By Izeth Hussain –
There are pluses to be counted in favour of the Government and minuses to be counted against it in its performance since the January 8 elections. Its performance can be assessed like a glass of water as either half full or half empty. I would belong to the school of thought that sees the glass as half full because I bear in mind that since politics is the art of the possible there can be no perfection in it Furthermore, in politics the choice is not usually between the good and the bad but between the bad and the worse. Bearing all that in mid I would say that the glass of the Government’s performance is three quarters full. Practically everyone will acknowledge that it has done its utmost to abide by its election pledges and where it has failed it has been because of circumstances beyond its control. We must all acknowledge also that we have witnessed a change of a revolutionary order: we have a President who has actually relinquished some of his powers. That, surely, was unimaginable with our past Presidents.
One matter over which I am disappointed is that the Government does not seem to be really in earnest about moving away from the model of conquest democracy that has been allowed to prevail in Sri Lanka for far too long. It is a form of democracy in which the victors at elections behave like conquerors over the Opposition and also over the people. The State, with all its resources, is seen as the legitimate possession of the Government. We may see a change in that with the appointment of independent Commissions. What bothers me is the vengefulness shown towards the Opposition notables. That bears the stench of the conqueror and shows that the mentality of the conqueror has not been eradicated.
Another matter over which I am disappointed is that the Government is not succeeding in moving towards a more consensual and less conflictual form of democracy than has been prevailing in Sri Lanka. As a result of the conqueror mentality shown by our rulers our politics have become essentially “politics as organized hatred” and the result has been a deep divisiveness within our society. In the mature democracies of the West the tendency is to have two mainstream parties, one left of center and the other centrist or right of center. There is much common ground between them, and consequently a high degree of consensuality. When the Sirisena faction of the SLFP joined up with the UNP it seemed that it could be the beginning of an evolution towards the consensual democracy of the West. But the Rajapaksa faction is relentlessly establishing its ascendency over the Sirisena faction and retrogression to the polarized politics of the past seems inevitable. It is to the credit of the present Government that it has understood the need for some degree of national unity, which is why it has wanted to establish a national Government. But it is not succeeding due to factors beyond its control.
At the present moment it appears that the alternatives facing us at the forthcoming General elections would be between a UNP Government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe and one led by Mahinda Rajapaksa after a coming together of the Sirisena and Rajapakse factions. A UNP Government would stand for democracy while a SLFP Government would be quasi democratic but essentially racist and neo-Fascist. A UNP Government would have the opportunity to accomplish something of the greatest moment for the nation: the entrenchment of democracy so firmly that it will not break down for long periods as in the past, though it may suffer a temporary eclipse. I have in mind the accomplishment of India where democracy broke down only for a brief period of two years under Indira’s Emergency, and is today alive and vigorously kicking under a Government that tolerates the Hindutva ideology of the RSS. There is no reason why we should not match that splendid democratic accomplishment.
The most important reason why a UNP Government could firmly entrench democracy – something that requires practice and not just legislation and the setting up of certain institutions – is that our political culture has been becoming democratic. The restoration of democracy in 1994 after seventeen long years was not preceded by anything like a people’s campaign for it. I wrote many articles stressing the importance of establishing a fully functioning democracy and that point certainly featured in other articles as well, but there was nothing like the civil society drive for it that preceded January 8. The reason why Sri Lanka’s democracy has been so vulnerable, why it could be so easily kicked to pieces by the likes of President JR, is that there was no clear commitment to it by the people. That commitment had to be shown on behalf of the people by the political class and the civil society. That was amply shown before January 8.
I think that the drive to establish a fully functioning democracy by the present Government has been admirable, and it certainly constitutes a major plus point for it. But, as a minority member, I have to raise the question what’s the point of it all if the minorities continue to be denied fair and equally treatment. Ever since de Tocqueville wrote his classic Democracy in America the idea has been commonplace in the West that democracy is not just the will of the majority, which would amount to a negation of democracy if there is no observance of the fundamental principles of democracy enshrined in the secular holy trinity of liberty, equality, and fraternity. But in Sri Lanka that idea seems to be alien even to the educated political class. I say this because some weeks ago a Tamil with a Doctorate wrote in response to one of my articles that full democracy would have no part in the solution of the ethnic problem because it would amount to the will of the Sinhalese majority. I want as part of the struggle for a fully functioning democracy, an integral part of it and not something ancillary to it, Race Relations Boards and the full panoply of the laws and regulations applying in the West in the struggle against racism. Otherwise we will be having a Sinhala Constitution and Sinhala democracy. Both, as far as I am concerned, should be consigned to the dustbin.
At present a tsunami of support is continuing to build up for Mahinda Rajapaksa. It certainly is a minus point for the Government, but is it due to any mismanagement, shortcomings, or misdeeds of the Government? I don’t think so. It is clearly due to forces far beyond the control of the Government. What we are seeing is a vigorous reassertion of identity politics. It is almost a world-wide phenomenon as can be seen from the fact that minorities are getting restive practically all over the world. But majorities can also get restive – a fact that minorities are apt to ignore – if they perceive or misperceive that their legitimate interests are under threat. Certainly behind what is called Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism there is a drive to bully and dominate the minorities. But there is also, particularly among the Sinhalese masses, a deep sense of vulnerability, encapsulated in the phrase “a majority with a minority complex”. MR, rightly seen as the savior of a united Sri Lanka, is profiting from both those factors.
The best antidote to identity politics could be a fully functioning democracy backed by a people with an authentic democratic political culture. In India Modi leads a BJP Government which espouses a soft version of the Hindutva ideology. Democratic India would not tolerate him and the BJP otherwise. In France Marie le Pen, in anticipation of coming to power, has much moderated the odious idiocies of her racist father. In Sri Lanka our salvation has to be through democracy, which makes it imperative that we correct its many imperfections. We must bear in mind H.L.Mencken’s dictum: the cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy.