When a future historian writes the political history of the most obtuse and inept government in postcolonial Sri Lanka, he or she will doubtless identify its most myopic move as the Constitutional prevention of Mahinda Rajapaksa running for President again, thereby opening the door for the fulfilment of the worst fear of the neoliberal cosmopolitan democrats, namely a Gotabhaya candidacy.
A pivotal moment will be identified as May 18, 2018, when TV audiences watched the quasi-martial ‘Pongu Thamil’ optics from Mullivaikkal (black uniforms, motorcycle parade with red and black flags, school flags at half mast, mobilized school-kids) and heard Chief Minister Wigneswaran’s resolution declaring ‘Tamil Genocide Day’. The real meaning of Mullivaikkal 2018 was translated for us by the country’s highest qualified academic, Prof. Ratnajeevan S. Hoole:
“…LTTE supporters had taken it over, and played Eelamist songs. People we could not see for the crowds gave hysterical speeches about the day that their dreams of Eelam were snuffed out”.(‘Mullivaikkal: A Burgeoning Movement’,CT, May 20, 2018)
Tiger separatists are back in our face while the State is in retreat, nine years after we won the war. In 2015 the Tamils and Muslims voted as blocs. In 2019 it may be the Sinhalese.Thus, the ‘Gotabhayan moment’ may be arriving.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa broke through enemy lines on May 13 and secured the toughest of objectives. He liberated Colombo’s capitalist class from its traditional party, the UNP, at a time the UNP is in government (and Mahinda is not even the Leader of the Opposition). This had been done only once before—in 1994 when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won the bourgeoisie over from the UNP. Mahinda’s unmatched appeal and his brother Basil’s organizational mastery had reduced the UNP to 32% on Feb 10th 2018. Now, Mahinda’s other brother Gotabaya, the masterful manager of the military victory over Tiger terrorism, had just drilled through the UNP’s bourgeois base in the citadel itself, Colombo, and administered the sociological coup de grace at the Shangri-La hotel’s largest hall. The Rajapaksa brothers have scythed away the UNP at its base and apex; its feet and head.
The dynamics and discourse at the Shangri-La clearly confirmed that Mahinda was still The Man.The paradox and the problem is that unless the 19th Amendment is modified (to include the term ‘consecutive’), The Man can never be the President.
The social move to Gotabaya denotes a deeper change. The minoritarianism,economic decline and patronizing Western postures of post-2015 neoliberal democracy,triggered a tectonic shift of social consciousness to a strong State, strong patriotic leadership and tougher-mindedness on the economic, ethnic and foreign policy fronts, similar to Russia’s shift to Putin after the disastrous pro-Western liberalism of the 1990s,and shifts in India, Turkey and the Philippines to Modi,Erdogan and Duterte respectively. While I have little problem accommodating such shifts and would welcome some of them,two things worry me.
One is that strident Tamil political adventurism has generated an Alt-Right mood and momentum among all classes in the South, rendering society ripe for a Netanyahu-Trump type ‘turn’/‘pushback’. Decades after the Tamil elite led the way to sectarianism, followed by Cyril Mathew, Gamini Jayasuriya’s SAS, Hela Urumaya, DUNF, and Sihala Urumaya, there is an affluent bilingual Sinhala elite (not merely the lower middle classes) including in the Diaspora, which has converted to a New Right neoconservative nationalism.
My second concern is the economic policy model that was rolled-out at the Shangri-La by Gotabaya. As a high-growth strategy on the right flank of the Mahinda coalition, under Mahinda’s leadership i.e. a sub-set of a larger Mahinda policy paradigm, it would be fine. However, as a stand-alone model or the dominant (Presidential) one, it will generate major structural contradictions, triggering a cycle of conflict.
The GR model as unveiled at Viyath Maga gave no importance to poverty, the peasantry, landlessness, inequity, poverty reduction, and social upliftment.It had no place for the people or social justice. The goal was high economic growth with law and order. Social questions and public welfare were conspicuously absent and the assumption seemed to be ‘trickle down’. The vision is socially ‘thin’, ungrounded; a holographic projection with little social ‘thickness’, inclusivity, depth or rootedness in complex social reality.
This paradigm is a throwback to the ‘ASEAN model’of the UNP of the 1980s– particularly the ideology of Lalith Athulathmudali in the ’80s. Athulathmudali was close to Reaganite Republicans, a friend of hawkish US Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger, had taught in Israel and Singapore, held tough rightwing views on economics,student protest, the ethnic issue and foreign policy and pushed the ‘Israeli (Occupied Territories)model’ for the Tamil Question.
The UNP’s economic doctrine produced an early-1980s ‘high growth bubble’. The governing elite ignored the warnings of Prime Minister Premadasa about poverty and inequity. He tabled the Warnasena Rasaputram Report on Poverty, building on a UNICEF study. The prevailing economic and (authoritarian) political model caused a volcanic insurrection by underprivileged youth. A top-down technocratic model did not work in Sri Lanka in the 1950s–when it triggered the August 1953 ‘Hartal’– orin the 1980s despite the heavy ‘law and order’ fist of the Jayewardene-Athulathmudaliregime.
Translated into SLFP history, Gotabaya’s vision is like that of Felix Dias Bandaranaike in the 1970s, representing the SLFP Right rather than the Rajapaksian centre-left, progressive Populism.
The paradigm generates contradictions and resistance along three axial routes:
(I) The South-South axis, where social insensitivity,inequity and structural marginalization will trigger clashes with students, workers, peasants, fisherfolk and neighbourhood communities.
(II) The North-South axis, where tokenistic integrationism/assimilationism in place of a geopolitically sustainable political equation, will render the Tamil Question utterly intractable.
(III) The Democracy-Autocracy axis, where the top-down technocratic model itself requires authoritarianism (Felix called it “a little bit of totalitarianism”) and will thereby erode legitimacy and trigger resistance.
Gotabaya surely can and must do better. The people are the nation. Any truly national project must be a people’s project. So far, this is not a people’s project. It lacks a social soul. The proven successes described in Dr. Nalaka Godahewa’s speech at the Shangri-La are the economic models of Presidents Premadasa and Rajapaksa (both of whom Dr. P.B. Jayasundara worked with).
Neville Jayaweera, one of the most distinguished products of the elite Ceylon Civil Service in the post-Independence years, made this comparative evaluation of Premadasa’s vision, 16 years after his assassination: “…The soaring vision he had for his country, and I do not mean merely for the Sinhala people but for Sri Lanka as a nation, was unmatched by any political leader of the last century, either conceptually, or in terms of the intelligence and managerial energy with which he backed it up…”(‘Unmasking Premadasa’, Sunday Observer, Jan 11, 2009)
The secret of Premadasa’s development vision was that it was inclusive, consultative and bottom-up, and as he called it, “peoplised”:
“Whatever development we may bring about should be to the benefit of the poor. Development in any sense should help people live…If technology cannot eliminate poverty, unemployment, want, we have no need for that technology. If the scientist and the technologist cannot provide relief to the poor, what need has humanity for such a scientist or technologist!”(‘Providing Assets to the Asset-less’, 13.2. 89)
“What sort of Sri Lanka do we want to create? What sort of motherland do we want to leave for our children? We must strive to build a fair society for all. This means a society in which everyone is provided with the tools and the opportunity for advancement. The tools the State must provide are security, education, social justice, access to opportunity.” (Annual Conference of the Judicial Service Association of Sri Lanka, 30.11.’90)
Any leader can apply this successful paradigm,if they have the heart to do it.