Friday, July 15, 2016

On people, poverty, parties, and the periphery

About two years ago, someone pointed out to me that the SLFP housed racists and the UNP housed those who were against racism. I believed him, but pointed out that it’s always a fallacy to associate a political party with a set political ideology, especially in as small and unpredictable country as ours. I also noted that people don’t always pick party-colour on the basis of personal beliefs. This was of course before the 2015 Presidential Election.

Since then events have borne out what I said. The 2015 Election (for better or worse) erased the distinction between the two parties in terms of their congruence with personal belief. The SLFP, at least under Mahinda Rajapaksa, was associated with Sinhala Buddhist nationalism. The UNP was not. But the racists were there voting for both, not because they were confused but because (especially in the case of the UNP) they took it for granted that their personal beliefs were already fixed and framed by constitutional guarantees, laws, and rhetoric. They didn’t need a vote to ensure all that. The floating voter, let’s not forget, was shifted to the Common Opposition by the Jathika Hela Urumaya, a party hardly known for its cosmopolitanism.

Soon after the election I pointed out that Mahinda Rajapaksa’s moves towards creating an ideology that would eventually give rise to a Third Force (the Joint Opposition) made use of the race-card. He claimed (quite erroneously) that he lost because of the North and East. He did not accept defeat. He did not twiddle thumbs. Instead, being the astute strategist he is, he made use of the kind of voter the SLFP was normally associated with (the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist) and, upon his rejection from that party by those hardly considered to be sympathisers of Sinhala Buddhist interests, entranced that voter to his side. The rest, they say, is history.

The lesson 2015 taught us was this: political ideologies aren’t necessarily shaped by personal beliefs. I hence observed in an article submitted to the Colombo Telegraph (“On Straight Lines that Curve and Don’t Exist”) that inasmuch as the SLFP was from its inception associated with the kind of nationalist extremism that the UNP tries hard to avoid, the truth was that when it came to winning elections and mandates both parties were guilty, in some form or the other, of pandering to racism. I should have also observed, as I did not, that both are guilty of pandering to poverty.

The Joint Opposition, which loves to paint things in black and white (not that the government doesn’t), frequently claims or implies that the country is “being sold”. It was sold the moment national policy was subjected to the whims and fancies of the IMF, the World Bank, and other dubious agencies with even more dubious track records, and this process continued essentially unhindered during the time of Mahinda Rajapaksa. Pandering to poverty, did I say? Well yes, but only in times of elections. After the elections, the poor remain as screwed as they were before them.

The only difference with Rajapaksa was, however, that he managed to politicise poverty in ways no one in the present government or preceding him (with the exception of Ranasinghe Premadasa) has quite matched (the way he “handled” Samurdhi speaks for itself, I should think). That he succeeded in this can be gleaned from the results of the January Election in 2015: while the cosmopolitan urbanised areas (regardless of the faith adhered to by the majority community therein) voted for Maithripala Sirisena, polling divisions like Anamaduwa (considered to be the poorest in the country) voted overwhelmingly for the incumbent.

Why? The most common reason those who voted for the winning side will tell you: “Because they’re uneducated and gullible!” When I pointed this out to a friend, he gave a clearer answer: “Because they’ve been drugged to believe Mahinda’s gospel.” In the days following the election, Rajapaksa’s rhetoric about the North and East dumping him (which he shouldn’t have mouthed) led commentators to conclude that those who voted for the man weren’t just extremists, but poor and stupid. How? Because the poor (as the demographics show) voted in large numbers for the incumbent. “Stupid is as stupid does,” some will say.

But I disagree. The comments made by Akila Viraj Kariyawasam (while still in the opposition) which gave rise to the baiya-toiya dichotomy, buttressed by what the inimitable Sarath de Alwis called Ranil Wickremesinghe’s “Royalist Regency”, did little to nothing to heal the fissures in citizenry that Maithripala Sirisena’s victory gave birth to. If at all, thanks to both the Joint Opposition and the government, those fissures remain as divisive as ever.

Look at it this way. What triumphed in the days and months following the election was meritocracy over nationalism. True, those who support the former president conflate meritocracy with minoritarianism (while supporters of the incumbent regime conflate it with pragmatism), but even despite that, we can conclude that what won in 2015 was a cosmopolitan variant of technocracy which the likes of Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne had valiantly developed.

Now I have nothing against meritocracies. In a country like ours, which has sustained and institutionalised corruption so much that the government’s supporters now defend it on the basis of relative (and not absolute) merits, we need to embrace a culture which rewards talent, not power.

But there’s a problem. The masses who remain detached from the centre are connected to the periphery (i.e. those who reach out to them, not just politicians), which lacks meritocrats. The discriminating minority who remain detached from the periphery are connected to the centre, which lacks popularity.

Sure, the likes of Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne are among the most decent politicians we’ll get, but I wonder whether the “Royalist Regency” alluded to by Sarath de Alwis will be enough to salvage an essentially corrupt system. Put simply, those who have merit are associated with the kind of prestige (based essentially on the kind of institutions they come from) that the masses aren’t impressed with. Merit is good, but when linked with prestige that can have serious consequences for the kind of voter the Joint Opposition (which has its lion’s share of politicians who have both merit and popularity, notwithstanding the idiots who garland it in public) woos and continues to woo. I don’t like to pick on schools or institutions, but I will say this: just because you’re prestigious and have merit, doesn’t mean the people will be moved by you.

There’s more.

In his now classic satire on class differentiation, “The Rise of the Meritocracy”, Michael Young argues that the creation of a class of technocrats detached from the pulse of the common man was inevitable in a society (and education system) which linked intelligence with economic power.

In 2001 Young revisited his book in an article written to The Guardian (“Down with meritocracy”) where he pointed out the differences between the Labour governments of Clement Attlee and Tony Blair: the former housed by ministers who had working class backgrounds (like Ernest Bevin), the latter housed by ministers who’d spent their teenage years at Cambridge and Oxford (like David Miliband). Taking a cue from Sarath de Alwis, I’d have called this the “Oxbridge Regency”. I suspect I wouldn’t be wrong if I did and I believe it holds true. Even now.

Here’s what Young wrote in that article: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” I’m not arguing that those with merit always congeal into a social class that seeks to be differentiated from the rest by its economic clout, but I am saying that the risk of such a thing happening in a society which affirms class stratification isn’t small. Even in as welfarist a society as ours.

And you know what? Neither the government nor the Joint Opposition is helping. The irony is that the sort of economic power-based values each purports to affirm is at variance with what they do in reality. For instance, it was (if I remember correctly) Akila Viraj Kariyawasam who first made a snide remark against the baiyas and it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who ended his Budget Speech in 2014 by declaring his pride at being a baiya, but just the other day those who support the Rajapaksa cabal (and hence the baiyas) were openly mocking Kariyawasam when a video of the latter awkwardly speaking in English at an official function emerged. Where’s the logic in that, one can legitimately ask.

Despite this manifest hypocrisy of the Joint Opposition (which isn’t to say that sections of the government don’t indulge in hypocrisy – the fact is that we all do), however, I believe its message is correct, unintended though it would have been. Merit is good. Confusing merit with prestige, on the other hand, isn’t.

And you know the irony of all this? Despite their best intentions, those who contend for a better and more prosperous Sri Lanka work from the centre. The masses, on the other hand, live in the periphery. The centre and the periphery, clearly, haven’t met. When I think of that, I am reminded of what Rand Paul, the American senator who despite his hardcore stance on social issues wins my respect, said in his response to Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union Address:

Before I ran for office, I practiced medicine for nearly 20 years in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Liberal elites fly over my small town, but they don’t understand us. They simply seek to impose their will upon us – from what insurance we can buy, to what light bulbs we can use, to how we generate electricity.

Most of us in flyover country, and I suspect many who live in our big cities, think those in government take us for granted. Those of us who are actively pursuing the American Dream simply want government to get out of our way.

For those of us who feel separated and distant from the American Dream, we don’t want be perpetually talked down to, forgotten, and left in perpetual poverty. Many are discouraged that the “gifts” offered by liberals have not generated wealth, but rather perpetuated poverty.

There are those who mock Donald Trump (and by the same token, Rand Paul) on account of what they feel to be his crass attempts at pandering to the lowest social denominator. There are those who commend Hillary Clinton for raising her platform to the highest social denominator. Both commentators are wrong. Dead wrong.

So let me be as simple as I can. The “liberal elites”, or in the case of this country the meritocrats, remain uprooted. They continue to come from the city and they continue to stand for urban, secular values which don’t strike a chord with either the South or North. They stand for decency and high office, but by their actions (conflating decency with merit and merit with prestige and prestige with economic clout) they become no better than the vulgar bumpkins they see in the Joint Opposition.

The truth, then, is that no politician in this country panders to poverty except when elections are around the corner. That’s bad enough. Having a government which Michael Young would have based another satirical book on (had he lived today) is worse.

About time we understood this. And about time we realised that Regencies (whether Royalist or Oxbridge) can’t salvage societies by themselves. We need people. People who’re connected with the periphery.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at