by Izeth Hussain
In the aftermath of the recent Presidential election a new political configuration seems to be taking place, which requires careful assessment as it could be of immense importance for Sri Lanka’s future. Obviously, a convergence has been taking place between the two major parties, the UNP and the SLFP, as I have noted in earlier articles, which could portend the emergence of a third party, a neo-Fascist one. Alternatively, the SLFP could transmogrify into a basically neo-Fascist Party while the UNP becomes a basically democratic Party. But, before proceeding further, let me make some observations on the convergence that has been taking place.
I believe that the convergence is due to changes of a structural order, not a transitional phenomenon that flows from political expediency, for instance from a drive to get more votes at the next round of elections. In the economic realm the changes are dictated by the inequities of contemporary capitalism, changes which will be recognized as necessary by both major parties. In my last article I referred to the emphasis placed on direct taxation as against indirect taxation in the mini-Budget, a people-friendly measure that accords more with the ethos of the SLFP but it comes from the UNP. Underlying it is the structural factor that in contemporary capitalism there is an innate dynamic for the rich to become richer and the poor poorer. Equity demands that that drive be countered: it could be dangerous to Governments regardless of whether they are left-wing or right-wing. That is the logic behind the shift to direct taxation.
The truth is that after the disasters brought about by Reagonomics and Thatcherism, due mainly to the centrality given to unregulated markets, and even more after the Great Recession of 2008 in the US, Western thinkers have been preoccupied with the problem of making contemporary capitalism work. The result is to be seen when Housing Minister Sajith Premadasa recently proclaimed “By and large, free enterprise is accepted as a system that works well in creating wealth for the people. But, nevertheless, if the forces in a free market were left unchecked, it could make the rich richer and the poor poorer”. According to The Island of Feb. 11, Premadasa’s statement to an audience of construction industry sakeholders caused some alarm, evidently because it meant that the State would be intervening in the economy to a significant extent. That alarm is easily understandable given the fact that the record of State intrusion into the Sri Lankan economy has been largely one of destructive stupidity. However, Premadasa’s statement has behind it not so much Sri Lankan populism or socialism as Western thinking about correctives to the market economy. Anyway, both the shift to direct taxation and Premadasa’s statement are more in accord with the SLFP ethos than with that of the UNP.
I am pointing above to the convergence in economic policy of the two major parties. In an earlier article I have dwelt on the underlying sociological reasons for the convergence. Here I will note the remarkable convergence in the lifestyles of the UNP and SLFP power elites. A pre-1956 elections cartoon portraying Sir Jon Kotelawala riding the UNP elephant together with Egyptian belly dancer Zou Zou Mohammed was reproduced in The Island recently, with a commentary analyzing the symbolic significance of those and other details. Sir John was known for his allegedly sybaritic lifestyle, a notion that rubbed off on his Westernised associates. He suffered a cataclysmic defeat at the 1956 elections, which was seen among other things as a defeat of the Westernised elite and their lifestyle. It has to be expected, I suppose, that after the recent resumption of power by the UNP its elite too will revive the merry ways of Sir John. But surely we cannot ignore the fact that the not so Westernised power elite of the UPFA, the inheritors of the 1956 SLFP, and more particularly their children, had a sybaritic lifestyle that far outdid that of Sir John. The truth is that most of our Governments have behaved like conquerors, and we must bear in mind that conquerors conquer not to lead ascetic lives but – among other things – to have a pukkah time.
So, there has been a notable convergence between our two major parties, though significant differences between them do continue. The UNP is more Western-oriented, more bourgeois and less socialist, more sympathetic to the Christians and the ethnic minorities, than the SLFP. On foreign policy there is no significant difference between them, now that the Cold War is over. However, the differences though significant are only differences of degree, not differences of a polar order, and consequently the two parties have in practice become commutative in the sense that one can go with ease from one party to the other. That is a significant factor behind the crossovers that have become a staple of our politics.
But, I believe that we could now be on the verge of a new polarization in our politics, between democracy and racist neo-Fascism, if our national question remains unresolved. I would hold that all our parties apart from the minority ethnic parties, and not excluding the Marxist parties, have been to varying degrees – may be to vastly varying degrees – racist Sinhala supremacist parties. My qualification “to vastly varying degrees” is important because it is meant to point to the possibility that the Sinhalese power elite could in time cease to be racist. But for the present we have to confront the ugly fact that racist Sinhala supremacism remains powerful in Sri Lanka.
That racism has always been most powerfully concentrated within the SLFP. It is a party which has always had schism within its ranks right from the beginning, with the liberal-democratic-socialist trend represented by S.W.R.D Bandaranaike and the racist neo-Fascist trend represented by the likes of Ven. Buddharakkitha thera. SWRD, the only statesman in twentieth century Sri Lanka, was prescient enough to know that the Sinhala Buddhists had to emerge and be given their rightful place in Sri Lanka, but he also understood the dangers inherent in that process. That was why he called that Reverend monk Buddy Racketeer. Anyway he was assassinated, and probably it was that that made it possible to contain the Sinhala Buddhist extremists. But after 2009 they have emerged in full force and fury under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa. That was best shown not just by the refusal to budge an inch towards a political solution of the Tamil ethnic problem but by the humiliations heaped on the Tamils in the north, in a brazen display of the arrogance of the conqueror. It was also shown by the creation of a major ethnic problem out of the most abjectly submissive minority in the world, the Sri Lankan Muslims.
The SLFP is now faced with major schism. Who is to lead it at the forthcoming general elections? As MR suffered a substantial defeat at the Presidential elections, it would appear that the leadership should go to Maithripala Sirisena or someone else. In that case MR could become the leader of a third party backed mainly by racist neo-Fascists. But he won a majority of the Sinhalese votes, and furthermore he won 90% of the SLFP votes, on which ground he could lay claim to leadership. We cannot be certain about what might happen at the general elections, but we can be certain that the struggle has to be between democracy and racist neo-Fascism, and that the victory of the latter will be perilous for Sri Lanka.