By Mark Salter –
You conclude your latest piece with the suggestion that ‘the intelligentsia must recognize that only a social-democratic reformist program can save Sri Lanka, and in the global South, the only feasible form of social democracy is a progressive, pluralist populism fused with a moderate nationalism.’
Hardly. As is readily evident from the US to the UK, Brazil to India, populism, and in particular nationalist populism is precisely one of, if not the greatest political threat confronting democracies today. And while some form of appeal to patriotism (pace Orwell) as opposed to nationalism is certainly important in an increasingly globalized, identity-driven world, there’s precious little evidence of moderate anything in relation to either notion in either the new Lankan government or its chief opponents in the SJB. Depressingly, both sides spent the recent election campaign engaged in the customary, futile exercise of seeking to outbid each other in the Sinhala-Buddhist-nationalist stakes. The details of this are as well known to you as anyone, so it’s a little surprising to see your quickfire electoral analysis glossing over this recurring – possibly even foundational – feature of post independence politics
In this context, getting to a progressive, pluralist anything in Sri Lanka requires both vision and leadership. Vision regarding the contours of a just, genuinely inclusive polity based on the notion of equal, all-embracing citizenship, As opposed to the routine prevalent appeal to an exclusivist majority ethnic identity. Leadership, specifically meaning being prepared to promote ideas and policies that seek to take people beyond the comfort zones of established identities and habits, irrespective of crude political calculus of the popular appeal of such ideas. This Is precisely what several of the past initiatives you reject as failed cosmopolitan liberal projects have attempted to do: a case in point being what you inaccurately call the ‘Norwegian peace process’ – in reality a wholly Sri Lankan conceived and directed project in which Norway played a circumscribed, facilitative role.
Which brings us to Mangala Samaraweera, whose new ‘radical Centre’, project you dismiss on related grounds. (I’ll leave out a response to the – again inaccurate – neo-liberal jibe you as often casually deploy here). My aim here is not to tout this new initiative – I’ve no doubt Mangala Samaraweera can and will speak for himself on that count – but simply to highlight the way in which Mangala continues to emphasize the centrality of building an inclusive national identity to taking the country forward.
Is this a ‘popular’ political vision? Probably not at this point. Does progress towards a definitive settlement of the ‘national question’ crucially depend on a new generation of politicians assuming leadership in this area? Most definitely. Meaning, among other things, that those like yourself with the ear of the SJB leadership need to work double time to assist the main opposition party to make an ideological transition away from its current, outmoded outmoded ‘moderate nationalism’ (or ‘smart patriotism’, as you used to dub it not so far back) towards the articulation and promotion of a genuinely non-racial, inclusive Sri Lankanness.
There, indeed, is a worthy political project for the next five years for you!