When I read doomsday prophecies and warnings against the Rajapaksas by those who believe in the (relative) goodness of this government and the (absolutist) totalitarianism of the previous government, I am inclined to consider them as something out of a dystopia, post-apocalyptic sci-fi horror flick.
It’s like the ending of The Terminator where Sarah Connor is told of an impending thunderstorm and she bluntly says, “I know”, not with respect to that thunderstorm, but with respect to THE FUTURE. We have so many Sarah Connors among our commentators: they look at one political prophecy and create something ineffably profound out of it while missing the wood for the trees. The thunderstorm is there, but the writers are looking elsewhere.
The February Local Government elections gleaned three reactions from these commentators: disbelief, apathy, horror. They had hedged bets on Rajapaksa winning but they had underestimated just how terribly dissatisfied the people were (as they continue to be) with the present regime. It’s rather laughable if not downright ridiculous to suggest that power obtained from the periphery this way is enough for a Rajapaksa Restoration, but that is what these (prophetic) commentators are already ranting and raving about.
When Kumar David suggests that the populist backlash would be enough for the government to backtrack on the grievances of the Tamil people (“They are better off buying real-estate from Elon Musk to settle on planet Mars than to expect justice from the Sinhalese”) and when Tisaranee Gunasekera portends a worse contingency than a Mahinda Restoration – a Gotabaya Presidency (oh, the horror!) – they are acknowledging that for the people, the lack of accountability by the government over real and economic issues (like the price of coconuts) has overridden their earlier concerns over bringing to justice the criminals and looters of the past. In other words, for the people and according to these writers, it would seem as though the LG polls was a litmus test on whether we were concerned with issues of reconciliation and natural justice.
They had hedged bets on Rajapaksa winning but they had underestimated just how terribly dissatisfied the people were with the present regime
Not that the detractors of the Rajapaksa Cabal are entirely in the wrong. When R. Sampanthan, in parliament, contends that the Eelam bud will grow out of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna’s lotus bud, he is not engaging in mischievous conjecture, he is pointing out that the populist wave on which the Rajapaksas are riding (which for Dayan Jayatilleka has replaced the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist wave they used to ride on during Mahinda’s presidency) might very well congeal into a racist, lunatic fringe in the future. There’s of course a difference, a whole world of a difference in fact, between chauvinism and electoral populism, but what commentators are missing out is the fact that in Sri Lanka, the one has historically tended to transform (or be transformed) into the other. Probably that’s where Mr Sampanthan is correct.
The LG polls was a classic case, in the most simplified sense, of economic and racial issues winning over constitutional concerns. For the people in the periphery, outside the big cities, only two things mattered: the rising cost of living, and the fear of a minoritarian elite controlling their future. The latter of these was tempered by a racist outlook, to be sure, and that racist outlook (the fear of Eelamism coming out of a parliament in which the official opposition was headed by the TNA) was added to and supplemented by the unbearable cost of living. When these twin issues remain un-addressed, when all you have is an indifferent government brushing off the concerns of the people with the simplistic excuse, “We are better than the politicians you used to have!” the people get tired. And when they get tired, even issues which do not border on economics, like power sharing and devolution and constitutions, become the Rosetta Stone on which they assess the policies of the government. On that count, the government lost, and the Joint Opposition won. Wildly.
The LG polls was a classic case, in the most simplified sense, of economic and racial issues winning over constitutional concerns
To put it in perspective, hence, constitutional amendments and legislative enactments cannot and will not be accepted by the people if the economic backdrop to them is not met.
For the people, in other words, the real is economic and substantive, the unreal is immaterial and theoretical.
When the price of a coconut soars, when fertiliser subsidies are never enough for the farmer, and when the Ceylon Electricity Board and University students engage in strike after strike in the name of correcting anomalies, the people get tired and mistake the government’s inability for its unwillingness to address those anomalies. It’s difficult to suggest that the Bond Scandal had anything substantive to do with the backlash against the government, but the way it was marketed, by both the government and the JO, ensured that it too was seen by the people as evidence of this unwillingness of the ruling coalition. The people did not vote for Mahinda out of a love for his peculiar and inimitable brand of populism, but they were voting for his troupe because they preferred the old order, which rode on continuity without change, to the new, which rides on change without continuity (as Dayan Jayatilleka noted years ago with respect to Maithripala Sirisena’s bid for the presidency).
When R. Sampanthan, in parliament, contends that the Eelam bud will grow out of the SLPP’s lotus bud, he is not engaging in mischievous conjecture, he is pointing out that
The woods are there, and so are the trees. How long will it take for the politician to try and bring the two together? How many more ignoble defeats at the hands of the Rajapaksas will it take for us to wake up to this clear and present danger?
For the truth of the matter is this: the more you harp on about the supremacy of the immaterial (constitutions, laws, the need for national reconciliation) over the material (the affordability of food, the availability of fuel, the supply of electricity), the more likely it is that you will be seen as an ivory tower elitist who has no regard for the latter. I think, therefore, the first step in recognising this is acknowledging that there are worse things that can happen to this country and polity than a Rajapaksa Restoration, or for that matter a Gotabaya Presidency. Worse things that may well transpire in the near future.