Friday, October 26, 2018

Mahinda Rajapaksa's fringe factor

D. B. S. Jeyaraj, writing on the meeting between Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena held around three weeks ago, suggests that in the coming weeks, G. L. Peiris, the de jure leader of the Joint Opposition, will hand over power to Rajapaksa, the de facto leader. This will, he further opines, give the man enough clout to negotiate and, presumably, to settle those personality clashes that have widened the rifts within the Podu Jana Peramuna. All things considered, these three months hence will probably be determined by the moves the Joint Opposition makes and the retaliatory measures the United National Party takes. In that sense, the tête-à-tête between the president and his erstwhile rival is both an expedient move and an exercise in futility.

That the Joint Opposition is nothing without the Rajapaksas, everyone knows. G. L. Peiris is the most eloquent parliamentarian we have, but eloquence, no matter how much of an advantage it may be inside parliament, pales in comparison to popularity from outside that hallowed institution. It is of course convenient to say that the SLPP doesn't have much of a presence within the confines of the Diyawanna Oya and that what little parliamentary prestige it has managed to conjure up for itself has been due to the Rajapaksa Factor. And yet, that is the truth.

Given these reduced circumstances, what is out there for the SLPP?

In 2015, the dichotomies were clear: the SLFP and the UNP on one side, the Rajapaksa Proxies on another, the JVP and the TNA on yet another. When the TNA took over the Opposition and the leader of the JVP became Chief Opposition Whip, those were reduced to two: those for the Rajapaksas and those against them.

What 2015 did was create a gulf between parliamentary prestige and populist protest. The lack of disregard for parliamentary procedure, the emphasis on rhetoric over substance, and the demonstrations against the legislature (as an institution, not just a party-driven political body) echoed and spearheaded by the JO made it clear that the real fight was between the MPs, who had been elected, and the stalwarts of the old order, who were being supported on the sidelines. There was a fatal rift, for the latter, between numerical strength and popular appeal. That rift continues even today.

The Rajapaksas were smart. They still are. With each of the three main brothers, the organisers of their party sought to appeal to three different interests. Mahinda's appeal was with the rural peasantry. Gotabaya's appeal was with what I alluded to in certain articles last year as the "professional nationalists", the milieu which had supported the Hela Urumaya and was now disenchanted with the likes of Champika Ranawa. Basil's appeal, on the other hand, was with a business class touted as "nationalist" by some, but which in reality idealised a blend of ruthless authoritarianism and efficiency that the Rajapaksas as a whole (allegedly) stood for. In other words, Mahinda would get the village, Gotabaya would get the suburbs around Colombo, and Basil would plan out everything with business moguls and financiers.

Obviously, this formula did not and could not work in a context where people looked up to the policies of the current government and their implementation by them. From 2015 to the latter half of 2016, those who had idealised the government on the basis of how it privileged policy over rhetoric really believed it could deliver. That was why, when Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cohorts contended that Sri Lanka was in danger of falling into a middle income trap and the Rajapaksas had empowered the middle class without setting barricades against the inflationary pressures this would result in, we placed our faith in the Cabinet he and the President had formed.

But then, somewhere in 2017, that rift between mass popularity and parliamentary presence began to work the other way around, FOR the JO.

It began when the people realised that the current government wasn't implementing those policies it had harped on about, and was content in spreading their gospel. A population that had been taught about good governance, constitutional reforms, and sanhindiyawa began to grow tired. The middle class, the force behind the campaign to get Maithripala Sirisena elected, shifted gears. It had had taken a risk and rooted for a maverick, when traditionally it had privileged stability and continuity. That maverick had clipped his own powers and handed over the legislature to a party that had NOT won a mandate to govern from that institution. Worse, his program, overseen by that very same party, had begun to unravel itself badly.

Our middle class thus did what it was destined to do. Hedge its bets on the only movement that could take us back to the way things were. That movement was not the JVP. It was not the TNA, the JHU, or for that matter the Frontline Socialist Party. It was the Joint Opposition. Having rebranded itself as the Podu Jana Peramuna, it thus soon began to capture the middle class, hitherto the preserve of the UNP and, at least with respect to its more nationalist segment, the Hela Urumaya.

The apathy of the government, the even more pathetic apathy of the Opposition (to call it an Opposition would be to insult the legacy of poorly equipped Oppositions the UNP bequeathed to this country during the Rajapaksa years), and the silence of those ideologues hostile to the Rajapaksas and their brand of nationalism all conspired to empower the SLPP to get in more and more of this particular demographic.

The mainstream polity ridiculed the Joint Opposition and the SLPP for not having the numbers. That is a problem it is still afflicted with. But as the local elections showed, parliamentary presence can be a poor barricade against popular revolt.

It took an entire week for the storm that the SLPP's upset victory compelled to go away. A complacent government that had prepared itself for an insignificant margin of defeat (even those rooting for the Podu Jana Peramuna prepared themselves for a UNP victory) saw the front against the Rajapaksas that had held them together wear away, and eventually collapse. Never again would the President and the Prime Minister look at each other. After their clash, each would let it out that the other would be nothing without him politically: the Prime Minister, because he had to depend on the President for his return to the parliament; the President, because without the UNP, he could not have been the common candidate. Talk about the power of fringe parties!

There was another factor. The rise of the Alt-Right. Whether or not commentators are correct in terming Gotabaya Rajapaksa a neo-fascist who should be condemned on the same terms that (neo)liberals condemn Hitler and Caligula with, there's no denying that Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson made it possible for people to see things differently. The world, until then, had been largely determined by globalist financiers who supported centrists no different to the warmongers they were opposed to (a claim made not just by right wing conspiracy theorists and outfits like Breitbart, by the way). A world in which Obama was championed as a President for Peace thus grew disenchanted when, even with the hullaballoo against Donald Trump, it became evident this peace-loving leader of the free world had vastly expanded his country's drone program. The movement against the interests he stood for, predictably, emerged from outside the Congress, even outside the Republican Party. What happened later, to both ends of the mainstream political spectrum, we know by now.

What does all this amount to? One simple truism: the people have lost faith in the traditional institutions. In 2015, the momentum around the world was such that it was inconceivable that people could vote for a Donald Trump. The faith reposed on the three arms of the state, so strong then, was a legacy of the liberal tradition of the West, the same tradition the UNP sought to impose here in the name of democracy, freedom, and a better deal for everyone. In the end, tragically, all that failed.

The rift between fringe popularity and parliamentary presence befitted the political establishment in a world where liberalism trumped everything else. But we live in different times. Now the momentum is with those who exist outside the parliament. It is with those who can compensate for lack of parliamentary prestige with numbers drawn from outside the legislature. For now at least, that momentum belongs to the SLPP. And behind them, supporting them, there is, not the peasantry the Rajapaksas have always counted on, but a terribly disillusioned middle class.