Colombo Telegraph

When Elected Politicians Become Capitalists: Provincial Perspectives

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

There are numerous criticisms of politicians, politics and political culture by those concerned with the directions of the country, governance style, policies and programs, corruption, delay, and costs of living pressures. However, little attention has been paid to the manner politicians in Sri Lanka become capitalists during their tenure and move away from the socio-economic contexts that they were born into in the Provinces. In order to understand the reasons as to why democratic governance and rule of law are not functioning as expected by the broader population, and the social distance of elected politicians from the very masses who propel them to power, it is important to understand the process where politicians become capitalists and start operating on the basis of a completely different set of norms, motivations and desires compared to what they were elected for. In politics and governance, power is the key variable. In capitalism, capital accumulation including land, machinery, money is the key variable -though the control over labour is also important.

During the British colonial period (1796-1948), the power was vested with the imperial-colonial administration whose key positions were occupied by the British nationals. However, a layer of local chieftains called Mudaliyars occupied important positions in the administration and its institutions spreading into the Provinces in association with other local officials such as Vidane Arachchis. They were playing a supportive role to the British administrators. In return, these chieftains were rewarded with land, servants, status, monetary reward, share of power, titles, respect and recognition. They established mansions called Walawwas, controlled large tracts of highland and paddy land, ruled their respective divisions with an iron fist, and even executed justice at the local level (Research using oral history has the potential to shed new light on their behaviour, attitudes etc.) As in the Kandyan and other provinces, this was the case in the Southern province including the Hambantota district. After the independence, the situation changed and the power transferred to Sri Lankans even though the vestiges of colonialism continued including in areas such as education, law, medicine, religion, tea plantations and commerce. Populist politics to win over mass consent at elections came into being and various tactics including grand sermons, variety of rewards were used by the politicians to attract votes. A political stage was created where contenders became actors and the masses the audience.

During the colonial period, people in the Southern Province became rich by associating themselves with the colonial administration and getting rewarded for their loyalty. This aspect has not been researched adequately by our historians and social scientists in a systematic way though there are a few publications on the subject by historians. For example, I am not aware of a thorough study of Walawwas in the province or the lifestyle, income sources, accumulation of wealth, education, style of administration and its consequences, mannerisms etc. When travelling in the area one can see monuments established at the grave sites for the departed members of Walawwas, e.g. Dahanayake Walawwa in Hakmana, Hakuruwela Walawwa in Weeraketiya area (Some mansions have been transformed into tourism sites today). Research studies are necessary to understand the way a sub stratum of the ruling class from the natives was formed and operated during the colonial period dictating terms for the local population plus how some became rich capitalists. In the 1950s there was a national survey called Lanka Maneema. Land acquired by the crown was auctioned and many local chieftains and some entrepreneurs bought such land. Association with power afforded these chieftains and their families an advantage over the rest of the population for the accumulation of wealth and capital, in accessing English education, familiarity with legal procedures and making children professionals in various fields such as law and medicine.

In terms of the accumulation of wealth and capital, the other important segments were those engaged in agriculture, commerce and business activities.  During the colonial administration, various opportunities existed for highly motivated people from the South to enter into new ventures. Some of them migrated to Kandy and Colombo and established shops. Others found their wealth through construction, transport, catering, plantations etc. Some who acquired large extents of land by virtue of office held or sheer entrepreneurship added more land and/or crops to their profile to become significant players in the localities. Those business people who moved from coastal areas in the South-Western sea board to towns such as Walasmulla, Beliatta used accumulated capital from businesses to purchase land from the peasants who borrowed consumer goods on credit.  Likewise, until 1983, Tamil shop owners from the North operated businesses in these Southern rural towns and invested their profits in purchasing land in their own native areas and educating children. With the arrival of new technologies like tractors and farming methods including fertiliser associated with the green revolution, the productivity from the land increased and made some businessmen richer even though fluctuations of price for commercial crops affected the capital accumulation process e.g. citronella. Compared to the colonial period where the occupants of Walawwas by and large resided in their homes in the provinces, in time to come when the children were educated in English and entered the professions in the capital, absentee landlordism became a reality in areas such as Tissamaharama.

Politics became an avenue for accumulating wealth and capital since the doors were opened in the nation’s parliament for the locals starting in the 1930s. For many, legal profession coupled with family background and connections provided an avenue for entering politics without much hassle. Though the norms of democratic governance remained intact until after several decades since independence, the nexus between power and capital/wealth continued. The changes in the leadership, party structures, and the entry of petty bourgeoisie contestants to high office including from the South infused a new meaning to this relationship between power and wealth/capital starting from the late 80s. Meaning of representative democracy remained in words more so than in practice. Practice itself became the norm. Introduction of provincial Councils in 1987 provided an arena for local aspirants to high office to play the same games that national politicians played at macro level often with the blessings of party hierarchies. This changed scenario provides insights into how the politics is used as an avenue for accumulation of wealth/capital?  

Sociological studies can be designed to study the way average politicians transform themselves during their political careers from their small beginnings to be extremely rich elites. The emergence of professional politicians from the provinces provides an interesting case study in terms of this nexus between power and wealth/capital accumulation and its evolution since the 80s. If one were to pay close attention there are numerous examples from other provinces also indicating the same phenomenon. An important aspect of this phenomenon is as to the nature of relationship between such politicians and their electors which is mediated through various layers of coordinating and personal secretaries, family and friend networks, brokers etc. How the large masses become the power-less spectators of the political drama enacted by these politicians, particularly after the elections, and how a distance is created between the electors and the elected is an issue to examine further. Who gets included and excluded from the political process after the elections and the obstacles constructed for the average voter to access power is a critical dimension to investigate.

The irrigation and settlement projects have made a difference in the life chances of some peasants who were disadvantaged.  Opening of the job market in the middle eastern countries has also have opened opportunities for women who were not able to earn an income locally. Free market, open economic policies and programs as well as opening of borders through globalisation have encouraged young and middle aged, educated and skilled men and women to move out of their local contexts and seek greener pastures elsewhere. Even while such changes have allowed the lower to middle class inhabitants in the provinces to earn better incomes, migrate and even provide better education to children, those who have accumulated capital/wealth at a large scale through politics and other means seem to have elevated their capacities, power and status exponentially through such means as international partnerships and collaborations in mega projects and even corrupt activities. 

The stark differences in life’s fortunes between those wearing amude, redda, hatta –mostly subject to vicissitudes of weather and fluctuating incomes i.e. chena cultivators, compared to those born to privilege offered through high office, agriculture, business, education and professions, politics etc. kept changing as the country’s economy, polity, education and other services changed. Exposure to modernism, urban lifestyle and even foreign influences and experiences have ameliorated such differences to some extent. However, the stark disparities in the economic and social opportunities in terms of work, recognition, access to power and wealth/capital remain especially at provincial levels for many who are desiring to make a difference in the way the country is governed and the domination-subordination dynamic is operating.

Means of accumulating power and wealth/capital plus status as local and national elites have changed along with the changes in the political establishment, political culture, economy and investment opportunities, international aid and projects, NGO activities etc. During the colonial period, there were judicial and other mechanisms including the norms and procedures of governance coming from the imperial centre keeping a tab on local players and activities. How far they were socially just in terms of natural justice is a different question. Nonetheless at the time there were rules and regulations, and courts of justice to prosecute the same.  Those occupying high office in the government and judiciary probably had no vested interests other than to serve the imperial power in London. 

The situation has changed since the changeover of power to local elites. There is no need to expand on this as many a treatise has been compiled including in this paper earlier by others. The close relationships among people occupying high office allow themselves to be flexible in more than one way in executing their roles in the existing governing architecture. Apparently, rules get bended depending on who the protagonists are in a given case. No overarching normative framework –legal or moral- led by people of high integrity and eminence oversea the functioning of national institutions without being interfered by significant others. Opportunities for the accumulation process of power and wealth/capital seem to continue through legitimate and illegitimate means in the wider arena of human activity including by politicians, those holding high office in the bureaucracy and other important institutions. The mechanisms set in place to ensure the interests of those who are powerless and distant from the exercise of power have weakened in the face of this dominant politico-economic formation engineered by those who held political authority since independence, in particular the 1980s. There don’t seem to be a limit to the freedoms afforded to politicians to engage in the accumulation process without the gaze of law and community norms in the face of the functioning of invisible hands.

The innocence of inhabitants in parts of the Southern province such as Hambantota district and how their lives were governed by the colonial administration and the effects of harsh environment have been documented in works such as village in the jungle. While the dawn of independence in 1948 was assumed to be a turning point in terms of personal freedoms, access to equal opportunity, freedom from exploitation and discrimination, human and political rights, the issue today is whether the existing political party system and governance style, judicial process, knowledge construction and dissemination mechanisms, national discourses on race, economic servitude  etc. are affording the masses with such freedoms and rights OR in fact preventing them from exploitation by the rich and powerful? Whether the process of transforming average politicians to be capitalists through the electoral process is a barrier to achieve true equality for the many is a key question? In this context, we have to wonder as to whether we are we are living in a jungle village instead of village in the jungle?

How the very so- called democratic process of electing representatives to govern the country is playing a major role in the disempowerment of electors is not only an academic subject worth examining but also a great irony in modern era that has escaped the attention of intellectuals who are supposed to critically examine socio political issues.

Well-designed micro studies by social scientists and others focused on the Provinces can shed new light on these aspects and the new forms of accumulation, exclusion, exploitation, and dominance – even though the problem with social science is its focus on the abstract and national rather than the provincial and local. Dynamics of power and wealth/capital creation at various levels can be a highly rewarding research topic for the aspiring academics such as political scientists and sociologists while making a contribution to the understanding of a major process in contemporary Sri Lankan society that is making a few people and families rich and powerful while many become impoverished. 

The role of educated class and civic leaders concerned about the dire situation in becoming transformative/change leaders with civic responsibility and a greater responsibility about the nation’s future is crucial one in this context. Finding leaders who have the welfare of the nation at heart and devotion to public service rather than their own extended networks of friends and family is the key. However, the educated professionals and others some of who have experience in governance insitutions are reluctant to enter the political fray on their own partly because of the very nature of politics and its underpinnings. Even the country’s intellectuals are adept in expressing critical views and suggestions without any follow up action even at a small scale. If the process of elected politicians becoming capitalists to dominate the society in multiple means is to be avoided, communities and community organisations have to empower themselves via multiple means. This requires having a hard look at ways and means of empowering outside the mainstream political party process. Elsewhere in the world, there are examples of this happening in a variety of ways. Disenfranchised segments form themselves into pressure groups and employ multiple methods to advocate alternatives to mainstream politics, create awareness and form community organisations. Some even turn into national movements for change with a political bearing. Instead of groping in darkness or looking for imaginative alternatives while also assuming that politics is for politicians, it is important for those concerned about the directions of the country to be proactive and take a stand, develop strategies to empower and collaborate with like-minded others for democratic change and greater opportunities for those who are marginalised and impoverished. 

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