The politics of Good Governance and Ethno (Sinhala/Tamil/Muslim) Nationalisms

by Rajan Philips

In the January presidential election, having been let down by astrology and political machinations, then President Rajapaksa invoked the spectre of nationalism and national insecurity to shore up his sliding support among the Sinhalese. His efforts fell short by 400,000 votes. He and his supporters blamed the shocking defeat on Western conspiracy and minority voters who voted virtually en masse for Maithripala Sirisena. In the August parliamentary election, the Rajapaksa forces upped the nationalist ante and campaigned to win a majority of parliamentary seats with the votes of the Sinhala Buddhists only. They lost again, polling a million votes less than in January. But there has not been any blame game after the August election unlike in January. The ultra-nationalists in the south who were once sponsored by the Rajapaksa regime were decimated. Extreme appeals to nationalism failed to get traction in the elections not only among the Sinhalese in the south, but also in the North and East among the Tamils and Muslims. It is fair to say that the double blow against nationalism in the south and in the north was occasioned by the politics of good governance.

This is not to suggest the end of nationalism in Sri Lanka – not at all. Nationalism never dies. Not just blind nationalists, but those of us who try to understand nationalism more than to experience it, and not to reject it, know that too well. It could hibernate, become dormant, grow weak, or remain marginalized, but it can reassert itself and even explode in regressive circumstances even though the world has long passed the ‘age of nationalism’ as such. The task of progressive political leadership is not to be in denial of nationalism or to dismiss it, but to channel its constructive energies positively and to prevent circumstances that would allow scoundrels to hijack the destructive energies of nationalism. Nationalism in Sri Lanka is not even dormant but the politics of good governance is having a dampening effect on nationalism, at least on its destructive aspects.

The slogan of good governance arrived as a coincidental happenstance and not the deliberated programme of any political party. It was a confluence of developments – starting with the public disapprobation of the corruption and abuse of power of the Rajapaksa government. The common opposition candidacy of Maithripala Sirisena became the electoral vehicle for the public resentment against the Rajapaksas. And for the first time in the history of presidential or parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka the same electoral vehicle became operable among both among the Sinhalese and among the Tamils in the North and East, the ubiquitous Muslims, and the upcountry Tamils. Yet, the common candidacy vehicle did not become a ‘national vehicle’ in a pan-island sense. It was handled cautiously differently among the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims.

There was an un-stated acceptance that a Sirisena presidency and Wickremesinghe premiership would be qualitatively different for the minorities in contrast to their plight under the Rajapaksas, but no one tried to probe the extent of that difference. The TNA leadership played a decisive role in uniting the common candidacy forces at the highest level in Colombo, but the TNA took the longest time before calling upon the Tamils in the North and East to vote for Maithripala Sirisena. The TNA was cautious of being outflanked by the boycott brigades of Tamil politics at home and abroad. The Muslim leadership, on the other hand, had to be prised out of the UPFA government by the Muslim people to join the common candidacy vehicle.

Put another way, the Sirisena candidacy enabled the more inclusive strands of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim nationalisms to come together on a common platform against the Rajapaksa regime. Their primary purpose was to end the Rajapaksa juggernaut of corruption and abuse of power, to restore democracy, and to end Sri Lanka’s isolation at the government level in the western world. These were the common slogans that united the UNP, sections of the SLFP, the TNA, the JVP, the JHU and the Muslim and Upcountry Tamil political organizations. These organizations subordinated their own ‘nationalist agendas’ to the common slogans of good governance. The January ‘victory’ of the common platform has been endorsed again in August albeit under a different electoral format.

Nationalist Misappropriation

Perhaps the Rajapaksas could be credited for inadvertently contributing to a common platform that brought together the hitherto disparate forces organizations of Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim nationalisms. To their discredit, however, the Rajapaksas and their supporters chose to play with fire by provoking the divisive and exclusive emotions of nationalism among the Sinhalese. It is to the credit of the Sinhalese voters that they have called the Rajapaksa nationalist bluff not once, but twice in seven months. For ten years, it has been a given in Sri Lankan politics that Mahinda Rajapaksa is unassailable because of his rock solid support among the Sinhalese. The notion has even been elevated to the level of an essential electoral principle, i.e. the majority of the majority.

The fact of the matter is that Mahinda Rajapaksa won his first presidential election in 2005 by a squeaker, and thanks to the election boycott enforced by the LTTE among the Tamils. He won two convincing victories, presidential and parliamentary, in 2010 deservedly riding a euphoric wave after ending the war in 2009. Five years later, equally deservedly he has been defeated twice in one year for failing to build on postwar promises and for trying to indefinitely entrench himself in power. Now that the myth of Rajapaksa invincibility has been exploded, it is also time to question the premises and the purposes of his appropriation of Sinhalese nationalism. I would argue that Mahinda Rajapaksa misappropriated Sinhalese nationalism for crass political purposes far more than he could ever be identified with the emancipatory and salutary aspects of Sinhalese nationalism. In fact those aspects of Sinhalese nationalism were well established long before Mahinda Rajapaksa appeared on the national political radar in any significant way. And he was not even an eloquent exponent of the literary and cultural accomplishments of Sinhalese nationalism. And it is really a stretch for anyone to talk about the Mahinda movement and the future of Sinhalese nationalism, as part of over-intellectualizing a straightforward electoral defeat. It is also analytically laughable, historically untenable, and intellectually dishonest, mischievous and shameful to link the Rajapaksa defeats in 2015 to the British conquest of 1815.

Such attempts by Rajapaksa ideologues only underscore the universal appropriation and abuse of nationalism for personal promotion and sinister political purposes. Sri Lankan politics is full of instances of misappropriation and abuse of nationalism – among the Sinhalese, the Tamils, and lately the Muslims. Mahinda Rajapaksa was not the first Sri Lankan to ‘misappropriate’ nationalism, and will not surely be the last, but he certainly will be remembered as being one of the more potent among the appropriators. His potency is a derivative of his war victory over the LTTE, a political achievement that he could certainly claim uniqueness to. But equally certainly that singular achievement did not give him the license to turn postwar Sri Lanka into a Rajapaksa fiefdom. Those who sponsored and supported a Rajapaksa third term in January and his return as Prime Minister in August were not merely accomplices, but also stood to lose more by his exit than Mahinda Rajapaksa would have, and to gain more as well by his return. No amount of nationalistic rhetoric could hide their vested interests.

While the urgency for good governance has provided a common platform for the political parties of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, there is still a long way to go before genuine political unity can be achieved among the different ethnic groups. What is encouraging is willingness to try – that is among all the parties on the common platform whether they are in government or not. In matters where symbolism is needed as much as substantial action, President Sirisena has surpassed all his predecessors in sending the right signals. It would seem that he has visited the North and East more times in seven months as President than all the visits of his predecessors to what SJV Chelvanayakam perceptively called the island’s ‘deficit provinces.’ Visits alone will not bring about a political solution, but they are certainly a sign of the willingness to try. The TNA’s electoral victory is a positive return sign. No less positive is the emergence of influential voices in the Tamil diaspora endorsing the TNA’s stand in January and in August.

September and Geneva will be a sure flashpoint for the new government and the TNA. A US government sponsored resolution at the upcoming UNHRC session allowing a domestic inquiry, as opposed to an international inquiry, into the last stages of the war in 2009, will reverberate differently across the political spectrum. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government will claim vindication for its efforts in co-operating with the western governments in contrast to the stupid intransigence of the Rajapaksa regime. On the other hand, the TNA will have its hands full managing the diverse reactions among the Tamils. For starters, it would be prudent to interpret the US position not as volte-face but as the growing realization of the need for pragmatism in the business of human rights. The debate has not even started, but what the government and the TNA must realize is that there is much that can be done on the ground to redress the aftermaths of the war independent of the forensic and philosophical debates over human rights.

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