Changing Political Culture Proactive Civil Society Activism

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By 2018-02-13

By Prof. Siri Gamage

Some Civil society organizations, whose leaders come from the Upper Middle Class (UMC) and campaigned for yahapalanaya, and a handful of academics, are critical of the current governance mode and the lack of action on some promises. However, their reach into the voter heartland in cities and rural areas is minimal. Other than being so-called armchair opinion makers, they do not seem to have a network or following in politically significant and sensitive areas where it matters. Criticism alone is not going to change the political culture.

There has to be an organization and a strategy of likeminded members of the UMC developed in close consultation with would-be supporters who are fed up with the rotten political culture and the elitist system of expensive governance system. Such an organisation can emerge from non-political, socially conscious elements of the UMC. Civil society organizations, trade unions, academic unions, clergy, professional bodies, etc. can play a part in this.

Power in numbers

Unfortunately, there seems to be a dominant view among civil society leaders and even academics interested in current political issues that they should not get involved in politics. They don't seem to realize that power lies in numbers - not only in good ideas.

How to get numbers for their own social and economic agendas in the first place and then to develop a political strategy away from failed political parties should concentrate their mind rather than placing the faith on politicians from mainstream parties at election times as they did in 2015. The strategy should include steps that are necessary in between elections as well including expanding a follower base spreading into provinces.

Political culture cannot be changed by diffusion of ideas alone. This is because ideas do not take root in the minds of voters unless they are repeated many, many times during waking hours of each week, month and year. The role of media plays a crucial role here. TV programmes like Pathikada and Satana engage the public on current issues critically.

Educating the public from a critical perspective is important. But, as the political culture is deeply rooted and embedded in the material world plus the current neoliberal, free market economy - often leading to dishonest actions by elected politicians and bureaucrats who serve them - words alone cannot change such a culture. Organizational network of those who are frustrated with the repeated failings of governments and mainstream parties need to not only hammer out the message that political reform is necessary but also keep recruiting more sympathizers to their cause and agenda for a new or reformed society.

Perceptions of power

Whether such organization should remain apolitical or establish a new progressive party need to be debated among members.

There is an activist organization that runs advertising campaigns regularly in Australia called Get Up (

It plays an effective role in not only gathering public support on particular issues but also mounting grassroots campaigns in marginal seats at election times. This is an example of what one can do to change political culture and outcomes on a daily basis through a civilian outfit.

We need to recognize that perceptions of power that have been ingrained in the minds of people belonging to middle and working classes by a multitude of practices and symbolism during the last 70 years also function as a barrier for these classes, in particular the UMC, to come to the realization that power is not something that is possessed and exercised by the rich, powerful, politically connected somebodies but it can be acquired by average citizen nobodies like themselves.

Through various political, religious and social discourses and symbolism, a perception has been inculcated in the minds of people who do not belong to the elite political class and its incumbent families that power is to be exercised only by career politicians.

Thus the only option available for the masses is to support one or other mainstream party led by the elitist, political families. It is only they who understand the complexities of governance, international relations, legal language and practices, and possess the education and knowledge necessary to run a country. This perception has been seriously damaged in recent years.

Yet through mechanisms such as political stage or vedikava act for reinforcing this inaccurate perception is being reinforced. For example, when the agamathi or janadhipathi comes to address a meeting in the provinces, there is some ceremony and ritual associated with such visits. A stage or vedikava is large and imposing, decorations more elegant, presence of security strong; the vehicle they arrive is luxurious. Firecrackers signify the arrival of these personalities considered 'dignified personalities.'

Political stage

Those who introduce the dignitary characterize them as saviours of nation who can develop the country and bring prosperity.

Emotional language is used to characterise their parties as the only credible ones that people should vote. Party flags are prominently displayed along with banners and pictures of the leaders plus local candidate. The chair that the leader sits has to be higher compared to other chairs. Wearing national dress is a must for the leader.

All this paraphernalia and symbols, plus the politically charged discourses inject certain interpretations about the merits of voting for one party, one leader, one candidate over another. Many in the UMC and LMC who participate in such rallies and witness these events get convinced about voting one way or another after listening to speeches and witnessing symbolism and rituals performed.

Little do they realize that such stages are built and political activists belonging to major parties who stand to gain most from a government once established, enact the drama. Little also do they realize that these events are designed to convince the voter about the inherent nature of power belonging to the political elites, a concept and privileged community that has been constructed by the very same political process i.e. mass voting to give the elites power.

Thus when someone who does not belong to prominent and already privileged political class comes forward to seek their vote, it turns out to be not an attractive proposition. If it was, the JVP should have been in power a long while ago. Try seeking votes on a bicycle or a three-wheeler. So, any future progressive party emerging from the UMC has to reflect on how to change such inbuilt perceptions by using alternative and more representative discourses and symbolism.

I am not suggesting that JVP candidates should arrive at rallies in Benz cars or recruit candidates from elite families. I am suggesting that the political culture is deeply ingrained and rooted in the minds of voters by the use of discourses, symbolism, grassroots network of local officials and politicians, and it is not limited to the Colombo-based elite ruling class who enjoy high culture.

To change such a culture, preaching to this ruling class alone is not enough. The mindset of the middle class, which can make a difference, has to be changed along with those who subscribe to the country's gami culture. It is here that the birth of a progressive party of middle class intellectuals, professionals, workers, media personnel, civil society activists, and peasants is truly necessary. For this task, discussing how to evolve a suitable politically sensitive communication and organisational strategy is far more important than debating about the merits of social or liberal democracy etc.


We pride ourselves about the merits of free, mass education that allowed thousands of youths from under privileged backgrounds from the South, North, Centre, West, East to become professionals such as doctors, engineers, lawyers, dentists, etc. Why have they not gone back to their villages of birth in the provinces and try to change the political culture from the bottom up?

Why don't they even go back to these areas as professionals, except a few, and serve the very population that is under the thumb of politicians engaged in money politics? Has our higher education system done enough to sensitize undergraduates to the plight of the downtrodden in society and faults in the prevailing political culture and course correction required! If not, why? My own view is that as our leaders diverted Mahaweli to take water to dry zone, they constructed a second Mahaweli from Colombo to foreign countries.

heavy-handed politics

Our rural youth who got university education free, graduate and get frustrated with the system of governance, heavy-handed politics in the provinces, and daily struggle to make ends meet, take the easy path to move out of not only the provinces but also the country altogether in frustration or in search of greener pastures.

Thus second Mahaweli imagined here can be described as brain drain to some extent (see the article by Chandra Goonawardena on brain drain in Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences (

Thus the very provinces where a change in political culture and services are needed, are starved of the talent, wisdom, activism and the energy of the middle class turned professionals. This is good news for professional politicians whose leaders control the levers of power from their Colombo mansions. We talk about changing political culture and political theory from our own ivory towers, don't we?

A new Party

I focused on the UMC in this article but there is no reason why a reformist organisation concerned about the sorry plight of the country and its failings in governance cannot or should not harness the support from other classes and class fractions for their cause. Most important however is the vision, diagnosis of problems, way forward, strategy, and organization rather than critique alone.

If the UMC is diversified as explained earlier, leaders of such an organization has to investigate which elements of the UMC are likely to support a reformist, progressive organization or party? There is no point in preaching to those who are disinterested though in the long run some of them can open their eyes to the just causes.

It is important to target elements of the UMC who are most frustrated with the failure of governments and willing to get involved in a reformist movement.

This brings me to the issue of discussing what should happen if there is to be a progressive political party from the UMC.

Following steps can be useful:

1. Understanding that criticism alone is not sufficient. Action, collective action, is necessary however small it is.

2. Assessment of the present situation and diagnosis of the failures of main parties and the reasons.

3. A vision for the future. What should it look like? Involves fields such as governance, rule of law, education, foreign policy, co-existence, sustainable economic growth, and social welfare.

4. Conceptualize the changes and reforms necessary to achieve this vision in detail. Associated policies and programmes.

5. Develop strategies to achieve the vision including the nature of a new party that represents the interests of the middle class, in particular one or both fractions - UMC and LMC. In this task, developing principles that guide the new party such as the non-inclusion of corrupt and failed politicians should be a priority. Nation building without relying on foreign debt should be another.

Designing an education system corresponding to national culture is another. Harnessing the talents of all without discriminating on the basis of ethnicity, religion, language etc. should be a priority.


Westerners dissatisfied with consumerist lifestyle predicated by the capitalist market oriented economies and social policies that follow corporate regimentation, regularly travel to the East in search of a different meaning and style of life. Our leaders, in particular those who came after 1977 made the resplendent island of Sri Lanka 'a global market place' for numerous products and services from overseas loosening the controls that existed.

In this context, members of the middle class and for that matter many in other classes, chase material objectives in life by orthodox as well as unorthodox methods. The bedrock of values that guided human relations and behaviour as well as inter-personal attitudes has been compromised as individualistic ambitions got priority.

When things go wrong at national level, for example with the debt crisis, an important class such as the middle class remains apathetic to the plight of the country, society and its future prospects. This does not bode well for the medium to long-term future. The very class that should provide leadership to 'a reform movement' to change the corrupt political culture and money politics and be at the forefront of conceptualising and implementing a strategy for a progressive party is diversified, indoctrinated and made inactive by the corrupt political culture.

Some members of the class are made to leave the country making room for career politicians to thrive in the capital and countryside. Unless the critique–creative, constructive, and forward looking is turned into action and action-oriented strategy is designed to galvanize the energy and wisdom in the middle class or its mostly affected elements, conventional criticism alone is not going to yield desired change.




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