By Izeth Hussain –
I am no psephologist with specialist skills in the analysis of elections but I have found that commonsense can serve well in the prediction of electoral outcomes. On commonsensical grounds I expect the UNP to win by a comfortable margin. Perhaps the most important reason is a sense of fatigue with SLFP-led Governments since 1994, except for a brief UNP inter-regnum. There is a deep human impulse that seeks renewal by turning to the new. Another important factor is that the minorities’ vote that proved so decisive at the Presidential elections is sure to remain with the UNP. On the economy the voters could hope to see an end to gigantic idiocies such as Mattala Airport and Hambantota Port. On democracy, and all the issues of good governance, the UNP would obviously have the edge.
If it is true that there is a deep human impulse to seek renewal by turning to the new, the UPFA campaign can be seen to be deeply flawed. There has been a monomaniacal focusing on one point, the other points not being really important. It is that Sri Lanka is again in danger both internally and externally and the Nation therefore requires a Saviour, the same Saviour who saved us in 2009, the true-blue Ruhunaputra, the descendent of the culture hero of the Sinhalese people, Dutugemunu. That idea did not have all that much traction among the Sinhala Buddhist masses at the Presidential elections. 45% of them voted against Rajapaksa, and the percentage could have been significantly higher if not for the command of the huge resources of the state by the Rajapaksa campaigners.
The assertion of Sinhala Buddhist supremacy by the State could be losing its attraction among the masses. That is suggested by the failure of the state-backed anti-Muslim campaign of the BBS. Impressive mass demonstrations were held but after the tumult and the shouting died down the usual relations of amity and co-operation between the Sinhalese and the Muslims continued. There would have been an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment but there was no ignition of an anti-Muslim conflagration. What happened at Aluthgama/Beruwela was an organized affair, not a mass conflagration. The underlying reason why the assertion of Sinhala Buddhist and Sinhalese supremacy might be losing its attraction could be this: they asserted their supremacy with total success as far back as 1971 by the outrageously discriminatory University admission standardization scheme. Since then it has been shown that there isn’t a dam thing the minorities can do to challenge that supremacy. 44 years later it must seem to many sane and wholesome Sinhalese that there is no point in going on yelling and howling and screeching about a non-existent threat to the very existence of the Sinhalese. The time has come to really try to establish some degree of ethnic harmony and some degree of unity in this so-called nation. The mass appeal of racist neo-Fascism will continue. But the mass appeal of the assertion of Sinhala supremacy could diminish. It should be possible to contain racist neo-Fascism within a well-entrenched democracy as in India – as I argued in the first part of this article.
I would attach much importance to a linguistic change that has taken place over the last three years or so. Linguistic changes in the form of neologisms, words falling into desuetude, old words suddenly coming into vogue, words changing their meaning or acquiring new nuances, indicate changes taking place in a society. They signify new ways of conceptualizing the world and evaluating it. I have in mind the fact that the word “communalism”, once ubiquitous in Sri Lankan usage has now fallen into desuetude and is used only infrequently. It has been replaced by “racism” which we used to think of as something that applied to what the whites did to the coloured, not what the coloured do to the coloured. I believe that the reason why “racism” has come into vogue is that it has much stronger negative connotations than “communalism”. We had 100,000 deaths as a consequence of communalism. The strongly denunciatory “racism” is more apposite in that context. I take this linguistic change as signifying that Rajapaksa’s racist neo-Fascism is not the wave of the future.
A noteworthy feature of the present pre-election scene in Sri Lanka is that there is not much popular enthusiasm about it, which is in striking contrast to a well-established norm. The explanation for this could be that we are moving from a conflictual to a consensual model of politics. On the first of the three great problems facing us, that of the economy, there is consensus about the basics among the two major parties. On the problem of democracy there is an apparent polarization, but it is not in the form of a stark dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship as in the Arab world and elsewhere. There is no doubt that Rajapaksa is ideologically committed to racist neo-Fascism but in practice he is committed to working within a democratic framework. Otherwise he would not have held democratic elections. On the ethnic problem, the moderates are clearly in the ascendant in the GTF and the TNA, and on the Sinhalese side both major parties remain committed to a political solution within the framework of 13A. It is not surprising that in this situation our politicians are commuting from one Party to another without any sense of strain, so much so that we find it difficult to remember to which Party this or that politician belongs at the moment.
There are also factors of a socio-economic structural order behind the move to consensual politics. I have explored that in an earlier article and I am not going to repeat my argument here. Instead I will quote a poem of Hilaire Belloc, one of the great political poems of the last century, which expresses the underlying reality of democratic politics with beautiful lucidity:
The accursed reign of Privilege,
Which goes with women and champagne and bridge,
Broke – and Democracy resumed its reign,
Which goes with women and bridge and champagne.
There is a school of thought according to which we are moving towards a three-Party system with the JVP as the third Party, comparable to Britain’s Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Parties. In that case the following nursery rhyme, also a great political poem in my view, will be entirely apposite:
Hey rub-a-dub dub,
Three men in a tub,
The butcher, the baker, the candle-stick maker –
Turn ‘em out! Rogues all three!
It is masterly, the way the rhythm moves towards that thundering emphasis on Rogues – so apposite to Sri Lankan politics. I recommend that both poems be inscribed in our new Constitution.