By Kumar David –
An e-mail quip from fellow columnist Rajan Philips hit the nail on the head. He and I are part of an e-mail menagerie where he shot out: “Obama’s most important achievement was getting elected; he did not achieve much after that”. Though I defend Obamacare, the Iran Deal and the Paris Accord, I grant his macroeconomics served the banks, Wall Street and finance capital, not the people. The thrust of the epigram is perfect; electing a black President took America past puberty and the country rose to a point that Lanka will not attain for a generation or more. By placing in highest office an intellectual America lent towards Plato’s ideal of rule by philosopher kings. The subsequent throw back to a falsifier and cave dweller – a Platonic idiom again – is a passing cloud that America will overcome; its historical-human, intellectual-economic and natural-material endowments are too potent to be contained by a trickster. Rome did not fall in a day.
What hit me like a bolt of lightning when I read the one-liner was that it was even more true, far truer of post January 2015 Sri Lanka. The one weighty achievement of January 2015, a triumph of the January 8 People’s Movement, was the blow it struck at totalitarianism; Rajapaksa totalitarianism. That was a conquest; it is the categorical ‘Single Issue’ to which all else is secondary. Prosecuting the corrupt and enacting a new constitution were extras, toppings on the cake that many hoped for but failed to materialise. And as for economic policy, no am I not a mad-hatter leftist envisioning a Ranil-UNP administration delivering socialism! I never suffered such delusions. A Single Issue was what I dearly wanted and that was all I got.
Though the Obama presidency was a disappointment it would be wrong to describe him as a traitor to democracy or that he harmed the justice system by obstructing prosecution of extortionists and murderers or shielding top brass who subvert the courts. Nor was his Aide caught red-handed pocketing millions in a carpark to share with the boss, or his siblings and daughters up to the neck in crooked deals. Maybe Obama fell short of expectations but he did not use his executive powers to obstruct the law or pillage the nation.
President Sirisena has flopped to a political zero and is a prisoner of Rajapaksa Populism. He has no role left to play and lacks the grace and temperament to depart as he swore on the election platform and at Rev. Sobitha’s interment. He craves for more, he lusts for crumbs that may drop from the Rajapaksa table. The long and vindictive memory of the Rajapaksa siblings will ensure that the Judas who feasted on egg-hoppers then dug in the dagger will pay the wages of treachery. In the eyes of the Rajapaksas Sirisena is an annoying encumbrance with no remaining bargaining power. His SLFP collected just 12% in February, and after it split, stripped and alone, he cannot bring even 1% to the populist vote bank.
The SLFP per se can carry some votes to Rajapaksa though Chandrika may split of a small part, but the majority is already on the board. Sirisena misjudges the hand he can play with the shrinking powers of office in the dying days of his presidency. If he were attentive to Buddhism he would recall that avarice is the root of dhukka. He could do better keeping women away from the bottle and in his spare time munching on rancid cashew-nuts. If he tries funny business in matters of state using his effete residual powers he will be called to order by public, courts and organs of state. The SLPP distrusts him; if he undermines its electoral game plan it will go for his jugular.
Alarming reports in the papers say that President Sirisena is in cahoots with military brass to prevent prosecutors and courts from accessing material relating to crimes by military personnel and in particular an abduction, extortion and murder case now before courts. If fluent in Sinhala you can find an 18-minute YouTube video by Bahu flaying the President. (Declaration of non-collusion: Bahu and I are not in the same party). .
Class and Rajapaksa Populism
In my column last week, I skipped over the class character of Rajapaksa Populism brushing aside my readers with the remark that they are not interested in leftish jargon. That was unwise, I have been pulled up; I will make amends today. We hear of the alienated Trump Base, the class roots of the French National Front and where the Brexit vote came from. What are the class-wise supports of Rajapaksa Populism? Let me make an important point first. In fascist, semi-fascist and populist enterprises leadership plays an outsize role and stamps its cachet on everything – Mussolini, Hitler, Durante, Trump and Rajapaksa. You cannot change Trump for Pence with the flexibility with which David Cameron made way for Theresa May, or Turnbull was shed for ‘whoever heard of him’ Morison in Australia.
There are four columns that underpin Rajapaksa Populism. Let’s work our way down in class ascendency, not power or influence. The Lankan bourgeois is split by family, connection, access to enrichment and national or Western cultural orientation. The same is true of the lesser social orders. English speakers are mostly UNP while yakkos and nouveau riche (a hangover from the 1950s) are pro SLFP-SLPP. Oddities like GL are few; reddas outnumber suits. The bourgeoisie and liberal intellectuals, Sinhala and English speaking, are repelled by Populism which is propped by only a minority in the business classes motivated by connection or expectation of future deals.
Below this in wealth and income is a vast petty-bourgeois Sinhala mass in towns, bazaars and metropolitan outskirts. Their place in the economy is retail trade, the informal sector, three-wheeler walas, some lower middle-class people in state and corporate sectors, and members and ex-members of the armed forces. In electoral terms, together with families and dependents this class accounts for 30-40% of the Sinhala electorate. Since the demise of the left (old LSSP and CP) the working class has had no ideological mooring; it is an adjunct of the aforesaid petty-bourgeoisie mindset. This petty bourgeois and working-class block was the mainstay of the Jana Bala horde. Together it accounts for half the Sinhalese electorate and at present Rajapaksa Populism can count on about two-thirds of it.
The massed peasantry, the rural folk, are not to be confused with this ideologically motivated horde, though rural people are influenced by it. But not all of it; the village level UNP vote is large. This vote fluctuates between the main parties from say 40:60 one way to 60:40 the other. Number games are to be taken with a pinch of salt, but give a feel. Say the petty-bourgeoisie cum working class described in the previous paragraph are one half of the Sinhalese electorate and the peasantry the other half. Say that at present Rajapaksa Populism commands the support of 70% of the former and 60% of the latter – peak possibilities. Then if you give the UNP all the Tamil and Muslim votes in the seven Southern Provinces, you can work out why the it was able to hang on to 38% of the vote in these seven in February despite a fed-up-with-UNP backlash and abstentions. (Send me a postcard if you can’t do the maths; I have assumed the minorities are 10% in the seven southern provinces).
To come back to my theme of class, though Rajapaksa Populism has the support of more than half the Sinhala peasantry it is of the greatest importance to note that the peasantry, everywhere in the world, is ideologically not a determining but a determined class. It takes, not constructs, ideology. At the present time a segment has imbibed the insular ideology of the populist petty-bourgeois; it has taken its cue from the suburban chauvinists. And it tails the sangha, vedda, guru and the horu.
This brings me to the last building block; the underworld. It is untruthful to say that Rajapaksa Populism is financed, swayed or dependent on the underworld of drugs, crime or sex-slavery. But there have been politicians with links to this gangland who have had a prominent place in its political universe. There was that Duminda, convicted of a gangland style murder and now serving time. He was immensely popular; a superstar who may have a future in the event of regime change. And of course, our noxious Mervyn and his restless son, both now conspicuously and craftily quiet. Has Mervyn made enough to retire in perpetuity or will he crawl out of the woodwork if Mahinda rides again? But I concede, Rajapaksa Populism’s connections with the underworld are not of central significance in depicting populism’s class dynamics.
To sum up, the determining elements of power politics in Mahinda Populism are two; the outsize significance of the leadership and the racist petty-bourgeois mass in the middle. The greedy rich at the top will always suck blood whatever the regime and the docile peasantry at the bottom is election fodder for use at the hustings whichever the side. Gangland is an emergency tool to keep on the side and out of sight.
It is necessary to make a comment about the economy which is true whichever the regime. Lanka is drowning in debt and will sink unless there is partial cancellation of dollar-denominated debt. There exists no credible economic programme which can in the alternative rescue the country from drowning. Whichever regime tries its luck, whatever magic the Central Bank weaves, year by year indebtedness will grow, we will sink ever deeper: Want to bet?
The crisis is global; governments, enterprises and households all over the world are in the same trap. The post-2008 global economy has been restructured, intentionally or otherwise, to transfer wealth created in the productive economy to finance capital as bonds and funds, or through asset price inflation (real-estate, bonds, equities) and a surge in unpayable compound interest. More indebtedness of institutions and individuals is the same thing on the other side of the coin. I often use the rhetoric of 1% and 99%; but the truth is easier to remember. The richest 8.6% owns 86% of global wealth. It’s time to invert this pyramid and enforce global debt cancellation.