Featured image courtesy SriLankaBrief
The year 2009 is important for the post-colonial history of Sri Lanka, because in that year the most serious armed challenge to the territorial integrity of the country was defeated. Using military means, the territory was consolidated. Not only that, this marked the end of almost four decades of violent challenges to the state. In the process the Sri Lankan state has developed a formidable military machinery.
For the new period of capitalist transition that began in 1977, which emphasised markets, the private sector and openness to the global economy, the separatist demand of Sri Lankan Tamils and the ensuing armed conflict were the biggest challenge. Armed conflict did not allow the full potential in economic growth to be realised. It also had a direct negative impact on the economy. In 2001, for example, this conflict, along with other factors such as the downturn in the global economy and weather, contributed to negative growth for the first time in the post-colonial history of Sri Lanka. Therefore, the end of this challenge has created a better atmosphere for capitalist growth.
What surprised many was, after the consolidation of the territory through military means, the electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapakse in the January 2015 presidential election. Rajapakse not only gave political leadership to this historical event, but also ruled for ten years espousing a form of Sinhala nationalism that would have made him the hero of the Sinhala majority. Contrary to this expectation, a section of the Sinhala voters who voted for Rajapakse during the previous Presidential Election held in 2010, voted against him just five years later. If we take the Sinhala majority electoral districts, the drop in the Rajapakse vote between 2010 and 2015 is over 10 per cent in five of them and between 5 and 10 per cent in nine others. The bulk of the Tamil and Muslim electorate voted against him. But this alone would not have defeated Rajapakse. A section of the Sinhala electorate voting against Rajapakse was important. Their importance, of course, goes beyond numbers. It is almost impossible to carry out and sustain any major reforms in the country if we do not carry this population with us.
It is to this question, about the importance of the support of Sinhalese for sustained reforms in politics or economics, that I began to reflect upon recently after a visit to a Sinhala village as part of my professional work. This is a Kandyan village. People have been living there for several generations. Probably the ancestors were locked into the Kandyan feudalism. In the current context I would call them typical poor peasantry that gets an income from small plots of land. They cultivate 1-2 acres which only provides them enough for home consumption. They get some additional income from highland cultivation. Obviously young people don’t want to continue with this way of living. Therefore, their option is education and formal sector jobs. But it is interesting to find how much social mobility is provided by this education, or whether they are simply joining the unskilled working class that gets exploited through the labour market. The question is-how come these people remained in this economic condition for generations, and what do current debates on political and economic reforms mean for them.
I had a glimpse of how any benefits of contemporary democratic politics enter into this village. They enter though linkages that the village has to the network of party politics. Usually this is through some type of village leadership is that linked to the party system. It gives benefits here and there, but does not question any of the structural factors that maintain a system of power and marginalisation. I could not see any other autonomous political agency within the village.
Given what I saw in this village, I want to raise some questions about the current orthodoxies that are driving the political and economic reforms of this regime. These are ideas supported by international actors as well as supporters of the regime. I am also quite conscious of the fact that many non-state actors who used to play an oppositional role have now become champions and implementers of these ideas. If we begin with ideas that dominate reforms of the structure of the state, the familiar institutional designing dominates. This is also posed in very narrow legalistic terms. Therefore, there is a search for a new constitution. A set of new institutions have begun to operate in order to (what the architects of these structures call) ‘depoliticise’ key state institutions. How these reforms benefit the people of the village that I visited will depend on whether they can overcome the power relations that for generations have kept these people in this position.
What is missing from this focus on institutional designing is a much more robust discussion about democratic politics. Democratic politics is about redistribution of power – the degree to which citizens can participate in the decisions which affect their lives. It is the difference between procedural democracy and substantive democracy, identified in political science literature long ago. Democratic politics is creative, as well as subversive, because it can be utilised to undermine and reform the existing social order that reproduces social exclusion for some people over generations. Therefore, the current focus on institutional designing dominated by a legal discourse should be supplemented with a discourse on democratic politics. This is something that non-state actors locked into institutional designing should think about. Of course, this cannot be done only by focusing on influencing policies at the top. Much more important is helping to develop the political agency of the socially marginalised.
The public debate about the economy is dominated by a discourse on economic growth. Two provinces where there was a direct impact of the armed conflict has been absorbed into this process. The government seems to be having battles on several fronts in order to continue with its reform agenda. Some of the budget proposals have antagonised a professional middle class and a section of public servants. The proposed trade agreement with India has given space for nationalists for their agitation. Going by the recent statement of the prime minister about the status of public finance, the government seems to be struggling to find resources to sustain a state overburden with relatively large armed forces, loss-making state owned enterprises and overstaffing.
Although these political challenges of reforms demand policies that can carry the vast majority of the Sinhalese population along with you, it is precisely in this area that the government is showing little concern. On the contrary, if some of the ideas on land policies, if implemented without thinking about social consequences, can have a backlash. Normally steps taken to secure fiscal balance have a tendency to socialise their repercussions. Economists, who seem to be the only people now believing in inevitable laws, like to tell us that these are painful steps that have to be taken. However, they forget that in a society structured around classes, repercussions of these measures are felt unevenly. The big answer that the regime seems to have on the social side is jobs. But what kind of jobs? While research shows that quality of the jobs is one of the main reasons for inequality, the regime seems to be unable to think beyond these simple slogans.
What is missing is a much more creative discussion on social dimensions of the economic growth. From the time the economy was liberalised, the discourse on social policy has been dominated by poverty alleviation. Poverty alleviation focuses on the ability of a household to get a certain minimum level of calories and some basic needs. This minimum goal is touted as a major achievement in development. Other terms like inclusive growth or social protection have similar political objectives. Compared to this, if we focus on inequality and social mobility, we begin to ask questions about why some sections of the population are marginalised. This cannot be understood merely by focusing on households. We have to understand how marginalised households are trapped in a web of social relations. We also begin to understand how a system of power relations maintains and reproduces these social relations.
Although I have taken the example of my experience in a Sinhala village to begin this discussion, the issues that I have raised on limitations of institutional design in politics and lack of ideas on social dimensions of growth are important for the socially marginalised in the war-affected areas as well. During the last four years I have visited several such villages in the war torn areas. Even in these areas, policy reforms has to go beyond the discussion on institutional reforms around the 13th amendment and a focus on mere economic growth in the area.
Of course people in these areas have other special grievances arising out of the aftermath of close to three decades of armed conflict. Truth and accountability about what happened during the last stages of the war, the problems of the disappeared, those incarcerated for a long time and land that has been taken over, are some of the key ones. But in finding answers to these questions, we have to find a way of securing continued support of the Sinhalese, especially those in rural areas. We also should not forget in the course of violence inflicted on the society to sustain a state, a significant section of this population also suffered. As I mentioned above, it is their vote that was one of the crucial factors in starting the change that we are trying take forward. In the history of state formation of Sri Lanka, managing relations with rural Sinhalese has been the trickiest question. It has led to many problems. Some of the reasons for the armed conflict that we have gone through are a result of this. But we cannot forget their political importance. Their electoral allegiance can always shift, and don’t forget that there are extreme Sinhala nationalists waiting round the corner to make use of such a situation.
Editor’s Note: Read Mick Moore’s response to this piece here