Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Pancha Maha Balavegaya 60 years on: old SLFP forces, now UPFA’s grave diggers?

The Island, August 25, 2012, 4:40 pm

Rajan Philips

The acutest commentary on the current political situation has come from the Maha Nayake of the Malwatte Chapter, the Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Siddharatha Sri Sumangala Thero. He reportedly told a delegation of the striking Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) that the country’s five great political forces (Pancha Maha Balavegaya) are now on the streets. It is a powerfully insightful and indicting comment that is also a trigger for fruitful political analysis.

The Maha Nayake’s comment counter-poses the SLFP of old against the UPFA of today. It is known history that S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike successfully marshaled the five forces in the Sinhalese political society – the Sangha (Clergy), Veda (Physicians), Guru (Teachers), Govi (Farmers) and Kamkaru (Workers) – to found the SLFP in opposition to the UNP and to form the first non-UNP government after independence. Sixty years on, the five forces are bestirring against a UPFA government that is a hugely morphed overgrowth of the old SLFP. The UNP that has had many lives in the past appears to have no life left in it, the only sign of life being the farcical UNP infighting that is never ending.

Much water, and blood, has flowed under Sri Lanka’s political bridges between the time when Mr. Bandaranaike rode to power as Prime Minister but was cut short of even a single term by an assassin’s bullet, and the time now – with Mahinda Rajapaksa riding high as all-powerful President without any constitutional term limits. The five forces rallied behind SLFP-led coalitions primarily to achieve social emancipation through the political process. They had in their sights a prematurely decadent UNP that had lost its bearings after the death of D.S. Senanayake who had the uncanny knack to simultaneously appeal to the westernized middle classes as well as the mass of peasants. The electoral clashes between the SLFP and the UNP were underwritten by conflicting social forces that stood behind the two political formations.

The five great forces then and now

The five great forces today have in their sights the dysfunctional UPFA government that has all the powers in the country but no achievement to write home about. There have also been vast changes in the composition of these forces and the agendas behind their agitations. The Buddhist clergy is no longer campaigning for Buddhist supremacy but for changing the presidential system, ending corruption and empowering the people. It is not social emancipation that is on top of the agenda but good governance and transparency. The agitating physicians toady are not native physicians clamouring for recognition but western-trained doctors who are opposed to the introduction of private medical education as a profiteering commodity and not a public good.

Spearheading the education revolt are not vernacular teachers but university dons, once the elites of the Sri Lankan elites now forced on to the streets to fight for wages. To their great credit, the dons have gone beyond trade union economism and provoked a debate over the national policy, or the lack of it, on education. Their cry for progressively increasing the budget allocation for education to reach the target of 6% of GDP has struck a chord with the people and has struck a nerve in the government. The 6% demand may not be realized overnight but it has forced into national relief the long overdue discussion of allocation priorities in government budget. Unless the government starts changing its ways, year after year it will have to face agitations for making large allocations to military budget and giving piffling pennies to education and other socioeconomic sectors.

The story continues with farmers and workers. It is not the drought that has aggravated the farmers but the failure of the government to pro-actively prepare and minimize the impacts of drought in agricultural districts. According to recent news reports, the farmers are also angry about water management practices and the use of dried up ponds as borrow areas for road construction. This is not just bad engineering but criminal negligence and abuse of resources. The organization of workers has also undergone significant changes – from the stirring days of working class protests to the dispersed labour movement of today.

But the UPFA government is now the target of workers who were dismissed for striking by the government of J.R. Jayewardene to herald the arrival of the open economy. The dismissed workers from the late 1970s want compensation from the UPFA government. Last year, the garment workers pushed back the UPFA government’s scheme to monkey with EPF. There are others, like the university teachers and CEB workers, who have refused to be coerced by government ministers.

Political implications

As the Maha Nayake reportedly opined (Sunday Times, 19 August), "It is not only one section of society which has deteriorated. All walks of life have been affected." The Maha Nayake’s observation gives the lie to the assertion that a majority of the Sinhalese are solidly behind the Rajapaksa brothers and the UPFA government because they defeated the LTTE. This was the case two years ago but now the situation is changing.

The Pancha Maha Balavegaya provided the social forces behind the SLFP. The UNP traditionally relied on the westernized middle classes, businesses and other conservative sections of society through wide walks of life. Who are the social forces behind the UPFA?

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike kept his government at a safe distance from his family, nuclear as well as extended. The SLFP acquired the Family Party sobriquet only after Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the leader of the SLFP after her husband’s death. President Rajapaksa is certainly not following the example of the SLFP founder in keeping the government and family at safe distance, but has taken family bandysim (that Mrs Banadaranaike was accused of in the 1960s and 1970s) to new dispiriting levels. The extended families of the Rajapaksas and their regional constituents in the south are the primary bulwarks of the UPFA government. Add to these the loyalties of those who rely on the regime for senior positions in the state apparatus, corrupt officials continuing in their positions without worries, and those businesses that have an inside track with the government to obtain favours of various kinds.

Just as the UPFA government has alienated the five great forces, the latter also have no political party to rally behind the way they did with the SLFP in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. But while they may not be able to form an alternative government, just as swiftly as they did with the SLFP in 1956, the five great forces in their current manifestation could become the grave diggers of the UPFA government.

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