Address of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Opening Session of the CALD General Assembly 2012, on the theme The Populist Challenge to Liberal Democracy.

I must begin by thanking the Secretariat of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats for putting together an excellent concept paper, which presents us with a very balanced view of the topic of our general assembly this year. It is all too easy to think of populism in negative terms, and indeed the list of what are seen as populist leaders of recent times with which the paper begins is one that many liberals would abhor. But the fact remains that the individuals on that list have in almost all cases been the leading choice of the people in their own countries, and we cannot dismiss them readily without trying to understand what makes them popular.

One name on that list however is an exception, and I think it makes clear to us the difference between populism that must be respected, even if it cannot be approved of, and what must from our point of view at least be rejected. I refer to Geert Wilders of the Netherlands, who was never chosen by a majority of the people of his country to be its leader. I would suggest that shows the limits of populism that is based on pure negativity, an appeal to people that necessarily means rejection of other people. Wilders did strike a chord with the people of the Netherlands and did comparatively well, but he did not have a majority, unlike Chavez and Morales in Latin America, Shinawatra and Estrada in Asia, and Berlusconi in Europe.

Interestingly enough, the first four appealed to people on the basis of their poverty, which demanded alleviation. Berlusconi seemed rather to appeal on the basis of wealth which demanded protection. I think that suggests another dimension to populism that will become increasingly important in the years to come, as the privileged use the media with increasing skill to hold onto their privileges. Indeed I would suggest in this regard that perhaps Ronald Reagan was the first populist President on that pattern, using his cinematic skills to win people to a partisan agenda that, like Berlusconi’s, was based on the suggestion that the state had been too indulgent to its less affluent segments. I still recall John Kenneth Galbraith claiming that Reagan’s philosophy was that the poor were not working hard enough because they had too much money, and the rich were not working hard enough because they had too little. The consequences of that type of populism are I believe still with us, in the rhetoric that dominates American primaries and which therefore finds its way into government policy too.

In Asia, though, it is to the deprived that populists generally appeal, and it is for that reason that, though we may worry about the policies they advance, that seem to us to be unsustainable, we must worry too about the sense of deprivation to which they appeal, and which demands alleviation. The Democrats in Thailand, and the Liberals in the Philippines, have both realized that they must overcome the image they project amongst many of the underprivileged, that they are an elite that does not understand the day to day problems of the peasantry and the urban poor. The need then to first develop policies that take those problems into consideration, and second to explain more clearly and convincingly the benefits of measures that may seem harsh initially, is better understood now because of the success of a more simplistic approach to poverty alleviation on the part of less responsible forces.

In the Sri Lankan context, I believe we too must recognize that some policies which seemed populist, in catering to the deprived without concern for wider interests, cannot be condemned out of hand. The shift in language policy that occurred in the fifties, the takeover of schools in the sixties, the takeover of lands in the seventies, the introduction of quotas for university education during that time, are all seen now as shortsighted, and certainly they were implemented with a lack of sensitivity and careful planning that has cost us dear. But we must also realize that they sprang from very real needs, and it was only the haste with which they were imposed, rather than being implemented after careful consideration of all options, that caused problems.

The manner in which Sinhalese was made the sole Official Language of the country provides an instructive example. The original proposal was based on the fact that government functioned largely in English, and this was not a language that was understood by the vast majority of our people. Mr Bandaranaike, whose party was largely based in Sinhalese areas, proposed to replace English with Sinhala. The then UNP government, which was more Westernized in its approach, realized however that change was necessary, and adopted the same policy, but its leader, then Prime Minister John Kotelawala, declared in Jaffna that Tamil too would have parity of status.

It was then that all hell broke loose. He was not entirely popular in his own party, and his opponents called for a special session of the Party which rejected his commitment and not only declared that it was for Sinhala Only, but also decided to dissolve Parliament and seek a mandate from the people to implement this. The election campaign that followed was marked by both parties outdoing each other in appealing to Sinhalese voters but, in this populist campaign, the edge was held by Mr Bandaranaike, who had initially floated the idea. His majority in the end was massive, for the UNP lost its Tamil voters, who turned to the Leftist parties in the South, and to the Tamil Federal Party in the North.

Populism then became uglier, for when Mr Bandaranaike tried to reach accommodation with the Tamils, the UNP, now in the hands of its more racist leaders, John Kotelawala having decided to retire and go away to his farm in England, agitated against this. The scene was thus laid for the hostilities that dogged us for half a century more. The SLFP sadly engaged in similar tactics a decade later when the UNP, back in power, tried to reach similar accommodation with the Tamils. And we saw the UNP again playing a racist card in 2000, when Mr Bandaranaike’s daughter Chandrika Kumaratunga made her own efforts. Sadly by then the main Tamil party, which had been let down twice previously, did its own letting down under pressure from the terrorist Tigers, and Mrs Kumaratunga found herself abandoned on both sides.

My argument then is that it was not the policy designed to compensate for disadvantages that led to the destructive side of populism. Rather, it was a deliberate decision to exploit the appeal of such a policy, by also using it to set up an oppositionality that permitted easy rhetorical flourishes. It was not pro-poor policies that were the problem, but rather anti, not the rich, but rather other poor who could readily be victimized. On such lines did Hitler operate, in using the Jews as scapegoats for the problems of the German poor, on such lines I believe do the American New Right operate in condemning immigrants, in order to add working class Americans to their vote bank.

In Sri Lanka it was Tamils who bore the brunt of policies intended initially to overcome social disparities. The imposition of Sinhala as the only official language of the country, through a one line Bill that made no mention of the use of Tamil, was followed a decade and a half later by a policy of standardization for university entrance that hit educationally privileged Tamils hardest. It is true that educationally privileged Sinhalese in Colombo also suffered, but they had other outlets for their talents, which the Tamils of the North did not have. And, appallingly, when the policy, cancelled in 1977 on grounds of equity, was reintroduced a year later, it was in the context of unashamedly populist critiques of Tamil examiners, designed to promote an aspirant for the leadership of the UNP who saw his own power base as being exclusively Sinhala.

That then is the danger, that political parties which should work towards developing an inclusive national character decide, usually because of the ambitions of those without much popular appeal, to concentrate on deepening a narrow power base rather than expanding laterally. In the process, though they may achieve temporary success, it is against their own party rivals who had wider appeal. Ultimately they end up destroying their own party, as Cyril Mathew did with the UNP, as Communist and Trotskyist leaders did during their thankfully brief flirtation with exclusivist elements in the SLFP during the sixties. The old left never regained the Tamil support that had helped it to such prominence in the forties and fifties, while the UNP has faced a similar situation with regard to the Tamil support in the North that gave it such healthy majorities in the period before 1956.

In Pakistan we have seen something similar. Indeed its creation owed something to Mr Jinnah’s realization that his influence in the Congress Party was waning. He believed however that, while creating a state for Muslims, he could imbue it with his own more expansive vision. That went up in smoke in the passions that his rhetoric, and the answering rhetoric on the other side, engendered, rousing oppositionalities and forgetting positive perspectives. A quarter of a century later another political leader who also wanted to shore up his power base began the process of Islamicization that Jinnah had tried to avoid, and so we have seen Pakistan slide into more and more exclusive perspectives that seem to have narrowed its horizons as well as its influence. I should note that its more enlightened politicians try hard to resurrect the inclusive South Asian culture which had in early days made Pakistan a leading light in the Islamic world as well as internationally, but their efforts have not seen much sustained success.

In India, though we have had aberrations – and given its size, aberrations can be very destructive – I believe the Gandhian legacy has contributed to a pervasive moral imperative to avoid destructive populism. Gandhi did much to change the Congress, which was very much an elite institution, into a popular body. But he also did his best to prevent popular policies descending into violence against the other. More practical politicians may have despaired when he called off a satyagraha on the verge of success to protest against the killing of policemen, but I believe that, in the long run, he was right to demand absolute rejection of such violence. All too often violence begets violence, not only as the Buddha said of one side against the other, but also of fundamentally decent people on the one side following the apparently successful example of their less scrupulous peers. True leadership means stopping such excesses through what I would term a categorical imperative.

Whether this spirit of Gandhism will triumph in India is an ongoing question. We have seen all too often the rousing of communal tensions, most notably in what seemed two incidents of state sponsored violence, in Delhi after the assassination of Mrs Gandhi, in Gujerat more recently. In the first example, Rajiv Gandhi responded promptly, with an assertion of decency that was recorded by the Founder of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka in a deeply moving obituary that we have reproduced in the recent publication on the 25th anniversary of the Party

          In deeply moving words Raiv Gandhi praised the contribution of the Sikhs to the making and preservation of India, declared how proud India was of the great Sikh people being within it and concluded:

          nothing would hurt the soul of my beloved mother Indira Gandhi more than that the great Sikh people who have done so much and sacrificed so much for India should be harmed because of the act of a few fanatics.

          Watching this broadcast in London in October 1984, I could not help contrasting it with another broadcast by our own President of the time, President J. R. Jayewardene in July 1983, when amidst the abominable riots in which our own Tamil minority was killed there were no words of comfort whatsoever to the victims of the violence, instead of which the President spoke of the riots as:

          the understandable reaction of the Sinhala people who will never allow their beloved country to be divided.

I felt then how noble was Rajiv Gandhi’s spirit and how narrow, how shabby the outlook of our own leaders.

That quotation I think sums up the contrast between the statesmanship that has characterized so many Indian leaders and the shameful legacy of our first Executive President, which we must strive to overcome. But in case we get too starry-eyed about India, we must recall too what happened in Gujerat, and the dilemma of the main Indian opposition party, the BJP, as it strives to decide whether a successful Chief Minister should be its next Prime Ministerial candidate, despite what continues to be seen as his involvement in communal violence. I can only hope that, as happened previously, when it put forward the inclusive figure of Mr Vajpayee, instead of its more populist elements, it will ensure allegiance in the future too to what I have characterized as Gandhian ideals.

For, ultimately, it is strong and principled leadership that provides the only answer to the temptation to pursue popular policies to their populist conclusions, where they do down some in an effort to strengthen support amongst the rest. To overcome the temptation we need constant vigilance, and a constant building up of awareness of the generally positive effects of inclusivity as opposed to divisive politics. Promoting the interests of the poor and the deprived is vital, and should never be seen as populism in itself. Doing so while rousing resentment against those who do not or will not contribute to one’s continuation in power is wickedness, and this is a lesson all leaders, from Barack Obama and his successors to the rulers of the smallest Commonwealth islands, should understand.