A Centrist Social Compact | Sunday Observer

A Centrist Social Compact

3 November, 2019

The hullabaloo over sanitary pads has served a salutary purpose. It has exposed our collective confusion over what is ‘poverty’ and what is ‘development’.

Other than ‘National Security’ that acquired a new urgency in the light of the Easter Sunday massacre, poverty and development are the two central issues dominating the furious debate on who should be our next president.

The subject of menstrual hygiene of women and girls who constitute 52 percent of the population was first taken up by candidate Sajith Premadasa.

It promptly elicited a studied response from Candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake.

While it has not appeared on Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s teleprompter, Bandula Gunawardena, his spokesman on matters economic, and Wimal Weerawansa, his villifier extraordinary, have dismissed any discussion on the subject as out of bounds in refined society.

It is pure, simple sanctimonious humbuggery.

‘Pohottuwa’ politicians who scoff at this very human issue are brazen bounders.

They have forgotten that some of our modish lasses of the ‘Lamborghini ‘and ‘Aston Martin’ class were brave and brash to throw their ‘bras’ on to the stage of pop singer Enrique Iglesias who performed in Colombo.

Yet, menstrual hygiene is not a subject for discussion in a society that is reconciled to have a Buddhist monk as the president of the largest trade union of female nurses.

It is evidence of our limitless capacity for self-delusion.

Sajith’s manifesto is an honest attempt to rise above partisan, clientelist political culture. It opens the possibility for a new majority of the center with the potential to become a genuinely new governing coalition.

Sajith has done something that even Anura Kumara of the JVP has not done at this threshold point in our politics.

He has brought back state intervention to ensure social equity as declared government policy.

Something that senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are attempting to do in the heartland of free market capitalism during their primary campaigns.

Ranil’s free marketeering stripped the UNP of its identity with the ordinary people – a folk consciousness that was ingrained in the public psyche for generations since the founder of the party opened the dry zone to settle the land less in their own homesteads.

A culture that Gamini Dissanayake painstakingly infused in to UNP politics under J.R. Jayewardene the essential free marketer.

Sajith has restored the legitimacy of the party by distancing himself from value neutral economics based on mathematical models. Such planning sounds good in Washington. It fails to take note of the subtleties of human behavior which is more often erratic than rational.

It is drawn up in the realization that the last four and a half years have been years of locusts, frittered away in promises not kept and slogans debased.

Sajith Premadasa was right in focusing attention to an issue that cried out for remedial action by the state.

Women and adolescent girls face multiple challenges in the current consumer culture.

Ensuring proper menstrual hygiene management is not a mere matter of personal hygiene but an important step towards safeguarding the dignity, bodily integrity and overall life opportunities of women and girls. Poverty is not about money. It is about opportunity. Amartya Sen the economics Nobel laureate defines poverty in his classic ‘Development as Freedom.’

“Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being. Economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable - and unethical.”

The label ‘neoliberal’ is an empty epithet that ‘Pohottu Politicos’ defending the family kleptocracy often use to win a political argument.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa has also adopted the practice of using the term ‘neoliberal’ in his carefully framed homilies on economic development and helping the poor.

In the current equation, Sajith Premadasa is ahead in the game. Gotabaya addresses poverty with social order and national security. He is the quintessential ‘neoliberal’.

Sajith identifies poverty as deprivation of opportunity. He is the social democrat.

Both Adam Smith and Karl Marx defined ‘value’ as based on objective conditions of labor, machinery and capital.

For neoliberals, ‘value’ is a function of exchange. Only what has a price is valuable.

Collective effort is ignored. As economist Mariana Mazzucato points out, neoliberals consider “even wages as outcomes of the wage earners choice between leisure and work.”

Remember how Gotabaya used troops to manicure lawns and clear the clogged drains in the city. Let us not beat around the bush. Ranil Wickremesinghe and Nivard Cabral share the same idea.

In this indictment of right-wing neoliberal school, we must not be too harsh on Mahinda Rajapaksa the prime ministerial choice of candidate Gotabaya.

The two brothers have no idea of value creation. For them, value is something that is out there with the Chinese.

The UNP has finally stumbled upon reality. It has discovered social democracy. It has embarked on the practical path of redefining market economics and capitalism.

Sajith Premadasa must make a clean break with crony market economics of Ranil Wickremesinghe. As Senior Journalist and peerless iconoclast, Victor Ivan pointed out at Sajith Premadasa’s manifesto launch, in the next fortnight we should hope to see the emergence of a broad alliance of progressive and democratic forces.

That alone is the sine qua non to prevent a neofascist dictatorship of either one man or an entire family brood. Some retrospective soul searching is required. Why did the alliance of democratic and progressive forces disintegrate in the last four years?

The first budget of the ‘Yahapalanaya’ regime proposed a ‘mansion tax’. The wizard who introduced the innovative revenue proposal moved into a penthouse. That is the last we heard of the mansion tax.

In the age of connectivity, proclivity for the preposterous has a price.

This is a Candidate-Centered contest. Sajith Premadasa has come this distance by clearly straying away from the politics of the last four years.

In the next fortnight he must make a clean break.

His manifesto has its own brand and messaging. It demands not growth in terms of per capita income. In a sharp rerouting of strategy, it demands target-oriented state intervention in education, healthcare and social inequality.

Sajith’s manifesto is an honest attempt to rise above the partisan clientelist political culture that has lasted since the 1972 Republican constitution blurred the distinction between the executive and the legislature. That is when members of parliament became guidance counsellors on all matters in our daily lives. It acquired added weight when members were given decentralized budgets.

Now we stand in bus halts provided under the ‘Sankalpaya’ the oft abused Sinhala word for the ‘concept’ of some jackass who has condescended to provide it with our own money.

Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda explained for all time the idea of propaganda in a democracy.

“This will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy, that it gives its deadly enemies the means by which it was destroyed.” ‘Liberty’ is not a shopping mall. Independence is not an arcade. Freedom is the capacity of people to do something and to make things happen, to bring about change for the better in their lives.

What people can achieve is influenced by economic opportunities, political liberties, social powers. Development is not building highways that only a fraction of the population use.

Development is the process of expanding human freedom. It is “the enhancement of freedoms that allow people to lead lives that they have reason to live”.

Development is not hyperactivity by a repressive state apparatus in the guise of ‘national security’.

As professor Jayadeva Uyangoda points out, this presidential contest has brought about a realignment of right-wing Sinhala nationalist forces.

It has also precipitated a fragmentation of democratic and progressive elements. The need of the hour is a consolidation of the democratic center.

That calls for a rejection of both neoliberal economics and extreme ethnoreligious tribalism.

In order to reach that broad consensus, Candidate Sajith Premadasa must decidedly and determinedly jettison the politics of the privileged and reach out to social segments that Victor Ivan identified as those clamoring to be heard after seventy-one years of independence.

At the launch of Sajith’s Social Revolution manifesto, Lakshman Kiriella, reminisced on the inclusive ethos of the historic Kandyan kingdom which successfully repelled foreign invasions for three hundred years.

The Kandyan kingdom offered a safe refuge for Muslims who fled Portuguese pogroms. It offered asylum to the Catholic missionary father Joseph Vaz fleeing Calvinist persecution by the Dutch.

The two Buddhist monastic orders of Kandy had opted for a Dravidian prince in preference to a Sinhala contender for the throne of Kandy purely on his fealty and devotion to the Buddhist faith.

King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe of this Tamil dynasty was instrumental in restoring the important Buddhist institution – that of higher ordination which had become extinct due to colonial intrusion and political strife. King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe got down monks from Siam (Thailand) for the purpose. Without ordination, Buddhism as we know, would be extinct.

What Kirielle did not say or failed to say, is that in pre-colonial Sri Lanka there were no separate Sinhala and Tamil identities. As some of our main electronic media outlets and most Sinhala print media demonstrate, in the current stampede for hearts and minds, demagoguery has an effective rhetorical strategy to corner the media market. Racist conspiracy theories are much easier than serious ideological debate.

Demagoguery is simple. The demagogue exhorts;

“I am not wrong. I am always right. There is no such thing as a complicated problem. Only people complicate things. Even listening to those who differ is a betrayal of the nation.”

“All you need to know is that you are safe in my hands. And it will be a very pleasurable experience!“

When you believe in the strong leader, who needs more clarity?