By Malinda Seneviratne –
Way back in the year 1988 an island-wide poster stamped in the public conscious the notion of political teaser advertisements. It was a simple question: මේ කව්ද? මොනවාද කරන්නේ (Who is this [and] what is he doing? It did not come in colors associated with any of the major parties. It was in orange. It was duly followed by a ‘response’ that began with ‘මෙයා තමයි…([he] is the one [who]…) and went on to detail achievements and pledges.
That was effectively the launch of Ranasinghe Premadasa’s presidential campaign. And the color made sense, because orange was the signature that marked his doings, especially the overhead walkways all over Colombo. It was an idea that is attributed to G.W. Surendra and Victor Hettigoda. It was executed by Arambawelage Don Upali Ranjith alias Soththi Upali, according to some the only person who could put up posters all over the country at the time. This was late 1988 and the punchi aanduwa (small government) of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) could prevail over the government in the game of hit and run.
That was a time when politicians and political campaigns used posters to almost the exclusion of other propaganda devices. We live in a different age and yet a poster can still create a buzz.
Here’s a poster that gave credence to the speculation that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would contest the 2020 presidential election: ගෝඨා අපේ (Gota is ours). It was signed, ‘අපි වෙනුවෙන් අපි (us for ourselves),’ the tagline of the campaign to support the security forces during the last years of the war on terrorism, executed when Gotabhaya was the Secretary, Ministry of Defence. An exercise in branding, obviously.
A few days later, there’s a response. A single line against a white background with blood spots at the bottom: ගෝතා බය අමතකද (‘Gothaa Baya Amathakada’ or ‘Have you forgotten the “Gota Terror”? It’s a play on Gotabaya’s name. Gota has been corrupted to ‘Gothaa’ which draws from ‘Gothaya.’ ‘Gotha’ in colloquial Sinhala would mean ‘good for nothing’. Obviously someone clever with words would have come up with the corruption, but it reminds me of certain people in Colombo’s high society absolutely unfamiliar with the name (and its history) innocently mispronounced and even now mispronounces his name. For them it is ගෝතබයා (Gothabayaa).
Anyway, if you want to keep playing with names, then here are two that are pretty significant: a) Biyagama (Village of Fear, or Fearful Village) and Gam Udawa (Village Reawakening) which my father used to call ‘Gun Udawa’ or ‘The Reawakening of Guns’.
What is politically significant is the purpose of this poster war. The name-play poster was followed by one which directly referred to the pro-Gota poster. The line was ‘Api venuven mineemaruwek’ or ‘A murderer for us’. Goes with the blood-stains. Clever, some may think.
However, we need to ask some questions. If someone fears a good-for-nothing then doesn’t it say more about the fearful than the feared, especially since there was a poster just over a week ago claiming that the Prime Minister was ‘fearless’? And if the past is relevant, then we could go back as far as we want. If the supporters of this government did just that then this government would not be in power simply because the track records of the key figures including candidates, party leaders and an ex-president are not exactly untainted.
But what is this ‘baya’ or ‘fear’? I believe that the fear is legitimate on two counts. First we have the absolute power that Gotabaya arrogated upon himself. Nepotism might have resulted in the victory over terrorism, one might argue, and may have given Colombo the facelift and more that it sorely needed, but it also produced arrogance and abuse of authority, not to mention corruption if charges on such grounds are proven correct.
We can do without such fear. In fact this government was brought to power because a significant number of key players wanted to be relieved of such fears. The fact that this government retired the man feared but did not retire fear, so to speak, is of course something to think about.
However, if an identity-change is what we got then a switch-back won’t make things better, at best. No reason to support the present set of thugs of course, but the poster makes sense. The bloody part of it notwithstanding. ‘Not withstanding,’ one should add, because there’s exaggeration if not a lie right there if one subscribes to the dictum ‘innocent until proven guilty’ and because the finger-pointers have been part of bloody-regimes, the President and Prime Minister included.
There’s another ‘fear-element’ here. Fear of the man, not for the kind of thuggery he may unleash on the country, but the existentialist threat to those currently in power. In attacking Gota, the attackers (obviously those currently in power) betray a strong sense of unease. If Gota was not a threat, then why bother?
One remembers how J.R. Jayewardene in the first time candidates were given official airtime on TV, in 1982 dismissed the JVP candidate. He said (in Sinhala): Other candidates include Hector Kobbekaduwa (he dragged the ‘be’ to make it sound like the bleating of a goat) and Rohan (not Rohana)….(paused as though trying to recollect the name) Wijeweera of the Janatha Vimukthi Pakshaya (not Peramuna).’ Dismissive. Dismissed. Smart.In this instance, Gota’s detractors are raising his profile, elevating him to the candidate that he is not.
In other words, what all this indicates is that the government does not feel confident to face the people on its track record alone. It has to conjure ghosts of the past (selectively of course) and indulge in fear-mongering. No wonder that the entire pantomime was captured thus (in Sinhala) in social media:
ලසන්ත වික්රමතුංග වරෝ
කීත් නොයර් වරෝ
මැතිවරණ පැමිණ ඇතෝ
[Come, Lasantha Wickrematunge; come Ekneligoda, come Thajudeen, come Keith Noyhr….come, for elections have come]
The larger lesson is also about fear. The options expressed or implied by these various posters indicate that there’s someone we should fear and there’s someone who is fearful, both qualities that we should worry about. The truth is that any candidate who cannot or will not effectively represent is not a candidate worthy of a vote.
We do not need someone whose effectiveness is wrought (even in part) from the fact that his brother is the President. We do not need someone who is so insecure that he has to say ‘I am fearless’ and who (going by recent comments about the media) considers any criticism as ‘sinister designs to bring him down and bring back the previous regime’. What we should fear is the lack of a credible candidate or set of candidates or any kind of leadership among the major political configurations. That’s something to worry about because it sets the stage for the default option. We saw and we are seeing what that did after January 2015.
The politically intelligent thing to do, then, is to enjoy this poster-bickering, laugh out loud, and look elsewhere for political leadership.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.malindawords.blogspot.com