By Malinda Seneviratne –
The May Day poster of the United National Party had an interesting caption: කැප කරපු ජනතාවගේ මැයි දින රැලිය (‘Kepakarapu janathavage mai dina raeliya’). Kanishka Goonewardena, Associate Professor, Department of Geography, University of Toronto, who was with me as we drove past a wall covered with this poster, was amused by the caption. ‘Kepa karapu? Doesn’t that mean “condemned”?’ he asked. A ‘May Day rally of the Condemned’ then?
The word ‘condemn’ refers to complete disapproval of something or a sentencing to a particular punishment. Now had the word been කැපවීම කරපු (‘Kepaveem karapu’) ([the people] who sacrificed) or කැප වුන (‘kepavuna’, i.e [the people who] dedicated themselves [to whatever]) the line would have held. Somehow, someone had slipped. In a Freudian way, one might add.
May Day is supposed to be about workers, the working class and their rights. It is supposed to be about the celebration of work and workers and about the injustices of a particular mode of production. It is about rip-off, the scooping up of surplus value as profit or, to put it bluntly, about exploitation. Now those rallies/meetings organized by some of the trade unions and some of the Left parties most certainly would have contained reference to these, but by and large this May Day, just like in most May Days in the last two to three decades used work and worker as prop (at best). There were only cursory references to the issues, if at all. The worker was condemned to a peripheral off-stage spot in the proceedings. In this sense, too, the UNP slogan was a lie, but tellingly a lie that was a true description of what other major rallies were about.
May Day has evolved into a nothing-show as far as the working class is concerned. It was, as it has been, a spectacle for politicians and political groups to show their strength. Now there are all kinds of claims regarding numbers at particular rallies but one can safely say, in terms of turnout alone, that there were three major rallies: the UNP at Campbell Park, the official SLFP/UPFA one in Galle and the unofficial SLFP/UPFA Joint Opposition (wait, wait, ‘Joint Opposition’) rally in Kirulapona.
Predictably and contrary to the pledges of doing things differently those in power abused position and resources to swell numbers. The ‘edge’ of being in power also would have drawn numbers. So Campbell Park and Samanala Kreedanganaya were full. Kirulapona was overflowing too and this without the edge of power that its main attraction, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was used to. Note also that there were various un-yahapaalana-like moves by those who led efforts to organize the official SLFP/UPFA to wreck ‘Kirulapona’.
That ‘Kirulapona’ turned out to be what it was should say something, especially considering the fact that Maithripala Sirisena was elected President just 16 months ago and the UNP won the General Election less than a year ago. Had the increase in VAT been implemented before the 1st of May (let’s say on the 1st of April 2016), ‘Kirulapona’ might have been much bigger.
Of course, despite the fact that apart from lip-service the working class was by and large absented in all this, it is clear that large numbers of workers would have attended one of these three rallies. They were, however, not wearing working class clothes, so to speak. They were instead decked in loyalty-garb. Does this mean that they lacked class consciousness? Does it mean that identities other than class-situation mattered more to them (at least at this moment)? Did they know they were condemned to the periphery or worse in these proceedings? Did they mind? Or was there some other kind of condemnation that was far more pernicious at play?
The three rallies referred to above was about personalities. The fourth, the JVP rally at the BRC grounds, was of course ‘Left’ in colour and content. It was far more disciplined (as always) and demonstrated the usual adherence to civic responsibility of that party on such occasions; there was clean-up after the meeting. The JVP’s politics in general however has long since abandoned working class issues, the party leaders reducing the party to a prop for this government or that government. Marx and Lenin and even Wijeweera show up but once a year, after all. The JVP however was not about personalities. The UNP was less about personality but it has consistently sided with the oppressor (as far as the working class is concerned). The two SLFP/UPFA affairs were unabashedly about personalities.
Perhaps it is time that we took stock of the ‘real’ as opposed to the ‘fake’. Democracy is a nice word. That’s not saying that democracy works better than any other system when it comes to delivering development, bringing about progress and improving well-being of the majority of a given polity. Leaving that aside, there are certain things one expects of citizens in a democracy and there are assumptions, indeed, about the relevant citizenry. But who are we? Are we democratic citizens in a capitalist system or are we in a capitalist economy dominated by feudal relations in all spheres? Are we looking to elect a true representative (since we are in democracy) or are we, given the feudal nature of our everyday looking to consecrate (democratically) a king?
We have to acknowledge that we have as a citizenry elected individuals who are known to be petty thieves, embezzlers, thugs and murderers. If that’s not an endorsement of theft and thuggery it reflects in the very least a that’s-a-given kind of mindset. There’s clearly a mismatch here: there’s the idealistic notion of democracy that is at odds with the lived reality of a feudal society. Perhaps J.R. Jayewardene understood this best, for it was he who came up with a constitution that gives king-like powers to the President. Notwithstanding the 19th Amendment, we’ve seen that the JRJ thinking has reflected reality: those out of power aspire to be kings and queens while kings and queens in power have been reluctant to take off the crown. No, Maithripala Sirisena has not done that as a careful reading of the 19th Amendment would reveal.
If it is a king or queen that this society wants, then it is about strength and not necessarily about upholding justice, fighting crime or doing things in a civilized manner where principles of equality are affirmed. It matters little, after all, whether the king indulges in wealth-accumulation, favours his near and dear, and bashes a few heads in the process. It matters little if a queen keeps people waiting for hours and hours and consecrates cronyism. All that counts is strength. That’s what May Day, once again, affirmed. Naturally a yahapaalana regime that has little or no ‘yaha’ (goodness) in it doesn’t help democracy and the democratizing drive that some people swear by, but perhaps the problem is deeper and lies in the bedrock of what this society really is. Feudalist.
Condemnation, then, is not the UNP preserve or rather the fate of the ‘subjects’ (shall we say) of that particular ‘Royalty’. It is a national condition, cutting across party lines for the main part.