Changing Political Culture Role of the Middleclass

  👤  3093 readers have read this article !
By 2018-02-12

By Prof. Siri Gamage

In recent weeks, there has been much talk again about the political culture and the need to reform it, if the country is to move forward. A seminar organized recently by a group called Beginning of Change (Venasaka Arambuma) at Maharagama had this theme as a key point. Bonds Commission Report or at least excerpts are out in the public domain and there is considerable airtime and media attention drawn to it.

Political stages were erected throughout the country for esteemed politicians, of various colours, to empty their stomach on routine performances adhering to party lines in front of eager audiences; waiting to get a glimpse of their favourite national leaders after they moved to Colombo to act on their behalf. Some get mesmerized by the sight of the most modern and luxurious vehicles they travel back to the localities, in the backdrop of exploding cracker sounds, the rewards that elected Parliamentarians get for their hard work. Some in the audiences get enthused by the loud attacks against those on opposite sides and discourses on righteousness, social justice, human rights, development and progress, anti corruption, how they saved the country, even though proving purity on the ground of corruption has become increasingly difficult lately. Amidst all these background dramas, noises and political ceremonies, some wonder what really is happening underneath Sri Lanka's political landscape.

In my view, it is high time that we reflect on why the country has not been able to generate a progressive political party free from corruption and truly seek to offer service to the people based on altruism rather than self-interest, from the middleclass, that embodies considerable talent, wisdom, foresight, drive and ambition? In this article I offer some thoughts.

Corruption-free politics

Many commentators have recently pointed out the failure of the two mainstream political parties, over the 70 years, since gaining independence and expressed frustration for the lack of a progressive alternative. One reason for adopting such 'a pessimistic attitude' is the continuing foreign debt syndrome. Another is the lack of concrete and visible legal action against those who have plundered public coffers during the previous regime and the present one, though the Attorney General and other law enforcement agencies contemplate such action, we are told. A third reason is the plight of the common man and woman, in terms of cost of living, whether they are in urban areas or the countryside. A fourth reason is the lack of credible action on reconciliation and associated matters including the new Constitution making. On the positive side, peace prevails, freedom of expression is available, extra judicial killings, harassment, and white van disappearances have subsided, and the populist-dictatorial tendency that existed before has declined. However, the promise to do away with the executive Presidential system by the current President seems to be on the back burner.

Commentators are using yahapalanaya or good governance and promises made during last national elections by party leaders as a yardstick to measure current doings and undoing of the national Government. For the average Sri Lankan, this is not a problem of this or that democracy, old or new model. For them, it is a matter of how to correct the course on the ground practically rather than political theory. Thus, it is important to dwell on the composition of the middleclass and its role in a movement for course correction, by way of a new progressive party or some such outfit.


The middleclass comprises of two layers or fractions. One is the lower middleclass and the other upper middleclass. Strictly speaking, we could consider JVP and Peratugamee Pakshaya or the Frontline Party and the such, as progressive political parties, that seek to improve the living conditions of those segments of society that are disempowered by the existing economic, political and social systems. Their political strategy seems to be to work in a bottom up manner.

Lower middleclass includes workers, peasants, policemen and soldiers, school teachers and clerks without land and other wealth, carpenters, masons, labourers, fishermen and the like. Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya led by Bahu also falls into the category of a progressive party though some question its support for the Yahapalanaya Government? This is a charge levelled against the JVP too.

During Dr. Newton Gunasinghe's time, there was an Institute for Workers and Peasants to study and promote the welfare of these neglected social strata. Newton was Sri Lanka's foremost Marxist activist and anthropologist who obtained his PhD from the University of Sussex but passed away, prematurely, some decades ago. Some upper middleclass intellectuals who supported the movement led by Ven. Sobitha prior to the last Presidential elections are supporting the JVP at the Local Government elections. This is a new trend.

Upper middleclass

The upper middleclass is motivated by material gains as any other class or class fraction. Many of its members including Buddhist monks and other clergy are part and parcel of the existing party system. Members of this strata such as traders and medium size businessmen and women, farmers with land and mill owners, transport operators, semi professionals and professionals such as lawyers, security services officers, police inspectors, doctors and university academics, civil administration officials tend to look at politics in a transactional sense as many politicians do, that is support one or another party for personal gain rather than ideological conviction. Thus, the politically active sections of this class fraction are heavily involved in the existing political culture.

In fact, they are the torchbearers of parties that form a government. However, the large majority in the class fraction is disempowered voters who tend to switch their allegiances to one or another party at the elections just as voters.

Elements within this fraction are avid readers and consumers of media reportage. They are motivated to provide higher education to children either in State-funded universities or even through international education. Ambition to progress in life is a core interest in this fraction but at the grassroots level, many obstacles exist. Members of this fraction are highly frustrated with the existing economic and political system as well as deteriorating national identity, values and inability of politicians to improve living conditions, rule of law, prevent corruption by those who hold power even though some have found prosperity by private practice and migrating. Ideally, a more progressive political party should emerge from this fraction as it is one of the more influential, in terms of voter numbers, geographical, cultural, ethnic and social spread, education, knowledge and the like. But the question is why no such party has emerged if material conditions are ripe?

The upper middleclass interests are represented by the mainstream parties such as the SLFP and the UNP plus other minor parties belonging to the majority Sinhalese and ethnic minorities who governed the country in one or another coalition since Independence. This includes parties like the Communist Party (CP) and the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) though they are also split now, into various groups. Majority of the upper middleclass who are employed in professions or engaged in business or work for the government bureaucracy prefer not to get involved in active politics. In the past there was a public service ethics where it was assumed that the senior bureaucrats should remain apolitical. This was to ensure continuity of the service when governments change and ensure fair decision-making in the interest of the public rather than the politician. Those who go through universities had a view that politics is a dirty game and they should not get involved. Partly this attitude was cultivated by the university education in disciplines inherited from the West, where the belief was to acquire modern knowledge was for professions in the private sector and government jobs. Elitist nature of the university in its early years also contributed to the same. However, surprisingly the same attitude to politics continued after the doors were opened for university education to all and an influx of those from rural and urban lower middleclass backgrounds. This detached attitude served the interests of the few undergraduates who were closely aligned with national political parties and organized party activities in university campuses.

The concept of educated youths and gentlemanly qualities characteristic of early generations of university graduates have disappeared, in recent decades, corresponding to what has happened in cricket. This change from gentlemanly engagement to playing hardball is not limited to education and cricket. Similar trend is visible in politics also. I am not sure if 'ethnically and politically engaged Buddhism' reflects the same phenomenon?

Other elements of the upper middleclass are intimidated by the existing political culture, maintained by a closely-knit political class, comprising dominant political families, engaged in politics as a full time vocation. These families, most of who are involved in national politics have rural roots and voter bases. Their names are recognized through generations of political activity in the provinces and have cultivated a support base in the provinces. Aligned with one of the mainstream parties, individuals of such families carry on organizing work in the provinces at national and other elections. Since the establishment of Provincial Councils, a generation of local politicians, activists, and party supporters have also been nurtured by mainstream parties at local levels. Thus, the Colombo-based national parties and their leaders can easily control, manipulate and dominate what's going on at the provincial and local levels. In this task, politically appointed Samurdhi officers, teachers, Grama Niladharis and the like also play an important role. When governing power is bestowed on one of these mainstream parties and its coalition partners, such power multiplies for the period of governance.

While this is good for those who are politically active, their families and friends, it is not so for the majority in the upper middleclass or for that matter lower middleclass. Majority in these classes who are going about their daily life are only interested in what the governments can offer them as part of the political contract between government and the voter. This includes peace, security, non-harassment, employment, bearable cost of living, education for children, health services and so on. Thus, members of the upper middleclass are interested in political criticism to some extent, as there are many issues of concern but they do not think of getting active in politics, some for fear of reprisals.

Rural areas

The environment in the rural areas is not conducive for members of the middleclass to get involved in active politics other than from the two mainstream parties or their coalition partners. A major concern is the security of civilians who want to support an alternate political party like the JVP. Law enforcement in the remote areas can often times be partial. People know that there is one law for the rich and powerful and another for the common man. Furthermore, occupations such as teaching, nursing, policing, and agricultural officers and so on are subject to politically motivated transfers. In such circumstances, families can suffer. Thus, the fear of reprisals prevents many in the middleclass occupations from entering active politics.

If politics is a dirty game, not a noble profession, the idea of piety promoted by religions, especially Buddhism can also influence members of the upper middleclass to adopt 'a detached attitude' to the rather mundane field like politics. Some of those who have gone through elite Buddhist schools in cities and become professionals and businessmen are closely related to politicians in one form or another. It is in their best interest to not adopt a critical attitude even when they see injustices and corruption. The rest lives in hope that things will improve one day. They seek solace through religious and other cultural activities. To aid them, for example, among the Sinhalese, there is an elaborate 'ceremonial culture' involving weddings, funerals, alms-giving to monks in memory of the dead and so on. Those who are urbanised adopt Western style party going, holidays, and overseas trips after the children are settled overseas, after higher education. Thus-their attention is split between Sri Lanka and the countries of their children's domicile.

Elements of the upper middleclass have found success in ways other than involving in politics and they are the least interested in getting actively involved. One interesting phenomenon here is the way they have adopted Western (consumerist) lifestyle merging with the Sinhala- Buddhist ceremonial life even though the Buddhist schools like Ananda, Nalanda were established to counter privileged English schools established by the State and missionaries during the British colonial period.

When it comes to consumerism, the upper middleclass does not seem to bother about colonialism, or from where the goods and services come from?

Part Two will be continued tomorrow.




Read More


Read More


Read More


Read More