Marking The Mahinda Moment In Lankan Politics

Photo courtesy Al Jazeera, Sri Lanka boosts presidential power

Perhaps never before has there been so wide a gap, so clear a contradiction, between the views of our country held by the West and the Western dominated international media on the one hand, and the opinions demonstrably held by the citizens of our country on the other (even according to impeccably Western sources).  The gulf between these views is of a magnitude that pressure from the West will not generate the conditions to close it by influencing domestic opinion; in fact the gulf will widen by driving Sri Lankans further away from the external opinion mounting against the country’s policy stance and its democratically elected leadership.  The country’s citizens are not taking their cue from the leadership, and therefore a regime change or striving for it will not change public opinion. Indeed the leadership is hugely popular precisely because it reflects the strongly held and democratically expressed convictions of the vast mass of the country’s people.

The Gallup poll which reveals a 91% popularity rating for President Mahinda Rajapaksa (down from 94% in 2009) – meaning, as a Western commentator noted, that 9 out of 10 Sri Lankans approve of his performance—is a striking reminder of just how far removed the opposition and pro-opposition commentators are from the society in which they live and work; the public sphere which they inhabit. This degree of popular support cannot be reduced or attributed, as is usually the case with ‘Orientalist’ Western critics and their Sri Lankan ‘spear bearers’, to the grip of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism’ because the figure of 91% (not to mention 94%) far exceeds the 74% of Sinhalese and 67% of Sinhala Buddhists on the island. What we are looking at, certainly in these figures, seems a truly national popularity. The political challenge to leadership is to channel this and capitalise upon it for constructive effect.

It is not necessary or even helpful for intellectuals to be at one with the sentiments of the people, but as Mao and Gramsci were fond of pointing out, it isn’t good to be too far from them either (the former scornfully dubbed it ‘mountain-top sectarianism’). For these two outstanding thinker-practitioners, popular sentiments are the raw material of consciousness with which political intellectuals have to work in the task of transformation/transcendence. Things are simpler still, in the case of analysts and critical commentators. How can one analyse or comment lucidly on politics in any society, especially a democracy, if one is disdainfully, contemptuously, way out of touch, even impossibly so, with national sentiment and popular opinion?

The alienation of the imbalanced and bitterly hostile critic is not ennobled by the situation of the resistor in Nazi Germany, the dissident in Soviet Russia, or the blogger in Mubarak’s Egypt, because Sri Lanka is not a country in which opposition parties and private media have been suppressed, it is a competitive democracy (made less than competitive by the implosive, continuing, collapse of the Opposition). If one were to be charitably and eschew the psychoanalytic explanations, the purely negativist and wholly denunciatory current critique of the Rajapaksa Presidency and its track record could be said to congruent with those of the bitterly hostile elements of the Tamil Diaspora. Thus the local nihilists are the domestic Diaspora.

Whatever else may be said about President Rajapaksa as a political leader in the future, or even today, it is fairly safe bet that he will be held by the history of this country and the consciousness of future generations for a very long time to come, to have been a great leader in that he presided over a historic victory against a historic foe.

The secret of Rajapaksa’s popularity is that the people instinctively trust him to stand up for, protect and defend the country — and one of the reasons that the Sri Lankan people trust Mahinda Rajapaksa is the consistency of his stand. This stand is not simply the public posture of a politician. The latest batch of Wikileaks cables contain a report dated August 23rd 2002, of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s remarks to US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage on the previous day ( Aug 22, 2002),  in what is called a ‘pull aside’ meeting. This means that the meeting was private, though on an official social occasion. The cable, signed by US Ambassador Ashley Wills says:

Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse: People’s Alliance (PA) Leader Mahinda Rajapakse began by saying that everyone, PA included, wants peace, but that most people in the South have reservations about the sincerity of LTTE leader Prabhakaran. Rajapakse noted that previous peace efforts had failed, and many believe that Prabhakaran, leader of the LTTE, is using this ceasefire interval to build up his strength, and will eventually take over the disputed areas.”

This was at the height of the false consciousness of the Colombo establishment; the period of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s appeasement of the Tigers and the Western Embassies and NGOs starry eyed honeymoon with them. Mahinda proved lucid, balanced and in touch with the people’s accurate perception of the enemy.

The same cable by Ambassador Wills summarises Mr Sambandan’s notion as expressed on the same occasion to Richard Armitage, regarding a settlement of the Tamil ethnic question within a united Sri Lanka as one in which the Sri Lankan Government must retain only the powers of  ‘defence, foreign affairs and currency’.

Arguably, President Rajapaksa’s stratospheric and sustained popularity renders his political achievement as a political leader similar to the popular consent, national-popular appeal and moment of ‘hegemony’ enjoyed in the Gramscian sense, by Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, Maggie Thatcher, Lula and Putin in the politics of their countries in their time in office. This popularity (certainly at this level) cannot be permanent but President Rajapaksa’s mark has been indelible and like these leaders variously of Centre-Right, Right, Left and Centre, he has caused or symbolised a tectonic shift in the politics, society, identity and collective mentality of his country.

What is that shift? It is the entrenchment of patriotism, or if you will, statist-nationalism, at the centre-space and as the centrepiece of the Sri Lankan polity and political discourse and culture.  There have been similar shifts in Sri Lankan politics and society before–President Jayewardene’s combination of the Open economy and a strong, directly elected executive being the most obvious.  As Madam Bandaranaike found out, no candidate who hoped to win could be associated with the bad old days of the closed economy and consumer scarcities, in the minds of the voters. Her daughter Chandrika had to re-invent herself as a modernising votary of the Open economy in order to be elected.  Whatever the modifications and mutations, there is no going back in terms of the framework of macro-economic policy, or as they say the broader macroeconomic policy regime.

So also with politics: there is no space for the UNP as it has been for the last 15 years. There is no space for a leader or personalities associated with that image of neo-comprador appeasement of the LTTE and a West biased towards the Tamil Diaspora. Any viable post-Mahinda Project will have to reassure the voter that the national interests, national sovereignty will be as safe as it was in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa. It will have to acknowledge – actually salute—and build upon the achievement of Mahinda; that of restoring a strong Sri Lankan state. There cannot be a swing back to a less patriotic profile. The country would not take a risk with a leader less patriotic than Mahinda Rajapaksa. This is not to say that the country needs a project which is (supposedly) more patriotic than President Rajapaksa. Such an ultranationalist (as distinct from patriotic) neoconservative project is neither internally desirable nor externally viable. Any attempt to contain, divert, pressurise, outflank or exceed President Rajapaksa’s quintessential if protean centrism, would only be socially suffocating, choking the pores of free expression, resulting in a more hawkish, less flexible, less intuitively smart, more brittle and therefore more vulnerable Sri Lankan state.

Nor would an alternative or a post-Mahinda project have to be an imitation or impersonation of President Rajapaksa and his current stance. That would be an inauthentic, unconvincing caricature.

The space is not for a project that is less patriotic but one that is more liberal and social democratic. It cannot be ruled out that the best person to attempt this may be Mahinda Rajapaksa himself: after all, what is a more liberal and social democratic Mahinda Rajapaksa than a fusion of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President and Mahinda Rajapaksa as youthful, dissenting, rather rebellious left-of-centre Parliamentarian, in government and Opposition, backbench and Cabinet, in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s?