Sri Lanka’s Populist Paradox

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 12:13 AM Jun 10 2021
Columns Sri Lanka’s Populist Paradox

By Uditha Devapriya

One of the most curious things about this pandemic is how, and how much, it’s impacted the myth of the strongman. I don’t mean to say the virus has deflated the myth; merely that it has reinforced it for its supporters and undermined it for its detractors. Populism is a double-edged sword: it cuts one way and blunts the other. 

Depending on which side you are, you either champion or demean it. It’s one of the oldest political philosophies out there, antedating capitalism and Marxism by centuries. Shakespeare may have introduced it to the English theatre with Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Caesar, but it preceded Caesar’s and Antony’s Athens; the Demagogues may even have perfected an art borrowed from elsewhere, though we will never know. 

Whatever its origins, in its present form it’s taken root in East and West. Pandemic or no pandemic, it continues to thrive, undeterred, undiminished. The costs have been enormous. Electorates that voted in populists have turned the other way; the US is an obvious example. In India, Modi’s halo continues to slip by the day, though recent Election results don’t reflect the depths to which his party has sunk. 

Contrary to liberal opinion, it’s not just in presidential systems where these backlashes have taken place: India is a case in point, but examples abound across Europe, from Boris’s Britain to Victor’s Hungary. 

While it’s a little hard to say how these strongmen will fare at an Election, it’s a no-brainer that their man-of-the-people moment has passed, or is passing through its twilight. Of course, the farther to the right these strongmen are, the more assured they can be about their electoral prospects: in Brazil, for instance, thousands have been protesting Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the pandemic for weeks, some even calling for his impeachment. 

Yet so far, these protests have failed to get adequate coverage from the Western press. But then Brazil is not the world; elsewhere, particularly in left populist (pink populist) regimes, the pressures of electoral democracy have posed a threat to left populism. The future of populist politics seems a tad uncertain, though it remains as formidable as it always was. 

In Sri Lanka, populism’s had its day for over three decades. Unlike in India, where the tumults of a parliamentary system run on federal lines could intensify polarities and push to the centre a nationalist-populist within that system, over here the transition to populism accompanied a shift from Westminster to Gaullism. 

Although Ranasinghe Premadasa is considered our first populist, it was actually his predecessor’s combination of neoliberal economics and chauvinist cosmetics that made his brand of populism possible. Premadasa won by a waferthin margin in 1988; the poll could have easily gone the other way. The final result confirmed that despite the backlash against J. R. Jayewardene’s policies, our middle bourgeoisie preferred the continuation of those policies to a reversal to what life had been before their establishment. Under Jayewardene, in other words, this middle bourgeoisie both embraced a market economy and tilted to a welfarist conception of it. It is the latter paradox that defines populism here today. 

Easy to define than grasp 

The paradox is easy to define, less so to comprehend. Unlike many countries that underwent a neoliberal revolution, Jayewardene’s opening up of the economy did not squeeze the middleclass out of existence; on the contrary, it propped up a new rich entrapped in the consumerist trappings of a market economy. 

With the erosion of the Old Left, and the migration to the NGO sector of activists associated with the Old Left, this middle-class ‘moved out’ of radical politics. Ensconced in a new class setting, it came to dominate establishment politics, determining the course of mainstream parties and voting for Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2019 and his party in 2020: the political expression of what some call the Kelani Valley bourgeoisie. 

Electoral success in Sri Lanka has generally not drawn from the working class. While successive Governments have worked in tandem with the radical Left, this has not lead those Governments to accept, still less incorporate, the political programme of the radical Left. What that means is that populism in Sri Lanka has never been a populism of the working class; it has almost always been a populism of the Kelani Valley middle bourgeoisie: a populism rooted in the one hand on exclusivist nationalism and on the other in market fundamentalism. 

Now the paradox of our populism is that while it remains rooted in anger at economic elites, it accepts many of the principles those elites follow, including the neoliberal doctrine of market-led growth. In other words, populism in Sri Lanka has become synonymous with opposition not to economic elites, but to the public sector. 

A corollary of this distrust with that sector has been a desire to carve alternative non-political intellectual spaces: Viyath Maga and Eliya (the SLPP), 43 Senankaya (Champika Ranawaka), and Buddhi Mandapaya (the SJB). Such a state of affairs came about owing to an absence of a working class element in populist politics. The populist moment in Sri Lanka died with Ranasinghe Premadasa, and was revived more than a decade later by Mahinda Rajapaksa. Throughout this period, the shift to the right of both SLFP and UNP ensured the erosion of working class participation in politics. 

Working class mobilisation 

Authoritarian neoliberalism, which peaked during the Jayewardene presidency and softened under Premadasa’s, faced a resurgence during the Kumaratunga years, even if not to the same lengths to which Jayewardene took it. What little working class involvement or mobilisation we saw in these years was limited largely to the centre-left rear guard of the SLFP, led by Mahinda Rajapaksa; that the latter’s Workers’ Charter, in my view the most progressive piece of labour legislation mooted since 1977, never saw the light of day, and was shot down by members of his own party, speaks volumes about the fate of the Left. 

These processes ironically fed into the very forces they tried to oppose, including majoritarian chauvinism. As Dayan Jayatilleka has correctly pointed out, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s co-option of the nationalist clergy kept the latter away from the path of militant politics. Marginalised and unrepresented, this clergy, and the intelligentsia supporting them, took to that path during the Kumaratunga years. Thus if the peak of nationalist debates in the 1980s was the publication of Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Anagarika Dharmapala Marxvadida and Nalin de Silva’s Mage Lokaya, their peak in the Kumaratunga years was the establishment of parties rooted in the worldview of those texts and their authors: the Sihala Urumaya and Jathika Hela Urumaya. 

Commentators distinguish between right populism and left populism on the grounds that while the latter pits the people against elites, the former mobilises them against elites by demonising other outsiders, in particular ethnic minorities. Such distinctions do not help one delve into the roots of populism per se, but taking them into consideration here, it becomes clear that since 1993, the year of Premadasa’s assassination, populism in Sri Lanka has taken a more rightward turn. From the neoliberal liberalisation of the Kumaratunga administration to the centre-left first administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa (2005-2010), to Rajapaksa’s tilt to the right in his second administration (2010-2015), to the yahapalana regime’s doctrine of ‘globalising and liberalising’ (2015- 2019), we have come full circle to centreright Bonapartism. We seem to be closing in on a maelstrom from which we cannot escape.

 What’s our escape plan? Essentially, what we’ve been seeing since the Jayewardene years of neoliberal authoritarianism is a bifurcation in our intellectual trajectory between what Rajan Phillips, in a series of insightful essays, describes as an ‘NGO formation’ and a ‘Jathika Chintana formation.’ Dr. Jayatilleka, in a lengthy piece on the Opposition, accepts this distinction, yet points out that the path should not bifurcate, but trifurcate – with the third road taking us out into a Populist Path. 

Given the state of populism today, I wonder what the prospects of those who take to its path are. Given how neoliberal market fundamentalism has dovetailed with and fed into the forces of nationalist fundamentalism, though, I find my belief in such a path unshaken. Perhaps what we need is not a strongman to set things right, but a populist capable of bringing together as many classes as possible. 

We don’t need a Modi, still less a Bolsonaro; instead we need a reversal to a populism that empowers, not an entrenched Sinhala middle bourgeoisie, but Partha Chatterjee’s ‘dangerous classes.’ In other words, what we need is not a Left Populism, but a Working Class Left Populism. Just where are the populists to see this revolution through?

By Uditha Devapriya | Published: 12:13 AM Jun 10 2021

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