POWER – consolidated
The recently-concluded General Election has been taken on board in a variety of ways. From apathy to unadulterated joy, it has touched just about everyone from Medamulana to the Magul Maduwa. There has been a panoply of celebrants to hymn it, a plethora of critics to decry it, and a pittance of cynics to capture its persona in a meme or two.
Some have seen the show of strength by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as a sure sign that Sri Lanka’s security and sovereignty at the very least are in safe hands again. Other less sanguine observers reacted to the Pohottuwa’s near-landslide with less than a ‘joy cometh in the morning’ carol, or a sensibility halfway between shock and horror.
On closer inspection, it transpires that this lax admix of sentiments is more or less restricted to the civil society quarter of ‘Citadel Colombo’ and its social media branches. While the world at large smiles widely, for it was ‘a famous victory’. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures – or pursuits – of the other.
Few were surprised by the outcome since the writing has been on the wall since the new kid on the block – in truth a clone of an older sibling: the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) – swept the Local Government polls in 2018 with an overwhelming number of seats at provincial level. Even that, on top of a party-political report warning the incumbent jumbos about impending disaster if the Chief White Elephant would not repent of the error of his aloof and arrogant demeanour, fell by the wayside.
That President Gotabaya Rajapaksa outflanked his opponents – as his training makes him a master at doing – in November 2019 came as no surprise to those who could read the portents in the entrails of a badly-disembowelled opposition. His older brother had been practising the art of ‘divide and conquer’ ever since he wooed Wimal Weerawansa and his merry band of (shall we say) Sherwood-Foresters away from ‘the real JVP’ (whatever that may mean today).
As well as sucking the lifeblood out of the true-blue SLFP, the siblings also managed to divide – and then decimate – the not-so sea-green incorruptible GOP. To give a former running-mate of the UNP’s pride of place in the run-up to a poll that delivered 300,000 blue votes was a cruel blow. And the last twist of the knife after the result was out was to claim that Maithripala Sirisena had been a Trojan hopper (I mean, horse) all along.
It was the last nail in the coffin of a coalition that may well be the last of its kind now. The time for the softer more effete side of civics is ostensibly over. There is – as an erudite columnist as essayed in an insightful analysis – a sense that Skynet has spread its talons over Sri Lanka. “I’ll be back,” says the Terminator, vowing to protect a lawful and virtuous society!
So yes, there are nouns and adjectives to encompass these happenings in the local political arena. These range from ‘remarkable’ and ‘resounding’ as regards the elections’ results, to ‘really interesting’ or ‘truly scary’ in terms of the ramifications. Be that as it may, there is another response one might essay.
It is that of an objective observer – if such a creature could be found on a COVID-19 strapped planet – who would think and feel that the run-up and result of an island nation’s recently-concluded landmark outing to the ballot was riddled with irony.
Irony for the benefit of those who like to use the Telephone is witty language used to convey insults or scorn, esp. saying one thing but implying the opposite. Or, if you prefer Oxford over the LSE: A trope that reflects significantly angled incongruity between what might be expected and what actually occurs.
An e.g., you pray? Well, try: ‘Irony is wasted on dull beasts.’ For example, anyone who can’t understand that the voting out of Ranil is only that the Sajith camp was able to out-vote a personal and a rather impersonal leadership style. That the DNA of the old/new UNP continues in the SJB shows that it too is a clone or remnant of the dyed-in-the-wool greenery.
As for irony: let’s consider at least a few of these in brief. (Examples of irony, that is; not so much beasts!)
The former prime minister was the chief architect of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Chief among its – or his – aims was to reduce the powers of the president and positively relativise the ambit of the prime minister. Even if Ranil Wickremesinghe didn’t quite say so, the primary target of opportunity was Mahinda Rajapaksa. Well, that didn’t quite work out as planned now, did it?
The latter is back as premier under a supreme writ (of law as well as popular mandate) that makes him potentially more powerful than ever before. Whichever way you cut the 19A cake
or relegate it to the dustbin of history. The former with a chequered career as long as that of his longstanding friend, enemy and bête noire is a relative (or absolute) non-entity now. However much Ranil’s PR machine (read ‘personal friends’ or ‘party favourites’) fought a valiant – or ignominious – rearguard action in claiming that RW would be the best person (heard it all before, have you folks?) to revamp the flagging fortunes (talk about the understatement of the year) of the Grand Old Party. Irony again?
The present president could be considered one of the principal engineers of the politico-military machine that defeated a debilitating terrorist movement in his homeland. Yet, it has taken the people at large over a decade to be given an opportunity to ensconce this ‘war hero’ in a position of real power and influence.
En route, he has faced vilification, stigma at the hands of critics and sidelining at the behest of opponents, and inquiry into erstwhile conduct while he was the most powerful bureaucrat the country has ever seen to date.
En passant, those obstacles to his chequered career have been cast aside like iota before a juggernaut. Today, he is widely hailed as a saviour and deliverer of not a race or ethnic segment of people, but a nation state. Irony – or iron chancellery…
And yet, and yet, despite that manifesto and all that jazz, the old (literally) and familiar (though unwelcome from the point of view of ‘discipline’ et al.) faces in cabinet make a mockery of meritocracy. New brooms sometimes sweep the same detritus round and round, or under the carpet?
THE ONCE AND FUTURE
Another third of the once war-winning troika has gone from minister to prime minister to president and back again to being premier. Despite setbacks – some of them self-made like when he committed political hara-kiri by prematurely calling for a presidential election two-thirds of the way into his second term – he has reinvented his flagging fortunes (no pun intended here).
Now, the inheritor of a near two-thirds majority, it remains to be seen whether this once and future kingly figure will go from prime minister to president or hero of the moment to near zero in the large scope of history.
Not that such a much surmised upon possibility would go uncontested. But that even the ranks of Tuscany seem to be having second thoughts about term limits and duration of office. And a civics-savvy public must welcome the recent intimations that a president shall remain in the hot seat for no more than five years, and that more than two terms for the same officiant may well be too much of a good thing.
Posterity – ironically enough being far removed in time – can see more clearly than propinquity. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power has corrupted absolutely. That man Acton, had he been an independent observer at the poll, would have nodded sagely – safely – to himself.
AND LAST BUT BY NO MEANS LEAST
There is another former president about whom one suspects the less said the better. However not to mention the irony in an individual culpable of gross negligence of national security to the detriment of 256 lives and loss of livelihoods and national stability would be to miss an opportunity – the real loss in his case being the loss of opportunity for his electorate to relegate him to the dustbin of history.
The real irony is not that the polity has a short memory but that development of the periphery trumps justice at the centre any day. There is a sucker born every minute, and most of those living under the misguided notion that politicians are the saviours of the nation prove themselves gluttons for deception at best and punishment at worst – time and again. That the best may be yet to come – a senior or super-minister portfolio is being rumoured, to say nothing of a once-watered chair – is being ‘spoken’ about.
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE THING
Many such ironies abound. Space constrains us to mention the most significant. However it may reek of another opportunity lost, the greatest irony – arguably – could well be if an election campaign that developed from ‘a powerful prime minister under a technocratic president’ into ‘two-thirds for constitutional change to the balance of power’ doesn’t happen.
Please sir: may we prioritise national unity/inclusive identity, economic stability/equitable development and political/personal integrity instead; or at the very least, over and above all that...
However, given what a senior cabinet minister said in a television interview a few nights ago, I’m not holding my breath. For, according to this political savant and firebrand pundit who has Hansard holding its breath, the near-two-thirds majority given to his government all but negates the 19th Amendment. And, to match this agitator’s words with action, another agent provocateur – one with brains as well as organisational ability, on top of being a member of the ruling family – has clearly stated the paradigms under which constitutional reform would be undertaken.
(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer on wry ironies | Student of human nature)