10 May 2014

In search of the kurahan saatakaya

[This was written in December 2005 for the Daily Mirror, a few weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President. It outlines what I considered to be his principal challenges.  I believe it is a good re-read base from which to assess performance since this is election time]

If something new entered the lexicon of local politics in the course of the run-up to the last Presidential election, it is the kurahan saatakaya, the piece of cloth that came to symbolize Mahinda Rajapakse.

On the plus side it became the metaphoric rallying point to all those for whom nation and national identity were too important to be subsumed by the sterile economic in this election. Indeed there were many who saw the kurahan saatakaya as a metaphor amenable to multiple application, so much so that even the economy could be wrapped, so to speak, in that elegant piece of fabric.

I have no doubt that we have not heard the last of the kurahan saatakaya even though it has done its work in terms of idiomatic application, at least in the first round of the game of power politics. Mahinda Rajapakse’s detractors (and of these there are many) will continue to cling to it with much desperation and caricaturing intent. So would the sycophants typically drawn to the locus of power who are likely to see it as a lifeline and little else.

What this kurahan saatakaya is, what it means and where it is found, are of course open to all kinds of readings as per the political predilections of the given reader, but an exploratory comment would not be out of place, I believe.

The kurahan saatakaya is and was essentially defined by what it is not, namely the tie-coat world as one would put it in “Sinhala”. It was the perfect “other” to everything represented by the (adopted) children of the colonial project, the privileges they enjoyed and the elitism they fostered and fought for tooth and nail perhaps never as ferociously as in this election. Still, it was not merely a matter of style, preferred clothing, notions of fashion etc. People can vote for any number of reasons but it would be safe to say that few would have factored in the choice of dress in their decision. It was what these things represented and the extent to which the avowed representation was manifest in programme and ideological bent that settled the issue, I believe.

This is why the kurahan saatakaya cannot and should not be read as something that marks the outward persona of the President. In other words, it is not something that hangs around his neck, or not something whose meaning is limited to where it is worn and how. Its broadest possible articulation covers much political, cultural, economic and philosophical terrain, at least in aspiration if not in concrete ground-reality terms.

Rajapakse obviously understands that in real political terms his hard earned victory on November 17 only resulted in the kurahan saatakaya just scratching the politico-cultural edifice it challenged. In this sense it was a very small victory. The tie-coat, to use that convenient though not inappropriate short-hand, hangs around the necks of every institution, the vast majority of state officials, the thinking of important sections of the most influential players in the economy, the hegemonic cultural drives and indeed the dominant ideological and philosophical frames of reference. The difference is that the kurahan saatakaya has executive power and as such has the potential to reform the politico-cultural-ideological edifice. The battle, then, has moved from the electoral register to the larger and more complex terrain of institutions, territories where Mahinda Rajapakse is at a distinct disadvantage.

The establishment, as Art Buchwald would put it, is “live and well”. It suffered a rude shock, true, but only the utterly naïve can expect it to lie down and die on account of that particular poke in the behind. The establishment does not see a kurahan saatakaya. It sees an amuda lensuwa and it is a gaze of derision, a looking-down-the-nose, something that should be out of sight, mind and the face of the earth. This is why Rajitha Senaratne’s comment on that dignified and appropriate garment cannot be seen as a simple slip of the tongue but a precise political statement and objective. The establishment operated in according to a by-any-means-necessary logic in trying to defeat Rajapakse and will operate in the same vein in trying to bring him down. The establishment knows the ins and outs of the system and is deeply entrenched too. All mechanisms available for subversion will be employed, rest assured. These can take the form of from subtle foot-dragging, vilification in the media, positioning of saboteurs in key locations, fostering unrest, feeding terrorism, arm-twisting courtesy the World Bank, IMF, WTO, ADB, USAID and other agencies and other forms of political subterfuge. I would not put assassination past the establishment for there is much to lose and a lot to gain by burning the kurahan saatakaya.

It will be interesting to see how Mahinda responses to these challenges, how he plans to infuse the deshaye suwanda into tie-coat infested institutions, hearts and minds and wrap it all up with the kurahan saatakaya. It will be interesting to see if he succeeds. He has demonstrated, looking back, an admirable ability to suffer humiliation after humiliation especially from those in the party he represents and fought to protect, some of who left and returned at will. He has shown patience and knows the virtue of biding his time. He has shown that he has remarkable powers of persuasion and an ability to bring together and keep together divergent political forces. In offering a ministerial post to Anura Bandaranaike and people like Sarath Amunugama who were clearly at odds with him during the campaign, he has shown that he is not vindictive. In short, he is a skillful politician. As such he can be expected to pursue a path of reform and not purging in trying to correct the tie-coat edifice that stands between him and bringing to fruition the programme for which he won a mandate.

One thing is certain. He has a monumental human resource problem to overcome. He has very few he can trust and even fewer who have the skills necessary to out-smart the establishment that besieges him, Executive President though he is. He has one asset. The people who voted for him, those who made the kurahan saatakaya the 21st century symbol of a 500-year struggle to free the country from the shackles of colonialism.

He would do well to understand that we have come 49 years since ’56, which was an upturning that was ill-informed and poorly, very poorly and injudiciously executed. Today we know that a switch to swabhasha would not solve all our problems overnight. We know that “the nation” does not exist in a national dress, a national flag or a national anthem and will not be obtained simply by changing name boards from English to Sinhala.

We know that there can be a vast difference between appearance and substance, that the fault lies not in the tie-coat that is the preferred dress coat, but in the tie-coats of the mind, that lie in the ideological realm, in lifestyle and demeanour. We know that the kurahan saatakaya around the neck of an Executive President will not by itself deliver the nation to us, ourselves to us. We know that the struggle is to establish the validity and practicality of the kurahan saatakaya in all things subject to the caveat that there is nothing to say that the tie-coat universe has nothing to offer to us.

If there comes a day where every single institution insists that all employees wear a kurahan saatakaya we would still not have won if they continue to have tie-coat heads. On the other hand, if these institutions continue to insist that employees wear Western attire, replete with tie and coat, but the people inside these clothes have a kurahan saatakaya frame of mind, then the November 17 decision would most certainly have produced something we can be proud of as a nation. I humbly submit that this is not impossible.



popeye said...

I have been tied up with quite a few family matters and missed most of your writing. Once again back in the old habit of reading and all that left in the inbox.

Let me tell you that I wonder whether I have ever read anyone else who can match you. Regards