The burden of a skewed social contract
What a difference six months can make! After making a grand entry with so much fanfare and hype, Sri Lanka’s good governance project is now preparing a hasty retreat with barely a whimper. But even as we reflect on the legacy of this brief effort to reform the country’s broken political system, we should recognize some of our own ingrained biases, which make such fundamental changes virtually impossible.
It is not that the good governance reform effort achieved nothing. It did chalk up a couple of significant achievements, including the 19th amendment. However, compared to the lofty promises it held at the start—including abolishing the Executive Presidency and comprehensive post-war reconciliation—it seemed to have fallen considerably short. Of course, as expected, the biggest spoiler tuned out to be the political agendas of individual politicians, which got in the way of the country’s broader interests. But having said that, we should also acknowledge some of our own prejudices, which make us susceptible to manipulation by such opportunistic politicians.
Though we were able to come together in January as Sri Lankans to get rid of one of the most corrupt and nepotistic regimes in the country’s history, it did not take long for our ethnic/religious differences to come to the surface. While together we battled corruption and patronage politics, we simply could not get over our mutual mistrust to usher in a more inclusive society. Our understanding of rights and responsibilities of citizenship is so skewed that we simply cannot accept the idea of providing extra concessions to any minority—under the guise of post-war reconciliation—without worrying that it would somehow undermine the rights of the rest of the population. We simply cannot make the mental jump to realize that allowing minorities to be equally productive will contribute to the welfare of the entire population.
So what gives? Collectively, the understanding of state-society relations is called the 'social contract.' In effect, it is the set of implied rules and organizing principles that individuals subscribe to when forming a society. These rules are aimed at furthering the interest of the entire society and members (citizens) submit to them voluntarily to enjoy the benefits of membership. In an ideal state, the entire population should constitute one society and the social contract should apply to all of them equally. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka, the entire population does not constitute one society. Instead we tend to disaggregate the population by ethnicity and religion to apply rules differently. Therefore, instead of a uniform social contract that applies to all Sri Lankans alike we have narrower group-based agreements that apply to the Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims separately. This is what makes us view concessions to any one group as detracting from the welfare of rest of the population. And this is what makes us nervous about ethnic reconciliation.
We warmly welcomed the anti-corruption initiatives of the good governance regime but not the ethnic reconciliation measures. The moment the good governance agenda veered into post-war reconciliation and electoral reforms we panicked and allowed opportunistic politicians to convince us that somehow the rights of the rest of the population were under threat. Unfortunately, until we get over such prejudices Sri Lanka will not see any meaningful good governance. Good governance and social inclusion are two sides of the same coin and we simply cannot have one without the other.