- Result of the arrest was to turn an outspoken political figure into a cause célèbre
- Ranjan’s political journey so far has been an extension of his film career
- Politics has become theatre and theatre has become politics
- UNP has so far failed to make effective use of Ranjan
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency has not seen the kind of comic interludes we saw building up in the first hundred days of the Sirisena presidency. At least, not yet. Sirisena bungled it up because he wasn’t satisfied with the reality of a new era: he chose to go for the optics. The sandals he wore, the pen he wrote with, the residence he went to live in: these he thought, as did we, would be enough. They were not. By extension, even in his presidential package – the constitutional reforms, the choice of ministers, deputies and other officials, the relapses into traditionalism and puritanism which everyone initially hated and later parodied – the image seemed more important than the reality. Getting down to brass tacks and getting hard yards crossed and that package implemented became secondary, so when tussles broke out among the coalition partners, the President and Prime Minister couldn’t help themselves: they locked horns. The joint opposition and the Pohottuwa could only grin.
We have seen none of that with the President now – at least, not yet – but I wonder whether these arrests are a premonition of things to come. That political arrests are just that – political – no one needs to be told or reminded of. They are based on revenge – of the political sort. As Victor Ivan has observed, neither Chandrika Kumaratunga nor Ranil Wickremesinghe took care to prosecute each other, even if damning evidence were on the docks; Mahinda did not pursue his predecessor either. It was in Sirisena’s and Ranil’s tenure that parliamentarians instituted a mechanism for arresting all top dogs from the previous regime. The more they got arrested, the higher the sympathy count rose, so when Sirisena’s and Ranil’s regimes began to fall apart – the typical complaint being that for over four years they did nothing except arrest Rajapaksa acolytes – a change of regime was inevitably on the shelf.
I don’t feel sorry for politicos being arrested and bailed now. I do feel sorry for those officials who were, in the common argot, doing their duty and getting their due by prosecuting prominent members of this regime in the last four years. They may have been biased – who in the world is not biased, one can ask – but the truth of the matter is that at the end of the day, they were following orders. This means that I do not condone the guys in the opposition who are raising concerns about such officials being hounded. By opposition standards, they ought to be doing much more than releasing and issuing official statements; committing oneself to just the latter smacks of apathy and worse, indifference. The signal it sends to the voter is that no one gives a damn: with every change of government, only the guys the last government hired to persecute the present one will be hounded, so why bother?
Reactions and responses, as far as the opposition is concerned, are understandably different when the guys being hounded are from the opposition itself. Thus Ranawaka and Rajitha, and thus Ranjan. But Rajitha isn’t Ranawaka, and neither of them is Ranjan. The government, in arresting the first two, have given way to public opinion: even if they didn’t actually say it, people had grown tired, disillusioned, and a little disgusted by their stunts and antics. For me however, that will never be an excuse for arresting anyone – just say the people hating you is why you got incarcerated and we’re a few steps from a Kafkaesque state – but they at least had that excuse. Ranjan Ramanayake’s is a very different case.
The call recordings and the statements he’s issued against the judiciary – the latter during the last regime of which he was a cabinet member – might be casus belli for his arrest. However, far worse things have been said, and done, by far worse people. The result of the arrest was to turn an outspoken political figure into a cause célèbre, even if his reputation went for a six. I can’t think of a more incongruent individual to arrest. The aim seems to have been to tarnish the man’s image. But the man has been in the government and the opposition long enough for him to solidify that image. Arresting him now reeks of attempts at reducing it to rubble; the unsoundness of the government’s decision hence has to do with how he can make use of that image of his to incite popular anger towards the government.
Ranjan Ramanayake’s political journey so far has been an extension of his film career. I say this because, for all intents and purposes, I can’t distinguish between the two: it’s hard not to see Ranjan the MP in One Shot and it’s hard not to see “One Shot” in Ranjan the MP. It’s all there: the barely concealed contempt for the status quo, the leer and the sneer, the grin he bares for the common man, and of course those displays of bravado, daring, and machismo. If it is difficult to separate the reality from the optics, it’s because we’ve conditioned ourselves so much to politics being a farce that, in the words of a character from a play I saw years ago, “Politics has become theatre and theatre has become politics.”
In that sense he is not Vijaya, nor is he, by any stretch of the imagination, Gamini. Vijaya and Gamini were pre-television onscreen heroes. Ranjan is a hero at the time of Vada Pitiya, 360, and Satana– a hero when we are being assailed by heroes everywhere. What distinguishes him from the rest is not only his candour or forthrightness – enough of which we get from all those other political figures vying to be the people’s candidate – but the extraordinary lengths to which he is willing to go to prove that he is not merely candid or forthright. The recordings do not reflect his personal obsessions, therefore; they are the ramblings of a man who, for no rhyme or reason, called a Tamil woman MP at the centre of a furore over remarks allegedly supporting the LTTE in front of journalists and warned her to stop issuing such statements as he would warn a villain from his movies to stop harassing an innocent.
The UNP has so far failed to make effective use of him, just as they have failed to make use of that other far less restrained guy who has gone to more extraordinary lengths to make us aware of what needs to be done: Palitha Thewarapperuma. Both Palitha and Ranjan happen to be representatives of the populist right-wing, even if Palitha (I’m willing to wager) would go even further than Ranjan in pursuit of a cause. Palitha hails from a demographic that the UNP happens to be losing fast: the rural petty bourgeoisie and the rural youth, the sort who gather around television sets in the evening despite a hundred problems back home and live through television dramas and onscreen political fights. They adore Ranjan, and Ranjan happens to be their hero: they are, put simply, the sort who take One Shotseriously.
It is easier to draw a line between Ranjan’s One Shot type performances and his more serious performances than it is to draw a line between his movie life and his political life. In not only Awaragiraand Sri Siddhartha Gautama, but also the more action-packed Bahu Bharyaand Yakada Pihatu, there’s an underlying sobriety, geniality, and charm about the man that he seems to not like exposing in his usual outings. There’s contempt written on his face – and everywhere else – when he’s on those outings: the sunglasses, the tattoo, the muscularity, the lack of sensuousness, the long hair. One Shot thus was, is, and will be an eternal reminder of the fact that in Sri Lanka politics is defined by the stereotype: of the politician, the people, and the vested interests or enemies of the people who try to grab power by proxy – the proxy being the politician; Ranjan Ramanayake in this scheme of things is the grand culmination of all those artists who’ve claimed a market for themselves preaching revolution.
I distinguish in the latter group between two kinds of protest artists in Sri Lanka: between the likes of Sunil Perera and the likes of Nanda Malini and (standing at the very top) Gunadasa Kapuge. I do so out of necessity, and I will explain my reasons for doing so next week. The rift between these two kinds explains, to a considerable extent, the poverty of protest that we suffer. I know I am being a little unfair by Ramanayake by placing him alongside Perera and contrasting him with Malini and Kapuge, but that is what I will do, and for good reason. On the other hand, he is the sort of political protester people have been conditioned to look up to by the popular culture they are assailed with everywhere: at the movies, on television, and in the newspaper. That says a lot about the culture of protest in here and the heroes we dote on – one of whom happens to be the latest arrested by this government.