritor of being Asia’s oldest multi-party democracy in the common  sense of the term.

To expect that the nation is going to look otherwise if and when this Government begins talking about a democratic Constitution-making process without democracy, could meet not only with protests, but also sure failure. That would have been a notice served on the ruling Rajapaksas – and they could well return to the boondocks where Sirimavo had left them when she losts the Second Republican Constitution 1978.

(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:

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