By Izeth Hussain –
“Say not the struggle naught availeth” – Arthur Hugh Clough
“Lest we forget” – Kipling
In my last article I wrote, “On commonsensical grounds I expect the UNP to win by a comfortable margin”. Given the ground realities of Sri Lanka’s electoral politics no one expects any Party to win an outright majority of 113 seats. So the UNP’s 106 seats just 7 short of an outright majority seems a very creditable performance. The margin of 11 seats over the SLFP’s 95 seats seems a comfortable one. And the UNP seems assured of ruling in comfort either through a National Government or through substantial cross-overs from the UPFA. The latter can be arranged by President Maithripala Sirisena who is one of the two major dispensers of benefits in the Island, the other being Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. We all know that the dispensing of benefits is of the essence of politics in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, as I pointed out in my last article, we have been moving from a conflictual to a consensual model of democracy, so that our politicians can commute from one major Party to the other without any sense of ideological or other strain.
The UNP victory is seen as a mandate to continue the January 8 Revolution. More specifically it is a mandate to entrench a fully functioning democracy that will eradicate or at least contain the appeal of racist neo-Fascism. The Island editorial of August 19 notes the significance of the electoral routing of the Bodu Jana Peramuna (BJP) which is the political face of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). That certainly can be taken as a sign that racist neo-Fascism is not the wave of the future in Sri Lanka. It is significant also that the recent elections have been the most free and fair that we have known for many decades, and probably hardly any one expects anything like the savage post-election violence that we have known in the past. All this augurs well for our democracy. The democratic transformation that we are presently witnessing should be seen in terms of two perspectives: one is the introduction of universal suffrage in 1931, and the other is the 1956 Revolution.
We got universal suffrage in 1931 just three years after Britain. Subsequently we prided ourselves on that fact and on our being Asia’s oldest democracy, without taking count of the fact that democracy was conferred on us, not something that we achieved after a struggle. In Britain democracy was achieved in its modern form after centuries of struggle following on Magna Carta. In India democracy came together with independence after a mighty nationalist struggle. In Sri Lanka there was no nationalist struggle worth speaking about because the conditions did not warrant it and Independence and democracy came through a pragmatic accommodativeness on both the British and the Sri Lankan sides. Democracy was therefore a transplant, not an organic growth with deep roots in Sri Lankan political soil. But we did make a success of it until 1970 probably because democracy answers to deep human needs and is not something peculiar to the West. However, after 1970 we had a flawed democracy which broke down completely after 1977, to be revived from 1994, but after 2009 we witnessed a vigorous assertion of racist neo-Fascism. The travails of Sri Lankan democracy can be understood if it is recognized as a transplant that requires time to strike deep roots. That process is taking place just now, as attested by the fact that the January 8 Revolution was preceded by a vigorous civil society movement. The prospects for firmly entrenching democracy are bright under the new Government.
The 1956 Revolution explains why our democracy has been so conflictual instead of being consensual. I will be brief on this because I have already explored this subject in an earlier article. 1956 saw the emergence of the indigenous lower middle class against the Westernised bourgeoisie who had hitherto been dominant in Sri Lanka. The lower middle class for the most part had no higher education, no professional qualifications, no place in the higher rungs of the bureaucracy, no business skills and no capital. There was only one way in which they could make a quick ascent up the socio-economic ladder, and that was through the state sector. The State with all its enormous resources therefore became the virtual possession of the Government that happened to be in power. Understandably our Governments showed a disposition to behave like conquerors, and our democracy became profoundly conflictual. The change came with the open economy of 1977 which provided far greater opportunities outside the state for quick ascent up the socio-economic ladder. The lean cats of the 1956 socialist revolution could become the fat cats of the capitalist system. That could be the underlying reason why our politics have been becoming more consensual.
It is in keeping with this move to a consensual model of democracy that after January 8 President Sirisena and the UNP have been placing much emphasis on unity. This I believe is a novel development of the greatest importance. In the West the society has been the arena of dissension and conflict while the State represented and promoted unity. This has been particularly so under the nation state, a state formation that brought about a higher degree of unity than any other. In Sri Lanka, on the other hand, the people on the whole have tended to live together in peaceful interaction while the State has stood for division and hierarchy. I will give just one horrible but entirely convincing example. Under the Rajapaksa regime we saw the creation of an utterly unnecessary Muslim problem through the idiotic hate campaign of the BBS which had solid State backing, even to the extent that the BBS leaders were placed above the law. But Muslims and Sinhalese have on the whole continued to live together in peace, amity, and co-operation. I hold that it was not the Sinhalese people but the Sinhalese State that brought about the civil war that led to a 100,000 deaths. So, if the new Government works for unity rather than division, it will be a development of the greatest importance.
It really does want an all-Party National Government. The problem is that if such a Government is really successful there will be no Opposition worth speaking about, and what that might mean was shown by the record of horror for the greater part of the time from 1977 to 1994. The way forward towards a well-entrenched fully functioning democracy could have many pitfalls – which is why one of the two epigraphs I have chosen for this article is “Lest we forget” from Kipling’s great hymn Recessional. However there could be a very persuasive argument for a National Government of limited duration, of say a couple of years in order to steer through a new Constitution that really has a broad consensus of the people behind it.
Partly because of an obsession with the unitary – arising out of fears about the break-up of Sri Lanka – we have tended to forget about the need for some sense of unity in this country. We can prevent its break-up, but without some degree of a sense of unity we could find ourselves in a state of de facto disintegration. This is a huge subject that needs to be addressed in detail and in depth. I will just make a couple of points in conclusion. The achievement levels of a society very probably depend to a great extent on the degree of its sense of unity, on the extent to which relations of trust and reciprocity prevail. The other point is that in the case of Sri Lanka we have to have some sense of unity to be able to withstand dangers from the outside world. I have in mind the possibility that because of the China factor our relations with India could become much more complex and difficult than in the past.