Colombo Telegraph

Theoretical Model Of Rajapaksa Populism By Kumar David: Critical Commentary

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Kumar David’s delineation of this subject (Colombo Telegraph 23 September 2018) deserves some comment/response as his analysis as well as recommendation for left unity plus alliance with some liberals pose serious questions in terms of the political trajectory in the near future. After writing about what’s happening around the world in terms of neo populism, he focuses on the Rajapaksa populism. He says, ‘in the case of Rajapaksa Populism (RP), the strands that intertwine and converge to a focus are; “the proposed separatist constitution”, “the betrayal of war-heroes”, “sacrilegious persecution and imprisonment of Buddhist monks” and “lurking terrorism in the North”. Intertwined they evoke a single vision; bigotry on which masses feed and politicians breed’. He further writes that ‘In the eyes of the adoring masses Rajapaksa is socialist, anti-imperialist and authentically nationalist; the government is capitalist and pro-Western. That Lanka’s elite and the UNP leaders communicate in English while the JO and Rajapaksa clansmen, with few exceptions, struggle to do so, settles it emotionally’. Furthermore, ‘Rajapaksa Populism is intrinsically hostile to internationalism and its institutions’.

Material Basis of Ideologies

Ideologies arise from dialectical material conditions in societies, class contradictions and deprivations, existential challenges. They are articulated by leaders in terms of language and categories easily understood by their followers. However, we need to recognise that ideologies emerge from material contexts and structural contradictions prevailing in a given society.

In my view, it is far more important to understand what gives rise to Rajapaksa Populism under the conditions of current global economy, polity and the unequal relations of production and exchange that have been created by the new economy in the country. Though Kumar has been reluctant to use class analysis for this purpose, there is no way that a deep analysis of ideology can be conducted without looking at class formation and class relations arising from the emerging and new enterprises, state-market relations, local-global networks in terms of labour, capital and communication (to use a suggestion by Sujata Patel) in our cities and countryside as well as the declining share of agriculture compared to the rest of economy. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of not only using political rhetoric as substance but inadvertently consuming them also.

Though essential, Kumar does not look at the material basis including class contradictions arising from the expanding neoliberal, free market economic policies of the government for Rajapaksha populism. Without analysing this basis, it is not possible to engage in sound and valid analysis of ideology merely looking at political rhetoric and key ideas embodied in the Rajapaksa project as listed by him. Analysis of an ideology like Rajapaksa populism and its similarities to populisms elsewhere in the world-though good for a start of a discussion- remains abstract and remote from what is happening materially on the ground or at the base. To use a Marxist term, such analysis remains at the ‘super structure’ level rather than ‘infrastructure level’. A question arising from such analysis is whether ideology (set of ideas) can be analysed by using selected components of ideology alone?

Material Deprivations, Classes and Class Analysis

In this context, we need to analyse how the economic and social disparities created by the new economy – based on information and service provision; privatisation of key sectors such as education, health, communication, energy; loss of traditional livelihood methods; mega projects and their impact on communities, and internationalised operations of capital accumulating ventures in tourism, trade, supermarkets, increased taxes; rising costs of living give rise to severe competition among classes and class fractions while creating collective frustrations among those at the bottom and middle of class hierarchy? 

In the case of the middle class, its two layers (upper and lower) seem to be struggling to move forward and fulfil personal and family aspirations even though a fraction seems to be able to access better incomes, services and consumer goods. This fraction-young and stable- seem to visit supermarkets in cars with their kids, undertake foreign tours, send children to international schools and entertain themselves. However, contrary to the rhetoric of some leaders, the majority of those in the middle class (both vernacular and Western-oriented) seem to struggle without being able to be absorbed by the new economy in their and their children’s case or being able to connect with the services available from local and foreign companies in areas of human need. This sort of unequal material conditions give rise to a situation where those suffering look for economic, political, religious and symbolic alternatives including a charismatic saviour or a messiah gifted with supernatural powers. 

The case with the working class including its variants is even more dire due to the inflationary impact of the currency, consumer expenditure, rising costs of living and services, etc. (a fraction of this class is also entangled in the new economy in an aspirational sense, e.g. sending children to international schools, wanting to buy a car and maintain it, build a modern house, send children overseas for higher education, buy shares in listed companies). By and large, in the cities and the countryside deprived members of this class look for material goods provided by the government such as housing, loans, and land. 

Some members of the middle and working classes take the relatively less risky option of migrating to other countries in search of better incomes, education, services, comfort, well-being, an environment where there is rule of law and respect for each other. The thread that binds these classes affected by the new and globalised economy is not an ideology detached from these material conditions. 

A problem facing those attempting a class analysis however is the fact that economic and social deprivations in the country have been conceptualised, explained and promoted by politicians and influential community leaders not in class terms but in ethno-religious terms. Thus, there are powerful discourses prevailing in society manifestly and latently along these lines. It could be helpful in this context to examine class deprivations within ethnic communities as part of a broader class analysis. However, we have to keep in mind that class deprivation and exploitation do not translate into direct action in a Marxist sense unless an organised party provides leadership.  It is here that there is a role for left intellectuals to articulate the alternatives to neoliberal, free market, globalised economic ideology and practice in clear terms so that activists in society can adapt them for political and community action.

Market Forces, interests of the Capital, Economic and Social Casualties 

Economic and social casualties of the neoliberal, free market Western-oriented policies of the present government come in various forms and shapes. Increased cost of living is a major factor as is the depreciating rupee due to global dynamics. The latter impacts the incomes of those who rely on remittances from family members employed overseas.  Whereas in olden days a 100-rupee note was sufficient to go and have a cup of tea and some short eats in a cafe, these days a thousand-rupee note is required if you go with a family member or a friend.  This tells the story of inflationary impact of recent times. Even to fulfil daily needs, one needs thousands of rupees. This is how the situation has become worse. 

Market forces have made life easier for those with plenty of money and worse for others with average income. Cities have become market places for global industries and products including education. They are flooded with advertisements on both sides of roads leading to the CBDs and on main trunk roads through suburbs and disappearing villages e.g. Colombo-Kandy road. Everybody is after money from those who have them or those seeking better opportunities beyond state employment. Heavy competitive society has been created as a result of the open, free market policies where individual is placed above all. Care for the neighbour is alien in such a society.  While infrastructure projects such as beautification of Kandy city is proceeding with World Bank funds, lacking is social engineering projects that affect daily lives for the better. For example, the heavy traffic issue facing commuters between Kandy and Peradeniya continues with no solution in sight. Human impact of unresolved issues with environmental and social impact lurk in the background.

Expanding neoliberal, globalised free market economy is not only associated with economic disparities leading to class deprivations and contradictions.  It also creates other casualties in terms of social problems such as unemployment, crime, drugs and violence, exploitation and abuse of labour as in the case of women proceeding to West Asia for work, child labour, domestic violence, suicide, breakdown of traditional communities and livelihoods, human trafficking, uncontrolled importation of goods and services(resistance to FTAs indicate unhappiness by local professionals), problems associated with the brain drain and export of skilled labour by way of migration, and more.  Nonetheless, to my knowledge there have been only a few academic studies that looks into these aspects, e.g. the work by Nalini Hennayake on globalisation and its impact, Mervin de Silva on failed neoliberal paradigms in Sri Lanka and globally (2018), and Darley Jose Kjosavik and Paul Vedeld on political economy of environment and development in a globalised world. Though work focused on neoliberal economy and its casualties are rare in Sri Lanka, there are studies on single topics such as poverty, unemployment, human trafficking, crime.  Even in discussing educational issues in the country, there is not much effort taken to link educational disparities created by the expanding privatisation and quality issues in public education with the profit-making intentions of the globalised education industry. However, critical education scholars such as McLaren, Michaele Apple and Giroux connect the economics and social problems in societies in their theoretical work.

Yahapalanaya, Rajapaksa Phenomenon and a Third Alternative

Whatever label we attribute to the current coalition regime and its agenda for neoliberal, free market economic policies and projects, the essential truth is that the large majority of masses are hurting and facing an existential crisis not only in terms of the public services such as education, health, utilities but also overall wellbeing.  One needs to only travel by public transport or visit a major city to understand the depth of public frustration and unhappiness about the way things are? Party allegiances have changed over the course of the last few years of Yahapalana government and people are looking for an alternative. In the absence of a third alternative from the established political party system or outside it by way of powerful civil society organisation with a political agenda, frustrated individuals and groups are taking another look at leadership from the Rajapaksa family to face the crisis situation.  

Kumar states that the ‘Yahapalana’s alleged genuflection to imperialism and Rajapaksa’s stalwart ant-imperialism is the fiction which the Dead-Left employs to hide its opportunism and humiliating absence of identity’. However, the so-called dead left may argue that their role is to influence Rajapaksa populism to move away from right wing rhetoric and re-orient it to left wing one. How far they succeed is a different question. I do not believe that Rajapaksa populism is as yet right wing in a holistic sense. But it has the potential to be transformed to be so with or without formal political power. Currently, it is a combination of diverse ideological streams e.g. religious, nationalist, majoritarian ethnic, old left, peasant. However, we have to remember that once in power, Rajapaksa also plays the role of promoting the interests of global-local capital while maintaining a populist ideology and image carefully constructed in satakaya symbolism to appeal to the working and middle classes in cities and countryside. Old left politicians provide legitimacy for this project with their rhetoric more than worker/people-friendly action.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not an isolated individual. He has a political history as his family is rooted in the politics and collective imaginary of Southern Sri Lanka and elsewhere with extensive networks and memories. During his rule, his image was promoted by using multiple technologies from cut outs to electronic media messages. The images remain in public mind and the public uses them to interpret what is happening to them and others in society under the new conditions of existence most of which are unfavourable to their interests and aspirations in a context of growing disparities.

Dead and United Left

The important question from the perspective of the left –both dead and new-is how is it articulating the dire material conditions of human existence and existential questions? What steps are being taken or proposed to connect with these classes negatively affected by the new economy and operations of the state including its hands-off policy in terms of social responsibility? How do they perceive the nature of power and state, the nexus between power and wealth creation, and more importantly distribution of wealth for a just and egalitarian society plus a democratic-socialist Lanka? How do they address the conditions of inequalities created by the new economy and the operations of a market friendly (not necessarily people-friendly) state? Finally, how do they create a working, poor and middle-class friendly (weaker classes), materially rooted and relevant left ideology that has the potential to compete with ethnocentric, racist and bigoted ideologies or even Rajapaksa populism as Kumar puts it? 

In discussing what is to be done Kumar says ‘This is not the time to wring one’s hands with mere verbal denunciations of neo-Populism and the Dead-Left. Censure must be for the purpose of preparing for well thought out and well-defined action. I have repeatedly called for left unity and an alliance with willing liberals if any can be found. Not much progress has been made, but there is no alternative’. If this is so, isn’t it time for the divided or united left to engage in self reflexivity and find out why their messages are not biting with the masses? Some soul searching is surely in order. Identifying the progressive forces in society and linking with them in some form or shape is essential to build a political platform and discourse rooted in the unequal nature of class relations, weakening purchasing power, deprivations and sufferings of masses plus loss of hope.

In a context of facing severe living costs and losing hope by the masses (defined as working, middle classes and the poor), how can a united left with no mass appeal address the situation with some liberals as Kumar suggests? Who will organise some grassroots based popular democratic movement to address the issues facing the large majority of people struggling to meet ends? While there are interest groups representing professionals, workers, farmers etc. seeking redress to the issues peculiar to these groups, there don’t seem to be an organisation to qualify as a third force with an overarching vision, mission and program of action(agenda) to salvage the masses from the abyss they have been pushed into by the new globalised economy. 

The governing parties have recently implemented village and entrepreneur oriented economic and social policies in view of the impending elections. These may impact on the attitudes and experiences of those who can positively benefit mainly those affiliated with ruling parties. Nonetheless for the rest, it is symbolism and populism that can appeal.  For better or worse, Rajapaksas provide such symbolism as well as organisational capacity through established networks (e.g. religious, community, institutional) that can reach the masses in a political sense.

If there is no credible left oriented political platform and an ideology that explains the exploitative conditions under the new economy and a state that promotes the interests of the global-local capital, appealing to the interests of working and middle classes (men, women, young, old), and speaking the truth to power, right wing ideologies can emerge from the ashes of Yahapalana experiment and its failure. 

In this context, the work being undertaken by a group led by Lional Bopage, Jude Perera and Chaminda Hettiarachchi in Melbourne on a new policy platform for building a progressive future oriented egalitarian society based on the principles of equity, social justice and economic freedom and participatory democracy can be a useful process that should receive the attention of progressive forces. There may be similar groups engaged in deep thinking about the way forward but the issue is how to reach the masses with the messages and policies developed by such groups? There are signs of new discourses taking place on an alternative government oriented to citizen rights at a small scale also (see Vikalpa Anduwak, Nava Puravesiya, August 2018).

Capitalist Ventures, Investments and Development

In this context, Kumar’s next statement is quite perplexing. ‘The government should play an active and interventionist role in creating conditions and building institutions that increase investment and economic activity for private-public partnerships (foreign), entrepreneurial ventures (capitalist) and state infrastructure. The UNP is pathologically unfit for this and Rajapaksa Populism has no conception, policy, plans or clue’. If this is the conception of economy that Kumar advocates for the future of Lanka, I fear that the material conditions that have given rise to Rajapaksa populism will continue with no or little redress. Contrary to what he states, the UNP seems to be moving ahead with entrepreneurial ventures (capitalist) and state infrastructure with borrowed money from global lending agencies. During the previous Rajapaksa regime, similar projects and ventures were undertaken –perhaps without a conception, policy, plans or clue? Continuing in this direction is highly risky not only because they add further to our debt problem but also in terms of sustainability and social dividend. What is required is a new framework of sustainable development focused on improving the capacity of local production and manufacturing (national development), reduction of imported goods and services, export orientation, encourage social enterprises, and effective strategies for community harmony. Social engineering is an essential aspect in the development of society. One cannot rely on the development of economy alone because societies are broader than economies.

Nonetheless, it is to be recognised that in Sri Lanka people perceive development and progress in terms of material monuments constructed and benefits derived from the projects even with borrowed money. With borrowed money and foreign investments, they come in various forms and shapes. Human development seems to be given second or third priority. If it is true development, people have to feel it, smell it, hear it, and be able to embrace it. Life should become easier to navigate as a result of holistic development.  What we are seeing is a lop-sided development that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer pushing the latter to the margins of society. For the average Lankan, life has become difficult with so many vehicles on road, sub-standard bus services, crowded hospitals and classrooms, etc. Getting a simple problem solved has become difficult at local level where the bureaucratic processes move slowly. The gap between enriching ruling political class and rest of the population has become considerably large in terms of power, wealth, and status.


When the people are exposed to market forces in multiple areas such as health, education, utilities like electricity and consumption, and the neoliberal state is no longer a protector of citizen rights as such, the divisions between rich and the poor become sharper and inegalitarian nature of society become a fact of life. New forms of capital-labour relations and corresponding inequalities have emerged in the country creating rather oppressive conditions of existence for the masses i.e. working and middle classes plus the poor.  Upper classes -including the political class/elites who have access to power and key institutions of governance, invested and profited in the new economy, enjoy the consumerist culture and everything else that come with it – are thriving in this environment while promoting their kith and kin for even better futures. The season has come for recalibrating the same political class in a different name like a pack of cards for impending national elections and gaining power for another term in office. 

Left oriented intellectuals and organisations need to come forward to present a united, well-articulated political platform and corresponding ideology of liberation before right wing ideologues and political figures exploit the situation to come forward and pretend as saviours of the nation from an inept Yahapalana government whose policies have not brought home the bacon as expected. Left intellectuals and organisations have a duty to explain the exploitative and unequal conditions that have emerged in the new economy under the stewardship of a neoliberal state conducting brokerage between local and global capital on one hand and borrowing to pay for various mega projects on the other to keep the people happy. In this sense, Rajapaksa populism itself is not the culprit for current predicament. Analysis should look deeper into the material conditions of deprivation for the many and their causes. Class analysis can offer insights about the prevailing conditions that may give rise to (or have given rise to) right wing oriented, ethnocentric ideologies exploiting the material deprivations and anxieties of the masses. 

Intellectual dialogue, policy development articulation of the conditions of existence, existential challenges facing the masses or lower to middle classes by various means and venues from a left, middle and critical position/perspective are important. However, far more important is the political and social work in the relevant material context giving rise to various inequalities, disparities, deprivations, displacements and marginalisations of masses due to the expanding neoliberal, free market – globalised capitalist economy along with their marketing and advertising programs in the interest of global-local capital. Collectively organised intellectual and political activity is essential in this context for developing platforms for sustainable, indigenous development and governance model that can appeal to the deprived masses in multiple ways and secure their support for a democratic third alternative.

Additional Readings

Gamage, S. 2015. Globalization, Neo-liberal reforms and Inequality, Journal of Developing Societies, 31(1), pp.8-27.

Gamage, S. 2011.Changing Development Models, Post war international Development and Developing Country Needs, in Rev. D. Wimalarathana (ed.,) Agriculture and Rural Development in Sri Lanka, Colombo: Development and Resource Centre, Department of Economic, University of Colombo.

Gamage, S. 2011. Internationalization of School Education in Sri Lanka: An analysis of differing Discourses and the Impact on Society, Modern Sri Lanka Studies, 3(1), pp.25-41.

Hennayake, N. 2006. Culture, Politics and Development in Postcolonial Sri Lanka, Lexington books, Lenham.

Hennayake, N.M. 2013. Globalization from within: Interplay of the local and the global in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences. 33(1-2), pp.1–14. DOI:

Silva, M de 2018.  Failed Neoliberal Paradigm, Poverty and Inequality continue as Persistent, Unjust Socio-economic Issues of our Time, Daily Mirror (24.09.2018)  Accessed 24.09.2018

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