Photo courtesy of Forbes

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) recent statement that they wish to form a BJP in Sri Lanka and Nepal has infuriated many politicians and political commentators of the country. We believe it is worthy to examine this ambitious proposal in light of the manner of functioning of political parties and the contemporary geo-politics of South Asia. Certainly, one does not need to be naïve to imagine a possibility of the BJP operating as a registered party under the Election Commission having influence and even real power in Sri Lanka. We argue that this idea can be manifested in many forms, to varying extents. If someone perceives this claim as a proposal to have a political party in Sri Lanka that shares ethos of the BJP and supports their political and economic vision for the subcontinent, then this claim is not completely out of tune with the current political realities. Of course, it would be a nightmare for those of us who cherish the country’s liberal democratic history. However, we believe that one cannot dismiss outright a possibility of such a political scenario in the future.

It is true that not only political parties but even the concept of nation state does not function the way that they used to at the time of independence. Democracy across the globe has survived beyond western countries and equally in the developed and developing world, not merely by “democratizing” the societies but also by embracing the pre-democratic ethos of those societies into the democratic functioning. Therefore, no matter how arrogant this claim sounds, it should be given some attention to understand the possible trajectories of South Asian politics.

Political parties are a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Political parties organize and manage the contestation and facilitate the citizens’ participation in governance. In classical understanding, parties crystalize the differences of interest in society whilst also acting as an instrument of integration in the national legislation. For this, parties present a clear ideological and policy program for citizens to join them in pursuing their political interests. In this model, within the nation state boundaries, parties channel contesting interests of citizens to the process of democratic management of polity. However, any keen observer of contemporary political parties would understand that the current practice of democracy significantly differs from this design espoused by theory.

This significant departure is that political parties continue to distance themselves from articulating clear and strong ideological positions. Parties adopt a populist route – alongside nationalism, clientelism or a combination of both to gain and sustain power. In the present day, offering a charismatic leadership coupled with efficient management is far more effective than standing for a consistent policy programs for parties to win elections. Big money and the skill of building a self-serving narrative devoid of scrutiny of evidence on the back of private media, give parties edge over the traditional methods of political campaigning. Narendra Modi of India and Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka are good examples of this. Being individual-led allows parties to design manifestos not based on consistent ideological orientation but with the aims of maximizing their votes. BJP’s political position does not fall far from ours since the nationalism, Islamophobia and the crony capitalism define the bedrock of current Sri Lankan politics. Therefore, there is no reason for us to dismiss the possible emergence of a political force that attracts the majority votes while espousing BJP’s political ethos. After all, this proposal is worthy of serious attention for many reasons. Global as well as the South Asian history shows us enough instances of political parties sharing mutual interests and working in collaboration across borders. Anti-imperial and nationalist collaborations of Ba’ath Parties in the Middle East and Communist Parties in South Asia are certainly positive examples of such collaborative functioning of political parties across nation state boundaries. The Nazis and Fascists in Europe did share similar totalitarian aspirations across boundaries that eventually led to Second World War. Hence, the idea of political parties functioning across borders is not a novel phenomenon and the conditions for such collaborations are perhaps more conducive today than ever before.

The nation state paradigm is continuously losing its traction. Even though a nation state is conceptualized as an autonomous unit with absolute sovereignty, a sensible observer of politics would agree that this has never been the case. The political and economic sovereignty of nation states have been undermined by the neo-liberal and globalized economic practices irrespective of whether you are in the West or the East. States are continuously losing the ability to guard their sovereignty. In the backdrop of a neo-liberal economy, states increasingly find it difficult to defend the policies that represent interest of their own citizens. The recent developments such as the Brexit and Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” shows that even the superpowers are not spared from the encroachment of global, neo-liberal realities. In such a world, the claims of our leaders that they defend the interests of citizens from external influences is nothing more than a rhetoric to please nationalists. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself alluded to this by defending his decision to offer 49 percent of the shares of the Eastern Terminal at the Colombo port to the Indian conglomerate Adani Group. Furthermore, the influence of China in the country under the Rajapaksa rule is increasing at an alarming rate. Apart from losing our resources to China and coming under its influence its active engagement in the country has inadvertently made Sri Lanka a party to the US-China conflict. Hence, the political party of the Rajapaksas has been accused of being a party that largely represents the interests of the Chinese communist party. In addition, many parties of Western democracies also have been operating – overtly and covertly – in Sri Lanka for years. Therefore, political parties of regional and global powers setting a foothold in Sri Lanka is not an entirely new proposition and the current nuanced operation of cross border party activities could even become more explicit in future. If this is and has been the case, why should one fuss about BJP’s claim of setting their foot in Sri Lanka?

Rather than a knee-jerk emotional response to the proposal, one needs to contemplate how such alliances could lead to strengthening or further eroding the democratic polity in our region. As much as such cross-border party collaborations or political projects could pose grave challenges to communities, they could also make us address the present day challenges such as the pandemic, environmental issues, terrorism and poverty – all of which cannot be addressed solely within the boundaries of a nation state. The politics that transcend nation state boundaries are not only realities but also a necessity. Therefore we should acknowledge and engage with these new realities in order to make such possible transformations to result in a more egalitarian world.