Unveiling his political vision for a Ã¢Â€Â˜new Sri Lankan order’ this week, Mangala Samaraweera challenged Sri Lankans to envision a better future. Dare, he said, to dream which, as a rallying cry in these miasmic times, has an even more piquant ring to it in the Sinhalese Ã¢Â€Â˜Sihinaye Abhiyogaya’.
The SLFP-Mahajana Wing’s discussion document is remarkable, both for its length, breadth and depth, and the fact that it has been produced by a Sri Lankan political party. Ideological conviction, articulacy, ideas, and policy debate – in short the pith and substance of democratic political leadership – are not things usually associated with the Sri Lankan political culture, and certainly not with its political parties. Yet this is what Samaraweera, with self-assurance and verve, succeeds in demonstrating with this document.
The paper is structured in more or less three parts. In the first, we find a sweeping historical overview of the glorious past of this resplendent isle, which liberally sprinkled with references to Tennent and Wright, Fa Hsien and Pliny would do Mr. Samaraweera’s intellectual credentials no harm. In the second is a bold and critical analysis of why and how Sri Lankan is a failing State, both in respect of economic development as well as in the failure to constitutionally resolve the challenges of diversity. There is a terrific attack, uplifting in its audacity, on the Rajapakse administration as not only incompetent and self-serving but also racist and fascist.
This sets the stage for the articulation of a broad tripartite vision with regard to peace and constitutional reform, governance and the economy. As far as any analysis and articulation of policy choices are concerned, most of what is said in the document is relevant and thoughtful. More intriguing is the manner in which what is being said is said, and also what is not being said. For example, on the question of a peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict, there is a declaration of belief in the principle of Ã¢Â€Â˜unity in diversity’. This can mean anything from a slogan for federalists to an expression of the JVP’s worldview. Similarly, the detail of many of the document’s propositions will bedevil the prospects for building a political coalition against the Rajapakse administration with potential partners as disparate as the UNP, the JVP and the minority parties. This fact, however, has clearly been contemplated, and ingeniously neutralised as an obstacle to negotiations by an open acknowledgement of the diversity of views that exist on the means and modalities of conflict resolution.
But in fairness, articulating detailed policy prescriptions or proposals is not the purpose of the document. Its purpose is the expression of a coalition-building platform broad enough to attract partners from left, right and centre and across ethnic divides, yet precise enough to avoid vacuity. Broad brushstrokes are therefore an appropriate technique at this stage. After all, the ultimate goal is nothing less than a radical and fundamental shift in the politics of the South.
In terms of content, Mr. Samaraweera’s document strikes all the right chords, with its commitment to human rights and the rule of law, democratic reforms to the constitution and good governance, a negotiated settlement to the conflict through an inclusive process (including the LTTE), and its foreign and economic policy directions. Clearly, the substance of the document shows that considerable effort and reflection that has gone into it. Moreover, its substance has the political advantage of favourable comparison with the ineptitude of the President personally and his administration in general, even if the fact is that this incompetence is so great that any comparison can only be favourable. That takes nothing away from Samaraweera, however. He has shown real leadership and sense of timing in crossing over to oppose this government; his speech in parliament last week and this discussion document show that he is a man of substance and ideas.
But far more interesting is its style, which shows acute political sense and considerable public relations and communications skill. There is a deft use of clichÃƒÂ©s: Sri Lanka could have been the Ã¢Â€Â˜Switzerland of Asia’. There are appeals to historical sentimentality about our place in the world, in support of which foreigners’ views, especially if they are British, are pressed into service. It does not matter that 90% of his audience would never have read Tennent’s two volume commentary or Wright’s lengthy impressions; the mere invocation of these vaguely familiar names adds an unmatchable sense of weight and respectability. This is a clever exploitation of some of the enduring themes of the post-colonial Sri Lankan zeitgeist, and also includes that old favourite about Lee Kuan Yew’s envious reference to the idyllic Ceylon of the 1960s, peaceful and prosperous. No matter that these are stories (some manifestly myths) hackneyed for decades over countless arracks in Colombo’s clubs; in Sri Lanka, they still do the trick for the Young Turk who wants to cut a dash.
Thus, all in all, Mr. Samaraweera and his SLFP Mahajana Wing succeed in demonstrating both the style and substance that makes for good politics. In doing so, he has restored a semblance of hope that there is still some life in Sri Lankan democracy. This is much more than the UNP can claim credit for, despite evidence of recent activity (at last). There is no doubt that he will bowl over the Western Province middle classes, civil society and the international community with this. Fortunately, his representation of a rural constituency, unimpeachable Southern roots and proven record as a campaigner means that he can take this message to the national electorate as a whole. Much will depend of course on how well he is able to build partnerships with the UNP and other parties, which can coalesce into a parliamentary majority in the budget vote later this year to trigger a dissolution, and then an election winning juggernaut against this shambolic government. But the momentum of events Mr. Samaraweera has maintained since his crossover reveals that he has a plan and knows what he is doing. For the sake of democracy in Sri Lanka, by showing that democratic opposition to authoritarianism is still possible, this can only be good news.
But the battle has only begun. The government can be expected to respond in the way it knows best, with repression and violence. Therefore, if Mr. Samaraweera has shown the courage of his convictions over the past week, in the future he will also have to demonstrate courage of a more physical kind.
As has been argued before in this column, in a democratic polity, the citizenry needs to entertain an attitude of critical scepticism in order for the scheme and logic of the democratic form of government to work. This is not the same as apathy and cynicism. In this context, we need to take a long hard look at what Mr. Samaraweera is proposing, which in the recent tenor of the times, seems almost too good to be true.
Yet, things may be changing. Ranil Wickremasinghe has given some good performances within and outside the House in the past few weeks, and the UNP is clearly stirring, attracting large crowds in the country. The JVP is effectively in the Opposition and perhaps more importantly, there seems to be a shift within the JVP away from the noxious Weerawansa line. If Mr. Samaraweera’s coalition-building succeeds, this will be a formidable array of forces that can exert the necessary pressure ahead of the budget to secure the support of the minority parties and widen the split in the SLFP.
So dare we dream? Maybe we should. In the meantime, Mangala Samaraweera more than deserves the benefit of the doubt, and all the goodwill he deserves for making that dare.