It has been a time of much confusion in our politics after January 8 but the fundamentals have been clear enough. We can of course have varying notions of what are the fundamentals. My first fundamental is that the time for the grand narrative is over. Most of us can hardly think nowadays in terms of an ideology and an accompanying program that is going to set everything right. The contemporary outlook, right across the globe, might be best described as political meliorism: identify what can be improved and try to effect that improvement. Probably meliorism in that sense has been at the root of the best politics right down the centuries except when a revolution is required. The most important dictum to remember in meliorist politics is that politics is the art of the possible.
Bearing all that in mind I would say that President Sirisena has done well enough considering particularly the very difficult position in which he was placed: the SLFP leader who came to power by grace of the UNP and backs a UNP minority Government while the SLFP has the Parliamentary majority, and so on. First of all by not compelling Rajapaksa to form another Party he has prevented the breakup of the SLFP and thereby he has been true to his mandate as SLFP leader. At the same time he has committed himself to the continuity of what many people see as the January 8 Revolution. It is arguable that as President he has shown the capacity to be true to his Party and also to transcend it to be true to the Nation. But we have to face up to the fact that he was not able to secure the resignation of the Governor of the Central Bank over the Treasury bond scam. At this point we must bear in mind what should be the second dictum of meliorist politics, the first being that politics is the art of the possible. The second is this: in politics the choice usually is not between the good and the bad, but between the bad and the worse. A Government headed by Ranil W may be bad. One headed by Rajapakse would be worse.
The fundamental problems on which we have to focus are those of the economy, democracy, and the ethnic problem. The economy does not pose much of a problem in regard to its basics because there is now a broad consensus, both locally and internationally, about them. The engine of growth has to be the private sector while the State has to play a regulatory role and also combine growth with equity. All that entails enormous problems of course. What I mean is that there is consensus between the two major parties on the basics, on how to handle the economy. Hardly anyone today wants to go back to the state-centric economy of the past. Differences of emphasis will continue: the SLFP may be more people-friendly because it has populism ingrained in it while the UNP could be more realistic on the economy but ruthless over claims of equity. But broadly there is a national consensus on the economy.
On the problem of democracy there is nothing like a national consensus. The surge of popular support for Rajapaksa in recent months shows the enduring appeal of what might be called racist neo-Fascism for a part of the Sinhalese Buddhist masses. This should be seen in the global perspective of the widening prevalence of identity politics. In Afro-Asian countries where democratic traditions are weak the turn to identity politics can slide into racist neo-Fascism. I will not attempt a definition of that term because such definitions are never definitive in the sense that they command universal assent. Instead I will jot down some points taken from an excellent account of what European Fascism meant in practice. The Fascist movements shared certain common features including the veneration of the state, a devotion to a strong leader, and an emphasis on ultranationalism, ethnocentrism, and militarism. Fascism viewed political violence, war, and imperialism as a means of achieving national rejuvenation, and asserted that superior nations and races should attain living space by displacing weak and inferior ones. I need not spell out to the reader how exactly all that fits the prominent features of the Rajapaksa regime, except for the out of context features of imperialism.
At the forthcoming General Elections the UNP may win but perhaps without a stable majority, or it may be an outright victory. In either case we can expect the appeal of racist neo-Fascism to continue among a segment of the Sri Lankan people. We have to try to eradicate it or at least contain it within a well-entrenched democracy. I have in mind the example set by India. The BJP had its ideological genesis in the RSS which was a far more extreme manifestation of identity politics than anything we have known in Sri Lanka under the rubric of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. But the government of Vajpayee was a mild affair and although Modi is a far more redoubtable figure the potentially sinister forces behind him have been – at least up to now – been contained within India’s well-entrenched democracy. We have to hope for accommodation along those lines if the neo-Fascist appeal cannot be eradicated altogether.
The vicissitudes of Sri Lankan democracy have been far greater than those of India. There democracy broke down just for a couple of years under Indira’s Emergency, but has been dynamic for the rest of the time. Here democracy was nullified under JR and has been under fire during many periods. The determinant has been the civil society which has always been dynamic in India whereas here it became a door-mat under JR – mainly because he could be forgiven anything for having brought us colour TV – and was rather like a zombie for most of the time. But it made an impressive contribution to the January 8 Revolution. The lesson to be drawn is that in Sri Lanka the most important component of democracy is not a separation of powers or anything like that but a dynamic civil society. Its dynamism augurs well for our democratic future.
Should the UNP and Ranil W come to power with a stable majority the situation should be more propitious for a political solution of the ethnic problem than for a long time. There is a note of moderation in statements from the TNA and even more from the GTF. But the signals are confusing because Chief Minister Wigneswaran has been striking belligerent postures that have provoked the ire of the Opposition in particular. In this situation we must bear certain fundamentals in mind. One is that a fully functioning democracy of the sort that prevails in the West is essential for a solution. Our Tamils insist on a wide measure of devolution, which will inevitably spawn centre/periphery problems of a very troublesome order. Such problems cannot be handled smoothly without a spirit of democratic accommodativeness and trust on both sides.
There will never be a solution to the ethnic problem in practice unless there is a high level of trust on both sides. I believe that that high level of trust can best be promoted if the ethnic problem is handled in terms of a paradigm of racism. I have written several articles on that paradigm, so that I can be brief about it here. There are two reasons of fundamental importance behind the failure to achieve a solution up to now. The Tamils believe that the Sinhalese will never give fair and equal treatment to them.