By the evening of January 08th 2015, I had a slight headache. It was a headache of excitement and uncertainty fueled by an inability to eat or sleep. It was also a headache of expectation and of anticipation. The anticipation rested on the hope that I was about to witness a historical event unfold, and somehow my participation as an election monitor on behalf of the ‘swan’ would make me in some infinitely minute way an agent in this present moment of change-making. The future was both imminent and possible. The future was ours for the making. The cliched slogans are endless but the hope was real. When I walked into the Colombo District Counting Center at Royal College on the evening of January 8th sans mobile phone, the air was heavy with these conditions of possibility. A fellow election monitor, a friend’s mother, was already stationed inside our room. She told me she had refused all ‘cool drinks’ offered to her by government officers, going as far as to tell them she had diabetes to avoid drinking it. This was as per our instructions that we do not drink anything that we ourselves had not brought into the election centre counting rooms. Past stories of election drugging were retold to reinforce this possible threat. One colleague brought his mother’s infamous ice coffee and had shared it with the police officers on duty outside their room; the police officers had expressed their disgust with the current regime and complained about their shabby treatment while on duty at the election centre during the last few days. Truly, we thought, if the police were complaining, change was forthcoming. We were also told that if Mahinda Rajapakse lost the election and did not cede power there was a chance that the counting centres would be surrounded by the army and all the ballot boxes would be taken away. We were given strict instructions not to leave the counting centre until the count for our room was made public or till a recount was called in case of an uncertain electoral outcome. This left me catching forty-halfhearted-winks on a table-top inside the Royal College canteen during the early hours of January 9th. I was not the only one. I recollect a few other sleep-deprived persons also using the canteen as an unofficial place of rest. My motives were less altruistically aligned with election monitoring considerations though. The Royal College middle-school canteen turned out to be the only place with a square pin plug to charge my phone which I had managed to recover shortly after midnight from a friend’s house nearby.
One of the first messages on my phone was from a friend, informing me that Sirisena was losing the election. I remember responding with “a not in our room”, but also stifling a curter response because Colombo was hardly the barometer of the nation’s political imaginary. Inside the election room, I overhead one counting agent tell another, “the hansaya is going to Colombo because it’s full of අන්ය ජාතිකයෝ”!” I remember thinking to myself, damn right it is. January 08th – thought I optimistically – belonged to the ‘අන්ය ජාතිකයෝ of Sri Lanka. It seemed like a moment when time was out-of-joint. In my experience of time I did not understand that in Hamlet’s memorable phrase about our time being out-of-joint, he referred to tragic times, to what David Scott calls ‘the old language of moral-political vision and hope’ that are no longer in sync with the world they were meant to describe and normatively criticize. Instead, I had perhaps an illusion of the future, which Walter Benjamin would describe as ‘messianic’, ‘an untimely temporal sensibility of the future in the present’. The future was possible and graspable now, it did not exist elsewhere, but it was part of our present historical conjuncture. To be enmeshed in a vision of the future as the present, was to build a beautiful utopia of our present times. I remember saying afterwards that January 09th was the happiest day of my life. I left the election centre at around 6:30am and walked to a friend’s house. Between 12:30 am and around 6:30 am election results had stopped being reported. Messages from friends and family asked for information on what was going on. Inside the election centres we had no idea why the results had been stalled. All we knew was that the hansaya had won the Colombo East electorate; that soldiers on the road outside were celebrating the results from Polonnaruwa streaming through their phones; that the police were fed-up; that the government counting agents held their breath every time a ‘hansaya’ vote was counted, looking at each other furtively and smiling; that election monitors representing the ‘betal leaf’ were argumentative, trying to ensure that spoilt votes went their way; that counting agents asked each other why ‘Namal Rajapakse’ was running against his father Mahinda Rajapakse; that we had an extremely professional returning officer running our room; that the heat was unbearable and within a short time the brown paper stuck onto the windows of the classrooms was being torn down to allow air to flow in; that political organizers of different hues, civil servants and election monitors were gathered outside single television sets in the gardens of Royal College trying to fathom how the election was unravelling in the rest of the country; that the turn-out for voting had been high; that this spelt doom and gloom for the incumbents; that the incumbents were not going to relinquish power; that Maithripala Sirisena and his family were in hiding; that the D.S Senanayake College Counting Center in Colombo, a few minutes away, was rumoured to be surrounded by the army. This is all we knew and did not know.
When I woke up at around 9.30 am on January 09th 2015 the past had given way to the present. Maithripala Sirisena had won the election. After a decade in power our authoritarian and fascist ruling family, the Rajapakses, had ceded power (in mysterious midnight negotiations at Temple Trees – always the site of the late-night negotiation) to the leader of the opposition Ranil Wickramasinghe. The future was now. The crisis was in the past. My experience of time and my expectations of history were now uncannily close. It was the ‘ecstatic, momentous and untimely time’ of Walter Benjamin’s messianic coming[i]. Fast forward four years to 2019 and I am sitting far away from the warmth of my island home, trying to follow snippets of the conversations, debates, anger and ridicule around the 2019 Presidential Election. I sorely miss the antics surrounding Rajapakse’s astrologer and the campaign debacle which miscast Salman Khan as Shah Rukh Khan. Instead on 16 November 2019, I wake up to the news that in Sri Lanka gunshots were fired at Muslims on their way to vote in the northern district of Mannar. The past has seemingly caught up with the present. Once again Sri Lanka is back on the brink; always captive between familial strangers; always enmeshed in Sinhala majoritarian politics; always the site of disingenuity for the minorities. The vast disjuncture between the anticipation of 2015 and the realities of 2019 have left many disgusted, apathetic and hopeless. January 08 is a future past. What we are left with in the present are the afterlives of this imagined future. A moment of success followed by tragedy and by farce; perhaps the most farcical being the Coup of 26 October 2018, the most tragic being the senseless Easter Sunday bombings on 21st April 2019. In-between the epitomes of tragedy and farce were the successes of 19A and the anticipation of a new political culture, the continuous injustices against the families of the disappeared; the unsolved politico-legal cases; the bond scam scandal; the cashew nuts on a plane fiasco; the ethnoreligious violence; the release of Gnanasara. The list is endless. Prof. Uyangoda poignantly reminded us of this in his evocation of Neruda, who wrote: “my country has been betrayed again”.
Yet even in the midst of these ruminations, I am unable to forget the feeling of an almost revolutionary suspension of time that 08 January 2015 indexes in my personal biography of political time. The fall of the house of Rajapakse after a decade in power continues to remind me of the disrupting and destabilizing possibilities of electoral politics. Disorienting to those who wield power; disenchanting to those who cannot elect those they want in power; a potent weapon in the hands of those who chose to use it. Even as a Rajapakse return haunts Sri Lanka I am inspired today by the strength and determination of the Muslim persons attacked en-route to the polling station. The Hindu reports that they used public transport and private vehicles to ensure they made it to the polling stations in Mannar to cast their vote. I return to the statement released by CPA in the aftermath of the 2015 Presidential Election and continue to grasp onto the spirit in which it was written: “They called us terrorists, traitors and thieves; we called ourselves citizens”.
[i] David Scott (2014). Omens of Adversity: Tragedy, Time, Memory, Justice. Duke University Press.