Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On committing (political) errors

For an entire decade after 1994, we were led by a government that caved into minoritarianism, all in the name of reconciliation and multiculturalism of course, and a bunch of self-serving politicos who have caused more harm to this country’s polity than anyone or anything else (barring the LTTE) could. I am talking here about those MPs and civil society representatives (isn’t it funny that the latter, without as much as one percent of the people’s vote, were allowed to script state policy?) who went fiddling around the streets, entrancing us with promises of a better future with devolution, federalism, and a distorted variant of that misread and overstated 13th Amendment.

There was a time when being a nationalist, or aligning yourself with that misconstrued abstraction called nationalism, meant attracting abuse. You couldn’t walk on the streets even if the majority of the country were with you: on TV, on radio, and in print, you were called out, abused, and in other ways ridiculed for opposing the myths and lies of Prabhakaran and his mouthpiece, Anton Balasingham. The government was being distorted by a civil society that remained cut off from the people while thinking that the people could be substituted for by the polity (when the two were actually one and the same).

Times have changed but leopards, as I mentioned in my last column, do not change their spots. After the fall of the UNP government (which was hanging on a slender thread anyway) in 2004, we saw the emergence of the biggest wave of nationalism and anti-federalism this country has ever seen, at least since 1977. It is not that the leaders had until then been unable to call a spade a spade and deal with pernicious myths being paraded as history, but that these same leaders, because they were more concerned with pleasing “policymakers” from within and outside the country, just didn’t seem to bother.

Despite the afterword that the period from 2005 to 2015 compelled, therefore, these leopards (the “policymakers”) continued to slink. They are still slinking.

These people were comfortable fighting for the right to self-determination of one collective while denying that same right to another (usually the majority). They thought they were superior to the rest of the country. They thought they could play with democracy and get away with it. They thought they could get the blind to see. They could not. The voice of the people prevailed. At least in the period from November 17, 2005 to May 18, 2009.

Fast-forward to 2014. What did we get? A government led by a populist who tended to rationalise his authoritarian streak in terms of his popularity. This populist knew how to talk and what to say and he knew when to open his mouth. He spoke his mind (something many of his predecessors couldn’t do, at least not with sincerity) and won over half the country. He thought, however, that he could hold on to his power forever, and to this end committed arguably the biggest error he could. He took in people he shouldn’t have, the most damaging of whom had held important posts in his predecessor’s government.

When 2014 was nearing its end therefore, we knew where we were heading: with a political family which was doing next to nothing against the closest this country came to a July 1983 in the recent past (I am talking about the Aluthgama riots), these political bigwigs began disagreeing with the government on principle without losing their footing in it. Being the astute strategists they were, they planned their exit and planned it so well that, no matter how strong Mahinda Rajapaksa would have seemed, his days in office got numbered at once.

And all in all, I think the history of his party had a say in his downfall. The SLFP was, from its inception, tainted with devolutionists and those who distorted history. The Marxists had a ball with it after S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s murder and they deftly created much of the political ideology that Bandaranaike’s daughter institutionalised after 1994. When an alternative politico was put out in 2004, these bigwigs initially backed down and then, after thinking it over, supported him. They thought they could contort him. When they realised that they could not, they backed down again, and did either of two things: remain with his government while championing communal myths, or join an Opposition more amenable to their worldview.

Given this, it’s no wonder that 2014 ended or rather had to end with a bang. The moment people we thought would never leave Rajapaksa left him, we knew he was doomed. The man’s family didn’t help one bit, of course, and Maithripala Sirisena, who contrary to popular opinion had the upper hand in the race (even factoring in the advantage the incumbent has in an election), took everything easily. He had a name and he had a reputation. He appeared simple and well, to a considerable extent he was. He knew words but didn’t need to speak. His opponent did all the talking for him. How could he not win?

Fact is, even those who’d supported Rajapaksa, including the various columnists and intellectuals who shaped his ideology (such as Gunadasa Amarasekera), expressed qualms over how his government was being run, which pushed the undecided nationalist (predominantly from the urban, young, and professional class) to Sirisena. January 8, 2015 was sealed long before the date was (unwisely) decided on, even as it marked the sixth anniversary of Lasantha Wickrematunge’s assassination and even as, only a few hours before election results began to flow in, we heard the news of S. L. Gunasekara’s death.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most distinct political error (putting aside all those allegations of theft and abuse which are yet to be verified beyond a shadow of a doubt against him) was to take in people who were determined to be hooked on to whoever was in power. I needn’t mention names here simply because there are too many.

As expected, the SLFP broke into two. The UNP, led by a man who (never mind what people will say of him) knows how to calculate and take risks, let his opponents be led by Rajapaksa at that year’s parliamentary elections so as to solidify his victory upon the former’s defeat. That election, which was less a race to get the SLFP back to power than it was a race to strengthen the grip of the Mahinda Faction, had it both ways: it kept the Mahinda Loyalists happy and it kept those who like to “bleed green” happy. The devolutionists, federalists, and minoritarians, who couldn’t shout because the Rajapaksa Factor had done what earlier leaders couldn’t (institutionalise nationalism in the state), had a field day. They too were happy.

That’s all history, though. What’s pertinent is what we can learn from it, starting with this: whatever the government here, and however nationalistic it seems, key representatives from it tend to be led by those who weren’t elected to govern the people. I am talking about the ladies and gentlemen in the Civil Society Club, who think they know better than the 20 million people of this country. They won’t talk about federalism and self-determination now (because if they do, the nationalists will be ready), but they will fudge the truth anyway. They are as enamoured of the present government as they were of its predecessor: as long as it caves into their demands, they will be content. If not, they will clamour for regime change. That’s the truth. We must deal with it.

Consequently, there is a need for balance. Readjustment. While I cannot condone a Rajapaksa Restoration (since to do so would be to invite the threat of another decade of indifference and, I daresay, intolerance), I do believe that what he purported to stand for, at least until 2012 when he enacted the 18th Amendment, should be continued: a nationalist project that stands for the rights of the majority without trampling on the rights of others. In a context where there’s a mismatch between nationalism and individual rights, the best alternative would be an all-encompassing national identity that does not, cannot, and will not confuse multiculturalism with rootless cosmopolitanism.

I am thinking of some names here, though I do not endorse them unconditionally. Names like Gevindu Cumaratunga.

Gevindu has a way with words. He knows how to undress. He continues to be there, on TV and elsewhere, shredding away the intellectual fallacies of Eelamists and separatists and (less discernibly but as significantly) of those who continue to support the present regime solely by virtue of their opposition to Mahinda Rajapaksa (among them, Upul Shantha Sannasgala and Asoka Abeygunawardana, both of whose claims he debunked live and/or in front of them). He is no chauvinist. Few, if at all, can or will begrudge him politically. He should therefore move ahead.

The point I am trying to get at here is that the likes of him should be promoted. In the political field, after all, you can commit an error only twice. The error that Rajapaksa committed, which I pointed out above, cannot be repeated. If it is, what we’ll see isn’t the unfolding of a nationalist project. Only an aberration. An aberration so huge that another 10 years, even with as strict, ramrod, and nationalist a figure as Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, will be wasted building up a political ideology that gets contorted and then destroyed from within. Happened once, will happen again. For that reason, as we near the second anniversary of Maithripala Sirisena’s election, we should be mindful. If we are not, we’ve already lost the race.

Written for: Ceylon Today, December 27 2016