Re-visiting the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project

Photo by Pankaj Nangia/Bloomberg News, via The Japan Times

The UPFA regime has accomplished an unprecedented hegemonic political power, consummated by landslide   electoral victories: Presidential election, January   2010, Parliamentary Elections March 2010 and the subsequent Provincial council elections, except, crucially in the North. They have consolidated their rural voter base in a remarkable fashion. As the opposition claims, these   electoral victories have been achieved at the price of    political intimidation, right abuses and encroachments on the rule of law. But the UPFA (United Peoples Freedom Alliance) government keeps on winning the elections. This has obviously frustrated   the   opposition   and   there are   no immediate hopes that   the UPFA would be electorally weakened or their   popularity would be greatly diminished    after four years   in   power despite some discontent growing among the people in the South. The provincial council elections in the Southern and Western province held in April this year showed some evidence in relation to their popularity but this is hardly convincing of their eventual   electoral defeat given the complex nature of political forces at work and the opposition’s inability to overcome their lack of a clear political direction. Then there is a real political issue of mapping out the way forward.

Using the Gramscian perspective in its analysis this essay attempts to look at the Rajapaksa Hegemonic Project (RHP) and its huge success as a political endeavour as well as the deep political impact it has made. It also examines whether it has now becomean impregnable roadblock to democratic progress, political stability and more importantly national unity in this country.

Formation of RHP

The emergence of the RHP can be considered as a direct response to the LTTE’s (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) powerful military and political project aimed at Tamil Eelam that gained legitimacy among the Tamil community particularly   since ‘black July’ in 1983. But the RHP took shape since the Presidential election 2005   which marked a watershed of   the transfer of political leadership from the Colombo elites to the Sinhalese rural elites, which had been deprived of   a real political voice  since the inception of the SLFP in the 1950s. This has been long overdue. The transfer of the political leadership has made a lasting impact in the rural Sinhalese polity solidifying the RHP. The    historical retreat of the Bandaranayakes and the emergence of the Rajapaksas from the deep down south was the first condition that made   possible for the RHP to become a powerful political and military project without which the defeat of the Tamil Tigers would have been impossible. Secondly, they became the true heirs of the Sinhalese Buddhist ideological and political   legacy, which has been nurtured by the Sinhalese political leadership since 1956. Since 2005 the RHP has been co-opting    many of the Southern political parties splitting   each of them right in the middle.  From the largest   capitalist party, the United National Party (UNP) to the leftist Peoples Liberation Front (JVP), all have suffered debilitating setbacks from these defections to the Project making them electorally weaker. The traditional left parties and some of the left leaning intellectuals were readily available to the Project.  The co-opting of other parties and Sinhalese intellectuals to the Project was not    a difficult task   as the Sinhalese leadership had seemingly run out of other viable political options    in resolving the ethnic crisis by peaceful means by that time. The   LTTE had declared that they were not going to accept any settlement except a separate state that endangered the territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. They destroyed the   main   democratic Tamil political party, TULF (Tamil United Liberation Front) and Tamil intellectuals who voiced their concerns about the LTTE’s fascistic political line. They also annihilated all other militant groups, or co-opted others, as they did not tolerate any political dissent within the Tamil community. The LTTE’s violent political line and its endeavour to make the theatre of war beyond the North and East targeting civilians in the South further strengthened the RHP as a legitimate project in the Sinhalese South. This was to consume all political and material resources and to decimate the LTTE at Vellimullaivaikkal in May 2009.

Sinhalese Buddhist Supremacy Model

The RHP is solidly built and operated on the basis of Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic ideology. Ideologically, its core consists of the notion that this is a Sinhalese Buddhist country and it belongs to them not to others. Except fringe left parties or groups no political party has fully counter this in their political practice in the recent past.

Even though the RHP is a coalition of political forces, they have one thing in common. Their   articulated practice is   that the ethnic and religious minorities in the country   should accept the overwhelming dominance of the Sinhalese Buddhist majority in their political and cultural life and shape their lives accordingly. The actions and anti-Muslim campaign   launched by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) have to be viewed in this context. The RHP keeps such organizations within their folds and distances them when it is politically embarrassing.

The Supremacy model has constitutional back up. The 1972 new Constitution accorded the foremost   position to Buddhism and the Sinhalese language was accepted as the state language over other religions and languages.  The discriminatory practices that followed had prepared the ground for the Tamil militancy in the late 70s. Even after the defeat of the LTTE the Sinhalese leadership’s unwillingness to devolve power shows that the Supremacy model still flourishes but at a huge political cost to Sri Lanka.

The Supremacy model does not operate in a vacuum. It has reinforced the historical fears and anxieties of Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and the fate of the Sinhala people and Buddhism in the wake of Tamil militancy and beyond. The RHP has been very effective in playing on for these fears to bolster   their electoral chances. This has worked well for their survival, reaping electoral success and political power.

Strength and weakness of the RHP

The strength that the RHP draws upon for their repeated electoral successes can be undoubtedly attributed to its huge military and political success in defeating the Tamil Tigers in 2009. That removed the real separation threat posed by the Tamil Tigers and Tamil nationalism. As a result, the RHP has been able to become synonymous with Sinhalese Buddhist pride and their position has become electorally unchallengeable. In Gramscian terms they have established ‘ intellectual, moral and political hegemony’ (Antonio Gramsci 1976: 58). In political and electoral terms the RHP has been able to project their image as the only government that is capable of securing the hard won military victory against the LTTE ensuring the territorial integrity of the country in the long run. This resonates with the rural Sinhalese Buddhist masses whose support has been critical to their electoral successes. Unfortunately, this strength has become their political weakness in resolving the Tamil grievances. They tend to believe that the Tamil demand for the devolution of power to the Tamil community can be disregarded or brushed aside as politically irrelevant as they can continue to enjoy solid support in the Sinhalese South.

Meanwhile the rural masses see President Rajapaksa as one of them. For the first time a leader from the countryside has emerged outshining the Colombo based elitist leadership whose dynastic credentials had been the main or preliminary qualifications to become the leaders in the country.  The electoral strength of the RHP in general and President Rajapaksa in particular at present is due to two main factors that is his rural political origins which Colombo based elitist political classes   would love to hate and the military victory against the LTTE that has struck a chord with the rural electorate. To this it is necessary to add another   observation that is the infrastructural development program that has revived the rural economy and lessened    the effects of rural youth unemployment .The influx of foreign capital and loans has made the countryside move as never before.

Those are the main factors that make the RHP and President Rajapaksa electorally unchallengeable. In Gramscian sense the RHP is ‘organic’ and not  ‘conjectural or occasional’ and such ‘movements’ (Antonio Gramsci 1976: 178) can last for decades. The Sri Lankan opposition has to understand this situation and work out their program accordingly. Of course in politics such cast iron certainties can often be torn apart by the force of unforeseen events. However, if the current situation continues and there are no blunders or further right abuses it will be hard to defeat President Rajapaksa. The opposition’s panicked behavior and desperation to field a common candidate and their inability to find a suitable person shows the powerful nature of the Sinhalese Buddhist hegemonic formation. Several names have already been suggested as a common candidate from the opposition ranks.  In my view, whoever contests the common candidate will be defeated by the incumbent President. Apart   from the above-mentioned reasons, in order to replace the incumbent President the political slogan that the victorious common candidate will abolish the Executive Presidency will not be adequate. It should be a full political package. It should be a ‘counter hegemonic’ political programme (Dani Filc: 2013, 119-133) project to the RHP.

The RHP has forced a radical change to the existing political programmes of every other political party in the country. The UNP   is no longer needed to carry out neo-liberal economic policies. This has been taken over by the RHP. The UNP is unable to construct a counter hegemonic project to dislodge the RHP. Firstly, they are hopelessly divided within their own party. Secondly, some of the leaders in the party are closer to the RHP in the issue   of the devolution of power to the Tamil community. In order to construct a counter hegemonic project to the RHP, it will be necessary to accept the devolution of power to the Tamil community.

For the same reason, the JVP is unable to lead in formulating the counter hegemonic project because they have never had a clear political line in relation to the devolution of power and they were sworn enemies of devolution of power to the `the Tamil community during the armed uprising between 1987-1989. During this period the JVP assassinated left wing activists and leaders who supported the devolution of power to the Tamil community. They have yet to accept the responsibility and make an apology for these murders after 25 years of political activity. The RHP has taken over the JVP’s Sinhalese militancy, shrinking their rural voter base further. The reduction of the rural youth unemployment at present has robbed JVP’s ability to recruit cadres.

The JVP is no longer enjoys their comfort zone of preaching socialism and they have come to fight with the RHP on its terms rather than their socialist principles. They talk about right abuses by the regime. Then they should tell us how far their kind of socialism would protect the rights that we enjoy today. With the RHP we know where to stand but with the JVP it will be a different experience all together given their murderous history.  It is also highly questionable whether the JVP has taken the stocks of the difficulties of the socialist experience worldwide and re-assessed their model.

In a situation where the vast majority of the Sinhalese Buddhists are organized in a hegemonic formation, the main Tamil party, TNA (Tamil National Alliance) as a minority community is unable to build a ‘counter hegemonic project’. They were too close to the Tamil Tigers and even five years after the defeat of Tamil Tigers they have not adequately explained why they had an uncritical attitude towards Tiger atrocities.

The argument that the RHP can last for decades has to be viewed in the backdrop the regime’s record of fundamental rights violation, conducted with impunity. Some local leaders are involved in anti people criminal activities and the application of due process of law is slow or sabotaged with political patronage. Nepotism appears to be a major driver in the selection of local councillors and some of them are corrupt to the core. Uncorrupt local leaders are marginalized in the selection process. There is a widely held belief among the people that politicians are corrupt and they become people’s representatives in order to make money.  There will be a time that the people’s patience will have a limit. The reduced majority the government had received at recent provincial council elections in the Western and Southern Provinces appears to be due to this anger, as the electorate wanted to  ‘teach a lesson’.

There is also an abject failure on the part of government to stop organizations and individuals making hate speeches against minority communities attacking them. It is very clear how the Bodu Bala Sena has been able to carry out their anti Muslim campaign even raiding the Government’s offices in front of the police officers and the police are unable to act in order to stop their criminal behavior. In this way the government has allowed various organizations to make minority life difficult and miserable in this country.

Failure of  ‘National Popular’

After the vanquishing of the Tamil Tigers the regime has failed to become a   ‘national popular’ government in Gramscian sense. In order to take ‘national popular political character, firstly, it should have addressed the Tamil grievances in devolving the political power to the Tamil community on the basis of the 13th Amendment. This could have contributed to gaining the support of the Tamil masses and isolate those who still would like to dwell on the idea of a separate state –Tamil Eelam. This would have been a political balancing act, requiring maturity, patience and commitment to a nation building political programme in a democratic sense. Secondly it should have removed   all the discriminatory provisions in the constitution to address the minority fears and anxieties making much needed reconciliation with other communities and religious groups. This never happened. The racist elements in the RHP have sabotaged that kind of programme and continue to perpetuate discriminatory practices.

When there is a Sinhalese Buddhist hegemonic formation excluding others, all other religious and ethnic minorities suffer because they do not feel that they belong to this nation. In their day-to-day life they face discrimination and today such exclusions and practices have become a fact of life. In those “countries where nationalism exists, but   the situation cannot be considered a  ‘national popular’ one: the great popular masses are in other words put on a par with cattle”. (Antonio Gramsci, 1995: 256). From Vellimullaivaikkal in May 2009 to Rathupaswela in Augugst 2013 the treatment of innocent civilians shows how such nationalist governments are quite unprepared to protect human dignity and right to life.

Conclusion 

The RHP in its present form and structure it is unlikely to make a political progress in devolving political power to the Tamil community and there is a possibility of piling up further minority grievances within the Muslim community, as organizations like BBS are allowed to maintain their criminal behavior unhindered. The political deconstruction of the RHP is going to be linked to the restoration of rule of law, respect for basic human rights including right to life, and the devolution of political power to the Tamil community. With the space for Sinhalese chauvinism and nationalism so successfully occupied by the RHP, those who have been displaced need to prepare for a very long and arduous democratic battle to find a new political path, learning from victories as well as disappointments while at the same time bringing forward a new generation of young leaders. If the opposition has only political rhetoric about their ability to defeat the UPFA in the next general election, they will be doomed to be defeated once again. Sri Lankan politics has been dominated and driven for too long by reactionary nationalisms. Rather than sacrificing the people to the cause of nationalisms, a sustainable future rests instead upon a national politics that acknowledges and serves all our diverse peoples.

References

Filc, Dani, 2013 ”Populism as Counter Hegemonic Project: The Israel Case”. In Gramsci and Global Politics: Hegemony and Resistance, edited by M. McNally and J. Schwarrzmental. Rutledge: London

Gramsci, Antonio. 1976, Selections from Prison Note Books, Lawrence and Wishart: London

_____________. 1976, Selections from Prison Note Books, Lawrence and Wishart: London

———————-. 1995, Further Selections from Prison Notes Books, Lawrence & Wishart: London

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.

  • Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

    Very lucid. This analysis must be regarded as an indispensable read by all literate and serious political elements in the country and especially in the Oppositional space. It maps the political reality and indicates the need for a (Gramscian) counter hegemonic project against reactionary nationalism; a counter-hegemonic project which is not simplistically ‘rejectionist’ but which is “national-popular”.

    • Dev

      Are you not an avid supporter of Mahinda, the head/body/soul of this hegemonic project?

    • Fitzpatrick

      As a former ambassador are you willing accepting your own culpability in propagating and straightening this hegemonic project?
      The UNHCR resolution fundamentally is to deal with this hegemonic project and yet you continue to oppose this.
      The Nazi empire was built by more than Hitler, it had its many minions working at various levels.

  • Kalana Senaratne

    Mr. Thiranagama, an excellent essay. My only concern relates to the section titled: ‘Failure of National Popular’. I read that section as indicating, perhaps reluctantly, that May 2009 was an opportunity – an opportunity to take the ‘national popular’ turn (via greater reform, implementing the 13th Amendment, playing the balancing act, etc.) – that the President or the government missed. But the RHP, by definition, is precisely that which makes such a turn impossible. For the RHP did not arise suddenly in May 2009; rather, it is a project that is an extension of an ideology which is central to mainstream Sri Lankan politics (and the first part of the essay makes this quite clear, I believe). Therefore, was the intention of that section to point out that the President missed the opportunity to take the ‘national popular’ turn, or to suggest far more critically (and usefully) that that was never possible in the first place, given the ideology underlying the RHP?

    Thanks.

    • James Chance

      I think Dayapala’s point is the latter – that the national popular approach that addresses minority issues and respects democratic and human rights was not in fact possible within the terms of the RHP. All too accurate an analysis. But thank you, Dayapala, for your help in thinking through the limitations of the current opposition and the need for them to develop a much smarter and deeper counter-hegemonic project. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for them to start the necessary work.

  • Indika

    The best ever analysis of Sri Lankan politics, I have read so far. I am an ordinary citizen with little interest and knowledge on politics. But this article persuaded me what really is happening in Sri Lankan political arena. I understand this article is not aimed at ordinary people like me, but I would like to ask how about translating this article in to sinhala and let the majority of my country men know what should they do in next elections.
    Thanks for article well written sir.