12 June, 2024


Changing Political Culture From The Bottom Up: Role Of The Middle Class

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

In recent weeks, there has been much talk again about the political culture and the need to reform it if the country is to move forward. A seminar organised recently by a group called Inception of Change (vena saka Arambuma) at Maharagama had this theme as a key point. Bond Commission report or at least excerpts are out in the public domain and there is considerable airtime and media attention drawn into it. Political stages are being erected throughout the country for esteemed politicians of various colours to empty their stomach on routine performances adhering to party lines in front of eager audiences waiting to get a glimpse of their favourite national leaders after they moved to Colombo to act on their behalf. Some get mesmerised by the sight of most modern and luxurious vehicles they travel back to the localities in the backdrop of exploding cracker sounds- the rewards that elected parliamentarians get for their hard work. Some in the audiences get enthused by the loud attacks against those on opposite sides and discourses on righteousness, social justice, human rights, development and progress, anti corruption, how they saved country – even though proving purity on Corruption ground has become increasingly difficult lately. Amidst all these background dramas, noises and political ceremonies, some wonder what really is happening underneath Sri Lanka’s political landscape? 

In my view, it is high time that we reflect on why the country has not been able to generate a progressive political party free from corruption and truly seek to offer service to the people based on altruism rather than self-interest from the middle class that embodies considerable talent, wisdom, foresight, drive and ambition? In this article I offer some thoughts.

Many commentators have recently pointed out the failures of two mainstream political parties over the 70 years since gaining independence and expressed frustration for the lack of a progressive alternative. One reason for adopting such ‘a pessimistic attitude’ is the continuing foreign debt syndrome. Another is the lack of concrete and visible legal action against those who have plundered public coffers during the previous regime and the present one, though the attorney general and other law enforcement agencies contemplate such action, we are told. A third reason is the plight of the common man and woman in terms of cost of living whether they are in urban areas or the countryside. A fourth reason is the lack of credible action on reconciliation and associated matters including the new constitution making. On positive side, peace prevails, freedom of expression is available, extra judicial killings, harassment, and white van disappearances have subsided, and the populist-dictatorial tendency that existed before has declined. However, the promise to do away with the executive Presidential system by the current President seems to be on the back burner.

Commentators are using yahapalanaya or good governance and promises made during last national elections by party leaders as a yardstick to measure current doings and undoings of the national government. For the average Sri Lankan, this is not a problem of this or that democracy, old or new model. For them, it is a matter of how to correct the course on ground practically rather than political theory. Thus it is important to dwell on the composition of middle class and its role in a movement for course correction by way of a new progressive party or some such outfit.

The Middle Class –LMC and UMC

The middle class comprises of two layers or fractions. One is lower middle class (LMC) and the other upper middle class (UMC). Strictly speaking, we could consider JVP and Peratugamee Pakshaya or Frontline party etc. as progressive political parties that seek to improve the conditions of existence for those segments of society that are disempowered by the existing economic, political and social systems. Their political strategy seems to be to work in a bottom up manner. LMC includes workers, peasants, policemen and soldiers, school teachers and clerks without land and other wealth, carpenters, masons, labourers, fishermen etc. Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya led by Bahu also falls into the category of a progressive party though some question its support for the yahapalanaya government? This is a charge levelled against JVP also.

During Dr. Newton Gunasinghe’s time, there was an Institute for Workers and Peasants to study and promote the welfare of these neglected social strata. Newton was Sri Lanka’s foremost Marxist activist anthropologist who obtained his PhD from the university of Sussex but passed away some decades ago prematurely. Some upper middle class intellectuals who supported the movement led by Rev Sobitha prior to last Presidential elections are supporting the JVP at the Local Government elections. This is a new trend.

The Upper Middle Class (UMC)

The UMC is motivated by material gains as any other class or class fraction. Many of its members including Buddhist monks and other clergy are part and parcel of the existing party system. Members of this strata such as traders and medium size businessmen and women, farmers with land and mill owners, transport operators, semi professionals and professionals such as lawyers, security officers, police inspectors, doctors and university academics, civil administration officials tend to look at politics in a transactional sense as many politicians do, i.e. support one or another party for personal gain rather than ideological conviction. Thus the politically active sections of this class fraction are heavily involved in the existing political culture. In fact, they are the torchbearers of parties that form a government. However, the large majority in the class fraction is disempowered voters who tend to switch their allegiances to one or another party at the elections just as voters.

Elements within this fraction are avid readers and consumers of media reportings. They are motivated to provide higher education to children either in state funded universities or even through international education. Ambition to progress in life is a core interest in this fraction but at the grassroots level, many obstacles exist. Members of this fraction are highly frustrated with the existing economic and political system as well as deteriorating national identity, values and inability of politicians to improve living conditions rule of law, prevent corruption by those who hold power even though some have found prosperity by private practice and migrating. Ideally, a more progressive political party should emerge from this fraction as it is one of the influential in terms of voter numbers, geographical, cultural, ethnic and social spread, education, knowledge and the like. But the question is why no such party has emerged if material conditions are ripe?

The UMC interests are represented by the mainstream parties such as the SLFP and the UNP plus other minor parties belonging to the majority Sinhalese and ethnic minorities who governed the country in one or another coalition since independence. This includes parties like the CP and LSSP though they are also split now into various groups. Majority of UMC members who are employed in professions or engaged in business or work for the government bureaucracy prefer not to get involved in active politics. In the past there was a public service ethics where it was assumed that the senior bureaucrats should remain apolitical. This was to ensure continuity of the service when governments change and ensure fair decision making in the interest of the public rather than the politician. Those who go through universities had a view that politics is a dirty game and they should not get involved. Partly this attitude was cultivated by the university education in disciplines inherited from the West where the belief was to acquire modern knowledge that opens doors for professions in the private sector and government jobs. Elitist nature of the University in its early years also contributed to the same but surprisingly the same attitude to politics continued after the doors were opened for university education with an influx of those from rural and urban LMC backgrounds. This detached attitude served the interests of the few undergraduates who were closely aligned with national political parties and organised party activities on university campuses.

The concept of educated youths and gentlemanly qualities characteristic of early generations of university graduates have disappeared in recent decades corresponding to what has happened in cricket. This change from gentlemanly engagement to playing hardball is not limited to education and cricket. Similar trend is visible in politics also. I am not sure if ‘ethnically and politically engaged Buddhism’ reflects the same phenomenon?

Other elements of the UMC are intimidated by the existing political culture maintained by a closely-knit political class comprising of dominant political families engaged in politics as a full time vocation. These families, most of who are involved in national politics have rural roots and voter bases.  They have made name recognition through generations of political activity in the provinces and cultivated a support base in the provinces. Aligned with one of the mainstream parties, individuals in such families carry organising work in the provinces at national and other elections. Since the establishment of Provincial Councils, a generation of local politicians, activists, and party supporters have also been nurtured by mainstream parties at local levels. Thus the Colombo based national parties and their leaders can easily control, manipulate, and dominate what’s going on at the provincial and local levels. In this task, politically appointed Samurdhi officers, teachers, Grama Sevakas and the like also play an important role. When governing power is bestowed to one of these mainstream parties and its coalition partners, such power multiplies for the period of governance.

While this is good for those who are politically active, their families and friends, it is not so for the majority in the UMC or for that natter LMC. Majority in these classes who are going about their daily life are only interested in what the governments can offer them as part of the political contract between government and the voter. This includes peace, security, non-harassment, employment, bearable cost of living, education for children, health services etc. Thus members of the UMC are interested in political criticism to some extent as there are many issues of concern but they do not think of getting active in politics, some for fear of reprisals.

The environment in the countryside is not conducive for members of the Middle class to get involved in active politics other than from the two mainstream parties or their coalition partners.  A major concern is the security of civilians who want to support an alternate political party like the JVP. Law enforcement in the remote areas can often times be partial. People know that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the common man. Furthermore, occupations such as teaching, nursing, policing, agricultural officer and so on are subject to politically motivated transfers. In such circumstances, families can suffer. Thus the fear of reprisals prevents many in the middle class occupations from entering active politics.

If politics is a dirty game, not a noble profession, the idea of piety promoted by religions, especially Buddhism, also influence members of the UMC to adopt ‘a detached attitude’ to rather mundane field like politics. Some of those who have gone through elite Buddhist schools in cities and become professionals and businessmen are closely related to politicians in one form or another. It is in their best interest to not adopt a critical attitude even when they see injustices and corruption. The rest lives in hope that things will improve one day. They seek solace through religious and other cultural activities. To aid them, for example among the Sinhalese, there is an elaborate ‘ceremonial culture’ involving weddings, funerals, alms giving to monks in memory of the dead and so on. Those who are urbanised adopt Western style party going, holidays, and overseas trips now that children are settled overseas after higher education. Thus their attention is split between Sri Lanka and the countries of children’s domicile.

Elements of the UMC have found success in ways other than involving in politics and they are least interested in getting actively involved. One interesting phenomenon here is the way they have adopted Western (consumerist) lifestyle combining with the Sinhala- Buddhist ceremonial life even though the Buddhist schools like Ananda, Nalanda were established to counter privileged English schools established by the state and missionaries during the British colonial period. When it comes to consumerism, UMC does not seem to bother about colonialism, or from where the goods and services come from?

Changing Political Culture and Proactive Civil Society Activism

Some Civil society organisations, whose leaders come from the UMC and campaigned for yahapalanaya, and a handful of academics, are critical of the current governance mode and the lack of action on some promises. However, their reach into the voter heartland in the cities and rural areas is minimal. Other than being so called armchair opinion makers, they do not seem to have a network or following in politically significant and sensitive areas where it matters. Criticism alone is not going to change the political culture.

There has to be an organisation and a strategy of likeminded members of the UMC developed in close consultation with would be supporters who are fed up with the rotten political culture and the elitist system of expensive governance system. Such an organisation can emerge from non-political, socially conscious elements of the UMC. Civil society organisations, trade unions, academic unions, clergy, professional bodies, etc. can play a part in this.

Unfortunately, there seem to be a dominant view among civil society leaders and even academics interested in current political issues that they should not get involved in politics. They don’t seem to realise that power lies in numbers – not only in good ideas. How to get numbers for their own social and economic agendas in the first place and then to develop a political strategy away from failed political parties should concentrate their mind rather than placing the faith on politicians from mainstream parties at election times as they did in 2015. The strategy should include steps that are necessary in between elections as well including expanding a follower base spreading into provinces.

Political culture cannot be changed by diffusion of ideas alone. This is because ideas do not take root in the minds of voters unless they are repeated many, many times during waking hours of each week, month and year. The role of media plays a crucial role here. TV programs like Pathikada and Satana engage the public on current issues critically. Educating the public from a critical perspective is important. But as the political culture is deeply rooted and embedded in the material world plus the current neoliberal, free market economy – often leading to dishonest actions by elected politicians and bureaucrats who serve them- words alone cannot change such a culture. Organisational network of those who are frustrated with the repeated failings of governments and mainstream parties need to not only hammer out the message that political reform is necessary but also keep recruiting more sympathisers to their cause and agenda for a new or reformed society.

Whether such organisation should remain apolitical or establish a new progressive party need to be debated among members. There is an activist organisation that organise advertising campaigns regularly in Australia called Get Up. It plays an effective role in not only gathering public support on particular issues but also mounting grass roots campaigns in marginal seats at election times. This an example of what one can do to change political culture and outcomes on a daily basis through a civilian outfit.

Wee need to recognise that perceptions of power that have been ingrained in the minds of people belonging to middle and working classes by a multitude of practices and symbolism during the last 70 years also function as a barrier for these classes, in particular the UMC, to come to the realisation that power is not something that is possessed and exercised by the rich, powerful, politically connected some bodies but it can be acquired by average citizen nobodies like themselves. Through various political, religious and social discourses and symbolism, a perception has been inculcated in the minds of people who do not belong to the elite political class and it’s incumbent families that power is to be exercised only by career politicians. Thus the only option available for the masses is to support one or other mainstream party led by the elitist, political families. It is only they who understand the complexities of governance, international relations, legal language and practices, and possess the education and knowledge necessary to run a country. This perception has been seriously damaged in recent years.

Yet through mechanisms such as political stages or vedikava acts for reinforcing this inaccurate perception is being reinforced. For example, when the agamathi or janadhipathi comes to address a meeting in the provinces, there is some ceremony and ritual associated with such visits. Stage or vedikava is large and imposing, decorations more elegant, presence of security strong; the vehicle they arrive is luxurious. Firecrackers signify the arrival of these personalities considered as dignified personalities. Those who introduce the dignitary characterise them as saviours of nation who can develop the country and bring prosperity. Emotional language is used to characterise their parties as the only credible ones that people should vote. Party flags are prominently displayed along with banners and pictures of the leaders plus local candidate. The chair that the leader sits has to be higher compared to other chairs. Wearing national dress is a must for the leader. All these paraphernalia and symbols plus the politically charge discourses inject certain interpretations about the merits of voting for one party, one leader, one candidate over another. Many in the UMC and LMC who participate in such rallies and witness these events get convinced about voting one way or another after listening to speeches and witnessing symbolism and rituals performed. Little they realise that such stages are built and political activists belonging to major parties who stand to gain most from a government once established enact the drama. Little also they realise that these events are designed to convince the voter about the inherent nature of power belonging to the political elites, a concept and privileged community that have been constructed by the very same political process ie.mass voting to give the elites the power.

Thus when someone who do not belong to prominent and already privileged political class comes forward to seek their vote, it turns out to be not an attractive proposition. If it was, the JVP should have been in power a long while ago. Try seeking the votes coming by a bicycle or a three wheel? So, any future progressive party emerging from the UMC has to reflect on how to change such inbuilt perceptions by using alternative and more representative discourses and symbolism. I am not suggesting that JVP candidates should arrive at rallies in Benz cars or recruit candidates from elite families. I am suggesting that the political culture is deeply ingrained and rooted in the minds of voters by the use of discourses, symbolism, grass roots network of local officials and politicians, and it is not limited to the Colombo based elite ruling class who enjoy high culture. To change such a culture, preaching to this ruling class alone is not enough. The mindset of the Middle class, which can make a difference, has to be changed along with those who subscribe to the country’s gami culture. It is here that the birth of a progressive party of Middle class intellectuals, professionals, workers, media personnel, civil society activists, and peasants is truly necessary. For this task, discussing how to evolve a suitable politically sensitive communication and organisational strategy is far more important than debating about the merits of social or liberal democracy etc.

Questions for the Political Scientists

We pride ourselves about the merits of free, mass education that allowed thousands of youths from under privileged backgrounds from the South, North, Centre, West, East to become professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, dentists, etc. Why have they not gone back to their villages of birth in the provinces and try to change the political culture from the bottom up? Why don’t they even go back to these areas as professionals, except a few, and serve the very population that is under the thumb of politicians engaged in money politics? Has our higher education system done enough to sensitise undergraduates to the plight of the downtrodden in society and faults in the prevailing political culture and course correction required! If not why? My own view is that as our leaders diverted Mahaweli to take water to dry Zone regions, they constructed a second Mahaweli from Colombo to foreign countries. Our rural youths who got university education free, graduated and frustrated with the system of governance, heavy handed politics in the provinces, and daily struggles to make ends meet,  took the easy path to move out of not only the provinces but also the country altogether in frustration or in search of greener pastures. Thus second Mahaweli imagined here can be described as brain drain to some extent (see the article by Chandra Goonawardena on brain drain in Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences https://sljss.sljol.info/articles/abstract/10.4038/sljss.v40i2.7541/). Thus the very provinces where a change in political culture and services are needed are starved of the talent, wisdom, activism, energy of the Middle class turned professionals. This is good news for the professional politicians whose leaders control the levers of power from their Colombo mansions. We talk about changing political culture and political theory from our own ivory towers, don’t we?

Steps to Follow for a New Progressive Party

I focused on the UMC in this article but there is no reason why a reformist organisation concerned about the sorry plight of the country and its failings in governance cannot or should not harness the support from other classes and class fractions for their cause. Most important however is the vision, diagnosis of problems, way forward, strategy, and organisation rather than critique alone.

If the UMC is diversified as explained earlier, leaders of such an organisation has to investigate which elements of the UMC are likely to support a reformist, progressive organisation or party? There is no point in preaching to those who are disinterested though in the long run some of them can open their eyes to the just causes. It is important to target elements of the UMC who are most frustrated with the failure of governments and willing to get involved in a reformist movement.

This brings me to the issue of discussing what should happen if there is to be a progressive political party from the UMC? Following steps can be useful:

1. Understanding that criticism alone is not sufficient. Action, collective action, is necessary however small it is.
2. Assessment of present situation and diagnosis of the failures of main parties and the reasons
3. A vision for the future. What should it look like? Involves fields such as governance, rule of law, education, foreign policy, co -existence, sustainable economic growth, and social welfare.
4. Conceptualise the changes and reforms necessary to achieve this vision in detail. Associated policies and programs.

5. Develop strategies to achieve the vision including the nature of a new party that represents the interests of the middle class, in particular one or both fractions – UMC and LMC. In this task, developing principles that guide the new party such as the non-inclusion of corrupt and failed politicians should be a priority. Nation building without relying on foreign debt should be another. Designing an education system corresponding to national culture is another. Harnessing the talents of all without discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, language etc. should be a priority.


Westerners dissatisfied with consumerist lifestyle predicated by the capitalist market oriented economies and social policies that follow corporate regimentation, regularly travel to the East in search of a different meaning and style of life. Our leaders, in particular those who came after 1977 made the resplendent island of Sri Lanka ‘a global market place’ for numerous products and services from overseas loosening the controls that existed. In this context, members of the middle class and for that matter many in other classes chase material objectives in life by orthodox as well as unorthodox methods. The bedrock of values that guided human relations and behaviour as well as inter personal attitudes has been compromised as individualistic ambitions got priority. When things go wrong at national level, for example with the debt crisis, an important class such as the Middle class remain apathetic to the plight of the country, society and its future prospects.  This does not bode well for the medium to long – term future.  The very class that should provide leadership to ‘a reform movement’ to change the corrupt political culture and money politics and be at the forefront of conceptualising and implementing a strategy for a progressive party is diversified, indoctrinated and made inactive by the corrupt political culture. Some members of the class are made to leave the country making room for career politicians to thrive in the capital and countryside. Unless the critique –creative, constructive, and forward looking- is turned into action and action-oriented strategy is designed to galvanise the energy and wisdom in the middle class or its mostly affected elements, conventional criticism alone is not going to yield desired change.

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Latest comments

  • 0

    adopting a constitution like that of uganda could be first step as nothing will happen with ours

  • 3

    We are a nation of exploiters!
    LMC exploit the country to become UMC!
    UMC exploit the country to become Elite Class!
    Elite class exploit the country to become self actualized in money!

    Buddhism and education has taught Sinhalese nothing!
    It is pretty simple folks, Greatness is achieved through greatness! How can you polish a turd?

  • 1

    Siri Gamage suggests ~ “Changing Political Culture From The Bottom Up: Role Of The Middle Class”
    No no no Siri. We have reached the stage when political culture has to change from the TOP and percolate down. A silver lining is the realisation that language/religion-divide has not yet raised its ugly head – at least so far!
    The Middle Class is the most dangerous lot. The middle class MPs were bought off with a duty free car permit!

  • 1

    So boring to read its too long. Whatever siri aiya make it short and sweet.

  • 0

    I don’t like to be accused of pedantism, but Siri Gamage the caption for your piece is an oxymoron.You refer to the Middle Class which certainly is not at the bottom, and then you refer to changing its role from “the bottom up”! Did you mean the working class? Given its proclivity to booze the more appropriate caption may have been “bottoms up”!

  • 1

    If all the provincial councils are given adequate powers and finance to develop their provinces without unnecessary interference from the Central Government, they can assess the Needs of province and encourage the educated youth from the province to stay put in the village by giving adequate salaries and benefits . It is a pity that due to lack of developments in the provinces youth are forced to leave their village and look for pastures else where. All government departments which deals with the people should have branches all over the provinces to enable them to fulfill there needs without travelling to Colombo. If the government can have hundreds of ministers who are under employed to safe guard the government, why not decentralized offices and give powers to the provincial councils to to do the needful
    Constitutional powers should be given the provincial councils with periodic audits carried out by the central governments, where ever necessary.

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