Photo courtesy Sri Lanka Mirror
“Through conviction one crosses the flood
Through heedfulness the sea.”
Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha (Alawaka Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya, Sutta Pitakaya)
Raised from the Ground restarted the writing-life of Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. The semi-autobiographical novel uses the trials and travails of a single family of landless peasants through three generations to shed light on the desperate plight of Portugal’s rural poor. The book ends on a hopeful note. The Carnation Revolution has begun and the peasants are invading the ‘inland sea of latifundio,’ the massive agricultural estates owned by a handful of rich. The living are joined by the spirits of the dead, including that of a dog depicted as the model of steadfastness. “Here they all are, the living and the dead,” writes Saramago in his hauntingly beautiful prose. “And ahead of them, bounding along as a hunting dog should, goes Constante, how could he not be here, on this unique and new-risen day.”
The Carnation Revolution was a success and a failure. It installed democracy in Portugal, but fared less well in other areas. So work revolutions. Even when they survive, they do so as distortions or pale reflections of their original selves. ‘The unique new-risen day,’ tends to look anything but with hindsight.
The 2015 Presidential election of Sri Lanka was not a revolution. But it was more than a standard change of government. Under Rajapaksa rule, Sri Lanka had become an emerging autocracy, the fief of a single megalomanic family. The January 8th election ended that dystopian journey and returned Sri Lanka to the democratic path.
If January 2015 was about the possibility of the impossible, the subsequent trajectory of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration constitutes a morality tale on the impossibility of the possible. After a promising start, the government fell into the trap of recurrence and busied itself with repeating Rajapaksa mistakes in every sphere. Its conduct has alienated the uncommitted voters, disheartened the committed supporters and opened the door for a Rajapaksa return.
A stable and safe democracy requires a democratic government and a democratic opposition. Sans either, a democracy is never stable, never safe. Before the Presidential election of 2015, Sri Lanka had a strong anti-democratic government and a weak democratic opposition. After the electoral upheaval of January 2015, Sri Lanka got a weak democratic government but its oppositional space fell under the thrall of anti-democratic forces, unrelenting and virulent in their pursuit of power.
The Rajapaksas were not defanged and the guilt belongs to both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Mr. Wickremesinghe, instead of working to fulfil the promises of 2015, placed all his eggs in the divide-the-SLFP basket, believing that alone would enable the UNP to romp to victory. After some initial resistance, Mr. Sirisena followed suit, trying to use the SLPP to expand his influence within the government.
The defeat at the February local government election and the NCM crisis resulted from those opportunistic political calculations.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s inability to comprehend the economics of democracy is imperilling Lankan democracy. Its inability to comprehend the politics of racism is imperilling civil peace and societal stability.
Sri Lanka still has a two-party system, but the two parties are the SLPP and the UNP. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s SLPP did what the SLMP of Vijaya Kumaratunga and Chandrika Bandaranaike and the DUNF of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake tried to do and failed – overtake and replace the parent party. The SLPP did not divide the SLFP; it decimated the SLFP and reduced it to the status of a politico-electoral featherweight.
Sirisena can never form an unadulterated SLFP government. The SLPP will not ally with him. The best the SLFP can hope for, if it contests alone, is to gain the third place, ahead of the TNA and the JVP. If Sirisena hopes to create dissension in the Rajapaksa family by protecting Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, any such effort will be an exercise in futility. Eventually, he will find himself derided in the anti-Rajapaksa camp and friendless in the Rajapaksa camp, facing the wrath of the Rajapaksas alone.
The UNP’s position is only marginally better. It cannot hope to defeat the SLPP on its own, be it at a provincial, presidential or a parliamentary election. It can defeat the SLPP only in alliance with the SLFP. Mr. Wickremesinghe can form an unadulterated UNP government but it will be neither stable nor enduring. It will last for a short while, make too many mistakes by succumbing to partisan short-sightedness and be pummelled by the electorate at provincial and national level elections.
As a result of his recent political choices, President Sirisena has gained for himself a reputation of total untrustworthiness. He is not trusted by the UNP, the SLFP, the SLPP or the JVP. Sinhala-Buddhist extremists don’t trust him despite his attempts to win them over while the minorities are beginning to suspect his bona-fides.
Wickremesinghe has fared only a little better. His habit of placing unquestionable trust in a handful of friends and elevating them to great heights has cost him dear. The depredations of Arjuna Mahendran have deprived Wickremesinghe of his ‘Mr. Clean’ image; the disastrous performance of Sri Lankan under the stewardship of Suren Ratwatte has lost Wickremesinghe his reputation for efficiency.
Public memory is an ephemeral thing. If Sirisena and Wickremesinghe can patch up their relationship and return to the agenda of 2015, by 2020, the wasted years will be largely forgotten. The victories of 2015 turned Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena into conjoined twins. Neither can survive alone, let alone in opposition to each other. If one fell, the other would fall too. The only government that can survive until 2020 is a Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.
The SLPP won the local government election not because the Rajapaksa vote base increased between 2015 and 2018. There was no growth in the support for the Rajapaksas either in absolute or in relative terms. The SLPP victory was due in the main to the Rajapaksa ability to maintain its vote base and the acrimonious disunity in the anti-Rajapaksa camp.
So death by suicide is not the fate of the government. Regeneration is possible. But regeneration presupposes a willingness by the president and the prime minister to realise the commonality of their interests, recreate a working-relationship and move fast to fulfil their joint-mandate. If they fail to do so, if they embrace vituperation and inimical competition, they will drown themselves and Lankan democracy in the swelling Rajapaksa seas.
The outcome of the No Confidence Motion is a defeat for the SLPP and for the Rajapaksa project; a tactical defeat, one that is easily overcome, but a defeat nevertheless. The SLPP was confident of winning the vote. It was confident of pushing the government and the country into an existential crisis. It expected the UNP to fracture and the SLFP legislators to vote for the motion en bloc (barring a couple of recalcitrants).
But those plans backfired. The UNP didn’t split. The SLFP did, with a majority of legislators opting to abstain (which, given the nature of the number’s game, was a way of helping not the SLPP but the UNP). The SLPP’s plan of wreaking havoc on the government and the country failed. Instead it imposed an unnecessary defeat on itself, thereby dimming the glory of its recent electoral victory.
In the aftermath of that unexpected and humiliating defeat, the Rajapaksas have returned to what they do in the aftermath of any defeat – depict the outcome as the result of a Tamil-Muslim-Western conspiracy. This was how they interpreted their defeat at the 2015 Presidential election. Having conceded the presidency, Rajapaksa flew to Hambantota and informed an adoring crowd that Sirisena’s victory was not a legitimate one as it was achieved with the help of Tamils and Muslims.
Similar efforts to incite anti-minority hysteria are being made now. An excellent case in point is a statement by a monk (Hegoda Vipassi Thero) comparing the UNP winning the No Confidence Motion with the TNA’s help to the Sinhala-Buddhist version of the Alavaka story. According to this version, King Alav, in order to save his life, promised to give the demon Alavaka a human prey a day[i]; the king and his hapless subjects were eventually saved by the Buddha.
The Buddhist version – the one in the Tripitaka – is different. The Alavaka Suttasays nothing about a King Alav or a deal between him and Alavaka. It says nothing about Alavaka’s eating habits. It begins so: “Thus have I heard: On one occasion the Blessed One was living in the abode of Alavaka, the Yakkha (demon), at Alavi. Then Alavaka approached the Blessed One and said: “Get out, recluse (samana).” — “Very well, friend,” so saying the Blessed One went out.”[ii]The questions Alavaka subsequently puts to the Buddha reveal him to be an intelligent and perceptive creature (far more than most Sinhala-Buddhist monks.)[iii]
The TNA is a democratic Lankan party. Comparing it to a man-eating demon illustrates how a warped version of Buddhism is being used to portray the minorities as the inimical and devilish ‘Other’ intent on destroying Sinhala-Buddhists. This deadly practice began with the Bhikku Mahanama, the author of Mahawamsa. Mahanama enshrined the three myths which have become the bane of pluralist and democratic Sri Lanka – sacred land, chosen people and holy war.
It is to these ancient myths that the likes of the Rajapaksas and the BBS hark back to, in order to get enough Sinhala-Buddhists to suspect their critical faculties and their humanity, Unlike with Tamils, the Sinhalese had neither a history of contestation nor a linguistic problem with Muslims. Nor did/do the Muslims demand a separate state – except in the fervid imaginings of the likes of Champika Ranawaka, Udaya Gammanpila and Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara. The rapid spread of Wahabism has created a trend towards cultural ghettoisation on the part of conservative Muslims. But black robes and face veils alone couldn’t have resulted in Kandy. Kandy happened because of the successful marrying of ancient myths to new cultural differences by vested political interests.It cannot be accidental that those arrested for the conflagration include several SLPP area politicians.
Debunking myths which breed conflict was one of the tasks the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration was supposed to undertake as a key pillar of its reconciliation effort. Unfortunately the government has failed to fulfil this promise. That failure, together with its dismal performance on the economic front, has recreated an environment conducive to extremism and intolerance. It has also enabled the Rajapaksas to define Lanka’s political centre in Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist terms and render ethno-religious racism respectable, again.
A country is as democratic and as tolerant as the majority of its people. Democracy and tolerance can survive only on the bedrock of economic justice. The three are interrelated. Ancient myths and unalleviated/worsening economic pain working together can lure a nation into the quick-sands racial and religious extremism. Becoming the willing dupes of a perceived strongman-saviour is the next inevitable step in this trajectory.
Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe won when they were jointly heading an alliance of moderates. They can survive only by reaffirming their political unity and their moderate values. If they fail, the failure will not be theirs alone. If they fail, democracy and tolerance too will die. The Rajapaksas will return, with Gotabhaya Rajapaksa at the head. Like in Egypt, we would have delivered ourselves from a bad autocrat only to fall into the clutches of an infinitely worse one.
[iii]What wealth here is best for man? What well practiced will happiness bring? What taste excels all other tastes? How lived is the life they say is best? 3. How does one the currentscross? How is ocean’sexistence crossed? How is one’s suffering quelled? How is one purified? 5. How does one wisdom win? How does one wealth obtain? How does one come to fame? How does one friendship win? How does one without sorrow fare when from this world to another he’s gone?