06 February 2015

On the caricatured dichotomy “jathika” (national) and “arthika” (economic)

First published in the Daily Mirror of November 12, 2005, this piece I believe has new currency given the economic 'prerogatives' of the current set of worthies in cabinet, led by Ranil Wickremesinghe. It also details certain 'principles' articulated by ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa back them which we have now been assessed, more or less. 

Prof. H.L. Seneviratne has chosen to caricature the two main Presidential candidates, Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe, as “jathika” and “arthika”, respectively (see The Island, November 9, 2005). According to him, the voter has a clear choice: “culture and national identity or for a better standard of living”. 

Seneviratne seems less confused than confusing, for he has succeeded, in my humble opinion of course, in identifying the key problems of our society, but then extrapolates as per his political preferences in contradiction of his basic premises. 

For example, while correctly faulting all parties to rule the country since independence for the ill governance, he reserves special invective for “1956” and all that this number represents. He forgets that the UNP has ruled the country or at least half of the last 50 years and that 25 years is ample time for anyone to correct systemic flaws created and/or perpetuated by those for whom culture and national identity were of paramount import. He believes that our problems are “wholly or mostly economic”. 

The reductionism of this statement can be attributed to whatever intellectual/academic tradition he subscribes to and is not what I wish to take on here, save to point out that he also, correctly, admits that “the economy is not independent of other social institutions”. 

The confusion lies in the false dichotomy that he champions and according to which he marks the two candidates: “culture” and “economy”. He is essentially claiming that since culture and nation are important for Mahinda, economy isn’t and conversely since Ranil talks economy, he is culture-blind. 

I believe it would be useful to examine the truth of this black-and-white casting and also the gross generalizations that the good professor tosses around in his undisguised scorn for things national and cultural (readable as “Sinhala” and “Buddhist” going by much of his “scholarly” work), because these are views/prejudices that are casually tossed around these days, especially in the English Press. 

Seneviratne, pointing out that the JVP/JHU/SLFP coalition is cast in a nationalist mode, claims that “rationally viewed” this is to “tag on a negative and destructive element into the sphere of the economic”. He does not state the premises of his rationality, but he must have heard of Mahatir Mohamed, about Vladimir Putin and about the “nationalist” and “state-driven” base of the South East Asian economic miracles. 

He tries to hide behind a flabby caveat. After admitting that the economy is indeed integrated with the rest of the social order, he says that the “social” is not the same as “national”. This is true. On the other hand, he leaves out the important factor that the social includes the nation and things national including perceptions of these things and that any “rational” view of economic development, contrary to the kind of economic models subscribed to by the likes of Wickremesinghe, has to take these factors into account. 

“Mahinda Chinthana” is not economy-free or ignorant of the global character of capital movement. Indeed it is more in tune with global realities than Ranil’s “People’s Agenda”. Whereas the latter still looks to the fast declining West led by the USA and Europe, the former looks to Asia (the emerging, if not “emerged”, force in the global economy) for inspiration. The United States, for example, has just US $ 25 billion in foreign reserves compared to China’s 790 billion and if further proof of capability and efficiency is required all we need to reflect on is the fact that Katrina caused a lot more than a few blushes for Bush. 

Seneviratne is absolutely right when he says, “Misleading the youth is the most heinous crime that the theoretician elite has committed and continues to commit.” There is a lot of misleading done by the theoreticians of the Right that Seneviratne is either ignorant of or has chosen to be silent about. 

Is Ranil culture-free? On the one hand, he is desperately trying out a “New Look”, trying to appear as a flag-waving, temple-going, Buddhism-protecting Sinhala Buddhist. On the other hand, he was happily getting ready to invite the Portuguese to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of their temple-burning, resource-plundering Catholic ancestors. His cultural referents are clearly foreign, going by his abysmal knowledge of the history of the nation he wants to lead, but they are nevertheless cultural referents. He is a secularist in essence (outside of his rhetoric during this campaign), and one who also cares little for cultural identity as far as the Sinhala Buddhists are concerned, although very conciliatory towards those of other faiths and other ethnicities. Thus, if economically he embraces the plunder that is called globalization, culturally he sanctions the erasure that creolization is all about. These processes are not culture-free. 

Moving on to generalizations, Seneviratne offers that “Mahinda Rajapakse is burdened with bedfellows like the JVP and the JHU, who naively dream of a unitary state which never existed in the entire history of our country except under British rule” and faults Rajapakse for being silent on how he can reconcile his position with that of these two parties. He also says that if elected the only outcome that can follow is war. 

Seneviratne, like most federalists, does not seem to understand that “unitary” does not by definition preclude devolution and has not studied history enough for even a casual perusal of the various agreements that were signed by the Kings of this country when conceding territory to European invaders shows clearly the character of the state in the main. He is making a huge assumption when he claims that insisting on the unitary inevitably results in war. For one, the war didn’t stop with the ceasefire agreement, it just went underground. True, large-scale killing stopped, but the LTTE still gained because it simply streamlined operations and focused on key targets. 

Prabhakaran does not need an excuse to wage war. To believe that dropping “unitary” will pacify Prabhakaran is being utterly naïve and ignorant of Prabhakaran’s track record. He left the “peace” process even after agreeing to a possible federal solution. (The exact wording of the joint decision taken by the two negotiating teams in Oslo is reproduced below by the newspaper for the sake of clarity).

“Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution must be acceptable to all communities.”

Mahinda has not only promised negotiations, but transparency in the process and to comprehensively review the causes of the conflict, the latter opening the possibility of resolving the “traditional homeland” issue once and for all and thereby establishing the legitimacy or otherwise of territorial claims. This alone would create the basis for a final resolution of the conflict, for otherwise we could well be voting for the principle, “has gun, has bomb, therefore let’s kneel down and concede”. 

There is also a strange silence on the part of the UNP’s “strange-bedfellows”, the CWC and the SLMC. Ranil has, as Seneviratne points out, mentioned good governance in his manifesto (so has Mahinda, although Seneviratne does not acknowledge). Is the kind of sectarianism ferociously insisted by (the CWC and the SLMC) in tune with “Economic Rationality”, we wonder? Don’t these parties constitute a “burden” too? 

In any event, I do not think the choice before the people is “jathika” vs. “arthika”. It is both, for they are embedded in one another although the embeddedness takes different form in each candidate’s vision. It is not one or the other but both. It is the comprehensive package that will receive overall assessment, although the individual voter may be more culture-driven than profit-driven or vice versa. Caricaturing does not help, though, and especially not when liberally splattered with generalizations and unsubstantiated claims.