By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“In Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, an anti-Rajapaksa wave” – Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu
“When will they ever learn? When will they ever learn…?” – Where Have All the Flowers Gone
It may seem patronizing on my part, to suggest to the minorities how they should vote. It isn’t. I am a member of the minorities. I am also a member of the majority. As a (non-practicing) Catholic I am a member of one of Sri Lanka’s minorities. As a Sinhalese I am a member of the majority ethnic community.
The Christian community in Ceylon was heavily identified with the West and the UNP. It was a prominent, visible part of the pro-west, urban, anti-nationalist, pro-UNP social bloc (to use a Gramscian term). 1962 was the high point or rather the nadir of this trajectory and identity. The Christian churches and lay community paid for this in spades, three times over i.e. in 1956, 1960 and 1970. The Catholics paid for it more, because they had something more important to lose, which for the most part, they did—their schools.
It took Bishops Leo Nanayakkara and Lakshman Wickremesinghe, and scholar-priests like Monsignor WLA Don Peter, the Rector of my old school, St Joseph’s, to repair the damage, rectify the ‘line’ and bring the churches into the national mainstream. This was sealed by the Catholic vote for Sirimavo Bandaranaike and the center-left United Front in 1970.
The Tamils made exactly the same mistake of identification, most especially as a conspicuous component of Dudley Senanayake’s ‘Hath Havula’, and suffered a discourse and policy backlash in 1956, 1960 and 1970.
Today the minorities are poised to make the same mistake as in the post-independence decades.
Why oh why repeat a ghastly historical pattern? If the minorities all vote for one side, especially if that side is already seen as more pro-Western than the other, then that side is not only branded as minoritarian, but when the cycle turns, the inevitable backlash sets in, and the erstwhile opposition returns to office with a majoritarian ideology and agenda.
That’s what happened in 1956 and 1970. Most dramatic were the ultranationalist backlashes of the late ’80s and during the CBK–RW years. With the exception of CBK, it is almost always the UNP that appears minoritarian and pro-Western. Today the opposition is a bloc of the UNP of Ranil (the CFA UNP) and the SLFP of CBK (‘package’- PTOMS), and therefore the profile is clear. It is compounded by the anti-China, pro-West signaling from Opposition platforms and at Joint Opposition forums. Having a gentleman in a Modi vest as human shield or front office manager doesn’t alter the optics significantly.
Going by received wisdom, the incumbent is doomed at the Presidential election because of the arithmetic. The minorities which account for 25%-30% of the vote, depending on whether you count only the Tamils and Muslims or also the Sinhala Catholics/Christians, are counted as solidly against Mahinda Rajapaksa. Then there is the biggie, the UNP base vote, calculated at 35%-40%. The opposition strategists put these together and conclude that Mahinda Rajapaksa is already dead in the water. Add the SLFP vote that the rebel, Maithripala Sirisena will break off, and a defeat of the President is guaranteed, according to this calculation. I have also been walked through a far more detailed crunching of the numbers which points to a defeat for the incumbent.
It took a young Stanford graduate in philosophy, my wife Sanja’s nephew, to punch a hole below the waterline of the calculation at my celebratory dinner on my 58th birthday at rebel MP Vasantha Senanayake’s restaurant Ellen’s Place early last month. He pointed out that a significant percentage of the minority vote was already included in the UNP vote, and that there was a clear case of double counting in the calculation.
My own contribution to the discussion was more of a question than a conclusion. Does the arithmetic count quite as much at a Presidential election at which the country elects its leader, as it does at a parliamentary election? Don’t all these figures pertain far more to a parliamentary rather than a presidential election at which the collective psychological dynamics are significantly different? Wasn’t Leon Trotsky right when he drew a distinction between arithmetic and “the higher algebra” of politics—and doesn’t the latter prove more relevant than the former at a Presidential election while it is the other way around at a parliamentary one? Do the citizens actually vote primarily according to their party identities and affiliations at a presidential election?
We shall know the answer in 48 hours. As for me, I hope Mahinda Rajapaksa will win. I expect him to.