By Siri Gamage –
In recent months, there has been a lot of attention paid by sections of the Sri Lankan community at home and abroad in regard to alternative political groups that are critical of established political parties and their activities since independence. Mr. Nagananda Kodithuwakku supported by Vinivida Foundation has been making a critique of the existing legislature, judiciary and the executive along with the main parties such as the UNP, SLFP and Podu Jana Peramuna. Mr. Gamini Wijesinghe –former auditor general- has also been critical of the state of country’s finances and expenditure along with inefficiencies of governance, development policies, etc. Other groups or associations such as the United Professionals Association(UPM), and National People’s Movement(NPM) have been active in organising events to promote various messages to limited groups of people in the districts and in Colombo. Dr. Ajantha Perera is the latest to add to the list.
Those who are becoming aware of these groups and their activities mainly through social media are wondering as to whether their organisations will be able to make a significant impact on the thinking of voting public in an election year? Even if the messages that they want to promote are correct and even reflect the ground reality, is it possible to change the attitudes of voting public merely by such messages when the society they live in is built around various hierarchies that allocate power, wealth and status in some manner to those who do not possess them? Moreover, the classical questions in sociology about the nature of social movements, how they arise, how to sustain them, and the role of leadership and organisation matter in thinking about the potential or otherwise of such alternative political groups.
It is true that people, especially those at the lower socio-economic groups as well as in the middle class face existential problems in the face of growing inequalities, concentration of power and wealth in the hands of elites and those in the upper classes. It is also true that national elections have become exercises where the masses (those in lower strata of society experiencing various disadvantages) transfer their sovereignty to the well to do classes to govern the country with no transparency, accountability, sustainability or responsibility. One could say that the people at the grass roots level have become impotent and disempowered in the face of various governing structures set in place over the decades. Receiving a government service or one from a local body as a matter of citizen right has become alien to such a society. Personnel in charge move only if someone in authority at the top level give directions for trivial and not so trivial matters. When people suffer from various injustices, difficulties in obtaining services from government institutions, or unemployment etc. will they look for alternative political movements or simply change parties like changing pillows? To answer these questions, one has to understand the nature of Sri Lankan society, human behaviour, influence of hierarchies and those in authority at various levels from the city to the village.
If alternative political groups think that people will change their attitudes about who should rule the country next simply by listening to a video posted in social media or a talk given at a seminar in a suburban town, they can be utterly mistaken. A machinery is required to spread the message through networks, word of mouth, experiential and localised knowledge, communication brokers and culturally acceptable symbolism. Main political parties and the JVP already have such machinery via their branches, district organisations, local government representatives, and so on. Such machinery includes those who matter at the grass roots level. At critical times, they are able to mobilise such machinery to organise meetings, and other events in the capital and outlying areas or bring them to Colombo for essential political talk couched in nationalist jargon. To supplement these activities, they also spend a lot of funds for advertising also. Unfortunately, mainstream media provide free publicity to representatives of these established parties through their regular talk and discussion shows as well. In such a context where the space is deprived, alternative political groups have an uphill battle.
The manner in which those in lower socio-economic classes and other deprived communities absorb various messages regarding the governance of country, future prospects, challenges and solutions is by listening to somebodies in society. This can include monks, teachers, doctors, local government officials or councillors, other government servants, landowners, those serving in the security forces and shop owners. They seem to attach much value to information filtered through those associated with the governance structures or those close to them rather than others who simply criticise as a habit. In this situation, alternative political groups have to investigate how to spread their messages to somebodies in society rather than address people as an abstraction or a collective entity. Concrete groups in society exist and they need to be educated in a systematic and targeted way. In this regard, the fact that Podu jana Peramuna organised a meeting of its female members and supporters recently makes much sense. JVP also organised a meeting of local government councillors. In such events representing various segments of society political leaders are able to communicate their message directly and personally in a targeted manner. Such messages sink in the minds of participants. Furthermore, they get a sense of belonging and politically massaged identity as well.
While the efforts made by Mr. Nagananda Kodithuwakku is admirable in the present context, his sole focus on the constitution or the judiciary and the use of legalistic jargon prevents effectively communicating key messages regarding the broader economy, polity, and society. The average voter is not conversant about the intricacies of how the judicial system or the parliament function – not to talk about who is right and wrong in complicated matters of justice? Of course, they are aware of the long delays and expenses one has to incur if one is unfortunate to seek justice via the justice system. What is far more important to them are localised issues and those relating to living conditions. Measures proposed by parties to improve the conditions, though they won’t be fulfilled in the course of governing, receive traction rather than facts and figures or judicial jargon. From past campaigns, we remember how words such as Dharmishta Samajaya, Yahapalanaya or Diyunuva with Humanism appealed to people. In the current phase of the electoral cycle, we have not seen a similar phrase that captures the mood of the people or their aspirations yet? The idea of a new constitution, new parliament, new judiciary, and a new bureaucracy as Mr. Kodithuwakku proposes can be a risky and short-lived adventure for the voter. Voters in Sri Lanka tend not to go for such radical change to transfer their sovereignty with largely unknown and untested personalities.
The point here is that the messages being developed by alternative political groups is one thing and how to communicate them in an effective manner to the larger populace is another. Weaknesses in top down political movements come to the fore in such considerations. Sri Lankan voters are very good in listening to political talk in the media and in meetings etc. However, how they vote can be a totally different matter. What factors are pertinent to their decision-making need to be investigated by social research. How and why they change their attitudes and decisions from one election to another need to be investigated as well. Developing bottom-up people movements to cater to people’s true aspirations can be a worthwhile venture in the long run compared to ones based on middle class grievances especially when the country is facing an existential dilemma due to its dependence on foreign sources for aid, loans, expertise etc.and the lack of national leaders who safeguard the national interest rather than their party-political interest.