Three events dominated Sri Lanka’s most recent political developments and debates. The May Day mob attack on Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri and Dr. Kumudu Kusum Kumara is the first. The intensification of the campaign to bring former President Mahinda Rajapaksa back is the second. The meeting between the present and former presidents is the third.
These three events encapsulate and signify some key dimensions of the dynamics of Sri Lanka’s current political turmoil. This essay seeks to comment on some of them.
I have heard three responses to the mob attack on Nirmal and Kumudu at the May Day rally organized by those who are leading the campaign to bring former President Mahinda Rajapakse back as either the President or Prime Minister. The first is by a minority who blame Nirmal and Kumudu who went to the Dinesh, Vasu and Wimal meeting deliberately to create trouble in a provocative manner. Their argument is that this was a politically motivated, and therefore pre-meditated, attempt to discredit the campaign to bring Mahinda back. According to the logic of this argument, Nirmal actually got what he was seeking – beating and publicity. By getting beaten up, Nirmal is also said to have achieved his political objective, namely discrediting the Dinesh – Vasu -Wimal campaign to bring Mahinda Rajapaksa back to power.
One does not have to be surprised by this response. It blames the victims while rationalizing the actions of the perpetrators.
The second response admits that the attack on Nirmal and Kumudu was bad, but blames the victims because they exposed themselves to hostile mob action by going to the meeting. There are two different constituencies who share this viewpoint. The first represents the so-called Left of the ‘bring Mahinda back’ campaign. The second constituency includes, quite paradoxically, even some of the fervent supporters of Nirmal and Kumudu. This second constituency is totally horrified by the fascist-type reaction to the presence of Nirmal and Kumudua near the Dinesh – Vasu – Wimal meeting, but is unable to make sense of why, for god’s sake, these two went there at all.
Democratic Political Culture
The third response, which I share with both Nirmal and Kumudu, is the following: May Day demonstrations and rallies are part of a long tradition of democratic and Left politics in Sri Lanka. Political activists and academics watching them, irrespective of their own political sympathies, are also integral to that political tradition. Observing party political rallies during election campaigns, irrespective of one’s political affiliations, is also embedded in that democratic legacy. In my own experience, until recently I too have practiced this political habit with no hostile consequences, although I am also a well-known critic of certain political parties.It is my old age that prevented me from indulging in this incorrigible habit this May Day, and perhaps saved me from a good beating!
The attack on Nirmal and Kumudu and its open and veiled rationalizations tell us that there is something really nasty about our contemporary political culture.It is about the presence of a deep and hostile polarization in the structures of our society’s political consciousness that treats adversary as an enemy, critic a traitor, and dissent treason. I have experienced this even within our university system in which the authorities until recently – that is, till the second week of January this year — considered dissent as the cousin of terrorism.
This incident also tells us that the 19th Amendment is not enough for democratization in Sri Lanka. Constitutional and legal reforms can only lay the institutional foundations for change. We need a democratic revolution in the political consciousness of our society leading to a substantive transformation in our political culture, values, practices, and forms of political life. However, a sort of counter-revolution, that has the potential of reversing all the gains for democracy, is also in the making at present. Sri Lanka’s politics in the coming months is certain to be conditioned by the intensification of the struggle between two opposing forces – (a) continuing democratization within a limited framework, and (b) return to authoritarianism on an expansive template.
The ‘Bring Mahinda Back’ campaign (hereafter BMBC) seems to be gathering momentum. Visual media reports of the rally held in Kurunegala last Friday show that the organizers have managed to mobilize a big and enthusiastic crowd, eagerly anticipating the second coming of their deposed leader.
What does the BMBC say about current politics in Sri Lanka? It in fact shows us the interplay of a number of interesting trends that characterize the trajectories of our politics today and tomorrow. Perhaps the most important facet it shows is the widening of the space for democratic politics since the regime change in January. The intensity of the open contestation between the government and the newly emerged opposition formation is something that may not have been allowed, and even tolerated, a few months ago. It enjoys so much coverage in the media, generating immense public political interest and debates. Even the government is put on the defensive, which is not a bad thing, from the point of view of democracy. The UPFA MPs seem to be exercising and enjoying their newly gained freedom of speech to the utmost. For the first time in recent history, perhaps in their life, they are criticizing a government, its President, the Prime Minister, Ministers, and their policies. Meanwhile, what Sri Lanka lacked under the past regime are effective checks and balances on those who wielded state power. Checks and balances on the government, both formal and informal, now galore. ‘Democracy is now having a ball,’ as my late mother- in –law would have said in her Negombo English.
It is also important to note that the BMBC is gathering momentum in a context where the line of demarcation between the government and the opposition has become blurred under rather strange and unique circumstances. President Maithripala Sirisena, who won the election in January with the support of the UNP, the then opposition party, is now heading the UPFA and the SLFP, against which he contested the presidential election. To make the situation somewhat more surreal, both the President and the Leader of the Opposition are from the same party, the SLFP. Thus, the distinction between the government and the opposition has become indistinct.
Against this backdrop, the line of antagonism –-which is not unusual in parliamentary politics — between the ruling party and the opposition is seen by the ordinary SLFP supporters as one between the UNP and the BMBC. In fact, the present success of the BMBC, at least in terms of its attraction to the SLFP voters in the rural districts, can partly be explained by the fact that it offers them an alternative organizational space to reenact the familiar politics of antagonism between the SLFP and the UNP. Even some of the SLFP ministers of President Sirisena’s cabinet, which is headed by a UNP Prime Minister, enjoy the freedom to re-sharpen the old hostility between the SLFP and the UNP with a rather liberal attitude to the principle of collective responsibility of the cabinet.
In a somewhat paradoxical way, and consequent to the peculiar circumstances in which the SLFP finds itself today, BMBC is also a SLFP campaign against the SLFP.It is the logic of this unusual political situation that is likely to ensure the inevitability of the breaking up of the SLFP as a political party. It is quite clear that the SLFP has already split into two antagonistic camps. The Maithri-Mahinda meeting, as the media reports suggest, seems to have only accelerated the pace of the inevitable. It is difficult to see at present how the growing antagonism between the two camps could be resolved amicably. Judging by the media reports of the Maithri-Mahinda meeting, the two sides have engaged in a game of hard bargaining with no intention of reconciliation.
From a broader point of view, the splitting of the SLFP at the present juncture might not actually be a bad thing. It can be good for the SLFP as well as fordemocracy in Sri Lanka, because it will hopefully prevent a bitter and potentially violent factional power struggle within the party. Such a power struggle might even run the risk of spreading itself across the state structure. A split might also enable those in the BMBC to realize that to bring their leader back to power, they need to politically convince a majority of Sri Lankan voters of all ethnic and cultural identities. For that they need a good political programme that can appeal to the democratic political imagination and seasoned political judgment of our citizens. They also need to learn that politically empty demagogic and provocative slogans uttered in shrill speeches can hardly be a substitute for a political programme.
Poverty of Politics
While the BMBC has emerged as the most organized, energetic and influential ‘political’ campaign in the country today, its political agenda is devoid of any substantive politics. It has only one mobilization slogan, ‘bring Mahinda back.’ It is a slogan backed by not even a single constructive political idea aimed at enhancing the quality of political life of the Sri Lankan citizens. It has no promise of democratic political reforms; nor does it go beyond propagating mass hysteria, leadership cult, and the cult of the militarized state. That is why the BMBC is in essence an authoritarian project whichpresents the Leader, not a programme of reform, to the masses as the most visible embodiment of the nation, the state, sovereignty, politics, and, no less, the future of all of us.
It is quite instructive to juxtapose this extreme personalization embedded in the politics of BMBC with the ‘anti-politics of personality,’ which President Sirisena seems to be practicing. He is obviously committed to depersonalizing the office of the head of state and government, in both substance and style. His giving up of all those unlimited presidential powers and his personal style of modesty can be interpreted as marking a new phase of Sri Lankan politics which can be described, by borrowing a term from Claude Lefort, the French political theorist, as one of ‘disincarnation of society.’ It is a condition specific to modern democracy in which no individual, or figure, can or should represent the political unity of society; it is the democratic constitution, not the supreme leader, that embodies social and political unity.
For good or bad, President Sirisena is not an ideological politician.Therefore, he does not seem to know the importance of explaining this particular democratic virtue of his ‘anti-politics of personality’to the masses in ideological terms. His spokespersons and media team, if there is one at all, seem to be at a loss in making political sense of their leader’s refreshing, innovative, and ground breaking mode of politics. This is a decisive disadvantage which President Sirisena can only ill afford to have even for a few more months.
Even a superficially psychoanalytical reading of Sri Lanka’s contemporary politics shows that during the past few years, there has been an extremely novel phenomenon which has emerged with the capacity to re-orient the nature of political competition. It refers to the cultivation of an authoritarian father,big brother, sovereign – superman figure, claiming to embody the nation and its destiny. Aided by the colour television, digital printing, larger than life billboards, and genuinely sycophantic professionals in the artistic, media and university circles, the image of the former President was also presented, particularly during the last election campaign, with not – so – subtle libidinal messages. It is quite interesting that the BMBC campaign has revived this strategy of libidinal propaganda, once again in a not-so-subtle manner, to make a sharp distinction between Mr. Rajapaska on one hand and Messrs Sirisena and Wickremesinghe on the other.
I have heard quite a few times people, who have voted for as well as against Mr. Sirisena, complaining: “What is this? We don’t even feel that there is a President!” To feel the presence of a President, the President has to be an object of desire and worship as well! This is one of the most pernicious aspects of the depoliticization effect, which the politics of personality cult has built in Sri Lanka over several years. This effect is so overwhelming that even those intellectual sections of the BMBC campaign show great pride in the poverty of politics in their project.
It is in this paradigm of depoliticized and authoritarian politics that the violence to which Nirmal and Kumudu were subjected at the May Day rally can be explained away, and rationalized, by the argument that Nirmal was responsible for the electoral defeat of the former President, and it was simply provocative for him to be there at the rally with his colleague, and therefore the duo got a beating of their own volition.
Courtesy: The Island