BY Tisaranee Gunasekara
"He goes along, pretends to be a gentleman, pretends to be accommodative, pretends to be seriously committed to the law, and turns around…. beating up people, using violence to coerce and to literally defend power for the sake of defending power.” — Morgan Tsvangaiai on President Mugabe (New York Times – 25.12.2010)
The UPFA lost the budget vote in the Anuradhapura Municipal Council, its sixth such defeat; the budget of the Maharagama MC was voted-down, for the second time. Former Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake publicly lamented the plight of senior ministers while Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa waxed eloquent about astronomical food prices. Not the advent of a rebellion, not by a very long chalk; but nevertheless hints of a subterranean seam of discontent running through the ruling coalition.
A narrow stakeholder-base is an essential feature of Familial Rule. Discontent is bound to churn, when one family is omnipotent and three siblings control almost 70% of the national budget. The SLFP is too cowed to contemplate a rebellion; yet, beneath the public kowtowing runs a current of simmering resentment at the gross monopolisation of power by the Rajapaksas. Even within the Family, heartburn can ensue over preferential treatment accorded to more-favoured members.
Speaker Rajapaksa is said to be unhappy about not getting a ministry while the abrasiveness with which young Namal is being promoted may jar the sensibilities of some of his closest relatives. Internal disquiet will thus remain an omnipresent feature of Familial Rule.
The Rajapaksas would know this; their object would be to ensure that these discordant thoughts do not find any political expression, but is ever confined to private-personal realms. Their favoured method of containment combined bribery (powerless posts and substantial perks) with fear: the ‘money + violence formula’.
So the Jumbo-cabinet, is set to expand even further; the government is ignoring the news that 65 parliamentarians have illegally sold their duty-free vehicle permits; 74 UPFA parliamentarians were given Prado jeeps ‘to supervise development work’….. The unenviable fate of Gen. Sarath Fonseka would be an hourly reminder to psychologically errant parliamentarians of the danger of permitting their discontent a political or organisational expression.
The anti-Rajapaksa simmering within the UPFA/government is a positive development; it must be encouraged, without overestimating either its strength or its capacity. Unless a spontaneous anti-Rajapaksa wave sweeps the country, most SLFPers will not venture beyond criticising and ridiculing the Rajapaksas in the relative safety of their private-personal spheres. The cost of actively opposing the Ruling Family would seem unbearably high to those who regard politics as an escalator rather than as a cause.
Minister Maithripala Sirisena has announced that local government (LG) elections will be held in March. The LG election will present the opposition with an opportunity – probably the last of its kind — to slightly correct the dangerous power-imbalance between the Ruling Family and citizens which is imperilling the democratic system. Once the LG election is over, there will be an electoral-hiatus of about four years.
This will give time for the 18th Amendment to achieve its intended outcome – a public service (particularly a police force and an election commissioner) which is completely in thrall to the President and thus bereft of not just the capacity but also the desire to act freely and fairly.
Worsening economic woes are beginning to sour the southern political ambience and dent, albeit marginally, the support base of the Rajapaksas. The dominant economic strategy precludes winning popular support via pro-people development measures of the sort President Premadasa excelled at. Instead the regime will have to make-do with giving the electorate some marginal (and purely temporary) relief.
Already the electricity rate-hike has been eased and the import tax on gas removed. But such paltry socio-economic giveaways would not suffice for the regime to record a landslide victory at the LG polls with the minimum use of violence and overt malpractices. The Rajapaksas would need to use Sinhala supremacism, masquerading as ‘patriotism’, to manufacture and sustain consent in the south, during the election season and beyond.
National (actually Sinhala) pride, xenophobia and chauvinism: these will be the ‘values’ the regime will seek to promote.
Sri Lanka, cash-strapped and indebted, is ever ready to host any regional or international event. These circuses are expected to divert public attention from advancing economic woes and receding political rights; plus enable the Rajapaksas to strut-about in front of regional/global audiences. A relentless campaign would be waged, to inculcate a fear psychosis in the south, to imprint on our collective-psyche the belief that we are perennially on the cusp of an existential threat.
Like Orwell’s Oceania we will have to be embroiled in a conflict, forever, because ‘protectors/saviours’ need enemies to justify their very existence. With deeds such as the execrable compelling of Tamil students in Jaffna to sing the national anthem in Sinhala (instead of in the customary Tamil), the south will be reminded of the essential nexus between Sinhala supremacism and Rajapaksa rule. And the southern voters will be asked to back the Rajapaksas as the most effective defenders and sole guarantors of a Sinhala-First (and where necessary a Sinhala Only) Sri Lanka.
Given the abysmal state of the popular-economy, such a patriotic meta-narrative is necessary to cover-up for Rajapaksa sins and to create a favourable terrain in which politico-electoral battles can be waged and won with the minimum use of violence. For instance, during the LG election campaign, the war-crimes scare may be used to drum-up support for the regime, even though the UN Secretary General made it very clear that Colombo consented to a visit by his advisory panel as a result of his discussions with President Rajapaksa.
The JVP, believing that it finally has a chance to outdo the Rajapaksas in patriotism, has jumped into the ‘breach’ accusing the government of treachery. But at the opportune moment, the Rajapaksas will do another volte face, taking the nationalist-wind out of the JVP’s sails; the ‘invitation’ to the UN panel will be denied and denigrated as a diabolical lie, and a suitable sacrificial victim found to shoulder the blame.
The opposition therefore needs to counter the patriotic narrative of the Rajapaksas with a socio-economic and political narrative which places cost-of- living/standards-of-living and democracy issues centre-stage. Though an electoral pact between the UNP and the JVP may not be feasible, the two parties need to form an understanding not to attack each other during the campaign but to concentrate all their politico-propaganda fire-power on the regime. A similar understanding – augmented by electoral pacts wherever possible — with minority parties is also necessary.
The aim should be to reduce the magnitude of the Rajapaksa victory to a sliver and to open up a few more spaces for democratic dissent. The Rajapaksas will try to beat the dead Tiger or to invoke some other bogey; the opposition needs to focus on economic and democratic issues like a laser beam, because these are where the Ruling Family is at its weakest and most vulnerable. In any battle the enemy should be attacked on his weakest and not strongest flank. And post-war, post-Tiger, Lankan democracy’s main enemy is none other than its tyrannical Ruling Family and its Dynastic dreams.