Sunday, July 31, 2016

On the Pada Yathra and Gunadasa Amarasekara’s point

Don't tell me not to fly, I simply got to
If someone takes a spill, it's me and not you
Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade?

Barbra Streisand, from “Funny Girl”

Names matter. So do personalities. Peruse history, peruse all those revolutions, rebellions, and political changes which have in some form or the other shifted regimes and created precedent, and you will come across both. Revolutions are birthed, sustained, and in some instances continued by rhetoric. Rhetoric is the preserve of the politicians. And politicians, ladies and gentlemen, are not statesmen. Not by a long shot.

Mahinda Rajapaksa has a following. Those who support him inflate figures. Those who oppose him downplay them. Whatever both sides say by way of justifying their stance on the man, one thing is certain: he is not a statesman. If he was, he would have accepted defeat. The only reason why anyone can cut him some slack, hence, is that he is less concerned about returning to power than about sustaining an ideology that survives personalities and parties and ensures a consistent vote-base. The way things stand however, I’d say that this is unlikely. Highly unlikely.

His critics will say that he is possessed by a demon. A demon that goes by the name of “bala tanhava.” I wouldn’t disagree, but going by that logic none of his predecessors would have been possessed by that demon, something which (given constitutional realities after 1977) is highly unlikely. But there’s of course something else these critics will note: the fact that the man served two terms and the fact that he lost batting for a third. I would be less inclined to disagree there.

That still doesn’t stop Mahinda Rajapaksa from taking advantage of the other demons which seem to have besotted this government, i.e. the demons of self-contradiction, self-aggrandizement, self-righteousness, and self-centredness. One can’t blame him for speaking against the present government and pointing out flaws, never mind his motives and never mind the fact that when he was in power, he tolerated those same flaws. Naturally, those in power will point at relative merits and those kicked out will idealise the past. Been there, done that.

About two days ago the largely Rajapaksist “Joint Opposition” organised a walk (of protest) from Kandy to Colombo. This walk, a Pada Yathra, met with opposition, restraining orders, Court visits, and of course the usual rhetoric from the government ridiculing the entire exercise. Typical, I suppose, given political realities and given how the opposition of any regime, be it the UNP or SLFP, loves to dabble in amnesia and dissent. This article is not about the Pada Yathra, however.

This article is about Gunadasa Amarasekara. About a year ago I wrote on him to Colombo Telegraph (“Gunadasa Amarasekara’s Relevance”) and noted that he basically had provided absolution to Rajapaksa’s cabal even though many of those who were with the former president espoused values which he (Amarasekara) clearly opposed. I now realise that I was wrong. Amarasekara, unlike those who support personalities and like Professor Nalin de Silva, does not give blank cheques. For that reason, what he said about two months ago stands relevant, particularly in light of what the Joint Opposition is engaged in now.

Amarasekara said (if I remember correctly) that the JO was as concerned about political rhetoric as the SLFP and UNP, which in the long run would turn the people away from more pressing issues to do with devolution and constitutional reforms. I vaguely remember how diehard supporters of the JO reacted: they either were confused or muttered invective against him. Some even whispered that he was “turning” (like those ministers who’d sided with the government after expressing support to Rajapaksa). Ridiculous and absurd of course, but for those who indulge in black-and-white logic, nothing short of unconditional praise (for the JO) could endear the likes of Amarasekara to them.

The Pada Yathra was about colour. It was about displaying colour. It was deliberately made to reflect that other Pada Yathra from the 1980s, the one Rajapaksa organised against the then UNP regime’s excesses. That, however, had next to nothing featured in what was begun two days ago, for the simple reason that the JO needs attention and needs to attract it fast. Hot air, it would seem, is what they are resorting to.

And it’s not hard to see why. Tisaranee Gunasekara, in an illuminating article titled “Keeping the lunatic fringe in the fringe”, points out that this government has done all it can to be marginally superior to its predecessor. Well, marginal improvement is nothing to be proud about, but it’s still an improvement. Which is why, though I’m a supporter of neither regime, I still can’t fathom how and why members in the JO can spot out dictatorial tendencies in this government when the entire country (yes, even those who bayed for blood while supporting the previous regime unconditionally), knew what Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government indulged in during those last few months before January 8, 2015.

On that count, I agree with Ranjan Ramanayake, who came up with a classic the other day: “The Pada Yathra is just a vehicle parade.” The reference was to the fact that several politicians who participated at the walk were seen in vehicles, unlike the majority who preferred to walk. I have my reservations about Ramanayake, but the man speaks his mind and speaks it in such a way that even his bitterest critics are forced to concede ground to.

Which brings me back to Amarasekara. I don’t think he commented on the Pada Yathra per se. I do know, however, that what he said a few months ago remains relevant today, if at all because it was Amarasekara (together with Professor Nalin) who started a campaign that culminated on the political field, at least for the time being, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya. True, that campaign clearly doesn’t see eye-to-eye with the JHU today, but on one point at least they are in agreement: the fact that a nationalist program has less to do with personalities than a sustainable, consistent ideology.

The Joint Opposition isn’t doing much in this respect. Sadly. The movement (to call it a party would be erroneous) is housed by its share of veterans, respected ideologues, and idiots, not to mention populists and jokers. It’s also housed by devolutionists (not that I have anything against them) and in other ways affirm values which are at odds with Amarasekara’s brand of nationalism. For the sake of maintaining a counterthrust to the government, however, I believe he is willing to cut them some slack, but when it comes to other matters, i.e. political principles, he is less so.

And you know what? I wouldn’t blame him. Nationalism isn’t about rhetoric and shouldn’t be about rhetoric. It doesn’t start with demagoguery and shouldn’t end with show. As I’ve pointed out before, despite two terms as an all-powerful Executive President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unable to stifle federal-speak in his own party. The SLFP, after all, was and is the party of devolutionists and federalists, even more so than the UNP, which to its credit was less concerned about capitulating to Eelamism (during the ceasefire years) than cautiously tackling a deteriorating economy. That the JHU, even after joining the present government, still contends against federal-rhetoric speaks volumes about its sincerity and of course commitment to ideology.

The Joint Opposition, I think, should listen to Amarasekara. If the past is anything to go by, it may well deteriorate into a “one man one show” exercise, which to be honest isn’t what its supporters want. What they want or rather SHOULD want is a movement that survives personality, acts as a bulwark against the government (and even official opposition), and plans for the future. Mahinda Rajapaksa will feature in there as long as he stands by its core values. The moment he detours, the people will suffer him. In silence. In the end, he too will be out.

Let’s not forget, after all, that January 8, 2015 wouldn’t have happened if Mahinda Rajapaksa had a) listened to sense, b) listened to his party members instead of his immediate family, c) not called an election, d) given space to Maithripala Sirisena, the most senior (and deserving) candidate for the post of President or Prime Minister after him, and e) discouraged hosanna-singers. Let’s not forget that even Amarasekara voiced his qualms about Rajapaksa’s regime and his “sahodara samagama.” And while we’re at it, let’s not also forget that even after two years the Rajapaksa Resurgence clearly seems here to stay (proverbially speaking). That, ideally, should drive home the point that their movement should be about sustaining an ideology and not boosting that “sahodara samagama.”

Those who attended the Pada Yathra, I noticed, wore the same t-shirt. A t-shirt adorned by the smiling face of Mahinda Rajapaksa. A pity, I should think. No, not because I hate the man or for that matter his smile, but because all this rhetoric, all those words he and his supporters spout, could have been justified if he didn’t turn the walk into a parade.

Ranjan Ramanayake probably got it right when he spoke the other day. So much so that when I heard what he said, I tried my best not to smile. Or grin. Predictably, I failed.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com