Groundviews

Presidential polls 2015: An electoral trial on biased fortunetelling

AFP PHOTO STR/AFP/Getty Images via The Guardian

I don’t know much about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reliance on astrology, despite India being a land full of astrologers­ – those with credibility and those of dubious repute – with millions of followers.

But in the recent years, Sri Lanka put superstitious India to shame. We have just voted out a war-winning president whose political decisions including the declaration of every conceivable election had been astrologically guided.

I was transiting, ironically New Delhi, the Indian capital, when I first learned that the presidential election was fixed for January 8, two years ahead of schedule. Not having the ability to predict anything, I had to rely on my gut instinct that kept reminding me of the one thing that refused to leave my mind about the selected date: it was to be the sixth death anniversary of my former editor, Lasantha Wickrematunge. All I could think was such a date could not be possibly auspicious for an administration accused of being complicit in the murder.

The past few weeks were bizarre, not because of the predictions but because of the way Sri Lanka dedicated airtime on national television and newspaper space for astrological predictions. Audiences had to even suffer through TV news bulletins that included segments of openly- biased stargazers, predicting the now defeated President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electoral victory.

There was one who swore during a telecast media briefing (as astrology became prime time news), that President Rajapaksa will not only win a third but also go one to a fourth term as executive president. What happened on January 8 is now history. The handful of biased astrologers we saw on television is now quiet and don’t publicly offer their pearls of wisdom. They also get angry when prompted by the media to explain why the stunning defeat could not be predicted.

The Daily Mirror published an amusing story about President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s personal astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardane of Galle.  The newspaper reported that the fallen seer snapped at a journalist who telephoned him: “Pissu nathuwa innna nona. Ohela apita madath gahala thawa kathakaranna enawa,” (Madam, are you crazy to speak to me after slinging mud at us.)

But, the scene was quite different when a dozen astrologers assembled at a special meeting on December 30 to provide astrological advice to the former head of state on how to work towards victory, with various auspicious times being suggested to perform various tasks, all of which President Rajapaksa would have performed to the letter. In fact, he is known for following such astrological guidance with great care. I am reminded of how President Rajapaksa used to enter the House of Parliament and face a particular a direction, when delivering the budget speech etc; all based on seer advice.

Now that the president who heavily leaned on astrology is defeated, his erstwhile fortune tellers are in the quiet mode. These predictions, according to a presidential aide, contributed to his overconfidence in an electoral victory. “What these astrologers did not foresee until it happened is the surprise inclusion of Maithripala Sirisena in the presidential race.”

There are those who have much earlier predicted that President Sirisena’s birth chart was extremely powerful. A few astrologers however, predicted a Sirisena victory, based on their calculations and not influenced by the regime.

Some astrologers, like Abeygunawardena, did guide the president towards his political demise, by reportedly supporting Rajapaksa’s decision to amend the constitution to remove the two-term restriction on any executive president. Apparently, it was a good move and was expected to help further consolidate presidential powers. However, no prediction was made that a 15 million constituency would reject the effort to tinker the country’s primary law, democratically.

In a story published on Al Jazeera Online, reference was made to loss of employment for some well-paid astrologers. Perhaps the biggest loser in this was Abeygunawardena who was the closest to the former president and was referred to by some, as the ‘royal astrologer.’

In a poorly- written interview published in the pro-Rajapaksa publication, Ceylon Today, Abeygunawardena predicted a resounding victory for the third term-seeking Rajapaksa, claiming that his astrological positioning was so good that it would be a clear win on January 8.

Though victory has many fathers, defeat clearly does not.

Abeygunawardena, who shunned the media after the election results were announced, had to follow President Rajapaksa’s example and pack his bags and return to his home in Galle.

According to another report, Abeygunawardena like his former boss, bid a hasty exist, leaving his bungalow, limousine and chauffer behind, following the humiliating presidential defeat.

The astrologer now admits to have not seen Sirisena’s defection from the ruling camp coming. That’s only the start.

He also claims of having advised Rajapaksa not to accept leadership of the Commonwealth, referring to it as a ‘crown of thorns.’ The former chairperson, Australia’s Julia Gillard was unseated in 2011 and this time, it is Mahinda Rajapaksa’s chance to be ousted, h presidential advisor insists.

Worse still, this loyal seer was not ready to break Rajapaksa’s heart. Instead, he allowed the former president to believe in the predictions, follow the auspicious times to the letter and perform various rituals– only to be defeated.

Those who are a little charitable are inclined to believe that Abeygunawardena may have held his knowledge tightly to his chest, not only because he disliked being the bearer of bad news to an extremely superstitious president but also was influenced by another memory- of another astrologer who was arrested and thrown in jail in 2009 after publicly predicting President Rajapksa would lose the next election. Chandrasiri Bandara was among those who gleefully predicted anther Rajapaksa victory this time around.

Despite Rajapaska’s political fall, Abeygunawardena continues to claim credit for predicting Rajapaksa’s presidential success in 2005 and 2010, offering the exemption cause that not even the 16th Century French seer Nostradamus got all his predictions right.

As popular Indian television station NDTV broadcast ahead of the presidential election noted: the election was to be, “an ultimate test of Mr. Sumanadasa’s predictive skills.” It clearly was.

But beyond astrology and astrologers lie a dark truth about the Sri Lankan media. Polarized and sections of the media turning into hosanna singers for the powers- that- be, media’s own tryst with fortune tellers to make vain attempts at swaying public perceptions was considerable in the pre-election stage, to the extent that the concept of news is now so blurred that astrological predictions at times replaced the professional requirement of being evidence-based.

In Sri Lanka, selling superstition to audiences through mass media still works. No wonder then those superstitions contributed heavily to the electoral defeat of a war-winning president who should have possible kept his own counsel.