By Mahesan Niranjan –
Yesterday, at our regular drinking joint in Bridgetown, UK, my friend, the Sri Lankan Tamil fellow Sivapuranam Thevaram informed me that he had become a follower of Baghavan Sri Ramana Maharishi, a Hindu holy man from South India. That was shocking indeed. We are in the pub from which a fundamental discovery relating to life on earth and the basis of evolution of species was made, and my friend — whose day job is analysing molecular biological data — was showing superstitious tendencies. What might be wrong?
“What’s wrong, machan (buddy)?” I asked. “We aren’t even on the second round!”
“I went to his Ashram (holy man’s place) yesterday and the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance were also there to see him. I overheard the most appropriate political philosophy from the Baghavan and have decided to become his disciple,” Thevaram said.
Now those of you who follow Sri Lankan politics will realize what might have been the Baghavan’s advice to the TNA leadership. For the others, let me explain my friend’s transition by taking you through a potted history of Sri Lanka’s political timeline.Way back in the Fifties, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike had returned to the country after his education at the University of Oxford. The serene environments of riverside lawns and intellectually stretching debating chambers of Oxford did a good job on this young fellow, turning him into a nationalist — a Ceylonese nationalist — which you will agree is a good thing. He had given much thought to how we as a nation –- the Ceylonese nation — will grow and mature as the Sri Lankan nation, rank among equals on the international arena, might get rid of suddha (white man) residuals of language, religion and bureaucracy, build a couple of yards of railway lines ourselves, get milk and honey flowing down our streets and be blessed by the Tripple Gem and all that.
A good dream he dreamt.
But in the run-up to the elections in 1956, Bandaranaike did some precise calculations, yielded to temptation and declared him a Sinhala nationalist. He kept his promise to the electorate, enacted the Official Languages Act in Parliament and laid the foundation that made some of our countrymen feel they were aliens.
History might be kind to Bandaranaike and say he later tried to fix the problem he created by signing a pact with Mr Chelvanayagam. The idea was to give the Tamil language equal recognition, and those who spoke that language some sort of local decision making power in parts where they lived in high concentrations. Not a new idea. Others have done this, successfully trading local decision making to the parts to gain effective loyalty to the whole.
Alas, the idea to mitigate the damage of 1956 came a little late. An exceptionally innovative fellow was there to spot a fundamental arbitrage opportunity in Sri Lankan politics. Junius Richard Jayewardene responded with a padha yaathra (march) to Kandy and laid the foundation for the most effective post-suddha election slogan in Sri Lanka:
“Vote for me, I will beat up the Tamils.”
(Note the order in which the phrases appear in the slogan, which is important later in this story.)
Successive elections between Greens and Blues were largely fought on the basis of the above slogan. In capturing voter imagination, occasional innovations like “haal seru dheka thenava (get two measures of rice)” were no match to the idea of the cunning fox.
Let us fast forward a little. When viewing the politics of our country, the fast forward button does help a lot, no? We can skip past quite a lot of horror and just view the juicy bits of grains, flowers and fruits. It helps us feel patriotic.
There was a presidential election in 2005 with two candidates of significance. One said “war” the other said “peace”. Half the population in the South preferred war. It was, after all, going to be just a war against a fascist warlord in the North. Fair enough. “Just a war” is what the politician proposed and populace was persuaded of. But beware! In the phrase “just a war,” if you are not careful, you might miss the vowel in the middle and refer to it as “just war.”
The other half seemed to prefer peace. It was going to be a tight call.
The warlord of the North also did the same calculations and discovered that he was far more powerful in this instance than he had ever dreamt to be. He could be the king-maker. “Wow!” he said to himself, “war or peace?” The answer was obvious. He had built an effective war machine which in operational brutality was a good match to that of his enemy.
I must pause to help you understand the extent of brutality in our country. It is never one-sided. If as a child in 1971, I saw and learnt about brutality along the highway between Badulla and Wellawaya – of rape, torture and murder – tools with which our heroic armed forces suppressed the first youth rebellion of our country, in 1986 my elderly parents saw and described to me the brutality played out in Thirunelvely junction where young kids from the TELO organization were massacred – killed and burnt or burnt and killed – that order not being important to the heroic liberators whose memories are celebrated every November in the building nearby with clandestine candles. Those are two points to calibrate. I leave you to interpolate the rest.
So in 2005, the guy who built the war machine was not going to let his hard work go to waste. He ordered the Tamil population to avoid going to the polling booths. “Hands that mark crosses in ballot papers shall be chopped off,” he decreed. The war candidate won the election by a wafer-thin margin and went on to deliver what he promised, i.e. fought a war to finish the warlord.
That was the only promise he is known to have kept, historians will record.
We fast forward to 2010. There was another election, but this time with a difference. The phrases in Sri Lanka’s most effective electoral slogan were reversed. The job now being done, the slogan changed as follows:
“I beat up the Tamils, vote for me!”
Two candidates of significance in 2010 thought they had good grounds to make the claim. One was the Commander who saw front-line action of unlimited callous brutality and the other was Commander-in-Chief who created the necessary political atmosphere of getting our countrymen to collectively bury our heads in the sand.
In the run-up to the 2010 election, everyone was making calculations. Who will win? The leaders of the Tamil National Alliance were no exception. They were competent in arithmetic, I grant. But being so well trained in the art of singing old Hymns, they were not particularly good either at adapting to, or even recognizing, a changing world. They thought the parameters of the equation in 2005 were the same as in 2010. They failed to see the reversal of the phrases in our country’s political slogan.
Thinking of themselves as king-makers, they attempted negotiations with the Commander and the Commander-in-Chief. The latter, being the more experienced of the two, judged that the slogan-reversal was going to give him such a big margin that the TNA was irrelevant. So he told the TNA to get lost. The Commander however, being politically naïve, apparently made a deal to gain TNA’s support. They campaigned on his side and made him lose.
Now as we enter the elections in 2015, we have some hope – the kind of hope with which a sinking man clutches onto any floating object. We want our country to be better. We don’t want our officials tying themselves to trees, nor our foreign representatives falling off chairs, injuring themselves. So, we are encouraged by the cross-over. We are delighted by the ease with which the challenger’s name can be tweeted. We are happy to observe the Uva elections at which the former commander dragged his bullet ridden car and a card-board cut out of a Tamil suicide bomber along the highway between Badulla and Wellawaya, yet managed to attract just a few hundred additional votes for that effort.
Can we take comfort by observing that the most powerful political slogan of our country may have passed its sell-by date? Should we worry that this only happens to be so because the job is done?
What now is the role of Tamil politics and the TNA?
If we are confused, we should note that the best assessment of the situation came from His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapakse. During a recent visit to Jaffna to declare the railway station open, he said with exceptional honesty – a trait you would, in general, find difficult to attribute to a master politician of his calibre, and to him in particular – that “even if I build roads and railways for you, I know you won’t vote for me.”
He is absolutely right.
Tamil voters come in two types. Those who revere their warlord will not vote for the President because he defeated and killed their hero. The rest will also vote against him because he sees no difference between the Tamils and the Tigers.
Roads and railways are great. They reduce journey time. If you were competent in mathematical optimization, you will observe the following: If a transport system is designed to minimize the time it takes to rush troops from Walikamam to Weliweriya, a necessary consequence is a reduction in the travel time between Punnalaikkadduvan and Polgahawela.
Average Tamil voters may not be educated in sophisticated mathematics, but if you just give them a pencil, paper (a ballot paper, to be precise) and put them in a booth – I bet they will work out this corollary in just a few seconds. There is no need to tell them who to vote for. There is no need for their representatives to shout about it. They just need to be in the polling booth.
Having no clarity in thought of what their next steps should be, the leadership of the Tamil National Alliance visited the Baghavan Sri Ramana Maharishi in his Ashram the day my friend happened to be there.
With characteristic Sri Lankan English intonation, they asked: “Swami, now what to do?”
The Baghavan spoke: “Summaa Iru (just be)!”