Colombo Telegraph

Does Gotabaya Reflect Lanka’s Alt-Right?

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

New Zealand massacre, Hindutva and S-B extremism; are there parallels? Does Gotabaya reflect Lanka’s alt-right?

The attack did not happened because our country was safe harbour for hate, racism or extremism. We were chosen because we are none of these; because we stand for diversity, kindness, compassion and a home for those who share our values, a refuge for those who need it. These values will not and cannot be shaken. You may have chosen us but we reject you.” – New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden.

The 28 year old white-supremacist Australian gunman Brenton Harrison Tarrant’s rambling 74-page manifesto takes its title “The Great Replacement” from a thesis published in 2011 by French right-wing writer Renaud Camus. Both deemed that France’s white population was facing replacement by Muslim immigrants arriving en masse from former colonies in North Africa and the Middle East; a view that has gained prominence in right-wing circles. Tarrant said Le Pen’s defeat at the presidential election was the tipping point that led him to plan the attack. Camus who coined the term Great Replacement pleaded that he was “diametrically opposed” to the bloodbath but held firm that immigrants replacing natives created underlying social instability. Tarrant’s manifesto is available in full here.

Unavoidably perceptions of Gotabaya Rajapaksa are defined by the Civil War; the role of chief military protagonist carries with it a rightist political identity. Hence posing and truthfully adjudging the interrogation in the title of this essay is important. Are the forces propelling Gota bearers of an ideology of racial exclusivity? The Bodu Bala Sena, known for partiality to Gota, is an outfit that seeks Buddhist predominance and campaigns against Muslims and Christians who it says pose a threat to the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist identity; echoes of Renaud Camus. Other similar forces are also in the Gota camp. The international view is that: “Sri Lanka is struggling to contain violent Sinhala-Buddhist extremists and declares states of emergency when mobs targeting Muslims run amok”.

My next point is style of governance of a putative Gota regime. He is a disciplinarian and was resolute against LTTE terrorism. Isn’t expectation that fanatics like Brenton Tarrant will get short shrift reasonable? The worry however is that since Gota took no stand against anti-Muslim pogroms in the Southern and Central Provinces and human rights violations during the civil-war, though individual terrorism will be dealt with sternly, nationalist extremism will be fingered differently. Whoever imagined that the worst massacre of Lanka’s chequered recent past occurred during JR’s Imperial Presidency, when to borrow Diderot’s phrase, “Half the nation piously soaked itself in the blood of the other half”. Butchery of Protestants was encouraged by the Catholic Church in late 17-th and early 18-th Century France. Since JR-era carnage was incited by sate-power there is legitimate concern about a putative Gota presidency.

What other forces characterise the Gota camp? I will pinch two paras from Rajan Philips – he has forgiven me worse transgressions like the destiny of a half-empty litre-bottle of Taliksir 10-year-old he left in my loving care. “Gotabaya’s sponsors are the upstart professionals of Viyathmaga who see their Messiah in Gota. There could not have been a more glittering gathering for a political homily on poverty than the Viyathamaga hoi-polloi assembled in their Saturday best to hear and cheer their political neophyte. And no one goes to Water’s Edge to talk poverty”.

The socio-economics of a Gota executive-presidency will be to the right of Mahinda populism, which have-been cases like Vasudeva, Dinesh and the Communist Party hanker after; lowly Tissa, poor sod, will have to go whistle for his dinner and his portfolio. And Philips adds: “They want to get back the levers of power at commanding heights of politics and economy from which they were wrenched in January 2015. They want to restart from where they left off. The Gota-for-President campaign launched last May with a Shangri La bash has been side-lined by developments within and outside the Rajapaksa tent; now they want their man front and centre inside tent and in the country at large”. I rest my case: Gota’s socio-economics will be far to the right of Mahinda Rajapaksa populism

Gota’s pronouncements read more like orthodox liberal clichés than an alt-right programme; bland and general with no definitive orientation. Here are a four quotes.

“Economic growth and increase of GDP per capita has to work towards effectively minimising income distribution gap between the rich and the poor, in order to uplift the living standards of all segments of society”.

“Let us join hands to uphold the sovereignty of Sri Lanka and build a secure, stable & progressive country where our children can fulfil all their dreams & aspirations”.

“Whether you are Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, the right policies must be in place to eradicate poverty, so that one can live with dignity”.

“In discussion with young professionals and entrepreneurs I came to realize that the youth aspire to construct a disciplined, developed, democratic Lanka under the right leadership”.

However on the subject of retaining a strong authoritarian presidency he has, as expected, been characteristically unwavering. Clearly what lies inside the velvet glove is implacable steel.

“According to the proposed new constitution, the President is appointed by the parliament and a second “council” is to be formed above the parliament – drastically weakening the central government. The proposed new constitution will create a weak government at the centre”.

“We seek a mandate to govern the country to benefit the people and rebuild what was destroyed and neglected through four years. The previous regime fears this. That is why they are pushing for unwarranted international interference”.

“Scant regard for discipline by policy makers cannot be overlooked if we are to rebuild. During the previous RW led government law and order was seriously challenged, resulting in the underworld raising its ugly head and threatening lives of citizens”.

The crucial question then is whether the peril of dictatorship, if Gota takes the reigns, has passed. Has the clan and the forces behind the clan ‘learned a lesson’? Will a Gota regime be democratic? That would be too sanguine a conclusion given the racist, proto-fascist and dicey business and professional class alignments ripening behind the candidate. The question then is has the task of defeating dynastic authoritarianism been accomplished or does Sri Lanka still need an alliance of left, civil society and liberals, as in January 2015? I am of the view that the danger is not past.

Gota will exploit the divisions and sloppiness of the Ranil-Sirisena yahapalana flop to project an “Inspiring a dialogue on burning issues and seeking to rebuild a stable nation”. A large muster will listen. Except for minorities, and left-democratic mobilisations, this mantra is plausible to many. At this time we do not know the UNP contender; if Sajith, we will have an unenviable choice. A successful persona sponsored by opportunist business interests, ambitious youthful petty-bourgeoisie and a racist swarm, or on the other hand, a neophyte unproven in wielding state power, of dubious political loyalty and reluctantly anointed  by a failed liberal-bourgeois establishment. Oh Sri Lanka what woe has befallen thee to choose between tornado and frigid water?

Gota and Modi

If you call Gota a Sinhala-Buddhist ikon, in like fashion Modi is Hindutva; there are antecedents. Anti-Muslim sentiment has been a driving force in Modi’s political career in the RSS and the BJP. In 2002 as Gujarat’s Chief Minister he saw an outbreak of violence by Hindu nationalists against minority Muslims that led to the deaths of more than 1,000 people. Those who point a finger at Gota and allege war-crimes can voice similar sentiments about Modi. In 2012 Human Rights Watch said: “Authorities in Gujarat State are subverting justice, protecting perpetrators and intimidating those wanting accountability even 10 years after anti-Muslim riots killed nearly 2,000 people. The state government resisted Supreme Court orders to prosecute those responsible and failed to provide survivors with compensation”. This is similar to what is alleged in Geneva and by Tamils about the Lankan military and the Defence Secretary.

Do people change or at least does power or the prospect of power make them behave in markedly different ways? I am pleased at the tone Modi’s letter to New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern expressing “deep shock and sadness” over the death of scores of people in the terrorist attack. While stressing India’s “condemnation of terrorism and of all those who support such acts” Modi also underscored India’s solidarity with the people of her country at this difficult time. He stressed that “hatred and violence have no place in diverse and democratic societies” and expressed strong condemnation of terrorism in all forms and manifestations and of all those who support such violence. The dig at Pakistan is palpable. My interest here is to ask whether just as Modi is trying to wash off the Hindutva Muslim-hating veneer from his visage, and succeeding to a degree in Indian Muslims eyes of the world, whether the more “reasonable and rounded” Gota of recent pronouncements will also succeed in selling his new image?

“Don’t look for divisions based on race or religion; unite as one to eradicate poverty”

“Needs like food, shelter, sanitation and security are a must in an inclusive Sri Lanka”

“Wishing you a blessed Pongal; may this auspicious festival bring you prosperity and happiness”

“We celebrate Xmas as one nation and rejoice in the hope that the best is yet to come”

Since elections are about nine months away the outcome is an open question. Will Gota succeed in breaking into a quarter of the non-Sinhala-Buddhist vote without which his presidential aspirations are doomed? Surveys in India suggest that the Modi alliance (NDA) will secure 38% of the vote against 25% for the pro-Congress UPA. Seat projections are NDA: 270, UPA: 120 and others 150. Eight major states may cost the NDA 50 to 100 seats, among them Rajasthan, Gujarat, Utter Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. “Others”, mainly regional parties may take more than 35% of the vote and a sufficient number of seats to be kingmakers. In parallel fashion the outcome of our presidential election may be decided by second-preference choices, magnifying the influence of minority, leftist-radical and bamboozled voters; I mean Wigeneswaran & Gajendran, JVP and Sirisena, first-preference voters.

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