Image courtesy Today Online

This month, the populist wave suffered two critical defeats. In France outsider-candidate Emmanuel Macron beat Marine Le Pen. In Iran, reformist president Hassan Rouhani trounced Ebrahim Raisi, a religious hardliner backed by Supreme Leader Khameni and the Revolutionary Guard. These defeats come in the wake of other electoral setbacks for populists, especially in Austria and The Netherlands. Despite these welcome-defeats, the current wave of populism is far from spent – and would continue wreak havoc, until the forces of moderation manage to create a new synthesis between pluralist democracy and progressive economics.

Populism is hardly a new phenomenon. It flourishes best where there is economic loss and pain. Populist leaders succeed in their power-grabs by harnessing that economic pain to their political projects.

Historically many (if not most) populist projects contained a fairly prominent economic content, starting with redistributive measures aimed at alleviating more extreme inequalities, at least to some degrees. This progressive component is totally absent in the current wave of populism. At its heart is not economic class but race/religion. Today’s populism is blood-and-faith nationalism in a slightly different, semi-modernist, guise. It has no redistributive intent, no measures aiming at alleviating economic or social injustice. Its economic programme is neo-liberal with one exception, the advocacy of a degree of protectionism. Its redistributive agenda consists of dispossessing aliens.

Populism always needed a heavy dose of ‘alternate-facts’, but in its current manifestation it operates solely within a universe of ‘alternate-facts’. Every economic problem besetting the People is attributed to rapacious foreigners who take our jobs, our money and our land and undermine our age-old culture in a thousand insidious ways. In this rhetoric, fear is substituted for reason or logic. When facts stand in the way, they are derided and rejected as fake-news.

In Orwell’s Oceania, ignorance is strength. Populism in its current incarnation openly glorifies ignorance. Donald Trump, speaking after the Nevada caucus, hailed the poorly educated as the smartest and most loyal people. Thus a new notion of a model citizen is created, someone who is happily uneducated, proudly ignorant and boastfully uninformed. Lack of education or information is not seen as a problem to be remedied but as necessary virtues to become a good citizen in the new populist utopia. The proud-ignorance of their followers is indispensable to the success of the leaders.

The Murder of Yameen Rasheed and Blood-and-faith Populism

Five years before he was stabbed to death, Maldivian blogger Yameen Rasheed wrote an analytical piece in the Himal magazine about his country’s gradual descent into the mire of Islamic fundamentalism. A Tool for the Atolls[i] details the weaponisation of Islam by Maldivian rulers to gain and consolidate political power. The practice began with Abdul Gayoom who captured power on an Islamic platform. In 2012, a virulent oppositional campaign led by fundamentalist parties forced the democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed to resign.

Yameen Rasheed points out that Mr. Nasheed was, to some extent, the author of his own political demise. He made the cardinal error of trying to neutralise the growing fundamentalist forces by accommodating some of them in his cabinet. His argument was that an oppositional policy would drive the extremists underground. Unfortunately, the induction of the Adhaalath Party into the cabinet did not stem the tide of extremism; instead it gave extremists legitimacy, a slice of formal political power and a foothold in the system.

Traditionally, most Maldivians followed a moderate form of Islam influenced by Sufism. This liberal faith was slowly undermined by hardline influences coming from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Yameen Rasheed used his writings to oppose and ridicule the growing fundamentalism in his country. His writings, especially his popular blog, The Daily Panic, earned him the wrath of the authoritarian government and the hardline Islamists alike. Barely a month after he and a friend won an international award for developing an app to connect patients suffering from blood diseases (ex. Thalassemia) with hospitals and blood-donors, Mr. Rasheed was murdered.

The opposition movement which ousted Maldives’ democratically-elected President Nasheed was an early manifestation of the populist wave which is currently threatening democracy and pluralism across the globe. This wave marked its next significant victory in India. In 2014, Narendra Modi and his BJP won power in the world’s most populous democracy on a populist platform which combined rightwing economics, social-conservatism, political illiberalism, Hindu extremism and anti-environmentalism.

It was thus unsurprising that many Hindu fundamentalists (like many Sinhala-Buddhist supremacists) supported Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton. It is also not surprising that one of the first victims of the post-election racist resurgence in the US was an Indian-American. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer, a legal immigrant and a product of American universities, was killed by a white Navy veteran who, minutes before the fatal shooting, told his soon-to-be-victim, “Get out of my country.”

That statement encapsulates the essence of the current wave of populism: ethno-religious racism. The declared aim of this populism is to protect the chosen people and their homeland from encroaching aliens and emasculated elites. The People are seen as homogeneous, virtuous and perpetually threatened from within and without. The People can win if they “make their voices count through the populist leader/party…. In this way populists play on the idea of communities which had lost what they once had and will lose everything if they do not find their voice now and make it heard.”[ii]

Populism always had a knack to inveigle the populace to support projects which went against their fundamental interests. The current wave of populism excels at it. The American rightwing (especially the Ult-right) depict any increase in the minimum wage as a measure aimed at conferring special benefits on migrant workers. According to latest research, 50% of white-American working class males are opposed to an increase in the minimum wage[iii]. That is an example of how effectively racism can be used to stupefy entire communities and make them oppose policies which are in their own interests.

In Sri Lanka, a facebook post (in Sinhala) claiming that Islamic State (IS) operatives, disguised as health workers, are wondering from house to house injecting householders with the aids virus has gone viral. As a result, health officials in many areas are being prevented from carrying out an anti-filarial campaign, according to a Health Ministry complaint to the police[iv]. This facebook post is a translation of one which similarly went viral in India. That post seems to be a spinoff of a 2014 facebook post which claimed that the IS was injecting AIDS virus into oranges! The fact that there are people out there who can take such a canard seriously creates understandable fears about the future of democracy and civil-peace in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Unintelligent Government and Unreconstructed Opposition

Wimal Weerawansa’s plan to hoist black flags on Wesak Day failed abysmally, but the wave of anti-Indian hysteria rides high, with audible undertones of racism targeting North-Eastern and Upcountry Tamils (This Sunday’s Divaina carries an op-ed piece claiming that Mr. Modi was trying to stir separatism in the plantations; the writer, a medical doctor, even criticises the upgrading of Norwood hospital!). The fact that Mahinda Rajapaksa sought and had a (reportedly bon-homos) meeting with Narendra Modi has made no dent in the anti-Indian hysteria of Mr. Rajapaksa’s acolytes. These followers see nothing contradictory in Mr. Rajapaksa’s bromantic powwow with Mr. Modi, anymore than rank-and-file JVPers in the 1987-89 period (such as Wimal Weerawansa) saw anything amiss in an anti-Indian war which killed Sinhalese by the thousands but caused not a scratch to a single IPKF soldier. As Prins Gunasekera, a prominent JVP fellow-traveller of that time, revealed, “But the evidence that has started trickling in, in recent times, makes me wonder whether their anti-Indianism was really so… Many student activists of the IUSF, in sympathy with the JVP, had been seen visiting the Indian High Commission in Colombo, even telling them that they had nothing to fear from the JVP, that the Indian Embassy officials need not be evacuated to the security of the Taj-Samudra Hotel.”[v]

In the flurry of arguments and counterarguments about numbers, what is being ignored is the kind of rhetoric which dominated the JO’s platform. There are plenty of fact-based criticisms to be made against the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration, starting with a distressing inability to understand, acknowledge or address the growing economic pains of ordinary people. Instead of showcasing these failures, the JO leaders indulged in racist and religious scaremongering on May Day. Nothing has changed from the time they made such preposterous claims as ‘SLMC now a LTTE’[vi] or ‘Maithri-Prabha Mugs appear in London, Toronto.’[vii]

In 2013, the Fashion Bug outlet in Pepiliyana was attacked, consequent to a rumour of a 15 year old Sinhala-Buddhist employee of being raped, within the premises, by a Muslim fellow-employee. Less than a fortnight before this incident, Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara had accused the Muslim owners of Fashion Bug of conspiring to turn pure Sinhala-Buddhist maidens into harem-inmates.[viii] When the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was asked about this and other anti-minority incidents during a 2013 Al Jazzera interview, his response was not condemnation, but justification based on lies as insane as the one about the IS injecting oranges with the AIDS virus. “What was in the background? Why were they attacked? Now see a girl was raped. Seven years old girl was raped. Then naturally they will go and attack them whether they belong to any community or any religion… There were incidents like that. All incidents have some background to that.”[ix]

Bhikku Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara is stirring the mire again. He wants to launch a campaign against Niqab. He is also challenging the primacy and authority of the Mahanayakes, whose relative moderation is a bar to his attempts to create a Wahabi-Buddhism. He wants the government to stop dealing with the infinitely more moderate and rational Buddhist hierarchy and deal with “monks and officials at ground level”[x] – him and others of his ilk. The comments might seem like ravings of a madman, and indeed they are. But they need to be taken seriously because they also mark the first step in a planned ‘reformist’ movement from below, which aims at systematically eliminating every iota of moderation and tolerance in Sinhala-Buddhism and turn it into another Wahabism or Salafism. If this plan is even ten percent successful, the damage it can do to Sri Lanka and all its people, especially the Sinhala-Buddhists, would be incalculable.

The Joint Opposition’s spectacularly successful May Day seemed to have given the government a necessary jolt. But whether this will make the government deviate from its path of economic and political inanity is uncertain. For example, the plan to impose a huge tax on the EPF is still on track. If the Cabinet approves of it, the President will find himself facing a situation worse than what the Rajapaksa government did when it tried to impose a Kleptocratic pension plan on the private sector. The fact that the government cannot understand that a measure like this can turn the entire private sector workforce, from top to bottom, against it, indicates a terrifying absence of basic commonsense and enlightened self-interest.

History warns that political democracy and cultural-liberalism cannot flourish – or even survive – in the absence of socio-economic democracy. It is a lesson which is of paramount importance to post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka.

[i] Himal – June 2012

[ii] Twenty First Century Populism – Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell


[iv] The Sunday Times – 14.5.2017

[v] Sri Lanka in Crisis, A Lost Generation: The Untold Story