Are we able to break communal and political polarization?

By Arjuna Hulugalle

President Rajapakse articulated the hopes and aspirations of the people of this country when he told Al Jazeera that a “political solution was his only aim”. The expectations which the country had at independence have still not been realised. After almost sixty years, the Head of State leads a society which is sadly polarised.

There is also a war which he inherited and has to be brought to an end.

Then there is the process of healing and integration which has to be single mindedly pursued.

The tranquillity in the land in 1948 depended heavily on the leadership at the time. A strong leader with an abundance of commonsense, an able Cabinet, an outstanding Civil Service, a University which was accepted internationally, an independent Judiciary and a responsible Press were the pillars of that era. A well known English writer commenting then stated: “Under Mr Senanayake, Ceylon was the most untroubled country in Asia”.

Senanayake gave the highest priority to national unity and the development of the economy. Without that he felt the self government we attained would be “like Dead Sea fruits that tempt the eye, but turn to ashes on the lips”.

Sri Lanka is a unique country. It is rich in diversity. It has a society which is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural. It has a vibrant multi-party system. This diversity properly harnessed has potential of enormous dynamism as seen in our cricket team which is made up of the cricketers from the four religions and the various communities living in this country. How can one be so mischievous and mean to talk of discrimination in a society which has this cricket team which is almost the best in the world?

Yet there is negative polarisation and this manifests itself more today than in the past.

The dangers of polarisation must have been incipient, though adequately contained, even before Independence because Dr. R.L. Spittel advised, in an address at the Dutch Burgher Union many years ago:

“Common interests are the great levellers of men. If people have something in common – whether it be religion, science, literature, sport or even some hobby, such as photography – racial barriers tend to fall away, and men assess each other at their worth. For the advancement of inter-racial good relations, opportunities are necessary for people of varied races to meet and mingle freely and thus get to know each other…..”

The human being is most comfortable with what interests him. He willingly commits his time and energy for it. That is the commitment which society has to mobilise. It is a positive force both to restore communal harmony as well as political sanity.

This logic stimulated a new design of governance conceptualised and promoted by the Swarajya Movement and the Citizens Movement for Good Governance.

That concept recommends that the electorate votes on the basis of interest groups at the Gramrajya elections. This deviates from the practice of voting out of loyalty for politicians and political parties. A Gramrajya is the Polling Booth Area.

The recommended groups are broadly:

1) Heritage: This will deal with religion, culture and environment

2) Women

3) Youth

4) Food production, and

5) Services.

A vote at the election entails a commitment to serve that interest group. It is what is called a ‘Quality vote’.

In this system politics, religious and communal affiliations have subordinate status. Voting is focused on electing those most competent to lead the interest groups.

Built into the system is:

1. A Right of Petition,

2. Right of Recall,

3. Public Initiatives, and

4. Right to call a Referendaum

With this design of governance there would be a reduction to the political and communal polarisation, whether real or imaginary. Individually and collectively, the voters will be looking at solving the problems which they have around them rather than expecting a force from outside to come with the solutions. This will lead to a culture of self-reliance, interdependency and the acceptance of diversity. Emotionally motivated actions will be kept in proportion and will be replaced by more rational thinking and problem solving.

Naturally, the establishment of the Gramrajya system is the first step in reorganising the body politic and governance in its entity in the country. However, while the leaders argue at the APRC and APC about a new political order, a process that will take time, government can immediately put the Gramarajya system into action.

The people will get immediate tangible benefits and a structure and a culture reinforcing trust and confidence will emerge. The Gramarajyas will, however, have to be crafted carefully and given the maximum support with administrative and financial back-up. This is a move that is practical. It will however have to evolve and cannot be executed in a hurry.

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