Friday, May 12, 2017

The circle and the Mexican hat

There’s a story about a teacher and some children that offers a fitting metaphor for our political landscape. This teacher had drawn a circle. He had asked his assistant to describe it. “A circle, of course!” was that assistant’s reply. He had then asked the children to describe it. Three replies had followed: that it was a lima bean, a cowboy, and a Mexican hat.

Whether a circle resembles either of these is beside the point. Children are creative. They see what we don’t. They like to unveil, sometimes undress. On the other hand, when a set of adults confuse circles for Mexican hats, they aren’t being creative. They’re being evasive. And dodgy. It’s bad enough when these adults are supposed to be informed. It’s worse when they happen to be political commentators.

Our government has seen better days. “Better” is of course a relative construct, but for the moment let’s forget that. What’s important here is that the euphoria that greeted Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2015 has died down. This has everything to do with the incumbent and not so much with the Joint Opposition. That latter point is important, because no regime before the present one here has become so unpopular both for what it does and for what it does not do.

Consider the May Day fiasco. The president and the prime minister were handed an opportunity to upend Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legitimacy. They denied that opportunity to themselves and their cohorts when they raised speculation as to whether they’d ban the Joint Opposition from holding its rally at Galle Face, allowed it to go ahead with that rally, and shot themselves in the foot when the Rajapaksas held the biggest such May Day turnout and the JO subtly made it look as though the government had let it hold its meeting as a challenge which it (the government) obviously lost.

What did the Joint Opposition do? Nothing. What did the regime do? Everything. That is why, at the end of the day, forgetting those hilarious claims and counterclaims made by a larger-than-life oppositional movement, it is the government that is to blame for what it does to itself. Let’s not forget, after all, that no less a figure than Mahinda Rajapaksa entertained doubts as to the size of the crowds for his rally and tried to fix the stage in the middle of Galle Face so as to soften the threat of a low turnout. The police prevented him from going ahead. The fact that he “won” speaks volumes about who’s propping up whom in our political sphere.

Considering all these, one can glean some points. Pertinent points. First and foremost, our political dynamism has been toned down to a series of predictable events: the government lambasts the Joint Opposition, the JVP dismisses it and the government, the latter challenges Mahinda to better it, gets politically creamed by his cabal, and then tries to dodge those hard-to-dodge realities by engaging in conjecture.

Secondly, this process (which is so simplistic that there’s little space for any of those other, more pertinent issues ailing the country) is facilitated by an even more simplistic set of responses by those who vouch for the regime. Malinda Seneviratne, in his column last week, underlined the fiasco sections of the government led themselves to when they swore vengeance on the Rajapaksas and their cohorts. He could have found a confirmation of this with the reactions given by unabashed “yahapalanists” towards the Galle Face rally.

These responses, broadly speaking, fall into either of two categories. The first downplays the significance of the turnout. The second accepts that significance but downplays the political relevance of the JO. So when Shyamon Jayasinghe argues that the “the totality of the crowds of the other three meetings would have exceeded Mahinda’s rally” and rebukes Sarath de Alwis (who, by the way, is no Mahinda lover), he is not only making that first kind of response, he is also showing that he’s willing to debate with even those ideologically opposed to the Rajapaksas with crass, numerically unsound assertions. When this same yahalapalanist is roundly routed by Alwis and then fires back “Rajapaksa should be arrested”, we can only side with Alwis as he infers how that he and his ilk prefer delusion to truth.

On the other hand, when Jehan Perera contends rather lucidly that the JO rally showed the willingness of the present government to allow space “to everyone in the polity to discuss and debate” but also showed its inability to obtain mileage from its democratic credentials, he is making the second kind of response while ignoring the fact that this “willingness” had less to do with democratic credentials than a miscalculated gamble that Mahinda Rajapaksa would fall flat on his face with a low turnout. I am of course not denying that political decisions must sometimes be assessed on the basis of outcome, not intention, but I wonder: does that willingness explain that erroneous remark by Rajitha Senaratne that Sarath Fonseka would be given a new position to contain (inter alia) strike action and protests?

It’s hilarious, in a Beckettian sense almost, that none of these pundits seems to have inferred the political reality: that there was a crowd, that this crowd filled Galle Face Green, and that Galle Face Green is bigger than Getambe and Campbell Park combined. That even Rajapaksa was unsure about how many would attend speaks volumes about how even the JO is unaware of the intense hatred against the regime.

There’s little that can be said about the political worth of the SLFP and the UNP. The JVP is losing what legitimacy it had with a propped up leadership that shows one face to the parliament and another to the public. The TNA is less concerned about the country than an ethnic constituency thereof. The Old Left shows itself as a kingmaker to the Rajapaksa Cabal when it is not. Barring Dinesh Gunawardena and a few other committed loyalists, the Joint Opposition has for the most done nothing. When a political force that does absolutely nothing gains mileage over a regime that tries to do everything, you know who’s calling up the numbers and the popularity and who’s not.

I know what those who’ll (grudgingly) accept this say: that this regime is headed by doers, not populists. That’s a cop-out of the worst sort, not because we need populists but because those in power are not doers by any stretch of the imagination. Political doers do. They don’t talk shop. This government likes to talk shop. For the most. And as Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena (again, no Mahinda lover) succinctly puts it, the same civil society that was instrumental in getting the Rajapaksas out have been weakening since 2015. That, more than anything else, should point at what’s in the circle. If those who vouch for this regime prefer to look away, perhaps what they need is another set of children, this time to make them see what the Emperor is (not) wearing.

Written for: Daily Mirror, May 12 2017