By Uditha Devapriya –
“Only the mob and the elite can be attracted by the momentum of totalitarianism itself. The masses have to be won by propaganda.” ~ (Hannah Arendt)
Speaking with Bandula Jayasekara aboard Pethikada, Gomin Dayasiri claimed that it is the people who are to blame for the debacle the Rajapaksas brought the country to. The reason, he argued, was that after Mahinda Rajapaksa oversaw the ending of the war, those who loved him turned him into a maharajano. Had the people been more careful in crowning the man who was, essentially, a politician voted in on a mandate to end the war, he would not have arrogated to himself powers that contravened the norms of legitimacy, custodianship, and governance.
Gomin has a point. A very good point. We elect those we prefer to lead the country and when those we elect achieve what we want them to achieve, we crown them and hand them and their cohorts blank cheques. Mahinda had his moment and, depending on how you view it, he lost it. Happens. That is perhaps why even those who continue to bat for him and idealise a third term as president are not so willing now to celebrate the likes of his wife, his sons, and some of the more populist, demagogic sections of his party, i.e. firebrands like Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansa.
That point, however, holds valid for politicians of all shades, and not just the populist, demagogic sort. It is valid for those who support the Rajapaksas and for those who are opposed to the Rajapaksas. I believe, therefore, that it is valid to the man at the centre of the anti-Rajapaksa cabal, the man you either celebrate or demonise. I am talking, of course, about Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Before everything else, however, a caveat: I am neither a supporter nor an opponent. There are more reasons than one to like the man and more reasons than one to dislike him, some owing to his character and others to factors beyond his character. What I’m concerned about here is not Ranil Wickremesinghe the politician (of whom everyone has written everything), rather the people who propagandise him.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, then as now, solicits support from a broad section of the population who are essentially Sinhala or Buddhist, or allied to a more inclusive Sri Lankan identity that is, at the same time, rooted in the Sinhala Buddhist ethos. I’m not saying that this is the absolute truth; rather, it is the impression that his promoters have built up over the decades. In any case, Mahinda has become the most definitive face of the SLFP since Sirimavo Bandaranaike, so much so that I’m willing to wager most SLFPers continue to associate him with the firebrand Sinhala Buddhist nationalism that even Sirimavo’s own daughter tried to do away with it.
Ranil is different. He solicits support, then as now, from a narrower milieu, based on and rooted in Colombo (the city). It can be said that the milieu that elects a politician is the same milieu that spawns those who celebrate him or her in the public sphere, the media and the blogosphere included. Simply put, the milieus which support Ranil and Mahinda are the same milieus that give birth to their hagiographers.
The English media, which is reflective of the English readership, has not, to this day, produced a hagiographer for Mahinda Rajapaksa on par with the hagiographers of Ranil Wickremesinghe. At one level this is to be expected, since support for Mahinda stems from the popular Sinhala consciousness and it makes sense to pen down a piece celebrating him in a Sinhala newspaper. Support for Ranil, on the other hand, stems from those whom Gomin Dayasiri referred to as the “Kolombians”, i.e. those who are not only deficient in Sinhala and/or Tamil but also revel blissfully in this deficiency and are more insular, yet strangely more cosmopolitan, than the commentators who see everything good and nothing bad in Mahinda.
By those who bat for Ranil in the English press, I deliberately exclude the moderate columnists, that is, the likes of Sarath de Alwis, Tisaranee Gunasekara, Kishali Pinto Jayawardana, W. A. Wijewardena, and Ratnajeevan Hoole, all of whom, to be fair by them and those who read them enthusiastically (like me), are shaped less by political preferences than by an overriding concern for democracy, economic rationality, and good governance. These are not Ranil lovers by any stretch of the imagination, and if they do support the previous status quo, i.e. a Ranil premiership (which de Alwis once called, memorably and very accurately, a “Royalist Regency”), it is not because they believe the man to be the most able to stand for those norms and values.
There are, however, other columnists. They not only bat for Ranil, they muddle up their facts and let their prejudices (virulently anti-everything-outside-Colombo) get the better of them. They are “shallow” in the truest sense of that term, so while they celebrate the man they think is Ranil Wickremesinghe, attacking those who see his other side (a side which other neutral columnists have explored and laid bare for us frequently), they end up being as insular, if not more insular, than the writers who champion a Mahinda Rajapaksa premiership and, if possible, presidency.
The I-bat-for-Ranil club is, not surprisingly, more nauseating than the I-bat-for-Mahinda club, because in the popular consciousness, among the neutral floating vote base especially, the latter is seen for what it is: one-sided, driven by support for a man motivated by a blatant love of power, and reflective of the racism of a big majority of that man’s electorate. In other words, Mahinda is the known devil. Because not many people belong to or affiliate themselves with the pro-Ranil writers’ club, on the other hand, not many come across, or take seriously, articles that praise Ranil for no reason other than the fact that he is the man they idealise him as. There is a reason why this brand of hagiography doesn’t hold water, by the way: as columnists more experienced than I have proved, while Mahinda has a trump card (“yudde iwara kara”), Ranil has precious little to show as PRIME MINISTER, his “achievements” as Minister and Leader of the House being grist for an entirely different debate.
This is why most of those pieces about him make no sense, because, in the absence of an accomplishment he can take full credit for (at least in the popular view), the most typical reasons resorted to when celebrating him cohere into an elitist, self-centred, anti-everything-outside-Colombo worldview: that he is a gentleman; that he studied in such and such a school; that he is a good son, brother, husband, uncle, and employer (whose employer? Ours?) who may not carry babies and smile with the people but who care for the people more than those who can and do.
This is also why those from the English language media seen to be lackeys of Mahinda Rajapaksa surprisingly come out as more cosmopolitan, intellectual, and genuine IN COMPARISON TO many of those who bat for the anti-Rajapaksa, pro-Ranil side. Just the other day, for instance, I was reading through some articles written by these “lackeys”, i.e. the likes of Dayan Jayatilleka, and I couldn’t help but notice that the arguments they made were more compelling, more thought provoking, and more sensible than the tripe dished out by the I-bat-for-Ranil club.
To be sure, these articles do call for a Rajapaksa Restoration. But they do not call for that contingency because of a vaguely defined goodness and flawlessness in the man’s character. They deify him (at times, nauseatingly), yet they do not celebrate his act of belonging to exclusivist clubs. They affirm what he did, not what he CAN do because he came from such and such a family and attended such and such a school.
This is true even of those Sinhala columnists who write of the man: they celebrate his accomplishments, but do not glorify him because he belongs to a clique that gives him a god given right to view his country the same way that a “hamu mahaththaya” views his servants; which, by the way, is the impression I get whenever someone writes that the former prime minister proved his “resoluteness” by his school tie (regardless of whether that is relevant to the majority of this country; somehow I get the feeling that it is not). That self-centred, self-righteous, arrogant, contemporary feudalism, the sort the UNP of the Kotelawala days invoked, is as parochial as the parochialism those opposed to the Rajapaksas associate the former first family with.
Rephrasing what Gomin Dayasiri said, then, we can say that it is those undying blue-and-gold-skinned boys and girls batting for Ranil who are to blame for the debacle that he and his party brought this country to. These are the same boys and girls who, salivating over Ranil’s perceived commitment to decorum and democracy, ironically rebuke those who criticise him by suggesting that they must give him a chance (even though we gave him more than 20 and he lost them all) In case you’re wondering, folks, no, it doesn’t get more self-contradictory than that.