Labour gaining ground. One in ten still undecided. Jeremy Corbyn is much closer to becoming Prime Minister than voters think, according to a Conservative party memo. Hung parliament will see Boris Johnson removed from No 10 Downing Street. Labour minority government likely. Opinion polls tightening — Corbyn might just become Prime Minister.
These were headlined claims in the run up to the British Parliamentary Elections. Change a few names and it is pretty much what did the rounds in Sri Lanka, especially among those who read, speak (and live?) ‘English’ a month ago. Check the following ‘clips’ from the pro-Sajith twitterati masquerading as political commentators and political scientists (crystal gazing quacks if you ask me!).
Sajith has the late starter advantage. Easy win for Sajith in Gota-Sajith race. Sajith is gaining ground. Sajith is bridging the gap fast. A tight race. It’s too close to call. Sajith slowly pulling ahead as Gota fails to gain traction. A poll has shown that Premadasa currently would narrow the margin considerably against Rajapaksa. Second-preference will decide things since no one will get 50%+1.
This is not exactly party propaganda posted by party-run websites and social media teams only to be liked and shared by party loyalists. No, we are not talking about career politicians such as those backing Sajith Premadasa or political activists like Shiral Laktilleka who until the very end maintained that Sajith could come through. Here’s a partial list of prophesy-pushers: Dayan Jayatilleka, Jayadeva Uyangoda, Victor Ivan, Harim Peiris and Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu. Some of them, like Dayan, were openly campaigning for Sajith while others may have done so on the sly. Some, like Kumar David didn’t exactly cheer Sajith, but waxed eloquent about the ‘real possibility’ of second-preferences coming into contention, indicating that he also believed in a close race.
Now their UK Election counterparts weren’t exactly Sumanadasas either. So how does one explain the fact that they got it all wrong? Is it enough to say ‘outcome preferences compromised analytical rigor’? Is it enough to say ‘they started believing their own propaganda?’
Maybe they just had no clue.
Many commentators, first and foremost, seemed to have read everything wrong. In 2015, they believed it was a battle between a clueless authoritarian Sinhala Buddhist nationalist crook and a coalition of good and competent guys who were peaceful, democratic, honest, tolerant and secularist. Come 2019, they believed (hoped, rather) that there would be a repeat. That belief/hope was predicated probably on that flawed reading of the 2015 result.
It can’t be the case that people had been ‘converted’ from revolutionary (‘low-intensity’ as Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri put it) to counter-revolutionary if you want that kind of terminology in the course of less than five years. It has to be something else. It was not about the electorate suddenly becoming ultra-progressive (as per THEIR understanding of the word) between 2010 and 2015. Simply, people were tired of the regime, they were tired of the arrogance and more so than the perceived corruption. If that was not the case, the above pundits would find it hard to explain how Gota not only won the districts that Mahinda lost or won by margins much slimmer than those of 2010 but won them handsomely.
So they were shocked. Naturally. Perhaps they should try self-reflection and ask themselves if they unconsciously extrapolated personal preferences and convictions to the entire electorate or at least a significant section of it.
In the UK (like in the USA), politics is dominated by the right wing. Yes, just like in Sri Lanka. Sure, the Democrats are ‘left’ but only in relation to the location of the Republicans on the Left-Right political continuum. Labour, in the UK, is ‘left’ but only in relation to the Conservatives. In terms of broader social, economic and political issues, both parties in both countries (yes, just like in Sri Lanka) are ‘right’.
In Sri Lanka, ironically, ‘The Left’ or rather the so-called Left Intellectuals that ‘The Left’ has dwindled down have identified the UNP as the preferred refugee camp. Now if these individuals were serious about taking on capitalism and if ‘class’ was their top political priority, they wouldn’t go anywhere near the UNP. Some of course backed the JVP and painted themselves as supporting program rather than a ‘lesser evil’. But ‘lesser evil’ seems to be the perennial fall-back option for these people, both in Sri Lanka and the UK.
Why is the Sri Lanka Podu Jana Peramuna (SLPP) or the Conservative party the ‘greater evil’? It’s not about capitalism or class struggle. Such things are no longer in their vocabulary. The left pretenders are simply reluctant to acknowledge the truth that such ideological concerns no longer excite them. They simply want to retain the label. So they pick what have been peripheral to traditional left politics: self-determination, minoritarianism, environmental issues, women’s rights, human rights, reconciliation, liberal democracy (as an interim political project), carbon-neutrality etc.
And they must pick a political other. What’s easy? Well, ‘nationalism’ has always been the no-no for the Left. So it’s easy. They painted the Rajapaksas and the SLPP as ‘Sinhala Buddhist racists’ and happily sided with Sajith. But wait, read what Kumar David has to say about Sajith. Sajith’s mind, he paraphrases thus: ‘I will be as tough as Gota; mother Lanka is safe from separatist Tamils and terrorist Muslims in my custody.’ It was easy, one feels. If not wanting to side with a Rajapaksa was not reason enough, all they had to do was to move to where the nationalists were not.
Never mind all that. They needed to stand somewhere and they picked a default option, even though it meant they had to rub shoulders of Tamil racists and Muslim fundamentalists, not to mention of course champions of the ultra-right and out and out slaves of the global thugs led by the USA and UK . Interestingly, the same can be said of the ultra nationalists. It is not that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP were in policy statement or rhetoric more nationalist than Sajith. Neither were they parroting the claims and aspirations of the nationalists. And yet, they were the lesser evil for the nationalists. It was easy, one feels. Just check where Mangala Samaraweera, Rauff Hakeem, Rishard Bathiudeen, M.A. Sumanthiran et al stand and pick the person opposed to them.
What comes out of all this is that while there are ideologies and ideologues, they either don’t have a party they expresses the particular ideology or else don’t have the will to build such a political force. And so those who picked the winner have things to say about what and who were defeated while those who backed the loser talk about what and who won.
This is not something that was peculiar to the recently held Presidential Election. It is a theory that can help explain the behavior of ‘ideologues’ of all kinds in every major election since 1965. That makes 54 years of default-option as far as those who are heavy on ideology are concerned.
Interestingly, they make such a tiny minority that their effect is considerably smaller than their profiles (and egos). In other words, had the self-labeled Leftists chosen to spend all their time away from laptops and pocket meetings and instead used armchairs, the results would have not been very different in both 2015 and 2019 (and of course other elections). The same would go for the nationalists.
Of course things are a bit different in Britain, considering Brexit, Johnson and deep-seated xenophobia coming out into the open, but one feels that electorate-temper has been as misread in that country as it was in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the commonalities of misreading, mis-extrapolation and missing the bus consequently are hard to deny.
One thing is certain. The November 16, 2019 election showed up many political scientists and political commentators for being utterly inept. Perhaps it was a sobering experience and we might see more informed and perceptive missives from them in the future. I am not betting on it though.
This article was first published in the Sunday Observer [December 15, 2019]