By Soroor Ahmed
After the recent turmoil in Sri Lanka, many South Asia watchers opined that there is a lesson for other governments in the region to learn. While most of them took the name of Pakistan and Nepal, some others even were of the view that India and Bangladesh should also be watchful – in particular the latter which too is looking towards the International Monetary Fund for loan.
However, since every country has its own problems and challenges and has different political structure, it would be premature to say Sri Lanka example would be followed by others.
But one thing which had happened in the island country needs to be understood in proper perspective. That is, the government of Rajapaksa brothers had become too powerful and the opposition was virtually decimated in the election held a couple of years back. Both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa were not prepared to listen to any saner voice even when the country had started showing signs of uneasiness late last year.
This over-centralisation of power and weakening of opposition is not good for democracy. Sri Lanka is always known for adopting majoritarian politics, especially since the crushing of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in 2009 and later on carrying out vilification campaign against Muslims.
So far Pakistan is concerned, it needs to be mentioned that actually political unrest had started here before Sri Lanka. The main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League and Peoples Party of Pakistan as well as some small parties joined hands to replace Pakistan Tahreek Insaaf in April 2022.
The establishment too sided with the opposition parties then. So there never came an opportunity for the common masses to take to streets and chase away the rulers as it happened in Sri Lanka.
In Sri Lanka there was no such scope for the immediate replacement of the government with the opposition as the latter was completely marginalised by the ruling SLPP led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Even the army did not initially intervene. Therefore, there was a period of chaos and confusion.
It was only when the people came out in massive number against the government that Mahinda resigned and his brother Gotabaya took a very unusual decision. He made Ranil Wickremesinghe the Prime Minister of the country. The latter took over on May 12. It was a strange development as Ranil was the leader of opposition United National Party which could not win a single seat in the last parliamentary election. Even Ranil had lost from his own seat though he had earlier served as the PM of the country six times. This was a desperate move and cannot be termed as the formation of a national government for the larger interest of the country.
This action by Gotabaya did not calm down the crowd which burst out again in the first week of July. On this occasion the protestors targeted both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and newly appointed PM Ranil Wickremesinghe. The mob stormed into the Presidential palace on July 9 and PM’s house was also torched. Gotabaya fled from the country and Ranil was elevated to the post of President – all this by the ruling SLPP.
The big question now is: How a person whose party had not won a single seat become the President?
Besides, why the Rajapaksa brothers did not let anyone from their own party to become PM or President and opted for Ranil in this hour of crisis? Is it that the Rajapaksas did not let others grow in the SLPP?
Ranil got the support of 132 members of Parliament in the House of 225. Thus, it is clear that all the support he got was of the Rajapaksas’ SLPP.
There is lull after the storm in Sri Lanka as people strongly suspect that Ranil, though an opposition leader, is today a proxy of the Rajapaksa brothers and can in no way bail out the country from trouble.
True, in Pakistan too, the economic scenario continues to deteriorate. But there is no scope of either the PML-PPP alliance becoming a proxy of PTI or vice versa. In contrast, the PTI had recently won the by-election in 15 out of 20 seats in the Punjab Provincial Assembly. Thus, it has once again emerged as a powerful alternative and if the national election is held, there is, according to the Pakistan watchers, every likelihood of Imran Khan’s party making a comeback.
As both the camps are strong in Pakistan and are playing all sorts of games to emerge powerful, there is little chance of Sri Lanka type turmoil taking place there. In the form of strong opposition, the people always have a platform to ventilate their grievances.
This is notwithstanding the fact that it is still not out of the economic mess.
In Nepal too, the Nepali Congress, which came to power last year following split in the Nepal Communist Party to be followed by political realignment, there is a balance of power. The Communist faction led by former PM Oli has not been wiped out. It is not that the Himalayan Republic is not feeling the heat of post-Covid economic downslide to be followed by Russia-Ukraine War, yet there is little sign of the country going the Sri Lanka way.
In contrast, the economic situation in Bangladesh may not be as bad though it is also a fact that the country, like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, has approached the IMF for bail-out.
But it is more prone to go the Sri Lanka way as the ruling Awami League of PM Sheikh Hasina has made the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party irrelevant.
The good thing about this 50-year-old country is that economically it is much better placed than Sri Lanka or Pakistan.
The developments in these four countries of the region provide a lesson for India, the largest among them.