By Siri Gamage –
At this time where there are multiple challenges facing the country, different political parties and alliances seem to be active in trying to promote their points of view before the people and the media. They do so from the specific vantage points and interests they represent. This article is intended to explore the way politically and economically important messages are presented in Sri Lanka by such vested interests, their weaknesses and propose another way to approach the current situation in order to get a better understanding.
Individual Oriented Political Discourses
When reading various articles in newspapers or listening to media interviews by elected politicians or those who are trying to become one, one feature we can see is that the good or bad policies and actions implemented by individual politicians or their parties come to light. Very often the arguments and discussions boil down to errors made by an individual politicians e.g. JR, Premadasa, Sirima, Mahinda, Sirisena, Chandrika. Perhaps this may be a way of trying to remember a whole lot of events that took place during a given period under their leadership. It may also be a familiar way of communicating as Sri Lankans still use personal terms to explain professional or political circumstances. Personalities are also important icons when it comes to elections. Merely because one has a good policy, generally voters do not vote for a given party. Personality of the leader matters. e.g. whether the leader comes from reputed social and family background? Those who enter politics without such a background, attempt to construct the necessary image and associated factors including symbolism during their career e.g. landownership, better housing and modes of transport, family and economic power. Social respect in the society is derived from such factors.
Political Party labels
Another way people come to understand the nature of politics and discourse is via the parties, their leaders and utterances by way of political discourse on a given issue. This is also a very common feature. People tend to remember what happened in post-independent history by way of party names such as Sri Lanka Freedom party (SLFP), United National party (UNP), Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), TULF or Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). These parties as a collective but in particular as leadership groups represent certain interests -economic, family, social capital, religious – and their policies on various issues are determined by such interests. However, there is very little sociological or political analysis along these lines in the country as the political discourse is heavily slanted to individuals or families of politicians. This is a tragedy.
Understanding Politics as Economic Interests
This is also an important approach. At present, the discourse is based on whether certain politicians are or were involved in corruption? Journalists and people refer to events such as Maha Banku Mankollaya (Central bank fraud), Hambantota case where foreign funds received during the war LTTE for reconstruction in the North and East were apparently utilised for other purposes. Cases like these characterise what happened during a given era. But they don’t reveal the whole story about many changes that have taken place, their effects and winners and losers from the changes. For this, we need to be more specific and focus on the multiple changes and their core basis and/or ramifications.
Globalisation: its winners and losers
If we want to get a handle of the changes that took place after independence and still taking place today-controversially- we need to adopt an approach focused on economically significant matters. That is to imagine or visualise the society and its people including politicians and average voters in terms of winners and losers from this era popularly characterised by the globalisation label. Such an approach will provide a simple way with deeper meanings to understand the changes that are taking place on one hand and the necessary parameters of a political discourse for the current times on the other.
During the last seven decades we have seen:
a) Various government sponsored economically significant projects funded by foreign sources that have given some benefits to the people at all levels. An example is Mahaweli River Development project. Some of the infrastructure projects undertaken by Rajapaksa periods/ have come under criticism due to their net value to the country or the indebtedness that they created.
b) Expansion of the private/corporate sector many areas of people’s lives. Examples are private bus companies, education institutions, super markets, petrol stations, etc. privatisation of previously state-owned enterprises was a key hallmark of the period.
c) Justification of various policies in terms of the stipulated benefits for the society at large but the suffering of the average people has not been reduced. It has increased.
d) Better opportunities for education, work and migration (temporary or permanent) abroad. Thousands of Sri Lankans are currently employed overseas with economic and social benefits that they would not have been able to access if they remained in the country.
e) Medium to large scale business enterprises developed by Sri Lankans along with the expanding national and global economy. Some of these are thriving especially with political patronage
f) Presence of foreign investments by way of various industries, plantations, commercial establishments, etc e.g. Free Trade Zones.
g) Elected politicians using their power to develop their own enterprises e.g. liquor shops, shops in the airport, sand mining, transport.
h) Increasing cost of living pressures, shortage of locally produced foods and availability of imported goods and services (though restricted at present due to the foreign exchange crisis).
i) Erosion of the confidence people have in political institutions due to the politicisation of various institutions – including the public service and centralisation of power in the hands of the executive president – while the country carries a system of provincial governance as part of the governance process.
These are some notable aspects of the society, economy and changes that took place during the last seven decades. But one way to comprehend these changes that have taken place on multiple fronts is to visualise them in terms of winners and losers.
Winners and losers Approach
If we set aside political party, individual differences or their colours for a minute and focus on who are the winners and losers, it will give us a better sense of the fundamental changes we witness as well as the current predicament of those who benefit and those who do not benefit to the same extent. Such an approach is essential if we want to talk about equality, democracy, civic rights, national sovereignty, humanitarianism, welfare, or any other matters associated with the human condition and existence.
Winners are those who are thriving in a globalised economy and society. They either own or operate income producing ventures locally or abroad via various companies. They have invested capital for this purpose and reaping the benefits. For example, such companies are visible in various sectors e.g. manufacturing, agriculture and plantations, education and higher education, transport, import-export, retail (e.g. liquor), professional services such as accounting and finance, tourism. The income of those who own or operate such enterprises far exceeds the income of those from the middle or working class. They live comfortable lives in luxury homes with chauffeur-driven cars, go on foreign trips to visit family or attend to business matters. Often their companies have foreign partners. They are in the minority.
While we talk about the political elites regularly we do not talk or understand the nature of business elites or their lifestyle that much.
There is a close relation of business elite with security elites and political elites. I do not need to expand on this point as this is common knowledge.
Some of these elites are in control of established political parties. The closeness of economic, security and political elites (to some extent religious elites too) has become such that it is difficult to distinguish among them. In addition to political, business ties, there are close family, kinship and caste ties among them.
Majority of the people are the losers from the economic, political and social changes that took place during the last seven decades. They have either been forgotten by the political and economic processes or left out in the rush to ‘develop’ the country. Their income levels are very low and in fact daily life is a struggle to make ends meet.
Some of them are still trying to make a living from the domestic economy. For example, working in the lands of local land owners, plantations, transport company or a shop. Such relations exhibit capitalist (wage relations) or feudal (labour in kind fore food or clothing or housing). Their children go to local schools with poor facilities and teaching quality. They cannot spend money on clothing, tours etc except on special occasions e.g. New year, Vesak.
Another group from this layer of society have gone abroad especially women for domestic work. Though at this time such work is limited due to the effects of the pandemic, such avenues provided the women with an income which they could spend on better housing, children’s education etc. Social effects of this phenomenon have been extreme e.g. g=family breakdowns, mother being away from children, oppressive behaviours of employers abroad and abuse.
Political views of such people who have nothing to lose in voting for one or another party can be very dependent on symbolism associated with the political process or meagre benefits derived from various government programs e.g. Samurdhi.
Working and Middle classes
These are people with a fixed salary from the public or private sector. However, some may own small enterprises, land or other income producing ventures. Due to the increasing cost of living, members of these classes are also struggling -except those with additional income sources. Avenues adopted to meet this challenge is to educate children and send abroad for work or migrate themselves. Others have developed close relations with politicians and are involved in various economically significant projects. Their political views and positions change with the changing nature of politics. Their attitude to minorities can be hardline as they want to preserve the religious, ethnic and local privileges enjoyed-however little they are.
What I have presented above are a few thoughts that can help us in developing an approach that illuminates the existing human condition in the country and among countrymen and women. It can, if developed further, provide a better picture as well as an understanding about the events, happenings, discourses, images, and distortions being presented through the media-print and electronic.
One can use various theoretical terminologies to explain the same but it is better to try to understand these changes and effects without them as they can make the discourses abstract, e.g. Marxist, Liberal.