By Siri Gamage –
Kumar David’s recent article (Colombo Telegraph, 01.01.2017) reflecting on events in 2016 points to some of the global challenges facing us in 2017 and the need for the left to unite if we are to avoid returning to the ghosts of the past. This is a message – though not unfamiliar in the annals of Sri Lanka’s political history – which we need to take seriously in 2017. Constitutional discussions and any moves made by the government to devolve further powers to the provinces (justifying the claims of nationalist political forces) have the potential to derail the whole process and even the very existence of the SLFP-UNP national government unless handled very carefully. The lack of a vibrant popular discourse and a popularly understood vision and justification about the need for constitutional reform can haunt those leading the process if it hits a snag without being able to muster the necessary votes in the nation’s parliament.
Given the manner that the joint opposition has evolved to be a significant political force within and outside the parliament, reducing public confidence in the government due to factors including the manner it has handled corruption cases, big government and expensive lifestyles of the ruling class in a context of severe foreign debt, cost of living pressures, planned alienation of large tracts of land to a Chinese company in Hambantota – it is highly likely that there can be defections from the governing coalition to the joint opposition in 2017. This may happen before, during, or after the local government elections. Nonetheless, it will take another year or so for such defections to make a real impact on the ability for Sirisena- Wickremesinghe government to govern effectively. It is also possible for defections to occur the other way at a smaller scale. i.e. from joint opposition to the government. What is important to notice is that the joint opposition is building its political platform yet again as the protectors of the nation, its territorial boundaries, Buddhism, and Sinhala people’s rights. This is a platform that resonates with rural masses and middle to lower class urban Sinhalese in the South Western belt, Central and North-Central provinces, Sabaragamuwa etc. Irrespective of corruption charges against his family, as they have not been proven via a credible legal process thus far, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is actively rebuilding his profile and popular persona travelling around the country and abroad. His constituency in the Sinhalese heartland is likely to accept symbolism couched in nationalist language plus raw emotions and pardon him for any past mistakes when the time comes.
In the meantime, ruling politicians from both major parties seem to have settled into their ministerial and other roles comfortably oblivious to this evolving trend in the mistaken belief that the public at large is still with them, and they can hold legitimate power until the next elections. Until then their main focus seems to be to govern the country’s affairs with the help of local and foreign technocrats and local bureaucrats. This is visible largely in the economic arena. Yet no leader in the present government seems to be able to generate a national following in the majority Sinhala constituency or the minority Tamil- Muslim constituencies either in terms of a single issue of national significance or a set of such issues. They seem to govern almost by default. If they wanted to organise a national discourse that has resonance among Sinhala Buddhists and others, they would have used the language, critique, issues, and constructive suggestions, espoused by the late Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera. But those associated with the organisation Rev. Sobhita led are leveling charges against the government for abandoning the principles that he espoused.
How do we understand this conundrum? How do we understand the need for the left and/or progressives to unite? Whatever the claims and justifications pronounced by the nation’s leaders, the current alliance between the SLFP and the UNP is to be understood as ‘a marriage of convenience’ of the bourgeoisie elements of the ruling class. Beyond that there is no overarching vision, discourse, language, symbols, or images that can bind those with loyalty to the present government or even unify them. Some from the educated literati seem to understand the importance of maintaining loyalty to the present government due to the manner it came to power two years ago and by comparison to the threats people faced in their civic life at the time including in human rights arena. But they seem to be a minority. A government formed by a bourgeoisie consensus engineered by Chandrika-Sirisena-Wickremesinghe troika and joined by other petty bourgeoisie elements from the capital city and provinces in search of power, wealth, and prestige yet devoid of a powerful and easily understood discourse and vision for the future of the country with a potential to generate a mass following is thus destined to unscramble by its own actions or inactions giving the political and moral advantage to the joint opposition in coming years. When it happens, it will be too late to address the consequences or indeed the causes of such an event.
The main political, economic, and social forces behind the government that I describe as bourgeoisie (capitalist) can be understood by the terminology of a ruling class. Political leaders are joined by mega capitalists or mega deal karayo to achieve economic returns from their activities that require government sanctioning. In the absence of a yahapalanaya, curtailment of privileges afforded to the ruling class, prosecution and punishment to those who embezzled public money in the previous government, what the average Joe sees is only the replacement of one set of politicians in place of another. In the eyes of the average citizen, the government and the ruling class seem to have lost their legitimacy already – though they may enjoy formal power for another few years. It is no surprise that the bourgeoisie come together to achieve economic benefits under any government. What is surprising is the inability of the left or progressives to come together for a common cause, vision, and a political platform as Kumar David has alluded to.
Common Platform for the left and progressives
What should be the defining features of their political platform? Around which issues should they come together? Here I identify several of these issues that can form the basis for a common political platform.
1.Yahapalanaya (Good governance), depoliticisation of institutions, small government and anti corruption
2. Privatisation and/or alienation of land and other resources to foreigners/foreign companies on long-term basis
3. Environmental degradation due to growth-oriented mega developments
4. Impacts of the above on local culture, lifestyle, values
5. Access to and quality in education, support for indigenous knowledge construction and dissemination (not nativism)
6. Poor and expensive health services
7. Anti globalisation, anti neoliberal economic policies
8. Better, affordable utilities, energy from alternative sources
9. Social and economic justice to the disadvantaged, vulnerable sections
10. Ethnic reconciliation and harmony
11. Empowerment of youths and grass roots democracy
12. A new social contract between the people and rulers to suit modern era by taking into account the need for Sri Lanka to move forward among nations rather than backward
13. International relations based on national sovereignty, self-determination, mutual respect and benefit, and territorial integrity
14. Enhanced production and manufacturing based on cooperative principles, public- private partnership, and export
15. Sustainable development, community development, enhancement of Local Government and people participation
16. Reduction of the gap between rich and the poor. Safeguarding land and other resources that provide sustenance to the poor
17. Need for more public parks, footpaths, proper garbage disposal, reduced noise pollution
18. Legal reforms to make the legal processes user friendly and avoid lengthy delays in court procedures
This list is not exhaustive. More items can be added based on gender and racial equality, citizenship rights etc.
It is inevitable that some players and sections of the left and progressives from the middle and working classes will join the bourgeoisie political parties in forming alliances for governance in the coming years, especially before the Presidential and Parliamentary elections. However, there has to be a core group of left and progressive parties, groups, intellectuals, writers, professionals, religious and social figures, and civil society leaders who are concerned about the current predicament of the economy and society as well as the inaction on the part of the government on core issues coming together and forming an alliance to contest the next elections, while setting aside minor differences in ideologies, personalities, agendas, and attitudes for the sake of greater benefit to the masses. Failing to do so can only embolden a segment of the bourgeoisie appearing in the name of national security, territorial integrity, anti terrorism, and using anti Western rhetoric to persuade the masses to be able to form a future government to usher in an era of hegemony, control of public life, serious human rights violations and further manifestations of corruption for personal gain. After going through decades of political and social upheaval, Sri Lanka deserves a better political platform plus an alternative, progressive discourse and associated vision emanating from the interests of the masses in 2017 and beyond.