By Kumar David -
Liberal-democracy in the Intensive Care Unit: Some tips on defeating dicatorship
On two previous fateful occasions democracy was pronounced dead, or all but dead, in our post-independence history – on certain occasions during JR’s Bonapartist authoritarianism, one moment was when he mendaciously cancelled elections and wrongfully extended parliament’s tenure by a further term, and second in 1989-91 when state and society were in chaotic breakdown. If we take a step back and survey the political wreckage all around, the debacle is no less disquieting today. In some ways it is the worst of times; but at the same time, public outrage is so aflame that, with determination and patience, trouncing the treacherous plans of the Rajapakses has greater than fifty-percent prospect. Old Khayyam was a fatalist, and some may be loosing hope, seeing sense in the poet’s verse.
‘Tis all a Checker-board of Nights and days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Hither and thither moves, and mates and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
But great battles still lie in the future, the war is by no means even half done, the biggest battle of all, the fight for public opinion – the heart’s and mind’s of the people – has hardly been joined. What has emerged with limpid clarity is the implacable determination, bottomless cunning and iniquitous intentions of the regime. What we must saturate ourselves with is the profoundest and clearest understanding of this reality. As Sun Tze says many times “Know your enemy”; know his craft and his cunning, his tenacity and his doggedness. Then you can prepare yourselves, with patience and diligence, for the long battles ahead. There are no short-cuts on the steep incline out of this hell-hole.
Vasudeva not only sent “the judiciary to hell”, he also threatened to “disrobe” it, knowing full well that the central figure was a woman. When in the Kaurava Court, in ancient times, Duryodhana (Thamil: Thuriyothanan) and his 99 brothers endeavoured to disrobe and dishonour Draupadi, paradoxically it was none other than Krishnan (an avatar of Vasudevan or Vishnu) who protected her honour, making her cloth endlessly, seamlessly long. Has Krishnan met his match in the rapists of Delhi and his loud mouthed alias in our parliament? The people will be judges, and time will tell.
Quo vadis liberal-democracy?
The breakdown of post-independence liberal-democracy in Lanka is twofold. The dream of fashioning a liberal, plural and multi-ethnic state ended in a 30-year civil war drowned in the shallow waters of Nandikadal. This is not the occasion to draft a dissertation on why the liberal project, that is a state that despite imperfections such as in India can unify its people in a national ideology and consensus, failed in Lanka. Our karma has been an ethically splintered state where majoritarian hegemony keeps minorities sullen and angry. The collapse of the liberal part of the liberal-democratic project is not my subject today, but I note that the involvement of prominent Tamils at this moment, in the fight to save the second part of the project, the democratic component, may be balm to sooth these wounds. Once upon a time, long ago, Ponnambalam Arunachalem did the same.
The second event in the breakdown of post-independence liberal-democracy in Lanka, my subject today, is the disintegration, whether irreversible or not remains to be seen, of the democratic piece of the project. As I said at the beginning, democracy was pronounced terminal in Lanka twice but struggled in the intensive care unit and survived. The 1989-91 lunacy is not relevant to this essay, but the difference between the JR and the Mahinda Rajapakse versions of an authoritarian state is. The JR regime was defined as, and the descriptor remains valid in hindsight, Constitutional Bonapartism prosecuting a Neo-Liberal economic agenda. If we are to choose a descriptor with equal care for the Mahinda Rajapakse version, it is Klepto-Nepotistic Autocracy pursuing a Corporatist Statestrategy. This careful differentiation of features is not merely a matter of scholastic concern – who cares for social science – but is needed because it motivates a different approach in organisation, education and mobilisation of the people. Any protest strategy that omits clarity in understanding will drown in shallows and in miseries.
Some elements in the differentiation require comment; JR, however hidebound, attempted to remain, to a degree, within constitutional bounds; Rajapakse tramples on the constitution. JR was the father of unabashed neo-liberal economics and wildly irresponsible open market practices. The Rajapakse project seeks a corporatist state (authoritarian soft dictatorship, overarching interference and control) and a dynastic economic package; kleptocracy skewed for the benefit of family and political fellow travellers. The difference is important because it explains why JR retained the loyalty of capitalists, educated middle classes and the professionals to the end, but the Rajapakses have lost these social layers in perpetuity. The educated middle class is the stuff of social cohesion, the glue of society; without it the Rajapakse project will crumble within the internal walls of the state itself. This is the phase that we have just entered. The distinction between one who exploits the constitution as a weapon of power and another who undermines it in a power grab is an important difference in sizing-up and challenging the enemy.
Secondly, JR’s Bonapartism was intended to be inclusive paternalism, it sought to draw society under a father figure. It failed only in relation to the Tamils, more specifically the LTTE, for reasons that I cannot digress into here. Rajapakse is not an inclusive and paternalist Bonaparte, rather his regime comes across as seamy and seedy. God save, there was squalor and corruption in JR’s government, but an image of kleptocracy did not come across as its prime imprimatur. Kleptocracy is the trade mark of this lot as never before; it reeks from the top and from all sides. The ways in which to fight a powerful Bonaparte and a cheap Marcos-like autocrat are different.
Since the strangulation of democracy, not the deficit of liberalism and pluralism is the topic of this essay, I have spent time distinguishing between the two would be dictators, a Constitutional Bonaparte and a Klepto-Nepotistic Autocrat. Next I wish to develop a few thoughts on how people need to think and act in the battles ahead.
Foresight and mobilisation
There are four aspects that I would like to spend a paragraph or two apiece on; the middle and professional classes in the state, second the working class and the Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie, next the regime’s own likely stratagems, and finally the international side. I have not yet come across serious strategic thinking on this or similar lines (I have no idea what is going on inside the JVP, but Lanka needs open public discourse), so I hope to motivate others to reflect on these matters.
There cannot be a revolt in the educated middle and professional classes in the national domain without a likeminded process going on among counterparts in the public service and the forces (police and military). Hence I am of the view that the employees of the state are in their hearts as disillusioned with the Rajapakse regime as their non public sector counterparts. All these branches must be getting increasingly fed up with having to do the balu veda of the regime. Do lawyers in the Attorney Generals Department and the lower judiciary not see what the lawyers across the profession see? Does the police force and the military like being used to push lawyers and judges around while protecting thugs and goons? The more these services learn but constitutionalism, respect for law, simple decency, and the division of power in the liberal-democratic system, the better for the citizens of Lanka. Deepening this understanding is a task the opposition needs to shoulder.
Most people know about the threats and targeting of high profile critics of the regime such as opposition activists, journalists and lawyers, but are too cowardly to stand up and register a strong protest. This cowardice is absurd since “they” cannot target everybody and robust public protests will stop even the current intimidation and violence against democratic activists.
There is no denying that Sinhala working class and petty-bourgeoisie are tainted by narrow minded majoritarian nationalism. (Two-bit Marxists, who don’t know, should learn that Marx never idolised the working class in silly ways. He knew full well it was capable of stupid behaviour at times). However, psychological explanation alone for why these classes remain loyal to Rajapakse is inadequate; they know as well as anyone else about the regimes corruption and abuse of power. What I mean is there is a short-term economic basis as well for the popularity of the regime. There was an economic boom of sorts in 2010 and 2011, which stabilised the regime among these two class actors, as I sketched out in a paragraph last week (Colombo Telegraph, 20 January, “From Nandikacal to Impeachment and Beyond”).
This window is closing and Muttukrishna Sarvanathan’s “Waning Economic Euphoria” is a handy guide for the political analyst. Verite Research put out a report after the 2013-Budget (excellent I am told), but at $40 it is intended for the bourgeoisie, not impecunious Marxists. Anyway, the point is that there is an economic side to weigh up when discussing mass mobilisation; and these economic conditions are changing for the worse. FUTA, the lawyers and the city elite, however passionate, cannot take control of the streets (poor Ranil’s call to insurrection notwithstanding) until the trade unions and the petty-bourgeoisie come pouring out. The opposition has work to do, aided by the regimes own economic messing-up.
Not only has this government trashed the Constitution, it now wishes to abrogate it; it has done this to a degree through the Eighteenth Amendment. This is a most alarming gambit for two reasons; first because the new version will be a straight Mussolini (Corporatist State) package, but second, and far more dangerous, is that the campaign will be dyed in scarlet populist rhetoric. The nation will be told that the 1978 JR Constitution is evil (which it is) and that a new one is essential (but not the one they intend to propose). However, unless the democratic opposition, which has long campaigned against the 1978 Constitution and the Executive Presidency, handles itself with utmost intelligence, it will be caught with its pants down and its nuts exposed. “You are the ones who rejected the old constitution; how ridiculous that when we offer you a new one you rebuff it like spoiled children!” will be the cry. Do not underestimate the guile and craftiness of this regime. JR’s celebrated shrewdness is insipid in comparison with Rajapakse cunning.
This piece is longer than I usually fancy so as to avoid straining the attention span of my readers beyond what I deserve; but I need to touch on the international side before signing off. It is true that the international community (IC) is all piss and wind, has done nothing, and will not lift a finger to help the people of Lanka circumvent the slide to Corporatist dictatorship. But the democratic opposition can do more to help itself in the international arena. Making an effort to meet and explain and systematic canvassing is needed. Persuading the IC that the “There is no credible alternative” type of reasoning is leaving Lanka up the gum tree with a rum incumbency at the helm, can be useful. More attention has to be given to this since the IC holds strong trump cards in its pack.