Challenging the skewed social contract
What is the most important outcome of the August elections? Obviously, the peaceful and free and fair manner in which it was conducted has to be one. Emphatically rejecting an authoritarian and nepotistic style of governance can also be considered another. Breaking the familiar cycle of power alternating between the Blue and the Green Party (instead, both parties going on to form a unity government) is also significant. But for us, the most significant outcome is the rejection of communal politics by the Sri Lankan electorate.
In the last couple of posts we discussed how the country's skewed social contract (the agreement between the state and citizens) has led to a culture of politics based on ethnic outbidding—i.e. where citizens vote for politicians based on the benefits they anticipate for their communities (Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, Plantation Tamils etc.). As such, politicians often articulated their political platforms along narrow group-based interests, rather than national interests. In our discussion, we traced the roots of this political culture to certain dynamics that occurred around the independence struggle. Since then, ethnic outbidding has become the mainstay of Sri Lankan politics thereby strengthening group-based identities at the expense of a uniform national identity.
In this election too, a set of politicians—from both sides of the divide—reverted to this default formula to seek votes. For instance, some Sinhalese politicians used fear-mongering around a possible resurgence of the LTTE and a distorted national flag to define their communal platform. Similarly, certain Tamil politicians, echoed the rallying cry of the diaspora to push through a genocide resolution in the Northern PC and to demand an international inquiry into war crimes. But, at the end of the day, such communal rhetoric on both sides were rejected by the electorate. Instead, moderate politicians who spoke of national issues seemed to have gotten their attention the most. For us, this switch of focus by the electorate—from communal issues to national issues—heralds a far more significant outcome of this election than any other.
In a way, this election demonstrates the limits of using communal politics as a cover for inefficiency and corruption. The old regime’s excessive corruption and poor governance seemed to have made the electorate take a second look at their communal rhetoric. They seemed to have realized the real reasons behind such fear-mongering and bigotry. At least, this was the case in urban centers. In rural areas, such rhetoric seemed to still get some traction—probably because they interact with other communities less or because they are not as bothered by the absence of a post-war economic boom. In any case, a majority of Sri Lankans seemed to have suddenly realized that the primary responsibility of a state is to further national interest and not narrow communal interests.
Our hope is that this switch in mentality will also go on to challenge the skewed social contract (of ethnic outbidding). But, for that, we may need to shake off a couple more ghosts as well. For one, are we able to clearly differentiate between national interests and communal interests? In particular, can we separate Sinhalese interests from broader Sri Lankan interests? Also, can we comfortably envisage minorities becoming national leaders (President, Prime Minister etc.) or a military that represents minorities proportionally? To really challenge the social contract of ethnic outbidding, we have to be fully comfortable with such ideas as well.