21 November 2013

The ways of discontent

There are riders without horses and horses without riders.  There are classrooms and students that are not visited by teachers.  There are also teachers waiting for non-existent students.  There are alumni associations of schools that have been closed down decades ago; yes, like the Commonwealth.  There is an Opposition that does not oppose and an Opposition that gets dissolved because those who people it don’t have rallying points.  There is opposition without leaders and leaders who remain unperturbed by opposition.  
There are two questions when it comes to the ‘opposition’ in Sri Lanka.  First, ‘where is the Opposition’ and ‘what Opposition are you talking about?’  When oppositions are weak, it is natural to ask the first, but when the second is a legitimate query it speaks of serious crisis.  Sure, there is the occasional gathering of those opposed to the regime with handshakes and photo ops.  There is the regular fiery and self-righteous speech in Parliament. There are election pacts.  Joint statements. ‘This is the beginning of the end’ declarations.  So many of these ‘moves’ in fact that they have long since warranted media coverage or comment.   

Running through all these are personal agendas a jostling for position-improvement by those who are convinced that victory can only come much later and therefore want to be perched high enough to reach out and pluck the fruit of opportunity when the tree of discontent deigns to bear.  And there is also a thing called ‘crossover’.  It could be called cooptation.  That doesn’t help. 

In situations where the opposition, jointly or separately, cannot tap into discontent general dissatisfaction grows inwards.  Forget the opposition, when avenues for democratic expression of discontent have to be navigated using innuendo and on tiptoe due to subtle sanctions reinforced by forces that ‘go along’ subsequent to a quick assessment of cost and benefit, the objector comes face to face with his or her solitude. Solidarity is pricy, as is trust. 

Those in power, then, can claim ‘look at results’.  They can say and even legitimately claim that the sporadic burst of protest is instigated and exaggerated.  This is because organized opposition camps need to mark presence just to get by; they latch on to any issue that could have even a semblance of public support.  

The overall power imbalance, never mind how it was wrought, has produced a strange citizen.  This creature relates to the President but not his party or political, business and social associates.  There is gratitude and dismay.  The discontent could be personal or on account of disagreement with policy and behavior.  In some circumstances this creature is easy prey for the opposition, subject to the caveat that the opposition understands the relevant sentiment-mix and is positioned to address it.  The creature looks around for default option, as his/her predecessors have done.  All of a sudden ‘what is’ appears more appealing than ‘what might be’.  The default option gaze immediately reverts back to that which was sought to be replaced.  Dejected, this creature goes home, literally and metaphorically, and reconciles to inhabiting a land called Try To Get By.  

Should all this further demoralize the opposition and, on the other side of the equation, warrant complacency on the part of the regime?  No.  Discontent does not come in cauldrons.  It comes in drops, with the occasional cupful.  There is a thing called critical mass which, in this scenario, is about the amount of liquid discontent and the number of the discontented.  When fault line emerges (as it usually does, later if not sooner, because all things are perishable, hold on power included), all it takes is for correct identification of weakness and the judicious deployment of forces.  The sturdiest walls crumble, it should not be forgotten.

Perhaps an example would help illustrate.  Just before Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu didn’t indulge in federalist-rhetoric.  He would preface reference with something like, ‘I don’t want to use the F-word, but…’  After 1994, the F-Word Droppers and F-Word Dropping became so powerful and frequent respectively that anyone who objected was duly labeled ‘hawk’, ‘war-monger’, ‘extremist’, ‘racist’, ‘chauvinist’ and other such lovely names.  The F-Word Doctrine, if you will, dominated both private and state media, both print and electronic.  Things came to a point where anyone alluding to his/her ‘Sinhala’ identity or ‘Buddhist’ faith, were routinely and roundly treated like pariahs.  All this, while their identity ‘others’ were not just affirming ethnicity but doing so with gun, bullet, grenade and landmine. 

There was co-opting back then too; of a different kind sure, but a purchase nevertheless.   Objection had a price tag.  Solidarity seeking had costs too.  The main opposition did not want any truck with them.  The parties that identified with ideological position were essentially fringe in character.  ‘Change’ came, less in party terms than in ideological bent.  It grew within the regime and interestingly against the opposition as well, for there was a strange convergence of thinking between the movers and shakers in the Kumaratunga Government and the United National Party.  The relevant change agents were not endowed with any special qualities.  They just tapped into an alternative that had been nurtured or had been evolving in the vast reservoir into which the tiny rivulets of discontent slowly but surely flowed. 

It was not just ideological difference.  The little things that disturbed rolled into bigger things that dismayed.  When opportunity came, there was a twist. 

Today there is discontent.  Every highhanded act by ruling party politicos feeds it.  Scandalous waste of public funds for what are clearly propaganda exercises does not go unnoticed.  These things add up of course but change requires a stronger adhesive that commonality of dissatisfaction. 

Today, there are not alternatives being nurtured.  Apart from gripes about whittling away of democracy, there’s little difference when it comes to policy; the Government after all is but implementing Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘Regaining Sri Lanka’ except for privatizing of the banks.  There is ideological agreement on the broad development paradigm.  What is posed as alternative is nothing more than a different face, a different name and color which, as of now, looks even more grotesque than that which it seeks to replace. 

Somewhere though, one cannot help thinking, there’s someone who has ear to the ground and like an angel softly whispering to blades of grass, ‘grow, grow, grow’.  The thing about blades of grass is that they go unnoticed; they get trampled inadvertently, but stand up again and again.  It is something that regimes ignore at their risk and oppositions don’t notice to their own and peculiar detriment. 

In short we have an overgrown regime and an opposition that doesn’t feel the grass under its collective feet.   Change, if it comes, will arrive in spite of those wearing the opposition badge, not because of them.