Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Rationalising the irrational

J. R. Jayewardene’s victory in 1977 signalled a change of face in the United National Party (UNP). It began a complete reversal of the policies which the defeated Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) had embraced and introduced to the country in 1956 and went beyond just rejecting them. To say that the 1978 Constitution sought to facilitate this reversal would be putting things mildly. In all honesty, what Jayewardene envisioned was nothing less than the second biggest social, economic, and political revolution here after Bandaranaike.

He has been vilified, unduly sometimes, for having ruined the economy and leaving it in shambles. Those who contend with his policies with reason are rare; those who do so without knowing his original program are not. To be fair, this is also the case with those who criticise Bandaranaike and Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The point is that with Jayewardene we faced, for the first time, a complete shift to the Right. This has been discounted. Wrongly.

What was the bigger picture? If 1956 represented, as Denzil Peiris wrote, the “maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia”, which as Regi Siriwardena observed consisted of a “belated and weak embryonic bourgeoisie”, then 1977 represented not a repudiation of that class, but a substitution for its “retrogressive, narrow, and stunted ideology” of the UNP’s tilt towards capitalist rationality. In other words, 1977 sought to end divisive ethnic consciousness with an all-embracing cosmopolitanism, memorably distilled decades later by Professor H. L. Seneviratne in his jathika/arthika thesis (when differentiating between rhetoric and policy).

Jayewardene was both right and wrong in this. He emerged at a time when the United States was propping dictatorships around Latin America. His victory coincided with that of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. What these two figures, and the dictators their governments supported, indicated was a rift (a faulty one) between political centralisation and economic liberalisation: a rift which has visited successive governments since 1977, here and elsewhere.

What happened then was what has made and broken political equations over and over again: the tendency of parties to win by landslides when tilting to political extremes. Bandaranaike’s SLFP won on this count, as did her daughter and her successor, Rajapaksa. In Jayewardene’s case though, what came out was, at the outset, a party which was supposedly open to reform.

Was it though? Not really. Despite its pledge on delivering the goods with regard to the Tamil people and reforming political structures, the UNP instead conferred the government with near-dictatorial powers and robbed itself of any legitimacy by holding a referendum which prolonged the party’s five-sixth hold on parliament by a simple majority. True, it saw through the 13th and 16th Amendments, but that had less to do with political will than with an imposed will, especially with how India asserted itself then.

As 1977 clearly showed therefore, embracing capitalist rationality was not an end but a means to an end when it came to political reform. Enforcing this same rationality through economic liberalisation on one hand and political centralisation to facilitate such liberalisation on the other hand, therefore, couldn’t last. Not for long. Few would have bet, naturally, that the euphoria which greeted Jayewardene in 1977 remained when he left in 1988, when the UNP changed its outlook on the economy from neo-liberalism to populist conservatism under Ranasinghe Premadasa.

The irony is that not even Premadasa could undo the political autocracy / economic democracy dichotomy his predecessor left to him. Indeed, during his presidency he not only sanctioned a culture of political vengeance, which by all accounts dwarfed the abuses of Rajapaksa’s regime, but even tried to hide that same culture by sustaining a populist image. It was Premadasa, not Bandaranaike (S. W. R. D. and Sirimavo) who epitomised the populist dictator image here. His successor in this sense was Rajapaksa, who like Premadasa became alienated from his own party before being ousted.

In a context where the political Right didn’t operate on ideology, what did Ranil Wickremesinghe’s foray into the UNP symbolise? Firstly, he privileged and pushed forward Jayewardene’s agenda and did away with Premadasa’s. Secondly, he ensured that inasmuch as his archrival Chandrika Kumaratunga was using her popular image to grab votes while “doing” a Tony Blair on her traditionally left-oriented party, he didn’t give way to her by doing the same thing. He thus remained a staunch policy-driven technocrat from the Right.

In other words, Wickremesinghe became a fiscal hawk, a war dove, a capitalist ideologue in the truest sense of the term, and a political autocrat, more so than his uncle, to a point where his enforcement of “rational” policy itself became irrational and conceited. Watch his pre-election interview on Derana, for instance, and you will see that for all his clever manoeuvres and wit, his insistence on arguing with hostility borders on arrogance.

With him as prime minister today, how will the political / economic rift be handled in the interests of good governance? Firstly, it is absurd to expect miracles in this regard from any administration run by him. He is not his uncle in that he refuses to bend before the wind, and when he does so, he commits U-turns so dramatically that it takes time to adjust, as seen in the Paul Harris affair and the Millennium City fiasco.

Secondly, his continuing dominance in his party (as seen in those he handed out ministerial portfolios to and those he purposely marginalised) means that good governance for the most will have to come from his first-in-command, Maithripala Sirisena. Sirisena, by all accounts, might represent what Mahinda Rajapaksa could have been but failed: a reformist leader who never confused equity or growth for the attainment of them through political coercion. The UNP has more to learn from him, not surprisingly.

Here’s the bottom line, hence. Ever since 1977, we have been facing an essential dichotomy, a huge gap, between economic policies on the one hand and political principles on the other. This is not and will never be endemic to Sri Lanka alone. Both the Latin American and East Asian experiences testify to that. No reason to abandon hope, however.

As such, attaining congruence between political and economic freedom (one which Rajapaksa could have realised but didn’t try to reach for) rests more with Maithripala Sirisena than with his prime minister. A bitter truth certainly. Can’t help. Wickremesinghe has his past, after all.

Written for: The Nation INSIGHT, September 19 2015