By Siri Gamage –
While most of the people are focused on the current saga relating to the sudden change of the Prime Minister and the instalment of a new government, not many are even thinking about how the current system of governance and politics that serves to legitimise power actually disempowers the average citizens? The current power play regarding the legitimacy of one or another PM (and differing versions of constitutional interpretation) is in effect between two factions of the same ruling class or elites who have enjoyed state power at one period or another over the last 70 years.
There is a significant power imbalance between those holding it in the name of the people and for the people and ‘displaying’ the same and those who do not have an iota of it. How did we come to such a situation in the matter of 70 years since gaining independence? Deep reflection is necessary on this question at a time like this rather than be preoccupied by the drama being played out at the top in Colombo.
The process whereby one end of the society is made very powerful and the other end made powerless is the so-called electoral process. Electorates exist nominally and in the minds of legislatures and bureaucrats. They also exist in the political maps and development plans. However, the question is whether people exist in them? Have the electorates been emptied of ‘people’ when they are made voiceless and powerless by the very process of elections?
If we have a truly representative democracy, elected representatives ought to be responsible to the electorates. Instead, what we observe is a one-way process where the voters elect representatives to the parliament, and to the post of executive president periodically but they lose their own power each time they do so. The effects of this process is so alarming that what we witness today is a population deprived of power in all senses and become not only vulnerable but also voiceless. Therefore, at a time like this, informed citizens have a duty to focus on this larger process of disempowerment of the majority and the empowerment of the minority i.e. ruling class, by the very process put in place by our predecessors to empower people as well as designing a way to address this conundrum in a liberatory way.
In an egalitarian society, the children of each and every citizen ought to have an equal opportunity to get an education, employment for a decent income and be usefully occupied, participate in the political process and decision making processes, as well as to enjoy life without man-made barriers. In the current context, I do not see such an equal opportunity for all. Instead, all political parties involved in governance since independence have created a highly inegalitarian society. While a selected segment has been made more equal than others due to the particular political process in place, the large majority are struggling to get ahead in the face of depreciating rupee, rising costs of goods and services, discriminatory social attitudes and practices, and the hierarchical control exercised by the ruling elites/class on what is essentially public life. Those at the apex of these hierarchies appropriate wealth by using public office to the detriment of the public at large. Then they look for foreign aid and loans for projects. Ethics in such practices are not even contemplated today. The position of MP is treated as a marketable commodity for the highest bidder.
What has been created is a sick society during the last seven decades. Instead of decolonisation we witness re-colonisation in the name of globalisation, neoliberalism, need for foreign investment and education etc. Yet our roads are full of traffic and diesel fume, eating places including the washrooms still do not have proper hygiene, ritual observance of rules and directives have become the norm instead of critical reflection, discussion or response, and caring for the weak is out of the question altogether. Dirty water from public toilets flow across roads. No Pradesheeya Sabha official to inspect these and rectify. Collection of garbage is ad hoc causing householders to chase the truck with money in hand as graft. Uncollected garbage is then dropped into waterways. A highly competitive society whose members visits the medical specialists as a matter of habit and visits temples for inner solace and face the daily challenges is in place.
A tense population trying to meet daily challenges jumping from one venue to another or from one mode of transport to another before the rain rather than a restive one going about daily life peacefully is visible. Social engineering to correct the path is not even considered. What seems to be more important is building more and more infrastructure, buildings, and acquiring status symbols in the name of public office –irrespective of the party in power. Display of power by those with authority in gang style with a retinue seems to be the game in town. Elected politicians with high office are surrounded by well built men carrying arms and mobile phones to protect somebodies from the nobodies. Ideally, this has to be the other way around. Nobodies who are in the majority need to be protected from the somebodies with so much monetary and fire power. When I read the news that the security for the PM Wickremesinghe has been reduced from 1008 to 10, I was wondering if there is such a contingent to provide security for a medium size town anywhere in the country? After the end of war, why such a necessity is highly questionable unless for the grandeur of office and person concerned? Change of government will not change such practices.
Public at large today do not enjoy their rights and feelings of power. If they walk on roads, take public transport especially buses, visit hospitals or government offices, they are humiliated by those who exercise power. Bus conductors shout at them asking to move forward or backward when there is no room left for movement, footpaths are obstructed so they have to walk on roads competing with passing vehicles, pedestrian crossings are not respected by motorists yet they have to cross, offices of lawyers treat them as colonial subjects, and places of education provide food for exams but not for thought. Foreign education establishments or private health facilities are beyond the realm of these nobodies –though they are in the majority- due to lack of funds that these establishments are after.
During a recent visit to Sri Lanka, I had the opportunity to witness the powerlessness and voicelessness of the majority in public spaces. It looked to me like a totally controlled society from the top –even though there was media freedom before the change of government on October 26th 2018. Those in power control life of the average citizens to such an extent that those with authority see them as no bodies. Being a status society with clearly defined hierarchies and individuals holding positions in them, unless you are somebody with a position and status, you belong in the category of the powerless, status less no bodies (PSLNBs). The life in this category can be a miserable struggle to meet ends on a daily basis.
I saw an old lady who sells rice packets to students at the University campus for Rs. 100-120 each (depending on whether it is fish, chicken or vegetables). I remember the bus conductor who collects money from passengers and constantly look for others who want to get in. An old lady who runs a makeshift stall in the town making and selling wade and hoppers. The shop owner who sells newspapers for a living. University student who attend classes with the aspiration to be somebody later. Or the mother who takes the child to Daham Pasala on Sunday and back to teach the right way. Women in tea estates making a meagre income from daily work just enough to feed the family. To these kinds of people, more than the power competition and display at the top, what is more important is whether the price of food items, petrol etc.is more or less? Whether the road is suitable for travel? Whether they can fix leaking roof. Whether they can make enough income to survive the day? Whether there is a country left for their children to live when all this drama is over?
Respect for the individual or care is no more in society unless one belongs to somebody category. People at the bottom of hierarchies are considered worthless individuals that can be spared as animals. Monetised attitudes pervade the whole fabric of society and its institutions. Partisan political ways of looking at the society dominate competing to attract the attention of the public. Media also reproduce the same as parrots. There is no non-partisan way of looking at the world perhaps except in the temples, schools and universities. How long this sickness will continue is beyond imagination. Reality is not only constructed politically but also legitimised by using powerful media including religious and cultural symbolism. Worldviews promoted by partisan interests are biased but presented as the truth. Desheeya hada bima (nationalist heartland) is compromised by such partisan truths and associated practices that serve the interests of powerful and marginalise those who are made powerless.
The concept of power cannot be limited to an elected group of individuals alone. In a democratic society, people or citizens by and large ought to be able to feel and experience power to a small or large extent purely by the fact of being citizens of a free society unbound by the vestiges of slavery, colonial subjectivity, caste oppression, class supremacy and discrimination or indeed political harassment.
Partisan views based on which political camp one belongs to dominate the day-to-day discourses in the media and in other forums. These discourses are closely aligned with power and privilege. If not they are associated with those seeking the same. They tend to look at society and the world from coloured lenses. To the proponents of such discourses, it is the opposing side, which is always wrong. One’s own side is righteous even when the public can see otherwise. Thus there is a certain hypocrisy built into the party political discourses and arguments. Nonetheless, these discourses construct reality and push forward certain worldviews. However, on the ground there are different discourses and conversations though not getting equal airtime. They are the discourses of the people subordinated by the very political and governance systems. Proponents of these speak truth to power indirectly. Their voices can be heard in private conversations (face to face, telephone, viber, skype), in public transport, social events at homes, temples and other public places. As there is no tradition of social research focusing on such topics, these discourses do not come to public attention.
During my recent visit, I came across elements of such discourses as I interacted with a cross section of the population in Kandy and Colombo. One view expressed to me very clearly was the failure of Yahapalana government as well as the impact of its policies on people’s living conditions. People were complaining about the way the ruling elites were conducting themselves in lavish lifestyle while the people were hurting economically and socially. When I asked about their attitudes about the JVP as a third force, they referred to the reluctance of people to vote for it because of their bad memories in the past i.e. 1989/90. Furthermore, people did not like JVP’s association with the UNP led government. They thought it goes against the expressed ideals of the party.
What we need is democracy at the bottom of society and various hierarchies and the empowerment of no bodies rather than this contest between UNP, SLFP or Podu Jana Peramuna. Those who are closely aligned with each of these parties and their alliance partners get their opportunities to hold onto power, positions, wealth and status by virtue of the kind of democracy practiced by the political establishment. The majority at the bottom of (sick) society look forward to some miracle (this used to be change of government before) to bring a sense of justice, fair play in policy and practice, governance, and moderate enjoyment of perks in office. However, such miracles may not happen in the near future because of the grip on power held by those who desire to keep the sick society as it is while controlling the bodies and minds by the myth of electoral democracy – yet exercising executive supremacy. Those who are involved in performing the pseudo miracles and maintaining the inegalitarian system may one day realise that as a country we have lost the plot. The internal colonialism that they have collectively constructed over the last 70 years making one segment of our population enslaved may haunt their conscience forever.
We need leaders who are able to and willing to understand this reality in the ailing society and implement changes with a measure of austerity to bring about social reform –not only economic reform. Leaders with a vision and a strategy to bring the country out of the current mess. Those with empathy for the powerless no bodies but willing to alter the arrangements of society significantly –particularly at the top level- to allow for all to experience and feel power and all that comes with it. I do not mean that all citizens ought to be provided with Benz or BMW cars, mansions with domestic staff, chauffer driven cars, security guards and defender jeeps, or foreign travel at their wish. Citizen empowerment means that they are placed at the top when it comes to service provision, respect for the individual, and various rights including right to information, association, expression (artistic, creative, political) and life without unnecessary hindrances.
Even though the absence of a credible third political force is the main problem in Sri Lankan politics, not many people thought about this option. Instead they criticise one lot over another for the ills facing society and the country. However, people tend to put all politicians in one basket and express their lack of trust. Some of these people are those who voted for the Yahapalanaya government in 2015. Seminars being conducted in various districts by Ravaya editor Victor Ivon under the title Punarudaya are not well known in the broader community.
The ultimate question that the nation will be asked to respond one day is how the political elites/ruling class has been able to sap the power inherent in the people –including the majority disempowerd already- to enrich so much in the name of democracy? Why the majority has been silent and voiceless when this was happening before their own eyes? What intellectual and other resources plus tools of engagement and empowerment need to be deployed to re-gain the lost power and status of the people in a more democratic but relevant way? Could a leader emerge from the existing ranks of the ruling class or outside it that could galvanise public opinion for a different government of the people, by the people and for the people? If we are to have a better future one-day, Intellectuals need to reflect on these questions and formulate workable ideas for a better society – rather than adopting partisan views and positions.