By Sarath De Alwis –
The memories of men are too frail a thread to hang history from – John Still – The Jungle Tide
Deciding whether politicians are nice or nasty is neither here nor there. To understand politicians, we must attempt to understand the activity of politics. The epochal change of 8th January has taught us a lesson. When people remember together, they recall less than what they would remember individually.
Our construction and deductions of recent events such as the Central Bank bond scam, failure of transparency advocates to declare their professional fees, winner of the commonwealth rule of law award, allegedly engaged in land grabbing in his new incarnation, selection of obscure party loyalists as the country’s new envoys are not propitious signs of good governance. In fact they make a significant impact on our collaborative inhibitions. It reaffirms the conventional wisdom that “few things are more destructive than political dreams of perfection.”
Seen through this looking glass we seem to have exchanged a despotic President Tweedledee for a condescending Tweedledum as Prime Minister.
The Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa was sharply compartmentalized between the formal and the informal. The formal governance was through the bureaucracy of handpicked apparatchiks. They were nominally accountable to the legislature but effectively insulated by the overarching mastery of the executive presidency.
The informal and therefore the more decisive control was through the family politbureau consisting of the brotherhood and their brood.
The brotherhood and the brood outsourced day to day operations to a new class of entrepreneurs who excelled in turning indigenous knowledge and customs in to a tradable commodity. Their creative genius made them near extraterrestrial to the cosmopolitan and complaisant business class cocooned in their elite chambers of humdrum commerce. In the post war stampede to catch up with progress, this new entrepreneurial class morphed in to a peripheral plutocracy and an integral component of the Mahinda machine. While the hide bound business class sought relief in exchange for servility, the new class demanded quid pro quo for services rendered in lyrical excellence making the heavenly sky kiss mother earth. It was a public relations triumph that propelled the regime for a near decade.
Mahinda is the archetypal team player. In sharp contrast to all his predecessors who preferred to keep their own counsel he relied on a ‘caucus at the top’. The phrase was first used by the founder of the SLFP SWRD Bandaranaike to describe the UNP.
As Hannah Arndt points out so elliptically power is proportionate to the human ability not just to act but to act in concert. “Power is never the property of an individual; it belongs to a group and remains in existence only so long as the group keeps together.”
Team players are also good tribal leaders. It is this allure of Mahinda that enabled him to manipulate the evenly balanced legislature, he inherited in 2005. He deftly introduced a new political ploy. Strengthening the hands of the redeemer became a patriotic imperative. Significantly, he did not call a general election until his triumph over the other tribal leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. He deftly introduced a novel political ploy. Strengthening the hands of the redeemer was a patriotic imperative.
Rivals often differ in nuances but agree on substance. Both Prabhakaran and Mahinda are warrior leaders who used personal relations as instruments of exercising power. The provincial councilor threatening to execute investigators by stoning relies on the same strategic logic of the suicide bomber – the demonstrative destruction of life.
Just as the Velvetethurai terrorist movement it vanquished, the Medamulana patriotic movement developed an authentic code of loyalty, honour and discipline. The closely knit power hierarchy remained constantly alert against intruders. As common to all tribes it found it necessary to be constantly at war with those who did not belong.
Mahinda Rajapaksa encouraged the organizational independence of the individual members of parliament and reduced party affiliation to a mere formality to be observed during elections. Allegiance to the leader replaced party loyalty. It explains Mahinda’s sway over his ‘herd’ in contrast to Maithri’s hesitant steps to bring his ‘flock’ to pasture.
Mahinda did not undermine the rule of law. Instead, he made his own rules. He translated complex legalese in to easy-peasy irrelevancies. He made laws that intimidated him user friendly. It made him relax.
He infused his management style with a moral content. He assiduously promoted a monastic nationalism. He developed a trust network of Monks and temples. Today he has demonstrated his ability to activate the saffron rhetoric of this network in any corner of the island except the north.
Charles Tilley in his seminal work on trust networks explains how they work. “How will we recognize a trust network when we encounter or enter one? First, we will notice a number of people who are connected, directly or indirectly, by similar ties; they form a network. Second, we will see that the sheer existence of such a tie gives one member significant claims on the attention or aid of another; the network consists of strong ties. Third, we will discover that members of the network are collectively carrying on major long-term enterprises”
When Udaya Gammanpila claimed that ‘Abayaramaya’ is the temporary sanctuary of the exiled ‘King’ he was claiming proprietary rights of that network. The substitution of the sublime cry of ‘Sadhu’ with the more militant ‘Jayawewa’ is a natural product of the new insurgency in the urban temple.
President Maithripala Sirisena has arrived at a vital fork in his journey. His choice of turn will lead him to either fame or failure. He cannot hold the UPFA together. He can only hope to retrieve what is left of the SLFP. It is incumbent upon him to lead a credible alternative to the UNP that introduced the executive presidency, conducted the fraudulent referendum and set the country ablaze in the north and the south. The UNP did help in the presidential stakes. Ranil Wickremesinghe did not forswear the presidency. He opted for the only feasible alternative to escape the Cyclops’s cave. The UNP has seized the post January 8th narrative. That is natural. Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunters.