People Power Movement & Engaging The Disenfranchised Masses

By Siri Gamage

Dr. Siri Gamage

Kumar David’s article in Colombo Telegraph (08.09.2019) on this subject brings out some useful ideas and suggestions. Among them are the long-term nature of such a movement and its program, ’fostering a future to take Lanka to economic improvement and social democracy’, blending short term and long-term goals for a realistic new road, radical vision and a state power perspective beyond what is offered by the main parties. Then he ventures into a discussion of what is left of the left while emphasising the need for broader unity. Kumar points out the difference between ‘a leftist-socialist and a broad-progressive programme’ and points out that ‘we must come down hard in favour of the latter’. Then he comes to the most important point in the article where he states this: ‘What makes sense to the majority today and appeals to their needs is not the same as the programme aimed at trade unions and blue-collar workers used to be’. The reason given is ‘Global production and financial systems have changed, technology has transformed the working class’. My intention is to expand on these ideas and comment on the way a Progressive People Power Movement can build its strength bottom up.

Even though people at the grassroots level face innumerable difficulties in living, accessing government services and elected MPs, securing justice through law enforcement, heavy handedness, patriarchy, being subjected to market forces-  in general they are not vocal in expressing their grievances unless affiliated with political parties or pressure groups. The normal habit is for a person in the remote districts is to reach out to a local leader in the area to seek his/her intervention to resolve matters in consultation with an authority figure/government authority through known channels. The average person in remote areas does not have the necessary skills, knowledge or disposition to approach trouser wearing government servants of various kinds independently to resolve matters –though such people are not totally absent. There are stories of heroic people even during the colonial time who dealt with the police, and other local officials (Unfortunately such stories are only available in the oral traditions and folklore. Historians or anthropologists are not interested in them). Farmers for example are interested in carrying out their age-old habits and traditions to make a living undisturbed by the government machinery. However, in reality they come into contact and even conflict with government machinery. Thus, a progressive movement for people power has to engage with such people to find out where the fault lines are and what measures are required to address them through a program of action for change?

Disempowering Political System and Disenfranchised Individuals

People have lost power due to the existing political system and process though some individuals affiliated with established parties are able to attain and exercise power in the existing system at provincial council and national levels. Similarly, bureaucratic and security fields also offer opportunities for those not so involved in politics as such to access power and utilise it within limits. However, the large majority are left out from the pasa mituru (close friends) governance system that has developed over the decades. They are alienated from those in power and to an extent demoralised also. It is the responsibility of a progressive party and its leadership to encourage these alienated people to come to active citizenry and provide hope in order to develop a nation for all. The issue here is not one about power devolution or changing parties like changing pillows. It is about how a given party leadership use the power-once secured- to effect change in society for the benefit of many rather than preserve the status quo for the benefit of a few.

In the villages and suburbs, there are disenfranchised individuals such as teachers, clerks, monks, officers of government and provincial governments, those engaged in farming, Ayurveda medicine, etc. They are not close to political activists of the major parties or even the JVP.  However, many of them carry critical perspectives on governance, behaviour of elected representatives and their families, rich and landed families, businesses, police and judiciary etc. A progressive alliance needs to reach out to such people and devise strategies to enthuse and engage them.  Usual party work alone is not sufficient to reach out to them and get them engaged. Perhaps it may be necessary to work through existing networks. In addition, a progressive alliance needs to identify those who were aligned with the main parties but frustrated with their agenda or modus operandi (krama vedaya). It may be that they are looking for a credible alternative. 

Political theatrics delivered through speeches etc. have their place in a political campaign and many people like to be entertained in them also. However, many who attend rallies conducted by parties don’t vote for the same party. As a growing up child in the south, I used to attend such rallies. My experience is that people –irrespective of their socio economic or social standing- make an evaluation of the performance of governments or their MPs and make up their mind about the net effect of electing one or another to be the representative. The idea that some voters can be swayed by offering them small gifts prior to the election is a myth. The voter may take such gifts but vote for the person or party of their choice instead. The voters who accept small gifts as such do not have to trade their vote for small gifts. They don’t even have to be grateful to the donor any more than the donor is grateful for the voter.

Progressive Program of Action 

There is no short cut to formal power other than through developing a vision, policies and programs, action plans with clear outcomes in mind, then taking the political messages associated with these in an effective way by using various methods to the grassroots level, i.e. various sectors in society disenfranchised by the existing system of governance, politics, political culture, and institutions that serve the interests of a few rather than the many. Disenfranchised masses are waiting for a political and social movement that addresses their concerns effectively and while taking nation’s long-term interest into account. However, the key is how to connect with the disenfranchised masses and engage their mind for a new political and social journey? Some collective thinking need to be focused on this critical issue.

Any program developed by the left or an expanded progressive movement have to start from the contemporary material conditions within which people from different layers or strata of society struggle to survive. Unless a program developed by the progressive people’s alliance relates directly to the material and other deprivations of people in different sectors, such a policy can become a theoretical exercise that the leaders try to push through the throats of average citizens. The way to find out whether and how far the policy or program ideas developed by a party and civil society leader correspond with the actual lived experiences of people is to conduct Focus Group meetings in critical sectors and regions by trained social scientists as well as to obtain inputs through party or alliance machineries on a regular basis. Alternatively, hard work at the grassroots level in the districts by party loyalists including an education program can yield better results.

One has to find out through systematic methods of research what factors impact on their living standards, equal rights and opportunities, Safety and security, peaceful coexistence, access to service delivery, and so on. Obviously, these considerations will boil down to concrete issues such as unemployment, lack of income, housing, health services, better education facilities, corruption and nepotism, lack of security including social security, good governance etc. Major trends in society since the liberalisation of economy in the late 70s such as commodification and commercialisation of life, human endeavours such as education, turning human values to be material values, increased individualism, imitation of consumerist behaviour, competition and lack of care for the other also have to be taken into account. Erosion of indigenous basis of economy and society that sustained life until colonisation along with the expansion of market forces (local and foreign) and the restoration of the same need to be a key priority.

Country’s development or downfall can also figure in the thinking of people. However, their thinking is not conditioned necessarily by mega projects unless they can yield tangible benefits to themselves or their children. Thus, local projects in each electorate or even Pradesheeya Sabha division matter to them more than what is happening in Colombo or Kandy. Finding out the key problems facing people is the easy part. How to mobilise them to accept a given program of action is the difficult part. If the latter remain abstract or generic, they are mere words to the people.  A program has to be associated with a concrete plan of action in order for the people to make sense. Then only they are able to make a judgement about the tangible benefits that will come their way. 

A progressive program should not be limited to addressing present problems and issues faced by the people in different sectors. As people are aspirational, meaning that they have future aspirations for themselves and their children, an understanding of these is also required. Because such aspirations are part of their lived reality. When it comes to voting they look at various parties and alliances to make a judgement about the best one who they think will address their aspirations. Aspirations can relate to issues like employment, education of children and their future prospects, lack of violence, intimidation and peaceful life, better business or agricultural opportunities, migration opportunities, ability to resolve issue of litigation in a reasonable time, and so on.  

Ideological Factors

Though material conditions and associated problems such as unequal distribution of wealth, power and status are important to design a progressive political agenda, ideological factors cannot be neglected. In the literature relating to this topic, including Marxist and Neo Marxist, there is considerable discussion on the ideological aspect. One question considered is the extent to which a given class can develop an appropriate ideology and class consciousness (I did my PhD thesis on a related topic on the basis of a village study at Pilimatalawa in the late 80s). One difficulty here is the fact that classes today are fragmented and heterogeneous. If we take the working class as an example, not all workers depend purely on wages.  Some may own property such as a paddy field, highland, shares, or a small business i.e. communication centre, transport vehicle. Hence, their class consciousness may not be determined only on wage earning. Instead, many display petty bourgeoisie consciousness. 

The point becomes even more problematic when we talk about aspirations of such classes. For example, one can belong to the working class materially but aspirationally he/she can belong to the middle class.  Similarly, a middle-class person can have upper middle-class aspirations though his/her material position does not warrant this. In their case, imitative behaviour can be observed. Progressive political alliances need to take such situations and complexities into account when developing their policies, programs and strategies to win over.

In terms of ideologies, nationalist ideology or ideologies have been at play for decades including the late colonial period in Sri Lanka. This is bifurcated between those who speak for all in the nation and those who speak for a given ethnic community. We have seen the results of such division in the decades following independence. At election times, politicians talk about the national interest or the nation’s interest. However, after the elections governments let the market and ethno religious ideological forces dictate the terms.  In the view of many, nation’s stock has not improved since independence. Instead, it has deteriorated economically, politically and culturally. Patriarchal ideology prevails in many spheres of society where the males dominate. In terms of equal opportunity and sharing of power in many spheres, women still lag behind. Powerful hierarchies reinforce patriarchal dominance in society and its institutions. These factors lead people of all ages to look outward.

Ideologies associated with progress and development have been largely limited to those advocated by the elites in society (political, economic including bureaucratic and technocratic). Ideologies advocating sustainable, community driven and empowered development are there in small measure but there is no overarching effort to collate and spread them among the children or adults widely. In this situation, a progressive People’s Power alliance can look at cutting-edge ideologies and movements in the global south and adopt examples drawn from them for local application. One obstacle in selecting an appropriate ideology for the existing material conditions and associated problems is the prevalence of fake ideologies and fake ideologists. Exposing their agendas is an important part of the agenda of progressives. Southern Theory and Postcolonial theory strands within social sciences along with pluralist sociology have generated valuable ideas and suggestions including the importance of incorporating indigenous knowledge into social sciences.  

Communication and Symbolism

A progressive alliance seeking people power need to identify how those in formal political authority acquire it? Furthermore, it has to understand the various legitimising factors prevailing in society or constructed by mainstream politicians to remain in power. It is true that family and party into play in such legitimation. Disenfranchised and disempowered youths may prefer to absorb messages from a progressive alliance in regard to how it proposes to circumvent such constructions. If the message is about inclusion rather than about exclusion, disempowerment and alienation, thousands of young people will be motivated to frock to the progressive alliance. 

Communicating key messages that a progressive alliance wishes to spread and build trust is a key factor.  For this, there has to be an effective education and communication strategy. In addition to political speeches on stage and rallies, there has to be symbolism as well.  Symbolism not only through flags, banners, bill boards, dress, but also those relating to various issues facing the people as revealed through Focus Group discussions, Surveys etc. In the Australian election concluded a few months ago, the liberal and national party coalition employed several key messages.  Among them was the fear about taxes if Labour came into power. In some parts of the country, they used trucks mounted with large billboards about high taxing Labour agenda.  Whether justifiable or not, such a fear campaign seems to yield results.  In the previous general election campaign, the Labour party employed a similar fear campaign about Medicare titled Mediscare. I am not suggesting that the Sri Lankan Progressive Alliance for people Power employ such fear tactics. This example is to highlight the effectiveness of short, sharp messaging at critical points closer to an election to sway the swinging voter. In the Sri Lankan context, fear campaigns are usually directed about the fear of terrorists for political gain.

Though we live in a technological age where face book and other social media are present, some messaging has to be organised to reach out to the current generation of voters who utilise mobile phones, ipads, laptops more so than printed media. Nonetheless, a tabloid type newspaper distributed to local towns and villages can be as effective at a time where political discourses of various kinds are finding their way to satisfy the activated minds of people. Because some people still prefer the printed word to electronic word. However, there is no alternative than battalions of campaign workers at the grassroots level, preferably Grama Seva Niladhari level, when it comes to the crunch time. As there seems to be democratic freedoms for anyone to engage in politics today, this opportunity should also be used to spread the messages while gathering feedback.

Source:Colombo Telegraph

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