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When the hungry join the angry

[Lakbima News, Sunday, 13 February 2011 10:31 No Comment]

When the angry classes and the hungry classes get together and make common cause it spells heap big trouble for the powerful and the privileged; that’s the lesson of events now sweeping across the Maghreb and the Middle East. Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali has fled, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak is a lame duck having promised to quit in September, if he is not strung up from a lamppost before that, in Jordon the cabinet has been fired, and the streets are aflame in Algiers and Yemen. For sclerotic autocrats it’s time to panic. The crisis has been there for decades; political repression, abuse of power with impunity, corruption, slime ball politicos, a muzzled media, debased judiciary, prostituted police, grinding poverty. Over in Lanka things have got not quite reached this nadir, or if so, only in recent years

The angry classes have been protesting about it for decades – Mubarak has been in power since 1981 – but not much happened. The incendiary trigger that set the country alight was the hungry classes joining the angry classes. Rocketing food prices, which nothing in the world can bring down in the short-run, spell the doom of dictators. Autocrats who can’t feed their people are history. A one party state that can ensure economic progress, a la China, can get by for so long as it can craft prosperity.

The game plan in Sri Lanka

Autocracy in Sri Lanka is not as bad as the Maghreb and Middle East. True we have bumped off journalists, news-agencies have serendipitously burnt down, people live in fear of speaking out against the Rajapakse brothers, and we have thrown a General in jail on trumped up charges. Still there is a credible opposition among those who dare; the JVP for example. The JVP is campaigning; the Muslim Brotherhood is banned, its leaders imprisoned. There was rampant abuse beyond the Elections Commissioner’s control in the 2010 presidential campaign, but I don’t think the count was fraudulent. The public has lost confidence in the judiciary but it cannot be said that it is a puppet appointed by the president as in Egypt and wholly beholden to him. We need to think about what all this means for strategies to protect our fading but not yet faded democratic polity.

And hunger? I have not visited any of these countries except Egypt in recent years but Egypt is said to be average among them. There was more visible hunger and destitution in Cairo than in the rundown parts of Colombo – so that’s a plus for us. Secondly the brunt of the food crisis has not hit us yet because there are ample stocks of rice in the granaries thanks to recent good harvests. The biting impact of the floods on prices and availability of food and on broad (headline) inflation is still three to six months into the future.

What I am building up to is that there are ways for us to intervene and correct what is amiss in our country short of an uprising like what the populace of Tunisia and Egypt were forced into. The first difference is that we can still achieve a lot through the electoral process. An overbearing presidency and an overwhelming majority in parliament constitute the worst possible scenario for democracy, accountability and checks and balances. Hence, while it is not possible to defeat the UPFA at the LG polls in March, inflicting as severe a setback as possible is good for democracy. These are the kinds of simpler and less drastic practical ways by which Lanka can correct things that are making the angry classes angry. An electoral setback on the UPFA will save us the chaos of an Egypt-Tunisia type uprising say five years down the road. Another big UPFA victory however and it will be curtains for Lanka.

This is for the angry classes, what about the hungry classes?  The government will have to drop its new business and investor friendly economic model that entails belt-tightening by the masses and drift back to more traditional SLFP type populist policies. I have my ideological objections to the new strategy (and to populism as well) but I am not talking ideology here. It’s the serious food crisis, unavoidable inflation, hardship and eviction of the poor from their homes, that I am confining attention to. This government is quite adept at accepting favours from foreign quarters, the suckers in Delhi included, and then cheating them – why not the IMF?

The military option

There is another way to deal with popular discontent, that is the military option, but it is very risky, it does not always work. It did in Burma few years ago but failed in Egypt last week. A large (meaning much interpenetration with the people) and popular army can be relied on only against outsiders; foreign foes or other ethnic communities. Against its own people there is always the danger it will split on class lines in classic pre-revolutionary style and the lower ranks cross the barricades. This is not a risk that should even remotely be contemplated by this government against an angry and hungry populace. Mubrak even tried out his Mervyn/Duminda style thugs to make chaos while the army and police stood aside, (echoes of Hulftsdorp Hill February 2010 and Punchi Borella last week), but it backfired.

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