The ideas on a progressive and pluralist populism raised by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka on this platform, have been critiqued by Mark Salter, also on this platform. This is an exchange of ideas that anyone with an interest not only in Sri Lankan politics, but also in the politics of deeply divided places in general, ought to pay attention to. Salter’s article published on 12 August 2020 is, very much, a defence of the Norwegian facilitation efforts in Sri Lanka. Jayatilleka’s overall focus largely rests on a political agenda that sides with SJB, and of identifying how the SJB could be successful in 2024-25, by pursuing a political strategy that he describes as a form of pluralist populism. Salter, for his part, resorts to the type of grandstanding very common among western “Sri Lanka specialists,” calling for an “all-embracing articulation of what it means to be Sri Lankan today”.
The Jayatilleka-Salter rejoinders are a perfect example of how challenging it is to develop political analyses in a global south context that are cognisant with local political realities [especially the counter-intuitive ones], rising beyond the paradigms of polarised political discourses, in which, analysts often identify with one camp or another [as in, some hue of neoconservative populist politics as opposed to a neoliberal discourse that upholds rights discourses and pluralism].
A long story of taking sides
Since the early years of political autonomy [calling it ‘independence’ is highly inaccurate] from Britain, the anglicised political elite of Ceylon developed a practice of veering between camps — shaped by the post-WWII realities of the Cold War. When a pro-US/NATO government would come to power in Colombo, the end of its mandate would often witness a pro-Russia/China/Yugoslavia/non-alignment government coming to power.
Although this trend died out as of the late 1980s and especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, Sri Lankan politicians still continue to position themselves in very distinct and somewhat clearly definable spaces.
Neoconservatives: Not only Sinhala?
In present-day Sri Lankan politics, the neoconservative position is largely monopolised by the SLPP. In its ‘most sophisticated’ form, neocon politics highlight concepts such as ජාතිකවාදය, or as Rear Admiral Dr Sarath Weerasekara MP would have it, ජාති වාත්සල්යය. In general, this line of analysis carries a strong emphasis on national sovereignty, less of a preference [especially in their political discourse] for external interference in internal affairs, an appraisal of the demographic realities of the land, an emphasis on ‘injustices’ suffered by Sinhala, especially Sinhala-Buddhist citizens, and a categorical aversion of any form of Tamil nationalism and Tamil secessionism. At the recently concluded 2020 general election, we witnessed the absolute triumph of a segment of this ideological streak. What is of interest is this: the victory of this neoconservative current in Sinhala-led politics also leads to a similar triumph of Tamil neoconservative politics. When Sarath Weerasekara wins in Colombo, Kanakasabapathy Wigneswaran also wins in Jaffna.
In the August 2020 general election, we especially noticed the multiple pigmentations of this neocon current [This is by no means a comprehensive assessment, but my objective here is to highlight several clearly distinguishable currents at interplay]. Firstly, this election reconfirmed that the Sinhala-nationalist centre-point is indeed Mahinda Rajapaksa. His is a propagandist form of Sinhala nationalism, with a strong element of ritual and performativity. If you consider the number of temple visits of this 74-year-old senior citizen since the election victory, one may well wonder if any time is left for actual matters of state to be addressed.
Secondly, we have the වියත් මග element of Sinhala nationalism.
Thirdly, there are the likes of ජාතික නිදහස් පෙරමුණ, යුතුකම and අපේ ජනබල පක්ෂය, which are, at best, minor front organisations which are prone to be weaponised for hollow political tactics, by cis men in positions of power [අපේ ජනබල පක්ෂය’s ongoing ‘MP-seat crisis’ hints at how closely such structures are micromanaged by elements in the Sinhala diaspora in the West].
In the book this writer has read, the most refined form of Sinhala nationalism is indeed that of වියත් මග. One factor that distinguishes වියත් මග is its leading members’ genuine commitment to their political ideology. වියත් මග lays strong emphasis on combining a Sinhala-majoritarian political stance, a strong emphasis on national sovereignty with a core focus on efficient governance. This is complemented by an aversion to rights discourses and a commitment to the patriarchal conservatisms described as සිංහල බෞද්ධ සංස්කෘතිය, which, in reality, is nothing but a colonialist Victorian myth. වියත් මග provides a comfortable home to elements in middle and upper-middle class Sinhala-Buddhist society who are indeed well-educated and qualified, many of them products of Buddhist ‘mission schools’ with roots in the Temperance Movement.
Despite its members’ erudition, social capital, patriotism and genuine commitment to the betterment of the land, they are very much victims of a core aspect of their own raison d’être. This is none other than their unpreparedness to critically question their belief systems, ‘unlearn’ what they perceive as their value systems, question how their ideological positions have come about, and engage in any form of counter-intuitive thinking of what it actually means to be Sinhalese, and Buddhist, and the inheritors of a socio-cultural backdrop that can be described as ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’. This, unfortunately, is the foremost obstacle to work towards the modern and righteous Sri Lanka they aspire to build.
Neocons: Not only Sinhala-Buddhist!
This neocon Sinhala discourse, let’s not forget, also includes yet another conspicuous element, the Catholic church! The anti-abortion, anti-SOGIESC, and misogynist Catholic Cardinal has in fact been commended by the staunchest of Sinhala nationalist monks and laymen, for his unwavering commitment to a neoconservative ideology – one that could sit well with the Trump administration. Catholic politicians of all political parties who demonstrate an adherence to these views are indeed successful at elections. The case of an SJB candidate from the Gampaha District at the 2020 general election who made a highly homophobic comment at a media interview, justifying his stance quoting the Catholic church, is a fine example. The power of the socially conservative Catholic church to influence neocon as well as neoliberal politics should never be underestimated.
The neocon streak of Sri Lanka’s Moor community is also quite active and influential. This current includes a considerable majority of Muslim cis men in Sri Lankan politics. Ask any one of them for their view on reforming the marriage law of Sri Lanka, and you will see their true colours.
As opposed to a belief popular among segments of liberal circles in Sri Lanka (and in certain non-Sinhala/Tamil-speaking Sri Lanka studies circles in the west), Lankan populism, at the end of the day, is not only a phenomenon associated with Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. It is also very much alive and well in Tamil and Muslim political circles. Singling out and hammering ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ neocon politics alone does not let one take stock of the full picture.
The Neo[liberal] Side: A Complex Reality?
On the opposite end of things, we have the [neo]liberals, who are themselves the products of colonialist and deeply Eurocentric systems of learning and acculturation. Many neoliberal politicians either find it very difficult to connect to the realities of the land [e.g. Ranil Wickremesinghe], or try to work around local political realities to plough-through and pursue their political projects [e.g. Mangala Samaraweera]. There is not a single liberal politician who does not fall into one of these two categories.
The majority of analyses of Sri Lankan politics tend to give way too much credit to neoliberal politicians, especially on human rights issues. Take, for example, the case of the last Wickremesinghe government [2015-19]. Rights advocates in Sri Lanka and overseas, as well as reactionary elements in Sri Lanka, used to concur on the fact that the Wickremesinghe government prioritised human rights, reconciliation efforts and rights of minorities, including SOGIESC rights. Indeed, the reconciliation office headed by former President Kumaratunga was helpful in launching an albeit parsimonious yet vital dialogue on reconciliation. Several MPs on the government benches were keen to ‘discuss’ issues such as abortion rights and SOGIESC rights, especially in parliamentary committees and behind-the-scenes. However, to say that the UNP-led government was pro-human rights is a blatant falsehood of the first order.
In truth, the UNP government of 2015-19 had no consistent policy agenda on any of these issues. There was no strategizing, no dialogue on the ‘local’ dimensions of any rights issue, no meaningful conversation on ‘locally-grounding’ rights discourses, and no ‘strategically informed’ commitment to any rights issue. This writer has personally come across UNP politicos who had the most uptight attitude towards rights issues. On matters that concern fundamental rights of citizens, some MPs would be very wishy-washy, and monumentally clueless, to say the very least. This writer recalls the futile efforts of one LGBTQI+ rights collective to get an appointment with the then Justice Minister [repeated requests were categorically refused].
To correct a popular misconception, the UNP has NEVER had a pro-LGBT+ stance, a pro-abortion rights stance, or for that matter, a pro-peacebuilding stance. If individual politicians did occasionally present themselves as somewhat supportive of LGBTQI+ rights, it was for merely technical ‘small-print’ reasons [e.g. the issue of LGBTQI+ rights coming to the fore ONLY as a result of the EU’s conditions for the restitution of GSP+]. Other initiatives, such as Sri Lanka’s vote at the UN in favour of the appointment of the UN’s SOGI Independent Expert, were, by and large, one-off decisions with next-to-no impact on local politics, taken by specific politicians [in this specific case, primarily by the then Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera]. The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, for its part, was only motivated by one single factor – Ranil Wickremesinghe’s resolve to outshine Chandrika Bandaranaike as the national leader capable of effectively containing the conflict [hence, actually, its utter failure].
It is indeed a pity that many members of the public, as well as politicians opposed to the UNP and Wickremesinghe, have been hammering him for being a pro-human rights politician. At the 2020 general election, a key critique of prominent SJB figures was that the UNP veered too much in the direction of ‘rights’ during 2015-19. Every politician and analyst who comes up with this idea – almost obsessively – dwells upon LGBTQI+ rights.
When asked about LGBTQI+ rights at a recent media interview, SJB’s Rajitha Senaratne did not waste a single minute to hammer Ranil Wickremesinghe, implying, grosso modo, that the latter ‘imports’ rights issues from the West. Rajitha notes “[Ranil] ඔය ඔක්කොම බඩු තොග පිටින් ලංකාවට බාන්න හදපු එක්කෙනෙක්…. [Ranil] විකිණෙන ඒවයි නොවිකිනෙන ඒවයි ඔක්කොම ඇවිල්ල දානවා, නොවිකිනෙන තොගය දැකල මිනිස්සු බනිනවා”. Referring to Mangala Samaraweera, one analyst writes about an ‘over-emphasis and overly high profile for the LGBTIQ cause’ during 2015-19.
If one looks at this critique carefully, its hollowness is not too difficult to notice. The UNP, just like every other political party, has never had a dedicated unit or structure devoted to strategize on rights issues [something essential to a responsible political party in a country recovering from a 30-year war, and where many forms of violence, including, especially, gender-based violence, are rampant]. The UNP has never had a satisfactory system in place to promote something very basic — gender equality in its rank and file. It is therefore thoroughly factually inaccurate: a) for progressives home and abroad to assume that the UNP or any green-led coalition is rights-friendlier than the neocons, and, b) for conservative critics to paint a picture of the UNP and UNP-led coalitions as a political camp that stands for human rights issues.
The liberalism of Mr Wickremesinghe, and for that matter, of UNP-led coalitions, has been, if any, a futile form of ‘headless chicken’ liberalism.
JVP: Lankan Left or Centre-Left?
Some political analysts have highlighted that the JVP has, as of late, sought to lure the middle classes, at the expense of their traditional vote base. By this they mean the JVP’s efforts over the last few years to extend its traditional petit-bourgeois vote base, and to uphold rights discourses. All these are steps that responsible political movements of the left opt for across the world. There is much evidence that political movements of the left are strengthened by progressive policies that focus on parity, pluralism and stronger representation of marginalised groups.
In the Sri Lankan case, some observers [many of who are categorically anti-JVP] are quick to critique the JVP, often from a very patronising standpoint, noting that in its efforts to appeal to segments of the electorate outside its petit-bourgeois block vote, the JVP lost an element of its traditional support base. Some analysts also go the extra mile to note that the JVP’s ongoing electoral woes are caused by the fact that it has ditched its Sinhala nationalist populist soundbites. This critique also targets the party’s current leadership.
If a balanced assessment were to be made, it can certainly be noted that the JVP was indeed victorious on certain fronts at the 2020 general election. Although they secured a lesser number of parliamentary seats, they had made considerable strides in mobilising a segment of Lankan society that genuinely stands for progressive socio-political change. As their appointment to their only National List MP seat allocation shows, today’s JVP is a welcome space for elements of the Sri Lankan intelligentsia that is not misogynist, not homophobic, not ethno-nationalist, not supportive of religious fanaticism, opposes populist drifts, is prepared to ‘unlearn’ and stand for a brand of politics beyond ‘business as usual’.
Indeed, there is always space for progress, and stronger innovation when it comes to policy issues, campaign strategizing and in many other aspects of political advocacy. Electorally, the JVP’s strategy may certainly call for a thorough review. The diversity of different ‘vote bases’ needs to be considered, and JVP-led coalitions may need to adapt varying strategic plans to bring votes in their direction in different electoral districts [e.g. what works in District ‘x’ may not necessarily work in District ‘y’ – hence the necessity of differing, and perhaps contrasting strategies]. Yet another key challenge that the left collectively faces is that of standing on a ‘united front’ in electoral politics. Discord among parties of the left is a key challenge that everyone in politics of the left will need to address if they are sincere about emerging as serious contenders in electoral politics.
In sum, engaging in politics of the left in the global South requires a high level of courage, perseverance, commitment, creativity and strategic skill. It is indeed the path less taken. A clement reading of the JVP and its coalition is therefore very much warranted, highlighting the necessity of time and space to explore, learn, unlearn and strategize.
However, if one were to ask if the JVP represents a viable alternative to the populist politics of the SLPP, the answer at the present stage, unfortunately, is in the negative. If a question were to be asked as to whether the JVP-led NPP has what it takes to develop a viable centre-left political current in Sri Lanka that stands against all hues of neoconservative politics, and to be a serious contender in electoral politics, the answers are: a) it certainly has the potential, but b) requires more strategizing, planning and progressive leaps in the years to come.
Wrap Up: Making sense of the Age of Populism
The US Democrats have considerably decimated their chances of meaningfully addressing racial justice, the carceral system, police brutality or any pressing social issue, by having a presidential candidate and running mate whose track records show an anti-Black and pro-police positioning. Social media is awash with statements by many black youth who have had enough of being weaponised by Democrats at every election, to the level of opting to avoid voting. If the Black and PoC vote is not adequately cast, we may well witness a second Trump term of office. Despite a Murdoch-owned media frenzy over a ‘hard-left takeover’ under the Corbyn leadership, British Labour under Corbyn avoided going beneath a superficial brand of politics of the left. This was evident in dubious positionings on many policy issues, from antisemitism to racial justice and gender self-determination. This, coupled with the ‘unavoidable’ lack of clarity on the party’s Brexit policy, has now led to a centrist leadership. The prospect of continuity on the opposition benches for many years to come, is indeed, quite high. The Congress Party of Bharat, is yet another example of the politics of ‘ploughing through,’ in an effort to position itself strategically, coupled with inevitable problems arising from efforts to juxtapose the incompatible elements of: a) dynastic politicking and, b) a progressive political positioning.
In this age of hardcore populism, it may not be inaccurate to state that the days of the liberal centre-ground engaging in politics with a purely power-politics focus, based on wishy-washy power-political calculations, are pretty much over. Neoliberal efforts to uphold populist politics either lead to little results or backfire fiercely. The same goes for neoliberal efforts to engage in ‘performative’ inclusivity and cosmopolitanism. Even victories that are described as ‘significant’ often lead to spectacular veers to the neocon/alt-right side. These are lessons that neoliberal politics, left-liberal politics, and people who subscribe to these and any other political hues in-between, are somewhat slow to comprehend and take stock of.
So what, then, is the viable alternative to Modi, Bolsonaro, Trump, Orban, Rajapaksa and more?
[To be continued.]
*The writer is a political analyst, educator and human rights activist.