Mahinda Rajapaksa is not the best thing that happened to Sri Lanka. He is not the worst thing that happened to Sri Lanka either. Popular culture and journalism have an unyielding habit of turning the most ordinary people into martyrs and devils, and judging by how they have operated in the last three years it is true that for a great many people, Rajapaksa is either a devil to be condemned to hell or a martyr to be beatified.
True, the man courts considerable charisma and this owing partly to the fact that none of his predecessors, who are alive can scrounge up and affirm at least half of the populism he so ably projects.
Whether this warrants a comeback, a Rajapaksa Restoration on the lines of the Bourbon Restoration is of course for another debate altogether. For now, the question arises: Why Mahinda, or why not Mahinda?
Support for Mahinda is broadly economic and cultural but is more often cultural.
This is natural. Mahinda is seen as the saviour of the Sinhalese, the Diyasen Kumaru who has evaded our notice for thousands of years.
He is, to those who have turned him into a mythical figure, the definitive descendant to the kings of the Ruhuna Kingdom, who pioneered marvels of engineering and history which have been unparalleled ever since.
While it’s not always easy to separate the mythical from the real, this image of Mahinda Rajapaksa has stuck on to him for the better part of his Presidential and post-Presidential career, and for better or worse, it is what courts votes at the grassroots level, particularly from the poorer regions of the country which, as his detractors like to (erroneously) believe it, are housed by idiots, half-wits, and in one word, baiyas.
The truth is that the mythical aura surrounding Mahinda has been legitimised by what he has done and has persevered to do.
The truth is that Mahinda had a clear advantage over his predecessors because he sought to do more, much more than what they had ever done.
The truth is that in 2005, Mahinda was placed in a privileged position, so whatever he did, he did to the satisfaction of his electorate. It was simply a case of being in the right place at the right time. Everything clicked, to the advantage of those who wanted an end to the war and also to those who chose to head the war.
This is why most of those who joined Mahinda from the opposing camp, during this time, have chosen to stay with him (Among them, Keheliya Rambukwella). They know, and know very well, that returning to that opposing camp would mean political suicide as far as their political careers are concerned. Mahinda is a force, more than a politician.
Those who support Mahinda on the basis of his “economic programme” tend to hail from the metropolis, i.e. the suburbs of Colombo. This image of Mahinda, as an economic miracle man, derives for the most from the Viyath MagaProject, which is focused less on him than on his younger brother, Gotabaya. We do not know if Gotabaya has a cohesive economic plan (Shyamon Jayasinghe, in a witty aside, takes to task those who believe that he does have such a plan), but what we do know is that with Viyath Maga, the Rajapaksas intend on extending that mythical aura of themselves beyond the rural hinterlands and the South.
These areas will anyway vote for them, come what may.
The metropolis and the suburbs of Colombo, particularly those housed by a multicultural population, which is ethnically opposed to the Rajapaksas, are a harder, tougher nut to crack.
If we are writing about Mahinda’s prospects in the next few years, I think it is imperative to examine his prospects among this urban setting and what Viyath Maga has done to combat the image of him as a village simpleton.
The Mahinda Rajapaksa phenomenon is split between the economic and the cultural.
These two streams do meet, more often than not, but in terms of what drives them, what inflames them, the one is opposed to the other.
The cultural Mahinda and the cultural Rajapaksas have been propped by the Sinhala Buddhist intelligentsia, chiefly hailing from the Jathika Chinthanaya School of thought.
While the intellectuals from this movement have had their moment of reckoning with him, and have critiqued him on several occasions (In particular, Nalin de Silva), their support for him is on the basis of his supposed loyalty to the project, which was inaugurated by Anagarika Dharmapala and aborted by the expedient politics of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.
They want to think beyond Sinhala Only or Sinhala in 24 Hours. They want to think beyond slogans and pamphleteering. Their figureheads, which include Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara, include also Gevindu Cumaratunga.
These are intellectuals who wish to do away with a Sri Lanka that is run along the dictates of the IMF and the World Bank, who wish to be freed from the European Union and the US Embassy.
But for a cohesive economic programme which seeks to emulate its rival programme from the incumbent Government, we must look elsewhere, at the Viyath Maga coterie.
Key figureheads from this movement included (who else?) Dayan Jayatilleka and Nalaka Godahewa. They rationalised the synthesis of economic rationality and cultural nationalism through a key concept: Smart Patriotism, the patriotism which brings together the nationalism of the Rajapaksas and the internationalism of Fidel Castro.
It seeks to be Rightwing but it is more Keynesian, more reliant on domestic consumption and production, than the Advocata-led thrusts of the opposing camp.
(The best example I can think of here is the decision by the Viyath Maga group to promote Dr Howard Nicholas, a Keynesian, as an alternative to the Advocata-promoted Professor Razeen Sally, who speaks of investment, free trade, and libertarian economics.)
The Viyath Maga programme does not sit in well always with the diehard nationalists, and many (including this writer) have accused of it being as uprooted as the Olcott Buddhism which has been written on and criticised by the likes of Nalin de Silva (briefly, a movement which emulates The Enemy, in this case, Western Economics, in a bid to combat and annihilate it and come up with an indigenous economic programme).
Both these movements - the economic and the cultural - are, despite their obvious differences, similar in tone.
They both look inward. Despite their veneer of sophistication, they are diehards in their insistence on coming up with an indigenous alternative to Western Paradigms of modernity and development.
But there the similarities, I must say, end. The one woos a mostly Olcottised population, i.e. those who are enamoured of the same Western Paradigms they want to do away with.
The former is led by diehard cultural nationalists. There are, admittedly, personalities because of whom these two movements meet, top among them Alle Gunawansha Thera (who has been seen in both Jathika Chinthana and Viyath Maga led conferences and seminars since their inception). But these personalities are not enough to bring about a coincidence of the two. They remain opposed to one another, while the only real factor which unites them is the figureheads they have hedged their bets on, i.e. the Rajapaksas.
Even there the differences are stark: while the Viyath Maga crew woo Gotabaya, the Jathika Chinthanaya crew seem to have second thoughts of wooing and encouraging Gotabaya on the basis of his fidelity to Western economics. As Gevindu Cumaratunga has correctly argued, on several occasions, what we need is a national policy, and on everything: industry, agriculture, politics, economics. We are not going to get those with a movement which emulates everything Western and Keynesian.
The Viyath Maga coterie have certainly managed to woo their intended crowd, a disparate crowd if ever there was one, but which consists, inter-alia, of the following specific demographics: former supporters of the Hela Urumaya (who hail from the suburban areas: Borella, Maharagama, Kirulapone); Sinhalese Catholics, who, contrary to the voting preferences of those who subscribe to their faith, are unabashed supporters of the Rajapaksas; and leading businessmen known for their nationalist views and, even if not, are tired of the policies of the present Government (which, ironically, is buttressed by the United National Party, the most pro-business party this country has ever had!).
With the exception of the fore Hela Urumaya group, these are not demographics which will sit in well with the majoritarianism and the ethnically-driven narratives of the Jathika Chinthanaya School.
But when brought together, they represent the two faces of the Rajapaksas, particularly Mahinda.
Will those two faces endure, or will the fact that they are two faces spell out the end of the Mahinda Force?
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