1 June, 2023


A Heterodox Theoretical Model Of Rajapaksa Populism

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The global Alt-Right to Alt-Left spectrum is a landscape, not a linear progression: A heterodox theoretical model of Rajapaksa Populism

Neo-populism is a disturbing political upsurge of recent times. With some embarrassment (fathering ‘Single-Issue Common-Candidate’ was notoriety enough) I admit to being one of the first, and surely the first in Lanka to flag neo-populism as an ubiquitous new phenomenon of 21-C. But it is crucial to appreciate that it cannot be laid out as a linear progression from fascism at one end to left zealotry at the other, with jihadism, racism, enmity to immigrants, alienation of the 99% by the rich and powerful, and radical feminism, as intermediate markers. The pageant is not a line-show, it is a jumbled landscape where indeed there is a socio-economic spectrum. For example, unhealthy anti-immigrant nationalism (difficult to separate from racism) may in one place partner with worker’s misery, and in another place cultural hubris may be an outlet for frustration at a hopeless future. The left-right calibration overlaps and underlaps other dimensions in complicated ways.

Trump’s base embraces the traditional, industrial, white working class (Is Marx fulminating in his grave?); the inappropriately named Sweden Democrats have spawned in a country fabled for its tolerance, liberalism and welfarism; Marine Le Pen’s National Front is a French working-class party. And to go on, Britain’s Labour Party stands on two legs; radicalised educated youth who some would call middle-class, and the traditional working class now fraying towards xenophobic Brexit and anti-immigrant UKIP. What we have is not only left-right affinities but also attitudes to liberalism, nationalism, race, LGBT and free-markets, not rigidly determined by left-right colouration. However, none of these neo-pop concoctions are fascist in the proper sense as was the all-pulverising interwar fascism of Mussolini, Hitler and Franco. The social preconditions for a throw-back to classical fascism do not now exist. What does materialise on occasion is a military dictatorship a la Pinochet, compliments of the CIA. 

The fraying of the European project is neo-populism ‘gift’ to unity. Liberal French President Emmanuel Macron, alt-right Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who detests core liberal values, are totem poles dividing the EU canvas into domains. The differences pertain not only to an ideological miscellany but also map out different institutional paradigms for the future of Europe. Macron wants more Europe – closer unification and tighter EU-wide institutions, a Napoleonic vision. For Salvini it is “Make Italy Great Again!” He is determined to deport hundreds of thousands of refugees and will rather let boats sink and migrants drown than permit illicit vessels to berth. He supports Brexit and if he had his way will steer Italy to ‘Itxit’. Orban (Poland is close behind) is for a Christian state, doublespeak for anti-Muslim. The Sargentini Report on the basis of which ‘disciplinary action’ was imposed on Hungary (the first time in EU history) accused Orban’s Alt-Right regime of breaching the core liberal values of judicial independence, religious tolerance, press freedom and individual rights. 

Liberal Europe fears that the Alt-Right is hell bent on an internal takeover of the EU project and plotting to turn Europe into an association of authoritarian states. On an institutional canvas the established structures of liberal internationalism are being dismantled in the West. Trump jettisoned the Paris Climate Accord, dumped NAFTA and TPP, threw NATO into confusion, plans to take the US out of the WTO, broke ranks on the Iran nuclear deal and makes mind boggling threats against the judges of the International Criminal Court. British populism’s Brexit is the first fracture of the EU. An incongruous right-left alliance of Italian populists is in the early stages of blowing the EU project into fragments. The point is that neo-populism is not only threatening domestic institutions, it is also tearing apart international institutional structures fashioned over half a century since the end of WW2.

Furthermore, think Trump in the long term after the cyclical economic upturn cools and the soda bottle fizz of tax cuts and trade wars turns sour. The present upturn in the US economy will be short lived; too much of a good thing, like drowning in whisky. Every (literally) knowledgeable commentator agrees that the debt crisis will implode. A fortnight ago I wrote in this column that the single most troubling disorder of capitalisms ward-full of ailments, the global debt-spiral, is spinning out of control. The next Minsky Moment will soon be upon us. Professor Martin Feldstein, President of the US National Bureau of Economic Research described today’s bleak scenario as “more akin to the depressions of the1870s or 1930s than anything experienced in the post-War era”.

I have hardly scratched the surface of global neo-populism nor have I mentioned Philippine mad hatter Durante, Brazil’s bring-back-the-Generals Bolsonaro, the Muslim-hating Hindutva RSS-BJP combine, and other such cave dwellers. A fuller coverage would require an essay in its own right. My motive today is to sketch a global overview to help locate Rajapaksa Populism. This does not imply predictions about elections yet to come, though the fire in the chest of Rajapaksa Populists is hubris that forthcoming elections are theirs to win. 

Mahinda is a mass phenomenon; his party has no policy and no programme but it has a larger than life leader. You can ridicule it as cardboard, but so were famous and infamous ogres of the past. The bottom line is that the poropoya mass adores its leader. A plunge in electoral confidence in the government has encouraged it. But a bloated rallying point and a feeble government do not alone make for success. There have to be ideological, social and economic roots to boot. 

With populism ideology and myth come first. All populisms are obsessed with some all-consuming tunnel vision storyline. In the case of Rajapaksa Populism (RP), the strands that intertwine and converge to a focus are; “the proposed separatist constitution”, “the betrayal of war-heroes”, “sacrilegious persecution and imprisonment of Buddhist monks” and “lurking terrorism in the North”. Intertwined they evoke a single vision; bigotry on which masses feed and politicians breed. Like immigration in Sweden, threats to Christian values in Hungary and Poland, Mexicans at the US border, all roads and tweets lead to a Rome. A tunnel vision of perceived threats to the Sinhala-Buddhist ethos is the life-giving elixir of Rajapaksa Populism, the emotional opium empowering it. 

Where does RP fit on a Left-Right scale? The answer is not straightforward and readers of this column are not much interested in heavy doses of class analysis. In any case I have been at pains in the introduction to say that with modern neo-populism, superficially linear left-right placements are theoretically insufficient. Unhealthy racism, proclivity to despotism and scant regard for institutions (judiciary, press, police independence and parliament) locate Rajapaksa, Orban, Durante or Ortega (Nicaragua) in a multi-dimensional landscape each of its own.

Having said this, there is no denying that the UNP government is seen as rightist in economic orientation. The RanilCharithaMalikEranHarsha axis constitutes the apex of capitalist economic thought in Lanka. I do not say this to denigrate but as candid description. This apex carries the genes of its origin in the womb of JR neoliberalism. True the travails of globalisation, world capitalisms inability to invest abroad and the profound influence of China have brought behavioural changes in the UNP leadership, but the leopard retains its ideological spots. In the eyes of the adoring masses Rajapaksa is socialist, anti-imperialist and authentically nationalist; the government is capitalist and pro-Western. That Lanka’s elite and the UNP leaders communicate in English while the JO and Paksa clansmen, with few exceptions, struggle to do so, settles it emotionally.

Rajapaksa Populism is intrinsically hostile to internationalism and its institutions. The abhorrence of international (and domestic) human rights movements and institutions of course has another dimension; the fallout from the racist civil war. But apart from this, there is an instinctive insularity and animus to trade pacts with Singapore, India, even China. Furthermore, ignorance and cultural insularity, that is an overarching troglodyte syndrome, is populisms daily diet. 

Yahapalana’s alleged genuflection to imperialism and Rajapaksa’s stalwart ant-imperialism is the fiction which the Dead-Left employs to hide its opportunism and humiliating absence of identity. There was a time when we thought Vasu would be NM’s heir, not intellectually but at least a proud bearer of the left torch in the public domain. Who would have in those days foreseen that he would shame as all kowtowing before a mere Mahinda Rajapaksa! However, the point here is not the incident, but that the incident it is symptomatic of the decline of the left in the face of a neo-populist tide. 

What is to be done? This is not the time to wring one’s hands with mere verbal denunciations of neo-Populism and the Dead-Left. Censure must be for the purpose of preparing for well thought out and well-defined action. I have repeatedly called for left unity and an alliance with willing liberals if any can be found. Not much progress has been made, but there is no alternative. After the February debacle Ranil backed off from love-capitalism economics which failed to promote growth and locked the country into stasis. The government should play an active and interventionist role in creating conditions and building institutions that increase investment and economic activity for private-public partnerships (foreign), entrepreneurial ventures (capitalist) and state infrastructure. The UNP is pathologically unfit for this and Rajapaksa Populism has no conception, policy, plans or clue. In that context other lines of attack and mobilisation are needed. In the interim dealing with powers that be is unavoidable since politics is the art of the possible.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 1

    It is absolutely wrong to call Rajapakse populism. But he used the opportunity of the defeat of the LTTE which happened due to the contribution of many as his own contribution. Immediately after 2009 election he raised his vote count in 2010 but he couldn’t keep that for another 5 years when most of us realised his fake claim.

    • 2

      KASmaalam K A Sumanasekere

      Are you holding something in both of your hands and standing behind Dr Go and Dr Mahinda?

      • 6

        Kumar Fact is that the worst anti-Tamil riots in 1983 and the worst anti- Muslim riots happened during UNP govt which were pushing the IMF-MCC neo-liberal agenda – to Divide, Distract and turn Lanka into another Haiti.
        Ethnicity and religion were weaponized by external parties, India, during the last Cold war, and now in current Cold War between US and China – against Muslims by Trumpland.
        Meanwhile, Bondscam Ranil is totally controlled by Washington Govt.s right wing Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) with IMF, which has captured the economic POLICY MAKING PROCESS in Lanka, advised him to set up the Cabinet level Economic Sub-Committee and Mangala Yapa’s agency for Development to push the US agenda in Lanka — against China and undermine the Cabinet and national Governance structures?
        When there were calls to impeach Bondscam Ranil who has put Lanka into the IMF debt-trap and Permanent “bailout business” as Amstadam’s transnational institute calls when PCOI on Bondscam report was released Muslims were attacked to distract us all.
        Is this to distract us? just like the NYT story about Chinese funding Mahinda Jarapassa to win elections, and the Fake news about an assassination plot against Sira and Gota?
        Pl. find out what the MCC has been doing for the last 3 years with Ranils’ office designing Compacts for Fake Aid projects for 3 years?!

        • 1


          “Kumar Fact is that the worst anti-Tamil riots in 1983 and the worst anti- Muslim riots happened during UNP govt which were pushing the IMF-MCC neo-liberal agenda – to Divide, Distract and turn Lanka into another Haiti.”

          Don’t forget 1971 and between 2005 & 2009 happened during SLFP government. SLFP proudly introduced mass killing and granted impunity to its participants/perpetrators. The first major organized post independence riot happened to have taken place in 1958 and continued to take place through out weeping widow’s reign. –

          Dodo don’t ever try to defend either of the parties. Both have blood on their hands.

          By the way could you explain what do you mean by “IMF-MCC neo-liberal agenda” particularly your “neo-liberal agenda”.
          Don’t bother if haven’t got a clue.

          • 0

            I was in Colombo early this month. I caught up with my good old Sinhala friend and we had lunch at the Paradise Road the Gallery Café. ….very nice venue.

            My Sinhala friend was recalling the 1983 riots. How he saved so many Tamil friends. In one incident he was transporting Tamil friends to his house, and he recalled how Sinhala thugs stopped his car and demanded petrol.

            it will not be easy for Sri Lanka to erase the 1983 scar. Sinhala kids who were 3 years old in 1983 and who have witnessed cold blooded murder are still traumatised by the experience. I have met them.

            • 1


              If every Sinhalese believes he/she saved many Tamils was it the case Tamil population exceeded the Sinhalese in rest of the country before 1983?

              The question was/is why did the good Sinhalese did nothing to prevent riots being repeated throughout the island since 1958?

              Since 1983 large scale organised state sponsored riots didn’t take place against the Tamils simply because the state nationalised the wholesale destruction of life and property just after 1983.

              The Sinhala/Buddhists won’t rest until state repeats the similar destruction against Muslims. You will see life and properties of Muslims being destroyed by local and imported thugs until the state take full control of the destruction.

              By the way why were almost all Tamils kept mum when LTTE went on killing and ethnically cleansing Muslims?

  • 0

    i think it was bismarckwho said democracy is government by children

  • 1

    “The global Alt-Right to Alt-Left spectrum is a landscape, not a linear progression: A heterodox theoretical model of Rajapaksa Populism”
    This time my Guru has flummoxed the Putujjana Golayas like me by speaking in a language that only the Kultas of Royal/Thomian/Trinity can understand. But he has underestimated Edwin. You cannot put down a persistent guy like me so easily. What is going to happen here is exactly what happened when we crossed swords when you gave 2 out of 10 for my Course Work on the Mercury Arc Rectifier. Any other Baiya would have given up and gone down – but not this Baiya. I rose up like the Phoenix rising from the ashes and in my re-submission, I got 9½ out of 10. It deserved 10 out of 10 because I researched and explained how to run a Mercury arc Rectifier in the Inverter mode. Nowadays, it has become common place with solid state solar inverters etc., but in my student days it had never been attempted in Sri Lanka. Not satisfied with that achievement I actually ran a Mercury Arc Rectifier in the Inverter mode in another place of higher learning in Sri Lanka, where I was teaching.
    Now coming back to the great quotation above, what are these Alt-Right to Alt-Left spectra that my Guru is talking about. They sound like the cursor keys in a keyboard. But are they? Progressing linearly down this great sentence we come across really rough terrain. I am sure MR and his cohorts, if they ever read the article (which is doubtful), must be thinking that the whole thing is some sort of curse that has nothing to do with keyboard cursors.

  • 4

    Ranil has outsourced his job to Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and IMF and having a good time. These guys are dragging the country into an ungovernable situation. Then they can impose their conditions easily. Sobhitha and Gamarala are responsible for creating this situation.

  • 5

    MR has a policy and program so does SLPP, unlike KD who said at one time we should merge with India , MR and company do not propose to merge with India or any other when going gets tough, instead they fight back to get this island to Terra firma and I thank God or whoever churns this Universe for such leaders.

  • 0

    This charitha is another Apple ORchard Manager to Gamini dissnayake, , One who is an Economic consultant to Ranil who also consulted on the air line besiness (probably because O/L failed Nishantha Wickrasinghe who was plantation suprintendent to his Own Teas estate became tge Sri lankan Air line chairman, IT is stupid to build a Computer model to simulate uneducated Rajapakses (IT is Ranil who said all the four peoples are O/L results are not enough to make one pass O/L) popularity when Dr. Ranil PhD failed O/L robbed his own ministerial financial institutions nopw only Rqavi the liar is the only sacrificial lamb. Ravi escaped Money laundering charges when the govt changed and now, any one who has money can do money laundering. Dollar is going down everyday.

  • 0

    Prof. Kum, as usual, writes long essays. His last few sentences that counts here. Some action must be taken to arrest the trend. Even Prof. Kum has failed to mention that what matters is to be close to the people and solve their problems. Even after the LG polls, this Government continues to alienate the people. MR scores on that. So he need not promise anything for him to come to the top.

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.