From 8 January to 17 August and after: The Mahinda Movement and the future of Sinhala nationalism

Saturday, 29 August 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Mahinda Rajapaksa

The Mahinda Movement hoped for, believed in and fought determinedly for a victory at the 17 August election, but beneath the rousing nationalist romanticism there was always a tougher-minded realisation that what was being waged was a resistance struggle; a peaceful people’s uprising which could well prove to be a rearguard action.

The main reference point of the Mahinda Movement’s public discourse after 8 January was not the 5.8 lakhs of voters, but rather the marker year 1815, the year of the betrayal of Sri Wickrama Rajasinghe who had successfully resisted the colonial incursion of 1810.

1815 was the year of the Kandyan convention which sealed the surrender of the whole island to Western colonialism. This year was the 200th anniversary of that surrender.

1815 will be appropriately marked by the joint resolution being drafted for presentation at the UN in Geneva this September by the US together with what Asst Secretary of State Nisha Biswal calls the “international core group on Sri Lanka” (whatever that is), and which is meant to be endorsed by the Sri Lankan Government.  US Asst. Secretary for Human Rights and Labour Tom Malinowski says that a domestic inquiry mechanism will have to be “led by persons acceptable to the minorities” and have international presence”, “participation and “monitoring”. Reuters reports that the proposed US resolution which is expected to obtain Sri Lankan concurrence will include a US-UN “framework for reconciliation” for post-war Sri Lanka.Untitled-1

In short we are to abandon national self- determination and sovereignty, and return to the centuries when Western imperialism determined our external political destiny and internal political order—the sole difference being that this time around, it will be behind a screen of an elected native administration. That is the neocolonial model pioneered in Latin America but long since overthrown in that part of the world.

I recall the working dinner at which it was resolved to organise the first public meeting after 8 January; a meeting which turned out to be the famous Nugegoda event of 18 February. While I was musing that we should perhaps toss in a maximalist slogan of two-thirds of the seats for two-thirds of the country and its people, Wimal Weerawansa looked up from his plate and completed the sentence solemnly and unsmilingly, saying “then we’ll at least wind up with one-third of the seats”.

I also remember the young ex-Peterite statistician on the team that drafted what turned out to be the bulk of the UPFA manifesto—but was initially that of the Mahinda Movement—estimating way back the first quarter of the year that we would lose the election, winning 94 seats, but constituting a strong nationalist rearguard in Parliament which could serve as a bulwark and base camp for resistance and long-term resurgence. Throughout the months-long campaign that young man’s main conversational motif was Puran Appu’s resistance struggle of 1848.

The project of patriotic resistance had no option of accepting President Sirisena’s leadership over Mahinda Rajapaksa’s simply because the former showed no signs of giving leadership to the anti-UNP struggle. Given President Sirisena’s continuing compact with the UNP—which  was inevitable given his compact with CBK—and given the UNP’s capitulationist compliance with the Western-minoritarian bloc, any renunciation of Rajapaksa in favour of Sirisena would have been a disabling of the struggle against the UNP and the project of Western-minoritarian re-moulding of the Sri Lankan state.

The real error was either the alliance with the SLFP rather than running as a new independent force, or far more accurately, allowing the SLFP bureaucracy a free hand in the negotiations with the party leadership instead of fielding a hybrid negotiating team which adequately represented the Mahinda Movement (the Nugegoda –Matara-Medamulana).  

Today Sri Lanka has experienced a coincidence of three trends, which some may describe as cycles.

The first is that of the alternation of centre-left and centre-right regimes with their corresponding economic philosophies, namely state-led and market-led.

The second trend is the alternation between ‘Easternisers’ and ‘Westernisers’; between ‘look East/Global Southwards’ and ‘look West/Global Northwards’. In Maoist terms, in Sri Lanka today ‘the West Wind has prevailed over the East Wind’.

The third trend is the expansion and contraction of the ideological and political influence of the Ruhuna, the Deep South, the seat and seedbed of resolute Sinhala resistance in defence of the island.

The defeat of statist nationalism as project and ideology, which began at the ethnic periphery on 8 January, was extended into the heartland by August 17th. The defences that remain standing in geopolitical terms are the two contiguous areas, the ‘Greater Ruhuna’ or the ‘Greater South’ (Kegalle, Ratnapura, Galle, Matara, Hambantota, Moneragala) and in the heartland, Kurunegala-Anuradhapura. In a return to an ancient historical pattern, these are the ‘free territories’ of Sri Lanka; the liberated zones of the national resistance or national liberation movement.

In strictly politico-electoral terms the pro-Mahinda SLFP voters (the anti-Mahinda ones stayed home) and the broadly Mahindaist chunk of the SLFP parliamentary group constitute the anti- foreign hegemonist, patriotic zone of the Sri Lankan polity.

How will the three trends play out and in what patterns of intersection and interplay? The most literate social scientist of the ‘Yahapalana’ bloc, Prof Jayadeva Uyangoda, commendably eschewed the hysteria, both denunciatory and triumphalist, of untrained ideologues, in his postmortem of the election, and rightly defined the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa as a defeat precisely of ‘Putinism’.

To extend the analogy, the fate of Putinism – as that of its arguable predecessors of wartime patriotic leadership, Gaullism, or the career of Churchill – is never linear; it demonstrates ebbs and flows in response to perceived threats to the nation.

Putinism as a phenomenon rises whenever it is perceived that sufficient political space and respect is not granted to the state and the undergirding national heartland of any country (Russia being the classic example). 

The political narrative of Mahinda Rajapaksa is not yet at an end. As that of Mark Twain, the political obituaries for Mahinda may prove to be greatly exaggerated. At its simplest level, he is still younger than J.R. Jayewardene was when he first led Sri Lanka. Winston Churchill, voted out in 1945, made his comeback in 1951 at the age of 76. De Gaulle had to step down as the leader of wartime and post-war France, only to return in 1958.

Much less dramatically, Mahinda Rajapaksa can draw satisfaction from the splendid yet understated performance of his son Namal, whom I have come to know as a much smarter politician and more seriously policy-oriented young man than I had ever reckoned him to be.

The future of the anti-UNP struggle and the patriotic centre-left in Sri Lankan politics is presently bound up with but must not be reduced to the trajectory of Mahinda Rajapaksa or indeed the Rajapaksas. It is contingent upon (a) the gap between the political space and leading role in determining the island’s destiny that the Sinhala majority feels it is entitled to, and that it actually feels it enjoys under the status quo and (b) whether or not the existential concerns and core strategic interests of the Sinhala majority are realistically recognised, respected and guaranteed, in negotiations with the minorities and the West, India and the UN, over the destiny of Sri Lanka. Some say “geography is destiny” while others say “demography is destiny”. They are both right.

The period of dramatic frontal political warfare and open clashes is over. The patriotic resistance struggle will be a protracted political guerrilla war of attrition. The elections are over and have ended in defeat, but to borrow the watchword of African liberation movements fighting against Portuguese colonialism, ‘A Luta Continua’—the struggle continues.

Recent columns