26 May, 2022


Sociology Of The Rajapaksa Phenomenon

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

The Dutugemanu syndrome, by itself, is not an inadequate explanation for the persistence of Rajapaksa’s popularity. Of course the defeat of the LTTE is one determinant of today’s Sinhala-Buddhist psyche, but alone it is insufficient explanation of the Rajapaksa phenomenon. For example, though it does account for the 2010 result, it is tangential to the sea of blue that painted the January 2015 results map and does not account for the frenzy in recent months. Disposing of Prabaharn six years ago is now a secondary factor that needs to be contextualised with sociological explanations.

The MR regime is universally reputed to be the most corrupt in our history and when I say universally I mean the ‘common man’ of SLFP blue, UNP green or Buddhist yellow knows it. Still the faithful will trek to the booths on the 17-th wanting to make MR prime minister though they are more aware than Colombo society that his regime was gunk. The paradox is superficial; scratching below the surface reveals a deeper story of class, ideology and social mobility. However, I first need to dispose of the “MR personifies the struggle against imperialism” myth; a Dead-Left fig-leaf to hide its cerebral excrement. This theory engenders its propaganda variant: ‘MR is a rampart against Western designs to undermine Lanka’s sovereignty’. The trekkers ingest this too, but they also know that the Paksas stashed away billions in Western (not Chinese!) banks. The masses are fiercely nationalistic, we are told, and no scandal matters when the sovereignty of the nation is at stake.

MahindaImperialism as it was

Imperialism, as it was, is no more; the world now functions through processes loosely called globalisation; imperialism has receded. Colonialism, which came before, was pillage and slaughter initially – recall Spanish plunder of South and Central American gold and genocide of hundreds of millions. (Pope Francis had good reason to apologise and seek forgiveness). Then came colonialism proper, dominated by England, from the defeat of the Armada in 1588 to the apogee of the Industrial Revolution (1840); it was mercantilism, trade-with-predation (t-w-p), finally territorial colonisation. Merchant companies fortified by a Royal Charter led the way. Here are three examples that illustrate t-w-p: (a) The triangular trade, English cloth and trinkets to the West African coast, slaves from there to the Caribbean and Southern not-yet-USA, thence a sugar, rum and raw cotton laden return home; (b) chopping off weaver’s hands in India to halt the production of the finest cotton cloth of the day (calico) and open a market for Lancashire; (c) opium wars to force the Chinese to puff.

This is well known stuff from agitated historians, but historians miss what economic historians don’t. Maturing under Lancashire cloth and Far East spice was shipping and ship building, insurance and logistics, credit and banking; in short, the underwriting mechanism of world trade. No nation, before or after, reigned supreme over the world’s oceans as England did in the century after Nelson and the Napoleonic wars. On the technical side electricity and chemistry complemented steam and steel. The financial pivot servicing this multitude of global transactions was London. A foundation was laid for classical imperialism and gears shifted in about 1870 from high colonialism to a more complex modus. The logistical reset facilitated the movement of vast capital accumulated in Europe. Banks, engineering firms and commercial houses built railroads in America and India, the Suez and Panama Canals, mines in South Africa (gold, diamonds, minerals) and Australia (copper, gold, minerals). Imperialism, as it was called, was about investment and logistics; it superseded colonial extraction by pure predation. The thrust was led by joint-stock companies and merchant banking houses with royal navy protection; the symbiosis of capital and state reached new heights.

It reached its zenith in 1913. Imperialist war (1914-18) for the division of Africa and the Middle East and the occupation of the Balkans was its denouement. Afterwards, the interwar period (1918-40) was soaked in economic depression, fascism, Stalinism, revolution in China and swaraj in India; altogether appalling! The big technological step, with profound later political consequences, was oil. Post-WW2 imperialism Stage-2 was a markedly different affair from classical imperialism; the world passed under US political and military hegemony and the Cold War descended. Domination by American capital (symbolised by the ability of the Seven Sisters to overthrow regimes and control global oil) replaced European influence.

The point that Lanka’s bogus leftist and pseudo-intellectuals, some still locked in Fidelista shallows, cannot fathom is that Stage-2 also is worn-out. The decline of the US economy, the defeat of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, bursting market bubbles and economic recessions in the 1990s and 2001, the 9-11 event, the great recession (2008, to who knows when), and the shift of global growth to Asia, have conspired to emaciate imperialism Stage-2. Our quixotic leftists though still fight a pyrrhic anti-imperialist war under the MR escutcheon. Forgive me for this longish diversion, but it was need so as to dispose of the theatrical, not theoretical, fairytales of the semi-literati in MR’s retinue.

Late-nationalism in Lanka

Before late-nationalism was Ceylonese nationalism of the anti-British left of the 1930s and 1940s and, after a pause, the burst of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism under the 1956, SWRD, or Sinhala Only nomenclature. 1956-nationalism was different from the topic of this essay, the Rajapaksa phenomenon, though both, to a degree, have their base in Sinhala petty-bourgeoisie society. The former prospered silently in the in the post-war boom, before its political emergence. Despite its blatant anti-Tamil, but not anti-Muslim chauvinism, it had a progressive side; a mixed economy, educational opportunity and social mobility for the rural middle-classes, non-alignment, and opening avenues for indigenous culture, define 1956-nationalism. Paving the way for ethnic conflict and mindless damage to English language abilities are two its downside features. That in a few sentences is the scorecard of early nationalism.

The late-nationalism propelling Rajapaksa has superficial similarities to it; both have petty-bourgeoisie class roots, but situated in utterly different layers. The class itself has evolved and there has been a huge demographic shift to urbanisation. A rising Sinhala intelligentsia stood at the helm of the 1956 movement and its children were the winners. To use a personal illustration, of my colleagues and those who in the next decade came on to the Peradeniya staff, a great majority across disciplines, Sinhalese and Tamil, would never have been there but for the opportunities that 1956 created. State enterprises created employment opportunities at a lower level, while protectionism bred mudalalis among the business minded.

In contrast, the petty-bourgeoisie now gravitating to Rajapaksa is visionless and regressive. It is being left behind by the prosperity of the city, by capitalist growth to whatever extent it has occurred, by competition of Muslim businesses, and also by the new global ethos. Its cultural dregs are the Buddhism, if you call it that, of the BBS; contrast with the vigour and freshness of Sinhala drama, cinema and writing in the post-1956 decade. The leadership of the 1956 movement and the Rajapaksa cronies belong to sharply different ideological layers of the petty-bourgeoisie. This time Lanka is haunted by a personality cult; a Mein Fuhrer trance around a leader, but sans programme, vision or content beyond personality, quite unlike its 1956 predecessor.

A politicised kleptocracy, strong-arm miscreants and power wielding malefactors, collectively known to economists by the term rent-seekers, exploited their alignment with the Rajapaksa state. What we are witnessing in the Rajapaksa surge is a last ditch effort of this rent-seeking detritus to hold on to power. The MR-mass receives from higher up an antediluvian nationalism that it grasps only dimly; on the ground it is led by the dregs, by a localised rent-seeking excrescence.

On economic policy, it is false to say Basil had a policy that was adrift from PB Jayasundera. Yes PBJ did have a policy, the wrong one, but Basil had none! Basil’s decisions were steered by commissions; the bent to China, airports in the wilderness, highways to heaven if you count their cost, were just that. There was no policy, systematic or unsystematic, conscious or unconscious; the Rajapaksas are rent-seekers par excellence. Therefore they blended emotionally with a petty-bourgeoisie alienated by modernism and ignorant of democratic values and governance. The anti-Tamil nature of the war facilitated this bonding. It is entirely natural that a nihilistic petty-bourgeoisie rallies to a personality cult, a one man pantomime. Lanka has not seen such a thing at full-throttle ever before; a demagogue leaning on an only recently dispossessed robber-thug political mafiosi, which in turn rides a fuehrer-adoring plebeian mass. Terrifying?

Does the UNF-GG have an economic programme?

It is just as wrong to say that the UNFGG has no economic programme as to say that Basil had one. Any political scientist worth his salt knows what the UNF’s orientation will be. The Rajapaksa regime, steeped in swindles, could neither deepen metropolitan capitalism nor promote small businesses (SME). This is where the UNF-GG will want to go, though the success of plans to simply deepen and to spread capitalism more evenly, is moot.

Across the developing world only one economic model currently survives; a mixed economy with a dirigisme (state directed with some state ownership) structure. In Korea, Taiwan, China and Vietnam it works; Raul Castro and Narendra Modi gravitate there from opposite ends. That is where Lanka should have gone, but did not, after JR’s neo-liberalism fizzled out. (Was Premadasa drifting that way?) That is where the UNF-GG will willy-nilly have to go, otherwise it will flounder; a mixed economy managed by directive principles, ensuring opportunity for the middle classes and mass economic security to deflate the Rajapaksa appeal. And ground level programmes have to be woven into a global context. Whatever projects and targets are written in words into Ranil’s Sixty-Month Manifesto, the programme must be embedded in a directive strategy or it will run aground.

There are three economic options for Lanka; a Rajapaksa-style retainer economy, the dirigisme option and the left JVP-option. Each has its class base, but 50% of electoral fortunes depend on contingent circumstances, that is situations, personalities and tactics. Only comments on the UPFA fall within the scope of this essay. The UPFA scores on personality cult, but exposed as corrupt, without the advantage of incumbency (denied use of billions in state funds for election purposes, without power over the police), disheartened and disoriented by Sirisena’s “I will not appoint Rajapaksa as PM” bombshell, contingent circumstances have moved against it. I am no expert but that’s how it looks to an amateur eye.

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  • 1

    Prof. Kumar David

    RE: Sociology Of The Rajapaksa Phenomenon

    I consider this to be the failure of the Sri Lankan writers to articulate in a Common sense Sri Lankan pamphlet in Sinhala, Tamil and English, the Corrupt Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and their Cronies.

    It is really a shame on the the so-called Sri Lankan Writers.

    Why? The Average IQ of Sri Lanka is 79? At least based on the standard deviation of about 14, there should have been some with high enough IQ to do this.

    It is a pathetic situation, unfortunately no Sri Lankan writer has done it yet. That is perhaps one of the egffective ways to get Modayas, Mootals and Fools acquire common sense.

    See what Thomas Paine did for the American Revolution in 1776.

    Common Sense (pamphlet)


    Common Sense[1] is a pamphlet written by Thomas Paine in 1775–76 that inspired people in the Thirteen Colonies to declare and fight for independence from Great Britain in the summer of 1776. The pamphlet explained the advantages of and the need for immediate independence in clear, simple language. It was published anonymously on January 10, 1776, at the beginning of the American Revolution and became an immediate sensation. It was sold and distributed widely and read aloud at taverns and meeting places.

    Washington had it read to all his troops, which at the time had surrounded the British army in Boston. In proportion to the population of the colonies at that time (2.5 million), it had the largest sale and circulation of any book published in American history.[2] As of 2006, it remains the all-time best selling American title.[3]

    Common Sense presented the American colonists with an argument for freedom from British rule at a time when the question of whether or not to seek independence was the central issue of the day. Paine wrote and reasoned in a style that common people understood. Forgoing the philosophical and Latin references used by Enlightenment era writers, he structured Common Sense as if it were a sermon, and relied on Biblical references to make his case to the people.[4] He connected independence with common dissenting Protestant beliefs as a means to present a distinctly American political identity.[5] Historian Gordon S. Wood described Common Sense as “the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the entire revolutionary era”.[6]

  • 4

    “The UPFA scores on personality cult, but exposed as corrupt, without the advantage of incumbency (denied use of billions in state funds for election purposes…”

    I get it – do not vote for the UPFA, those who vote for the UPFA are Parayas, or Pariah to use the correct English spelling.

    Lanka’s sovereignty has long been lost. Perhaps the author would like to guess as to whether these forces on Sri Lanka’s politics are external or internal?

    The carrot called GSP plus
    The threat called independent inquiry
    The call from Ban Ki Moon, encouraging the the 20th amendment
    The visit of John Kerry, and his siding with the New Regime
    The 13th amendment forced on us by India
    The prohibition on buying Iranian oil
    The shift away from China


  • 4

    The article is all over the place with regard to the so called MR phenomenon. In the US the Republicans are seen by whites as their only champions to the extent that whites making< US$ 25,000 go out in hoards to vote for Republicans despite they repeatedly take measures to hurt them. In Israel, 70% of Jewish people think that nothing should be given to the Palestinians. The Republicans and Netenayahu in their respective fields fan up the baseness of their bases directly and indirectly. MR is not different. In the end, the problem is such baseness is there in these peoples. Just imagine being a black in the US, a Palestinian in Israel, a Kurd in Turkey, a Tibetan or Uygher in China, or for that matter a Tamil in MR's Sri Lanka. You are surrounded by a sea of baseness. This is an "incitable "populace. Hitler, Netenyahu, MR and US Republican leaders are self incited themselves and generate signals direct and indirect to suggest that they will be their saviors of their bases. Not that it has not happened on the other sides. But the reality is that the majority has always control and does not need to panic about the minority. While the author pontificates extensively, he is painting the baseness of the populace in inflicting cruelty to minorities as "fiercely nationalistic". MR depicts himself as a socking or will sock papa- appeasing the whining of siblings who want a brother or sister socked. MR is cashing it. The problem is that kids are whining for rather wrong reasons.

  • 4

    MR is no leftist and will use the racial or religious bias to his advantage. He should not be classified as anti imperialistic since he and his family love all the luxuries of western life.
    Touching small children or carrying them in public rallies are all his acts to identify himself as a commoner.

  • 0

    [Edited out]

  • 4

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with having national heroes. Dutugamunu is one such who liberated us from the grip of a foreign invader who had put down roots here for some forty years but who by all accounts was a rather considerate ruler. The former treated his dead enemy with deserved respect. Rajapakse is another who again came to our rescue. This time, from a brutal murderous and destructive internal enemy. He is now reviled by his enemies, the apologists for Prabhakaran and the political foes. Many an allegation is made, possibly with a wisp of truth attached, and yet no evidence has been produced that would stand up in a Court of Law. On the other hand there are those amongst us, including the TNA leader, who would whitewash the record of the lead-terrorist in order to diminish MR’s achievements.

    Atrocities committed by British colonialists are well known, but I was surprised to learn that they even resorted the chopping off of the hands of the weavers in India. Then again we know that it was they who required the Redskins in what is now US/Canada to produce the scalps of the Frenchman they had killed (on the orders of the British Army) in order to be paid for the services to the king. We were brought up to despise the same Redskin, in the milieu of the ‘comics’ that created false heroes like Gene Autry, Roy Rogers etc. Today we know that the ‘Indians’ were merely fighting to protect what was theirs as they were being physically dispossessed. The word genocide did not exist at the time, but we do know that millions were killed by the genocidal invaders, conservatively estimated at 12 million (in US) though figures up to 100 million are sometimes quoted. The Gene Autries of the yesteryear are today replaced by the ‘top guns’

  • 0

    MR gave the political leadership to defeat LTTE. There by he became a symbol of Sinhala strength. Most Sinhalease labour under the history threat from the North of the country. (well noted in the writings of DJ clan ?smart nationalism) This fear psychosis is the driving force in Sri Lankan politics (up to now). MR is regarded as a factor (psychologically) of strength. This is similar to the place of Prabaharan amongst Tamils.

    If this election results shows us anything different – if the victory goes against MR factor, there will be great hope for a peaceful co-existence in this country.

  • 1


    What happened to your contact lenses? However, saying that an 8 month old yelled Jayawewa before he said Amma or Thaaththa is a bit too far fetched me thinks.

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