By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne –
Pada Yatra: rough translation, pilgrimage. They’ve been around for awhile, but the most famous is Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent Salt Tax protest. That original Pada Yatra started with 80 people and went down in history as the famous Dandi Salt March: it even inspired Martin Luther King, Jr.
Leave it to the Joint Opposition to organize their own Pada Yatra. Mahinda Rajapaksa and Co basically rallied thousands of people who marched, on foot, from Kandy to Colombo, while their political overloads trundled by gently in jeeps sucking on cheap ice cream.
It didn’t overthrow the British Raj, of course, but it was pretty impressive. It began in Peradeniya and spread to Nelumdeniya. Kiribathgoda was packed. Residents of Kelaniya reportedly hung grass from electric wires ‘for the protestors’. A disorganized crowd of several thousand strong preceded the actual rally. Most of us in Colombo didn’t feel it, but everyone on that route definitely did.
Let me get something off my chest first: that really should be Pādha Yāthra – unless our Media is having well-organized chuckle by making Mahinda’s rally sound like the Fart Pilgrimage. In that case, well played, Lake House, Wijaya. You’ve made us all proud.
Phew. Now, on with the conversation (photos by Shehan Gunasekara).
Protest marches are generally organized around a single specific grievance – British India’s Salt Tax, the deployment of troops to Vietnam, Taylor Swift’s never-ending albums of breakup songs. The Joint Opposition, who likes to multitask, seems to have decided to go for a shotgun approach: let’s protest about everything we don’t like. Most of the slogans are divisible into four broad categories:
- Economic hardships under the current government
- ‘Selling the country’ to foreign masters
- National sovereignty threatened by constitutional reforms
- Miscellanious (stuff like Maithri being a muppet, Ranil being a fag and so on)
I find this whole thing stupid, and not just because they actually had a Maithri-muppet on display. Because if you step back and think about the first three slogans:
1. Economic hardship
Granted, the current government’s economic policy is worse than a third-grader’s attempt to grill a cheese sandwich.
That being said, economic hardships are still Mahinda’s baby through and through. Who threw the country into debt for every single construction project ever, built the least used international airport in the world, bloated the civil service to unreasonable figures, bought votes by increasing salaries, ran a failed airline and got the taxpayers to pay for it?
As disorganized as current policy is, we as a country are still dealing with the fallout of the Rajapaksa regime.
2. Selling Sri Lanka to foreigners
Like *cough* China? Have we already forgotten the casino debacle, the Port City, the Hambantota Port development and the highways done by the Chinese?
3. National sovereignty threatened by constitutional reforms
Because obviously things like the Right to Information are evil, but forcibly extending the duration of your own Presidency is perfectly right. Carry on, Lord Commander.
Now I may not know much about the fine art of protest marching (University of Kelaniya – this is your forte), but I understand it’s very, very rare that the people leading the protest marches are the source of 3/4ths problem in the first place (everything except the Miscellanious category). I can almost imagine the campaign meeting.
Namal: Appachchi, what do we do? There’s nothing we can say that actually makes sense!
Mahinda: Okay, boys. Listen close.
<they huddle closer together for warmth and political protection>
Mahinda: Here’s my master plan, boys. First, I pop my head out of the jeep.
Namal: Yes, Appachchi!
Mahinda: Then, we show people the magic satakaya. <He gestures off-screen>.
<All nod> Ah, the satakaya!
Mahinda: Then we show them the mustache!
<All nod> Ah, the mustache!
Wimal: the mustache will never fail, sire.
Mahinda: Right? If my godlike mustache management doesn’t convince the proletariat to overthrow the government and give me back my power, nothing will!
Wimal: <getting excited> : And then we’ll invade Westeros and take King’s Landing!
But seriously, though.
Mahinda went on to make the real threat of the day. Addressing a gathering at the Lipton Circus (full speech here), he vowed that this march was only a warm up – and that next time, they will “take everything away”. He stated that the Yāthra is training for opposition MPs – “on how to achieve a government, how to struggle for that and how to select plans and strategies while in the opposition.” He raged on about how the government’s “only refuge are the CID, FCID and Bribery Commission, and that the public will not be deceived by this”.
Enough of the farce. The Pādha Yāthra is no Gandhian attempt to set things right. It’s a dictator manipulating thousands of people into cheering for him for no logical reason whatsoever.
There’s a term in the software industry for what these people (and all politicians) do: FUD. It stands for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt. By sowing FUD against your competitors, you attract clients. And from where I’m standing, it seems to neatly describe every single thing the Joint Opposition is doing right now.
Why do people still listen to swindlers, crooks and thugs? Is it because we, as Sri Lankans, tend to fixate on single historical events – the 1996 World Cup, the 2009 defeat of the LTTE – instead of assessing performance over time?
What do we actually hope for? Elections are a mechanic by which the public blackmails a government into giving them progress: we shake the ballot box and say do good or you’re out. But we’ve been here with the Rajapaksas: we know exactly what’s going to happen. The economy is going to continue to spiral. Mahinda’s sons are going to grow rich and fat (or richer and fatter). When everything collapses, we’re going to blame it one the Muslims. Or the Tamils. Or the Americans. Or some other nameless entity to fight against.
Is our current government so unreliable that having the Rajapaksas running everything from the skies to the streets is a viable alternative?
The only thing to come out of the Pādha Yāthra was a ban on political parties using 23 public grounds around Colombo. The rest of its legacy is in a disturbed Opposition (some of whom don’t agree with Mahinda’s Kandy-Colombo catwalk) and thousands of man-hours wasted in cleaning up the mess it left behind. Are we that hungry for someone to worship?
And while these things are hardly on the same level, this – and the current government’s string of farces – are a disturbing mirror of affairs happening elsewhere in the world. Britain’s public voted against all sane rationale and choose to exit the EU, leaving a clown by the name of Boris Johnson in the hot seat. Elsewhere, Donald Trump continues to puppet America towards senility and chaos.
Have we always been this stupid, or is democracy – the rule of the masses- being stretched to the breaking point, as it once was in Greece?