By Uditha Devapriya –
I came across an interesting conversation on Facebook recently. Two friends, each as committed to his political preferences as the other, were debating on the election. More specifically, they were debating on its racial implications and this in a way which would have raised eyebrows of those reading that debate. Not surprisingly, there were remarks made and exchanged about the majority-minority relationship in the country.
What caught me was that both commentators were (mildly speaking, that is) racist. Yes, racist. One of them accosted the other for his tilt towards the United National Party (UNP) and then posed a provocative question: “Have you forgotten your race? Your identity? Is that why you’re embracing those who rubbish our heritage?”
The other gentleman seemed to be ruffled by this. I say “ruffled” because of what he gave as response: “Get lost! I have and will always stand for my race, and I will privilege it till the day I die. But I don’t want politicians to win votes with it.” The gentleman, I must admit, supports a party that has produced its own share of racists and lotus-eaters, in turn clashing with a party (the SLFP) which has come to symbolise ethnic supremacy. Which makes his statement even more interesting, if not disturbing.
For years if not decades, both the UNP and SLFP played the race-card against each other. The narrative that demeans the latter as a racist’s paradise and the former as an affirmer of all things cosmopolitan is, hence, rubbish. We know about Bandaranaike and Chelvanayakam. We know who opposed their pact and who, when the UNP itself tried to sign a similar pact after 1965, in turn rubbished it. We are enlightened enough to realise that racists don’t have parties reserved to them and as such we know they make up a category unto itself.
Laksiri Fernando, in an article written to the Colombo Telegraph, writes correctly about the racial line that divides both parties. He identifies, as per ideological conviction, that the UNP stands for cosmopolitanism and the SLFP “narrow nationalism”, conceding that what is true for the UNP was once true for the SLFP (he alludes to Hector Kobbekaduwa, who obtained more votes than Kumar Ponnambalam in certain parts of Jaffna) and concluding that the recent parliamentary election was a sign of waning “narrow nationalism” and an embracement of cosmopolitanism.
It is true that under Ranil Wickremesinghe the UNP tilted itself in favour of an all-encompassing nationalism. It is true that under Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP began playing the race-card too wildly. But it is also true that under his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga, it became the biggest advocate for federalism, indeed more so than Wickremesinghe’s UNP and definitely more than what her party turned into after 2005. Not hard to see how.
In his essay “Remembrance of Politics Past”, Regi Siriwardena rightly attributed the devolution-thrusts of the SLFP after 1994 to Kumaratunga herself, brought on by the people she associated with (among others, her husband and his right-hand men Felix Perera and Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, both of whom were at the forefront of the anti-war struggle of the 1980s) and the change of face she underwent after she took to leading their struggle. “She was less a Bandaranaike and more a Kumaratunga,” a friend wittily put it to me once. Apt.
The point is that this was reflected in the SLFP for quite some time, which explains why Rajapaksa, even after nationalism was “institutionalised” in 2005 and 2009, was unable to stifle federal-speak and devolution-speak in his own party (especially with the likes of Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera) and why it figured prominently in the Rajapaksa-Kumaratunga split after November 21, 2014.
So does this indicate a straight line between the voter and the voted? Of course not. If the SLFP currently stands for majoritarian populism and the UNP for cosmopolitanism, this is not in any way shown by the ideologies entertained by their voters. Personally speaking, I have come across racists and idealists among supporters of both parties. Given that the media and the press love to use Cartesian black-and-white logic when “painting” politicians, it’s even MORE disorienting to spot out chauvinists affirming the UNP and cosmopolitans affirming the SLFP.
Here’s my point: in politics there are no straight lines. If there are, they always curve.
Southerners voted for the UNP. So did Northerners. Are we to call them cosmopolitans just because of that? On the same token, are we to consider those who voted for the SLFP from largely Green areas, the West and Uva in particular, as racists? Doesn’t the one intrude into the other, and doesn’t this therefore confirm the view that every party in every country has its share of racists, lotus-eaters, moderates, idealists, and anarchists?
Laksiri Fernando does not touch on this. Wisely. He instead infers, from the support given by the majority to the UNP, that the country is becoming moderate. This does not and nor will it ever erase the one or two exceptions that spout racialist rhetoric. Neither will it marginalise the “odd man out” among the two major parties, who affirms their economic and social principles while keeping his stance on race and religion out of it.
Both the presidential and parliamentary elections this year boded badly for the SLFP and UPFA. Defeat, however, comes in different shades. Speaking for myself, I don’t believe for one moment that every voter embraced cosmopolitanism, but I do concede that among the people who were swayed by the UNP’s bribe-budget and manifesto promises (largely economic, not racial), there would have been the unbiased nationalist, for whom race and religion don’t figure in as a mark of identity and for whom this became a reason to support the Greens. I am willing to bet, though, that this voter did not make up a majority.
The same can be said of the SLFP. Not everyone who turned or remained Blue in August was racist. Again, the voter would have been swayed by promises made in the manifesto. As such a more reasonable explication of the election would have been this: that people wanted change. No, not change based on each party’s position on race or religion, but change based on existing political structures and the fact that the UNP controlled the country’s propaganda machine.
Professor H. L. Seneviratne, writing on the 2005 presidential election (“A Jathika President or an Arthika President?”) observed quite correctly that those who propagated the myth that 1956 and its aftermath entailed (based on ethnic hegemony) caused the “most heinous crime” that what he calls the “theoretician elite” could commit. True, but as Malinda Seneviratne correctly countered this does not absolve the theoretician elite of the opposing side, i.e. those who were and are opposed to 1956, who in turn kowtowed to racialist populism at each and every opportune moment.
In other words, the elite of both parties, by concealing their racialist, supremacist base, tried to project themselves as “more friendly” towards an all-encompassing national identity which they never really stood for. Yes, we saw 1958 (the riots that is), but we also saw and remember 1979, 1983, and 1997 (the Kalutara prison riots). I believe this was and will continue to be reflected in statements such as those in the Facebook conversation I alluded to earlier.
To sum up: there are racists on both sides of the political equation, here and elsewhere, the reason being that they are human and hence frail. The most party politics can do is to split the racists into two camps, based not on racial outlook but ideological predilection dependent on other factors, economics included. That is why a person can “embrace” a cosmopolitan party, even one as cosmopolitan as Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP, without letting go of his or her racialist sentiments.
Yes, I agree this was (in part at least) due to 1956 and the empowerment given to Bandaranaike’s children (in a figurative sense), all of whom thought, owing to how both parties operated thereafter, that the UNP and SLFP considered obeisance to majoritarianism in SOME form a “given”. Part of the reason why we’ve never progressed since then is that we tend to embrace on-the-moment rhetoric, another “given” from both parties.
In the end we have only ourselves to blame. Not the politician, whether he or she be cosmopolitan or racist. The voter, hence, isn’t a mirror reflection of the voted. Never was, never will be. Sad, yes. But true.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at email@example.com. Blog- fragmenteyes.blogspot.com