By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“Finally Gramsci…. If we say – as Gramsci did—that the task of the Italian working class is to fulfil the tasks of national unification that the Italian people had posed themselves since the time of Machiavelli, and in some way, to complete the historical project of the Risorgimento, we have a double order of reference.”– Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s)
A basic reason for the inability of the anti-Governmental forces, political and civil society, Oppositional and dissentient, to compete with the regime, still less supplant it, is the sheer inability to think straight. While it may be argued that the regime does not do so either, that chronic lapse is far more manifest in the interrelated realms of external and ethnic affairs, and much less so in the electoral heartland, the Sinhala majority areas. It must also be remembered that the government, especially one with a popular leadership, can by virtue of incumbency, afford lapses in thinking, while the Opposition, as an aspirant force, can ill afford such weakness.
The inability to think straight translates itself immediately and automatically into an inability to aim straight, politically speaking. This means an inability to hit the political target dead centre.
The absence of straight thinking on the part of the oppositional forces and dissenting elements also means that they fail to win the battle of ideas and arguments, thereby failing to persuade the mass of citizens, i.e. the electorate.
Let us examine a few of the most serious errors of thinking of the political opposition and the dissenting or critical intelligentsia, and constructively suggest major rectifications of those errors.
A set of serious mistakes continue to be made as regards the Tamil (or ethnic) Question, which is at the heart of the larger problem of Sri Lankan nationhood. It is held that President Mahinda Rajapaksa is an anti-devolution dogmatist or fundamentalist and has been so throughout his political career. This omits two rather large facts, namely that the Eastern and Northern Provincial elections were held precisely under his Presidency and none other. It could be argued that these moves were to secure external support during the war or under external pressure after, but that would undermine the critique. Mahinda Rajapaksa toyed with the district as the unit of devolution during the war, notwithstanding the Indian factor, but was persuaded not to follow through, and chose instead to announce elections to the Eastern PC as the province was liberated, with no evidence of external pressure. As for the Northern election, there was certainly carrot and stick, but the stick was tapped only when there was a chance that 13A would be pruned.
The susceptibility to external realities shows that this Rajapaksa is a conservative pragmatist rather than a fundamentalist on devolution. His critics who seem quite as dogmatic, blinkered and fundamentalist in their blanket condemnation of him as he is accused of being of devolution, fail to acknowledge that it is precisely the defeat of the LTTE on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political watch that permitted the reopening of democratic space and the holding of PC elections in the North and East—which his predecessors were unable to do for a quarter of a century.
It is correctly held that the Government is responsible for the absence of progress in political dialogue with the TNA. This perception needs several caveats, though. The government is mainly responsible for the absence of dialogue but it is not solely responsible. The point I seek to make is best illustrated by the complete absence of serious, transparent political dialogue between the TNA and the Opposition. If there were, or were to be, the Government could be completely exposed for its intransigence and culpability.
Why is there no dialogue between the UNP and the TNA, or the JVP and the TNA? Why can’t there be an oppositional roundtable, which elaborates a solution to the issues of national reconciliation and integration? Why can’t there be at least bilateral talks on such issues which result in a joint statement?
If it is because such a dialogue will make the opposition a target of government propaganda, the question is: why should that matter? Is it because such criticism would be effective? If it is effective, why is that so? Is there something wrong with the profile of the TNA or that of the Opposition parties, which make them vulnerable to such criticism?
Is it that the TNA would be faulted in the North and East for a transparent dialogue with the centre-Right and Left Opposition parties? If so, are we to conclude that public opinion among the Tamils is quite so extreme?
If not, is it the case that the TNA suspects it cannot convince the parties of the opposition of the justice and legitimacy of its political demands? If the TNA’s demands are too expensive for the Opposition to be seen to accept, shouldn’t the TNA moderate those demands? If not, how does the TNA hope to carry centrist Sinhala opinion on these issues?
Surely if the TNA is able to convince the Opposition, that alone can outflank the regime and put more pressure on it to accept a reasonable settlement, or at least attenuate the Government’s apprehension of Southern vulnerability?
Looking at it the other way around, why is the Opposition failing to have an open, structured dialogue with the TNA? If it is the radioactivity of the TNA’s profile, then shouldn’t that radioactivity be sought to be removed by lobbying for adjustments in the TNA’s positions? If the problem is not with the TNA but with the vulnerability of the Oppositional parties to governmental propaganda, should those aspects or personalities that make the Opposition vulnerable be rectified or removed?
The absence of an open political dialogue between the TNA and either wing of the parliamentary opposition reveals that the problem of the absence of a political process does not reside solely with the Government, but is wider or lies deeper.
Given the domestic geopolitical realities of the island, the most significant of which are the uneven distribution of minorities and the overwhelming preponderance of one ethnic community, two political conclusions may be derived: (i) there can be no purely Northern or North-Eastern solution to the ethnic question; it has to be part of the reform of the state as a whole and (ii) ethnic reforms have to secure the consent of a moderate majority of the overwhelming majority on the island.
This brings us to the second problem with the thinking of the anti-government camp, with regard to the Tamil question. That is the ‘two nations theory’ namely the self-proclamation of the Tamil nationalists that the Tamils of Sri Lanka are a nation; that Sri Lanka is a bi-national or pluri-national society and should therefore be proclaimed such as a state/country; and that it should be recognised that the Tamils of Sri Lanka have the right of national self determination. (For a sophisticated liberal intellectual exposition, see for instance: ‘Realist Modernism in an age of Kulturkampf’ by Asanga Welikala, Groundviews.)
The danger of this political position is that it informs Tamil nationalism and pushes it to adopt or be vulnerable to unrealistic emotionalism. No state in Asia accepts such a position with regard to an ethnic minority within its borders, and with good reason which includes but is not limited to the history of colonial fragmentation and the fear of centrifugalism.
In the case of Sri Lanka the case of pluri-nationalism is patently absurd, because one ethnic group constitutes almost 75% of the island’s population, and according an equal status of nationhood to a far smaller formation is logically untenable. With such overwhelming preponderance of one community, how could the entity that is Sri Lanka be described as pluri-national or bi-national? Take for example the world order: it was described as bi-polar when there were two roughly equal superpowers, the USA and the USSR. It is described as multi-polar with the emergence of China and other Big Powers. It would not have been described as bi-polar, or containing two powers, if the two had been the USA on the one hand and Cuba or Vietnam on the other, nor would it be defined as multi-polar if the polarities were the USA , Pakistan and Sri Lanka! Where one ethnic group constitutes two thirds of the populace, the other communities are obviously ethnic minorities.
What makes the ‘two nations/pluri-national/self determination’ position doubly dangerous is that it blocks the Tamil community from achieving its fair and just place as Sri Lankans. If a community insists on defining itself as a distinct nation and being recognised as such; has until recently, supported (actively or tacitly) a secessionist war of long duration waged by a terrorist army; has yet to denounce that terrorist army and separatist terrorist enterprise; is sporadically given to praising the terrorist chieftain responsible for the assassination of several leaders of the country; and is located in a sensitive border area across which it has a huge populace of co-ethnics supportive of secession–then the majority community and indubitably the armed forces of the given state are bound to regard it as a potential or latent security threat.
On the other hand if the Tamil community, which manifestly constitutes an ethnic minority on the island, insists on being treated with dignity, integrated as equal citizens with no discrimination whatsoever, granted all rights and protection accorded to minorities according to UN declarations and universal norms, and deserving of an authentic measure of provincial autonomy and self-administration as contained in the bilateral accord between Sri Lanka and India, it would occupy the moral high ground and generate a broad resonance among the Sinhala majority.
The wide, unbridgeable gulf between the Oppositional and dissident forces on the one hand and the bulk of the citizenry on the other—a gulf which enables the government to step in, manoeuvre and retain the support of the people—is exemplified in the views in the anti-regime camp that (a) there is a moral equivalence between the State and the Tigers and that the War was not between two morally unequal and incommensurable formations and (b) that things are worse today than they ever were in the country.
The irony is that while international civil society may hold or come round to the view that the Sri Lankan state was the equivalent of the Tigers if not worse, in no society anywhere in the world, and especially in the West, would the view be held that when it came to their own country, there was a moral equivalence between a legitimate democratic state and a suicide bombing terrorist enemy. Certainly, this position will never be accepted by the people of Sri Lanka. Still more surreal is the assertion that things are worse today than they have ever been in this country. (‘Realist Modernism in an Age of Kulturkampf’, Asanga Welikala, Groundviews.)
Certainly in several significant respects, this ‘declinist’ perspective is accurate, and I share it. Yet in the most significant respects it is not. What we have is not the peace we want, deserve or could easily enjoy. Yet a post-war present which is not punctuated by school-kids blown up on buses, commuters on trains and political leaders at election meetings, cannot be worse in general or as a whole, than a bloodbath which lasted thirty years. However culturally claustrophobic the present, it cannot be worse than a past in which the country was sundered and the majority of its citizens terrorised and humiliated. It is that larger existential truth and the failure of the regime’s critics to acknowledge it in order to transcend it that will return Mahinda Rajapaksa to presidential office. Of course President Rajapaksa’s third term will be at least as fraught as President Jayewardene’s second term. Be that as it may, if the silence of the Opposition and the intellectual denial and confusion of the dissident intelligentsia on the defining historic process and event of our lifetime, the war and its outcome, continue, it may entrench the regime, even ushering in a harsher successor and a darker age.