Friday, June 30, 2017

Taming that lunatic fringe

Dr Dayan Jayatilleka in his reply to my column last week points out certain ontological, ideological, and factual errors I made. In particular, he takes me to task over my categorising him as a nationalist and a moderate federalist, though I placed those terms in a certain context which, yes, can be mischievously reconfigured by someone against him. Point taken, point conceded. I apologise and I sincerely hope he wasn’t inconvenienced by those errors. This week’s column, however, is not about Dr Dayan, but about the responses he and his group got courtesy of my article.

I have come to believe that no constructive debate is possible without two fundamental premises: the ability to accommodate and the ability to constructively critique. The problem is that we don’t know how to accommodate and we don’t know what “constructive” means. So we pin the you’re-biased tag on those we cross swords with, forgetting that we are no better and are in certain respects worse than them.

I neither support nor oppose Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I believe that he did something during his tenure at the UDA, though what he did was badly tempered by what he failed to do and/or unfortunately let slip through his hands. I believe that despite his authoritarian streak, he got Colombo (and nearly every other suburb, this writer’s hometown being one of them) cleaned and adorned. But I also believe that he is, like every other political figure we hedge our bets on, flawed. Taken by itself, this means nothing: we are all flawed, and doting on the man’s "goodness" is no worse than doting on those who are virulently opposed to him.

Getting back to my earlier point, inasmuch as the likes of Dr Dayan will be pivotal in bringing together those aforementioned two camps by 2020, it is true also that Gotabaya himself will be instrumental in reconciling them to one another. It’s a circle that goes around both ways: the theoretician uniting two broadly similar movements via a figure who concurrently by his very presence brings them together.

Underlying that, incidentally, is another point. As important, as relevant.

I suggested a few weeks ago that the dividing line between those two camps is based on what each of them privileges. With respect to the Yuthukama Sanwada Kavaya and Jathika Chinathana camp, it’s an almost mythical idealisation of the Sinhalese and the Buddhists, which brings them closer to the likes of Anagarika Dharmapala and the failed (or stalled) project of finding a successor to him. With respect to Project Gotabaya, it’s a largely economistic, rationalistic, and cosmopolitan idealisation of the man at the centre of their movement. The only difference between the cosmopolitanism of this second camp and that of those opposed to them (i.e. supporters of the present regime) is that the latter are culturally apathetic.

And not for no reason. The truth is that many of those liberals (yahalapalanist or ex-yahapalanist) are blind to the need for a government, any government, to legitimise historical realities. Some of them (I should think many of them) seem to believe that the best way to shut out majoritarian dissent is by (what else?) shutting it out altogether. This is risky, if not dangerous: it erases away any democratic space for the majoritarian right to vent out its frustration.

To be sure, it’s difficult to think of a rational, cohesive, and “just” way of opposing the Bodu Bala Sena and those complicit in its political rise. The yahapalanist liberals continue to conflate it with majoritarianism. They are only partly correct: the truth is that the BBS scrounged up barely 0.2% of the votes at the 2015 General Election, compared to the 4.87% the JVP (which by the way was in a rather disadvantaged position owing to its vaguely articulated stances) got. The majoritarians were voting in large numbers for their preferred candidates: they didn’t care about the lunatic, racialist, neo-fascist fringe. But in what those liberals are correct, they are correct all the way, almost unconditionally: the BBS is opposed by everyone, and by everyone I include supporters of the Joint Opposition, the SLFP, and the UNP.

Going by comments I have obtained from hardcore anti-yahapalanist majoritarians, I can verify that their (mild) support for the BBS has not transformed into votes, or a sizeable electorate, to be reckoned with. It doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out that the more anti-Buddhist the “mainstream” parties are perceived to be, the more likely it is that such a dangerous situation will become a reality. And it doesn’t take a political scientist to figure out what the government must possess to prevent that risk from turning into a reality. Not irrational frenzy, but sober decisiveness.

Project Gotabaya believes in Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the epitome of sober decisiveness. The man’s occasional outbursts in the past, however, point at anything but sober decisiveness. But that is not my issue. My issue is that by idealising and depending on a single “role model” (for the lack of a better term), we are feeding into complacency. Complacency won’t get us anywhere. Only constructive debate will. The tragedy here is that the oppositional space needed for such a debate is being denied to the spokespersons of Project Gotabaya. It’s a tragedy because the Jathika Chinthanaya and Yuthukama Sanwada Kavaya, an extension of the Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekera led coterie of nationalists, have congealed into a class and an oppositional space of their own, courtesy of their more reckonable history when it comes to combating their opponents, the “anti-nationalist” right and left.

Now you may agree or disagree with some of the key figureheads behind this movement: with Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Manohara de Silva, Gomin Dayasiri, and Gevindu Cumaratunga. I won’t say that I disagree (indeed I find myself agreeing with many of their contentions) but I will concede that they compel from those yahapalanist liberals the same sobriquet that Dr Dayan, in a series of debates conducted with their movement in the eighties, bestowed on them: intellectual protectionists. Yes, they are intellectual protectionists to most. But these intellectual protectionists have been fighting their intellectual skirmishes for over three decades. That’s something Project Gotabaya will take time to equal, though in equalling it I think there is a major role that they, in particular Dr Dayan, will get to play.

Which in a brief, pithy sense is as follows. In a context where most of the yahapalanist liberals are opposed to the Bodu Bala Sena because of their veiled anti-Buddhism and anti-intellectualism, we need a force that is at once sensitive to the collective being wooed by racialist outfits and also opposed to those outfits. The one doesn’t negate the other, I believe: the fact that one is sensitive to Sinhala Buddhists doesn’t mean that one is hell-bent against other collectives. To contend otherwise would be to say that all Sinhala Buddhists are complicit in the rise of the BBS. They are not.

On the contrary: until we sort out this contradiction, which is really an artificial and simplistic dichotomy, there won’t be any hope for any oppositional outfit to legitimately challenge the status quo, by which I am referring not to this regime, but rather to the anti-majoritarian elite who are denying any democratic outlet for the majority to resolve their grievances. If 1956 is anything to go by, folks, constricting such an outlet will do more harm than good. For everyone. And I think Project Gotabaya, at least to a certain extent, will be assessed by how well it drives home that point. Personally speaking, I don’t think it’s doing a bad job there. At least, not yet.

Written for: Daily Mirror, June 30 2017