Colombo, Peace and Conflict

Would the Real Dutugemunu Please Stand Up? Nationalism, ‘Authenticity’ and Populist Mobilisation in Sri Lanka

Would the Real Dutugemunu Please Stand Up? Nationalism, ‘Authenticity’ and Populist Mobilisation in Sri Lanka

The current political context is one in which the Government of Sri Lanka has obviously swung in a potently Sinhala nationalist direction, at the same time pulling the framework for the articulation of dominant political practices the same way. This was first glimpsed in the run-up to the UPFA’s election victory in 2004 when the JVP and the PNM provided much of the mobilising muscle for the campaign However, this dynamic only became truly hegemonic in the course of the November 2005 Presidential Election campaign when Mahinda Rajapakse pledged a commitment to the Mahinda Chintana ideological framework with the JVP and the JHU providing the foundations to this proclamation of the new regime and leader’s aims. Although it has been widely discussed, there is as yet no consensus as to the sincerity of the Mahinda Chintana ‘vision’, in other words the jury is still out as to the extent to which this leadership of, and alignment with the nationalist ideology of actors such as the JVP reflects the personal mindset of the President and the ‘Kitchen Cabinet’ or to what extent it is reflective instead of the opportunist populist politicking of a shrewd tactician.

It might therefore, be more useful to trace the motivations and effects that the pursuit of Mahinda Chintana is having on the political ether in Sri Lanka and indeed the way in which these effects are impacting on the architects, collaborators and fellow travellers of the Sinhala nationalist highway. First of all, this is obviously a populist strategy that has sought to harness the ideological force and mobilising potency of the JVP (and to a lesser extent the JHU) in the context of a flagging and redundant peace process in which Ranil Wickremasinghe and the UNP could easily be portrayed as deeply implicated, despite Ranil Wickremasinghe’s own attempts to pursue a not-dissimilar line of populism in the UNP Presidential Election manifesto of 2005. Rajapakse and the UPFA have sought to mine a seam of southern discontent and frustration with the state of the peace process and perceptions of the aims and strategy of the LTTE in order to tighten their hold on the reins of power.

At the same time, Rajapakse’s position can also be defined as an attempt to contain and outflank the JVP’s nationalist mobilisations and the extremely rapid expansion of its constituency base that had taken place between 2000 and 2004. Not unlike the contest for nationalist legitimacy that arose in the aftermath of the Indo-Lanka Accord between Premadasa and the JVP, Rajapakse has also sought to appropriate the Sinhala nationalism of these smaller parties both for the SLFP and for his own person/image as the incredible proliferation of placards and billboards dedicated to this (including comparisons to Dutugemunu) are testament to. Additionally, Rajapakse is attempting to steal the thunder of the more vocal ‘nationalist’ actors in order to reverse the process at work before 2004 when the SLFP party machine was in disarray and being steadily disembowelled by the JVP.

Whilst smaller parties such as the JHU which have little to guard against in terms of their already shrivelled constituency base and the prospect of being almost wiped out in any forthcoming election, have therefore more fully immersed themselves in the Rajapakse administration, the President’s strategy and several recent events have begun to place severe strains upon the relationship between the JVP and the SLFP-led regime. Firstly, in relation to the APRC and the production of the majority and minority reports, the JVP (like the MEP which nonetheless has decided to remain in the APRC) has objected to the lack of rigour in defining and maintaining a role for the Experts’ Panel. For the JVP, the Panel should have maintained a supporting and advisory role vis-à-vis the APRC rather than engaged in constitution-drafting behind closed doors, which should be the preserve, in their eyes, of democratically elected parties and their representatives in the APRC rather than bureaucrats and academics. It was this, according to the party leadership, that drove the JVP to withdraw from the APRC process despite the President’s own attempt to contain the dissenting reactions to the ‘Majority Report’ by a high-profile hysterical reaction to the leaking of its contents. The JVP’s own perspective on State reform is staunchly against devolution and for a unitarian structure as, according to the JVP, it is the communalism of the elites combined with a lack of development that has always failed the people of Sri Lanka and their needs as a whole and led us to the current juncture where they feel devolution and federalism is a ‘communal’ response to a problem created by the past pursuit of elite-led ‘communal’ politics despite the fact that a unitary state structure cannot provide a response to the Sinhala majoriatarianism that has plagued the Sri Lankan State for the last half-century.

Secondly, whilst the MOU between the SLFP and the UNP may have been perceived to have placed some strains on the relationship between the UPFA and the JVP, the MOU’s insignificance and inherent frailty has meant that the prospect of crossovers are more likely to represent a threat to the ongoing relationship between the JVP and the UPFA. Indeed, many commentators have identified the President’s encouragement of crossovers and flagrant flouting of (the already redundant) MOU as an attempt to remove his parliamentary dependency on the JVP and to distance the administration from what is perceived to be a problematic political actor. This interpretation has also been followed by some wildly optimistic perspectives suggesting that this is a prelude to meaningful engagement with the peace process, constitutional reform, the APRC etc. to the extent that at least one commentator has talked of the positive “moral terms” of the crossovers.

Whilst it is as yet unclear if the parliamentary arithmetic for the UPFA majority may reduce Rajapakse’s dependency on the JVP, there is one flaw in such an interpretation of the strategy as it does not recognise the extent to which the MOU, the APRC, the proposed Presidential Commission on human rights abuses etc. are all instances where the President appears to have taken on the attire of governance once expected by the ‘International Community.’ Yet, that is all they are: a mere gloss in which the MOU, the 17th Amendment etc can all be jettisoned or merely be played along with in the current juncture without too much regard for the international repercussions in a context where Colombo has a found a strong supporter of its hardline and belligerent position in the US administration and little willingness to censure the Sri Lankan government for abuses. In this context one surely begins to wonder what likelihood there is of Mahinda really seeking to switch political strategy at this point when there is little to be gained.

Some might even argue that unless there is an election in the offing (which may depend on the situation in the East), there is even little to be gained in the current context in detaching the JVP cart from the UPFA horse and marooning the deshapremis when Mahinda may be better off with all hands on deck on a ship of state that is looking for victory in the North and East without opposition and without meaningful international reproach.

Certainly this is not to deny that the more overtly Sinhala nationalist actors such as the JHU, the JVP and the MEP are not worried about the current context. The Ranil regime was one in which these parties thrived because of public perceptions about the perceived ‘inauthenticity’ of Wickremasinghe and the UNP and there is little doubt that Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime has overseen the achievement of many nationalist goals including for instance the de-merger of the NorthEast and of having taken the State back to war. This means that the Sinhala nationalist actors have had the wind taken out of their sails by a politician and political alliance that they themselves perceive as inauthentic and opportunist despite these achievements. The prospect of an election is probably not a favourable one with their constituency and parliamentary base widely projected to shrink by at least 50% in any forthcoming election. My own feeling is that the JVP are not unduly worried by this as they have both a long-term strategy, have secured nationalist achievements and like Ranil in respect of a revival of UNP fortunes can play a waiting game for the contest for nationalist ‘authenticity’ whilst continuing to remind the Rajapakses of their presence through shots across the bow in the form of Lal Kantha’s threats of a general strike and warnings about the crossovers; a gentle reminder that the JVP are still there undaunted in their long-term goal of taking the Centre and in their preservation of the Mahinda Chintanaya ideological programme.