By Siri Gamage –
The talks of establishing a national government, among other things, highlight the underlying unity of the ruling class in Sri Lanka. Irrespective of party differences and occasional incidents of politico arrests and then release on bail, the ruling class in Sri Lanka has commonalities in terms of family connections, school friendships, local loyalties and the very political culture that gives sustenance to this class. By very nature, it is elitist and upper middle class. There are several sub stratums in this class. Firstly, there is a Westernised, English speaking, urbane, professionally equipped and well connected both inside and outside the country stratum. Secondly, there is a nationalistically oriented, national dress wearing, Sinhala or Tamil speaking (while English being the second language) stratum having deep rural and/or peri urban roots. Members of this ruling class are rich, possesses trappings of modern life such as palace like houses, posh vehicles (often chauffeur driven), income sources other than the parliamentary salary and followers in a political and personal sense. Family history in terms of political engagement by ancestors is a critical factor in deciding their present status in one of the two main parties. However, during elections, members of this ruling class divide into two camps and put on a great show before the public to show why should voters believe them rather than those in the opposing side. Often, members of the same family contest elections from opposing parties in order to maximise their advantage. Most members of this class also frequent Colombo diplomatic party circle as invited dignitaries.
During the Rajapaksa era, the nationalistic, Sinhala speaking stratum gained the upper hand. After January 8 elections, the President represents the same stratum. However, key members of the government come from the Westernised, English speaking, urbane, jacket and trouser-wearing stratum. Yet the concept of forming a national government with the UNP and SLFP minus Rajapaksa family perhaps shows the integral and organic nature of this ruling class. In other words, there are commonalities among members of this class more than the differences between party lines-even though political rhetoric is used to show otherwise.
This ruling political class cannot survive and prosper without collaboration from the local capitalist class (mainly upper middle class and some elites) and the global capital represented by multinational corporations and global agencies like the World Bank, IMF. In fact, since colonisation, for all intents and purposes, Sri Lanka has become a satellite state of global capitalism. Nonetheless, the ruling class has defined the political agenda and discourses governing the rule in different periods mostly in non-economic terms, e.g. Nationalism, anti imperialism, anti colonialism, anti terrorism. The political rivalries among members of the ruling class, in particular its dominant leadership layer, has also been a factor when defining the key issues and challenges before the nation and the given political rhetoric. No matter which established party comes into power, this economic logic of capitalism and the role of global capital in the country’s affairs have remained intact. Since multiple centres of global capital emerged in recent decades characterised by China etc., the previous government aligned with such alternative centres of capitalism for pragmatic reasons rather than with the established super power or it’s Western European counterparts. But the present government seems to adopt an open door policy in the matter of dealing and collaborating with multiple centres of global capitalism claiming non-alignment.
There are consequences of such collaboration of the ruling political class and the capitalist class in the country with the global capital for the broader population, their livelihood, well being and welfare plus the environment. Firstly, more and more members of the middle class are being fallen into the working class due to price increases, rationalisation of government and private sector agencies in the name of efficiency gains etc. Secondly, the status of the upper class is enhanced further and further. Thirdly, more and more people in lower classes are being compelled to go beyond their cultural comfort zones and seek an income via non-traditional occupations, e.g. as domestic workers in Middle East, as lower grade hospitality workers, free trade zone workers. Fourthly, the scope for developing an indigenous development model that is not dependent on global capital and its agencies is being narrowed at every opportunity.
The problem with the TNA is that it defines critical issues facing people from middle to lower classes in ethnic terms alone. Any economic or social issues facing the people in the northern and eastern provinces are seen as those requiring solutions from the ruling elite and the upper class that control levers of power. Rather than developing an economic critique, TNA continues to define issues and potential solutions in ethnic terms. In turn, this helps the ruling class to define key national issues as ethnically based terrorism or separatism rather than economic inequalities created by the operations of global capitalism hand in glove with the local ruling class and capitalist class.
In this context, politics and political culture has become ‘transactional’, meaning that various classes and their key stakeholder representatives collaborate with the ruling political class in return for a share of power and privilege or economic and social returns by way of positions in government controlled entities including the diplomatic service. This has led to large-scale corruption, violations of basic human rights of the masses, and heavy-handed control of people’s lives, property and opportunity. The war years allowed for this to continue by providing a single rationale for governance. In the new era of good governance, anti corruption, media freedom and rule of law, the economic project continues with some modifications but I am not sure whether it will yield enough dividends for the economically oppressed classes in a tangible way? Certainly, the upper class and upper middle class will find ways to market products and services from the global north and some countries in the global south to the local population in order to find more and more income for their companies, e.g. marketing higher education. A selected few from the lower middle class will also benefit from such ventures in the long run. Exodus of professionally and academically qualified people to developed countries is a contemporary phenomenon where better rewards and a peaceful living space provide an attraction, e.g. doctors
What about the ruled classes and their political representation? These include the lower middle class, which includes people like schoolteachers, nurses, clerks, and hospitality industry workers. In short, sanga, veda, guru, govi, kamkaru categories. The latter includes people who engage in physical labor for a wage or income. Both these classes can include the self-employed, e.g. Beedi producers, brick workers, three wheel drivers, road and construction workers, itinerant workers, construction workers, cleaners and some fishing folk. By and large these classes constitute the majority of the voting public in Sri Lanka. Though the urban-based members of these classes are organised into trade unions, those in the rural areas are disorganised and thus open to indoctrination by politicians from the elitist and upper middle classes (the political class). As a matter of fact, mostly the upper middle class professional politicians in the parliament represent these classes. It is not by choice but due to the prevailing political culture, party system- in particular the biased process involving the nomination for electoral organiser roles- and the need for large sums of money and other resources to contest a seat. Thus one can see the appearance of various characters claiming to represent the interests of lower classes in the parliament. But when their pedigree is examined, it shows that they are professional politicians whose ancestors have made a fortune by engaging in politics. The two main parties provide legitimacy for such folk not only to contest electorates but also to remain in parliament and do party politics.
The self-employed entrepreneurs with capital and employed work force belong in the upper middle class or even the elite stratum depending on the scale of their enterprises and operations.
Those who live in poverty, not an insignificant number, draw the attention of politicians of all kinds during parliamentary debates, political campaigns, and policy talk. It is axiomatic for those in the ruling class to empathise with the plight of these people and come up with various proposals to alleviate poverty. It assumes more significance because of the moral dimension involved when treating a highly disadvantaged section of the population. Most governments, once in power devise programs to help those in poverty also. However, as a social stratum, these poor people are highly dependent on those with money, power and status. They look for any material benefits that they can garner from the ruling class and are highly susceptible to politically motivated nationalistic rhetoric.
Into this mix comes a party like the JVP. It claims to represent the interests of lower classes both in the city and villages. It claims to understand them better, empathise with their predicaments better too. It is not a party motivated by mega deals or collaboration with global agencies such as the World Bank to obtain development loans in order to run the national economy. It has no need to empathise with multinational corporations or their local agents. Its development ideals are based on a paradigm of national development-though it still has to identify indigenous elements of its economic policies better. JVP also has a grassroots appeal while the leadership of the party seems to be highly articulate and consistent in terms of the political messages transmitted to the voting public. It shows a different kind of political culture compared to the two main parties, UNP and SLFP.
Thus in the years to come there is a high likelihood for the two main parties to form a national or unity government and the JVP to become the real opposition in the parliament. This can sharpen the class divide in Sri Lankan society and to streamline the political culture in terms of clearly identifiable and distinguishable norms, values and practices. One geared to the preservation of ruling class privileges and the other oriented to address the needs of lower classes and those in poverty. This will certainly trigger a competition between the ruling class and those parties representing the lower classes in order to maximise the votes to be attracted. What form and shape this competition will take can most likely be witnessed at the next parliamentary election.
The point to remember however is that irrespective of the party or parties in power, the underlying economic agenda will be a capitalist one aligned with key global centres of power, multinational corporations and their agencies. Unless a party like the JVP comes up with a truly indigenous development model with sustainability as it’s key basis, Sri Lankans can expect more of the same with a different label in the coming years.