By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In a barroom scene in the movie 48Hrs, with Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy, the latter fires a shot into the air and announces to a group of rednecks: “I’m your worst nightmare—a nigger with a gun”. When a future historian writes the political history of the most obtuse and inept government in post-independence Sri Lanka, he or she will doubtless identify the zenith of idiocy having been the Constitutional prevention of Mahinda Rajapaksa running for President in 2019, thereby opening the door for the fulfilment of the worst fear of the neoliberal democrats, namely a Gotabhaya candidacy pointing to a Gotabaya presidency.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was awarded decorations for valor in combat from three Sri Lankan leaders, none of them his brother, and who commanded the crack Gajaba regiment, broke through enemy lines last week and secured the toughest of objectives. He liberated Colombo’s capitalist class from its traditional party, the UNP, at a time the UNP is in government and Gotabaya’s iconic brother Mahinda is not even the Leader of the Opposition. This had been done only once before—in 1994 when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won over the bourgeoisie from the UNP, but Chandrika was not the governmental target that Gotabaya is today.
It was a social and economic risk to be seen at Gotabaya’s spectacular Viyath Maga event. But I could see how things were headed when the traffic was stoppered up for over half an hour on the part of Galle road leading to the Shangri-La hotel, and Dion Gomez got out of his car just ahead of our taxi and opted to walk, coming back minutes later to retrieve his printed invitation. The water of the roadside and my wife’s sari prevented us from exercising this sensible option. The hall was packed with suits and saris. When Sanja and I stayed on for dinner in privacy, the hotel management told us that they had never had so large a crowd at a single event and that the 2100 seats of the main hall had been filled.
It was not just the numbers: the audience of 2100 invitees. Having been ushered into seats in the row behind ex-President Rajapaksa, we were able to see the heaviest hitters of Colombo’s corporate class flanking him: Ken Balendra, Harry Jayawardena, and Merrill Fernando among them. The heavy hitters weren’t lurking on the flanks, hedging their bets. They didn’t mind being up front, literally and metaphorically. The bourgeoisie had just defected from a UNP government. Ranil’s UNP had just lost the crème de la crème of Colombo’s capitalist class. They had just thrown their lot in with Mahinda and Gotabhaya, but they would not have done so without Gotabhaya.
So what has just happened is that Mahinda’s own appeal and his brother Basil’s organizational mastery had cut deep into the UNP’s grassroots support and rich peasant base, securing the Pohottuwa’s convincing victory on Feb 10th 2018. Now, Mahinda’s other brother Gotabaya, the masterful manager of the military victory over Tiger terrorism, had just cut deep into the UNP’s bourgeois base in the citadel itself: Colombo. Mahinda’s two commanders, operating on two flanks, have sliced into and carved away the UNP both at its social base and its apex; its feet and its head. Only Chandrika in 1994 was able to accomplish that double achievement, but that was under far more favorable social and political circumstances—CBK was a widow of a much loved movie-star politician who had been assassinated, and the princess of the city returning from self-exile, while Basil and Gotabhaya have been targeted by the government and state apparatus through court cases.
While the Gotabaya candidacy project has taken a quantum leap with the Viyath Maga event, the dynamics and discourse at the Shangri-La clearly confirmed that Mahinda was still The Man; the most loved public personality in the country, the one with indubitably the greatest authority in his family and the greatest public appeal; the center of public attraction and the center of gravity of national politics—the man with the veto.
Having been ushered into seats in the row behind ex-President Rajapaksa, we were able to see the heaviest hitters of Colombo’s corporate class flanking him: Ken Balendra, Harry Jayawardena, and Merrill Fernando among them. The heavy hitters weren’t lurking on the sidelines, hedging their bets. They didn’t mind being up front, literally and metaphorically. The bourgeoisie had decided it was worth their while to check out an alternative to the UNP. Ranil’s UNP had just lost the exclusive loyalty of the crème de la crème of Colombo’s capitalist class. They would not have attended if it weren’t for Gotabhaya.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who was awarded decorations for valor in combat from three Sri Lankan leaders, none of them his brother, and who commanded the crack Gajaba regiment, broke through enemy lines last week and secured the toughest of objectives. He liberated Colombo’s capitalist class from its traditional party, the UNP, at a time the UNP is in government and Gotabaya’s iconic brother Mahinda is not even the Leader of the Opposition. This had been done only once before—in 1994 when Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won over the bourgeoisie from the UNP, but Chandrika was not the governmental target that Gotabhaya is today.
While the Gotabhaya candidacy project has taken a quantum leap with the Viyath Maga event, the dynamics and discourse at the Shangri-La clearly confirmed that Mahinda was still The Man. The paradox and the problem is that unless the 19th amendment is revised, The Man cannot be the President.
The shift to Gotabaya at the level of both the elite and the wider public, denotes a deeper shift about which I must confess I have mixed feelings. There is a tectonic social shift to a tougher mindedness on the economic, ethnic and foreign policy fronts, which at its best is similar to the shift that Russians undertook towards Putin after the disastrous liberalism of the 1990s. It is also like the shifts that took place in India away from Congress towards Modi and more recently in Turkey, away from secularism towards Erdogan. As a realist I have no problem with such a shift/shifts.
One thing that worries me is that the delusional maximalism of the Tamil nationalists combined with the supine nature of the UNP government have triggered a shift among all classes in Sinhala society, along the lines that eroded the two state solution and the Labor Party in Israel and brought Netanyahu to the top. For instance, with the affront of defeated fascism, terrorism and totalitarianism being brazenly commemorated in the North, even I hope that this year and the next will be the last time we ever see such affronts permitted on our soil, and I wish for a government and a leadership that would not permit this nonsense. If someone whose socialization is as atypically modernist and internationalist as mine could feel this way, I can imagine that Sinhala society as a whole would be susceptible to an Alt-Right backlash and in the mood for a Netanyahu-Trump type alternative at the first possible opportunity.
The economic policy model that was unveiled in some detail by Gotabaya at the Viyath Maga convention was not entirely unproblematic. As a growth strategy on the right flank of the Mahinda Rajapaksa coalition and under Mahinda, it would be quite useful. In other words, as a sub-set of a larger Mahinda policy paradigm it would be quite fine. However, if it is either a stand-alone model or the dominant one, driving economic policy as a whole, it will generate contradictions.
The GR model as unveiled at Viyath Maga is a throwback to that of the UNP of the 1980s, and more particularly the economic ideology of Lalith Athulathmudali. Mr. Athulathmudali was close to the US Republicans, was a friend of US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, had taught in Israel and Singapore, and had rightwing views on economics and hawkish views on the ethnic issue. His views on development and most matters including foreign policy were the polar opposite of Prime Minister and later President Ranasinghe Premadasa.
The UNP’s economic philosophy of the 1980s worked well temporarily and then did not. It created a social uprising from among the youth. The Athulathmudali model would have run into trouble even sooner. A top-down technocratic model based purely on achieving growth and relying on authoritarianism did not work in Sri Lanka in the 1950s (it triggered the August 1953 Hartal) or the 1980s (despite a heavy authoritarian hand of the Jayewardene UNP).
Notwithstanding a rapturous initial welcome from the business community and the urban middle classes, this 1980s ‘retro chic’ UNP economic philosophy and top-down technocratic model won’t work in 21st century Sri Lanka either, because it generates contradictions along two axial routes: (A) the South-South dimension of social insensitivity and inequity which will lead to clashes with students, workers, peasants, fisher folk and neighborhood communities and (B) the North-South dimension, because the Tamil problem cannot be solved by tokenistic integrationism. The solution will have to be a dialogic political accommodation.
Only a return to the proven successes described in Dr. Nalaka Godahewa’s superb speech at the Viyath Maga event, namely the economic models of Presidents Premadasa and Rajapaksa, can be socially sustainable over the long duration and lead to real development, not merely high growth.
What was the crux of Premadasa’s development philosophy?
“What is that future? What sort of Sri Lanka do we want to create? What sort of motherland do we want to leave for our children? We must strive to build a fair society for all. This means a society in which everyone is provided with the tools and the opportunity for advancement. The tools the State must provide are security, education, social justice, access to opportunity. But seizing opportunity is a task for the individual. Hard work, enterprise and competence are attributes of character. The state must open doors that have been closed for too long in our country. Then personal effort will bring its own reward.”
(President Premadasa, Annual Conference of the Judicial Service Association of Sri Lanka—30.11.’90)
“Minimal solutions for many, rather than high standards for a few, will be our vision for the immediate future.” (President Premadasa, ‘Learning, Unlearning and Relearning’—9.12.’90)
Applying the Premadasa paradigm is not a preserve of those bearing his surname. Any leader can do it, if they have the heart.
A top-down technocratic model, if it isn’t embedded in a larger development model of ‘growth with equity’, could generate social instability which cannot be held down for long by authoritarianism without generating greater instability. Stability comes from human security and human security comes from a drive for the goal of “very high human and social development” as Dr. Godfrey Gunatilleke, Sri Lanka’s great development thinker has said.