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Ignorant armies march by day

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MARCH – Pointless foot-soldiery of a passé regime, or potent force for present and future political-culture change?


When 1.5 million people vote with their feet, governments get noticeably, understandably, agitated. They might, for instance, exhibit all the psychological evidence of stress or grief or even depression. Thus the shock or surprised disbelief, denial, and anger expressed by Government mandarins, on behalf of their political masters. 

More classic symptoms did eventuate: Bargaining law enforcement to stymie the protest march; Guilt at their own culpability or of other branches of Government as regards the underlying causes of the ‘Pada Yathra’; Depression that crowds thronged the streets from Kandy to Colombo and finally at the grudgingly allocated Lipton Roundabout where the Joint Opposition circus – I mean, road Untitled-2trip – came to rest… 

But on closer inspection, those presently ranked among the powers that be would probably have good reason to proceed to the seventh stage of their administrative grief or gubernatorial angst. Hope and acceptance could be their Pyrrhic victory – Acceptance that under the rule of coalitions ostensibly committed to democratic-republicanism, even demagogic rabble-rousers can steal a march on their political opposition; hope that the discerning citizens (hopefully still committed to working out the agenda set before them by Good Governance not many moons ago) can tell a legitimate protest from a loudmouthed pretence. Or critical engagement from a cynical and emotive manipulation of public sentiment.

There is some justification for the travelling road show or circus that the Joint Opposition put on – There is greater vindication for the forces genuinely opposed to corruption who should have done as they did and did nothing to stop it or stymie it (save, perhaps, deny the travelling fleas a temporary resting place to stir up agitation amongst the gullible or chauvinistic masses).

So it is with a pinch or six of salt and a twist or three of lime that a discerning citizenry might imbibe the post-rally triumphalism of the Pada Yathra’s participants. The Joint Opposition’s demagogic spokespersons appear inclined (tilted, stilted.) to do tequila shots off their triumphal entry into the political capital at the beginning of the week… Which is soon enough exposed and readily enough dismissed for the shallow conjuring up of political capital against a Government in comparison to which the Joint Opposition appears morally and intellectually bankrupt (outvoted, outmanoeuvred.). 

Thus we here critically evaluate the protest march’s leaders’ claims, challenges, and condemnation of the powers that be in a less charitable light than either the powers or the protestors deserve! Seven such claims, etc., are selected from a plethora of brickbats for your consideration below:

Claims, challenges, condemnation

a. CLAIM: The Joint Opposition (JO) and its allies were committed to giving the masses anything they asked for, with the next Pada Yathra being scheduled to achieve the JO’s “ultimate goal”.

b. CLAIM: The Government had “shamelessly” prevented the protest-marchers from using all public grounds en route while pontificating on the virtues of ‘Good Governance’.

c. CHALLENGE: Hold local-government elections without further delay/within three months.

d. CHALLENGE: The UNP and the JVP are playing a ball game, bowling full tosses to each other, so that each could score heavily.

e. CONDEMNATION: The Government had resorted to draconian methods to increase its income, heaping unbearable burdens on the mass of average people, such that even the common cold was being taxed.

f. CONDEMNATION: The Government is serving its own agendas in a manner inimical to the national interest – examples range from the explosive (Govt. is jailing war heroes or compromising their reputation) to the sublime (Govt. is planning to ink ETCA to benefit foreigners) to the ridiculous (Govt. dispensed with the fertiliser subsidy so that parties with vested interests could dispose of their respective paddy harvests).

g. CONDEMNATION: The incumbent administration has remained in power for one year and seven months, but without popular support, and is only propped up by the CID, FCID, CIABOC, et al. The same fate that befell erstwhile dictators under previous regimes awaits the very administrative-tandem presently in power.

Critical evaluation

a. The Joint Opposition (JO) and its allies had every opportunity of giving the masses everything they asked for, including bread. But gave them circuses and circumvented the people’s will with antidemocratic rule for over a decade, thus squandering its mandate in style. So it is a supreme irony that they seek to do so now. One can only hope no more Pada Yathras will be scheduled to achieve any of the JO’s “goals”, “ultimate” or otherwise, which are inimical to the national interest, and are likely to achieve nothing less than the bankrupting of the SLFP one way or another. Either the SLFP dissidents will be heard, separating the Sirisena faction from Government and seducing the badly bifurcated party to the dark side under a resurgent Rajapaksa machine. Or the SLFP-UNP combine will close ranks and damn the dissidents to outer darkness by disciplinary measures or dismissal from the party. Pyrrhic victories!

b. The peace-loving public must be grateful that the Government – whether “shamelessly” or “shamefully” is beside the point – prevented the protest-marchers from using all public grounds en route (even if they did pontificate on the virtues of Good Governance). For the Joint Opposition seems to have lost the plot as regards objectives and timing of this otherwise legitimate enough form of protest. For one thing, the Government has miles to go before it keeps its promises to the people, and the people appear asleep for now. For another, the protestors have little credibility themselves – charged as many of their leaders are of running the economy into the ground under the guise of development through ill-conceived hard loans. To say nothing of the stain that many of the march’s public figures carry as the mark of Cain on their careers: the stripes of corruption, for which they are yet to received their comeuppance.

c. Holding local-government elections prematurely – from the perspective of both UNP and SLFP – might evince surprises for some and shocks for others. The lame attempt of the SLFP dissidents to regain control of their party by internal as well as external pressures could backfire. Thus the timing of the protest march shows up more a desire to detour the Government from its determination to arraign and indict the Joint Opposition’s leaders charged with corruption and other crimes, rather than any cohesive political momentum towards redressing the power balance even at LG level. 

d. No one in the Mahinda camp can accuse the JVP or parts thereof of playing ideological footsy with the government of the day. It is a game that the great game-players invented, and now they rue the day they taught their opponents how to play. Cry wolf, dears!

e. True, the Government has had to importune the people to tighten their belts, while sparing their parliamentary supporters such austerity. And, impose internationalist agenda-driven reforms, which have made them unpopular at the grassroots level. But the JO would do well to search its memory for the causes of the macroeconomic instability that the UNFFGG inherited. If any administration heaped unbearable burdens on the masses, it was the erstwhile coalition that indebted our nation-state to not-so-generous donors over the last decade or so; for Potemkin village-like projects for which the sovereign people of Sri Lanka are being asked to pay now.

f. – (“Govt. is jailing war heroes or compromising their reputation”) – This is the JO’s perverse twist on the explosive mantra ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’… That it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for one’s country – The old lie exploited by chauvinistic political cabals as much as the military-industrial complex.

– (“Govt. is planning to ink ETCA to benefit foreigners”) – Another interpretation that betrays the nativist, populist, bent of the JO to the detriment of any other interpretation (pro-trade, liberal, conservative). 

– (“Govt. dispensed with the fertiliser subsidy so that parties with vested interests could dispose of their respective paddy harvests”) – Regrettably, there may be some truth to this… And the rot may go far and high up, indeed!

g. There is also some justification to the allegation that the incumbent administration is losing its specific as well as popular support bases and a modicum or more of general goodwill. But the allegation that it is only propped up by the CID, FCID, CIABOC, betrays more the JO’s fears than the Govt.’s frailty. That the same fate which befell erstwhile dictators under previous regimes might await the very administrative-tandem presently in power is a laughable example of the use of irony on the part of the JO! It’s almost as ironic as the fact that the Strongman of the Rajapaksa juggernaut once led more legit protest marches against UNP oppression in the early 1990s with greater public resonance. 

It remains to be seen what will ensue. Whatever does, it won’t stop press.

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