Populists, like elites, centrists, liberals, and conservatives, come in different shades. Some are honest and sincere, others are not. Some like to mince rhetoric with action, others do not. It doesn’t take a political thinker to figure out that over the past 50 years, no politician worth his or her salt has got into power without resorting to rhetoric. What differentiates them from one another, consequently, is their ability to transform that into affirmative political action.
The problem with our meritocrats is that they are disconnected from the pulse of their own people. Whether they intend it or not, they promote a variant of populism that thrives on lies, propaganda, and unconvincing rhetoric. Once elected to power, they often always go back on those lies and envelope the democratic process with an equally lamentable variant of anti-populism. The 1994 election opened out like that: it had as much to do with the wild promises dished out by the People’s Alliance as it had with the complacency of the UNP. What transpired after 1994 until 2005, with the PA’s equally wild flirtations with privatisation, deregulation, and shady deals, says a lot about the sincerity of those who made those promises in the first place.
This rather schizophrenic cycle of popular rhetoric and unpopular action has governed our country for over 50 years. Most commentators attribute it to 1956. That is not so. The fact is that even those hailed as the fathers and mothers of our independence weren’t untainted in that regard. Entire collectives were disenfranchised, political platforms were premised on the Aryan origins of the Sinhalese, and the great game of being more-racialist-than-thou was played by our leaders long before 1956.
I believe it was Gunadasa Amarasekara who once described the SLFP as a headless cadaver. In Amarasekara’s book, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was the political successor to Anagarika Dharmapala, despite how incongruous the former’s personal life was with his public. But considering that latter point, I would wish to contend that Bandaranaike’s great achievement lay elsewhere: apart from opening the government to the people (thereby earning the epithet “ape anduwa”), he bequeathed to our country a generation of leaders who, like populists elsewhere, were able to cloak their anti-populist streak with rhetoric, centring more often than not on issues of race, faith, and the vulnerability of our sovereignty.
Historically, in other countries populism was the inevitable consequence of authoritarianism. The highly Confucianist societies of East Asia, much of continental Europe, and even the United Kingdom: the flurry of rights-based movements there was the result of the culture of dissent guaranteed by a strong, sometimes ruthless centre. In other words, the dissent of the periphery was ensured by the grip of the centre. England could not have experienced the shift to a more democratic parliament without Cromwell. The United States could not have emerged from a slave society without the Civil War and Lincoln.
For a political structure to ferment dissent, therefore, it must be seen to its maturing, and not stalled midway. Such a truism is hard to sustain in certain other societies, though. Before I come to Sri Lanka, it’s apt that I consider the Middle-East.
The shift from Nasser to Sadat, from the Shah to the Ayatollah, and from Bhutto to Zia-ul-Haq, signified a shift from secular dictatorships to theocratic autocracies. With the exception of the Shah, who was a political maverick, every other leader in that region in his time governed State-led economies. Despite their religious backgrounds and nationalist sympathies, they were able to transform their polities to fairer, more equal societies free of both fundamentalism and liberalism. Egypt’s transition to Sadat signalled the end of both equality and secularism: notwithstanding the rationality of his free market policies, his government could not contain the pressures of a fundamentalist sect that was venting out its frustration.
If Nasser’s Egypt was modernist, Sadat’s was anti-modernist. The same could be said of Bhutto and ul-Haq, and elsewhere, of Allende and Pinochet. Economically they were rational, but in other respects they were irrational and submissive to the worst elements of the past. Ul-Haq brought back fundamentalism, while Pinochet flirted with fascism. The return to primitiveness in these societies was more than a departure, incidentally: it was the result of the incongruities which were being shielded by those in power.
Sri Lanka continues to witness violent shifts to authoritarianism after mild trysts with populism because of those same incongruities. The centre was always vulnerable. It was disconnected from the people because it assumed and affirmed what it thought were their aspirations. The tendency of our rulers to compare the present with a supposedly less enlightened past is, not surprisingly, a symptom of their political bankruptcy: they have nowhere else to turn to, so they end up critiquing what went by and has long gone by. I believe Dayan Jayatilleka characterised this sorry trend in our political sphere well a few months ago:
It is necessary to avoid the cycle of international success followed by ignominy and establish a stable posture of prestige and assertive success in the world.
Dr Jayatilleka was talking about our place in the modern world, but the same can be said of our internal politics too. A cycle of promise followed by idiocy: this has been its state for so long. Logic has been defied, even trumped, in the pursuit of what the State assumes to be the best interests of the people. But without a clear blueprint for the future, be it from the left, right, or centre, no country can move forward. Not the South, not the North. And most certainly not the East.
In Sri Lanka, the political right has operated without a clear program. The left has operated without a clear action plan. Consequently, the right has almost always been undone by its own contradictions, which explains the downfall of both the UNP of Premadasa and the SLFP of Chandrika Kumaratunga. The left, in comparison, has been felled not for the want of a program, but for the want of the impetus needed to transform that program into cohesive strategies. Because no left movement in this country can govern alone, it has always cohabited with the right. A disaster, because that has led to the empowerment of the right at the exorbitant cost of those freedoms which our Constitution guarantees for us.
To conclude, then: in terms of policy we, or rather our leaders, have always been inconsistent. 1956 was only one of many instances in which our elite, asserting a populist line, caved into authoritarianism later on. This seemingly never-ending cycle of popular rhetoric followed by unpopular action has never really taken root in the West or in East Asia: Donald Trump has lost his lustre, while Merkel and Macron have triumphed considerably. The former won, but backed down on his own promises. The latter promised little, but what little they promised, they aim to deliver.
And perhaps that’s what we need. But there’s very little we can hope for with what we have. The talkers will continue to do what they have always done. Talk shop. The doers, either in the opposition or elbowed out of the government, will be limited to do what they have never done. Talk shop.
We will survive, and by all accounts we may even emerge unscathed, but until then, it will be futile to hedge our bets on an individual without accounting for the fact that political rationality has always been secondary to populist irrationality here. To break away from this circle requires considerable courage on our part and on the part of our elected representatives. Are we brave enough, though? Only time can tell.
Written for: Daily Mirror, June 16 2017