10 May 2014

The apparent opposition and the real opposition

President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows better than most how to make the best out of a bad situation.  He showed once again what an astute politician he is on May Day when he turned things around after key members of the ruling coalition declined to support what has been dubbed the ‘Casino Bill’.  He said that there is room in the Government for dissent.  More importantly he said that things had come to a point where the only discernible opposition was already within the United People’s Freedom Alliance. 

Now, given his readiness to embrace anyone and everyone, the UPFA certainly looks like a massive bedroom housing strange bedfellows. One would expect this to be a recipe for friction, defection and eventual collapse.  After being in power for more than a decade it is an indictment on the sad state of the opposition that regime-hating commentators have been reduced to clinging to the casino-opposition as evidence of fissure leading to inevitable regime-collapse. 

So far, the UPFA has survived ‘regime-fatigue’, international pressure and regular own-goals at all levels.  If Ranil Wickremesinghe’s biggest weakness, the fact that he has no close friends, is also his biggest strength; Mahinda’s biggest strength, the fact that he has many friends, is also his biggest weakness.  In the play of strengths and weaknesses, so far, Mahinda Rajapaksa has prevailed.  The negatives have not translated to a massive swing to the opposition.  It seems, instead, that contrary to the usual trend of regime-displeasure translating into default-support for the opposition, the lack of a credible opposition reduces the people to back the regime according to a ‘known-devil-is-better’ logic.  As a three-wheel driver recently summed up, ‘api bena bena aanduwatama chande denava’ (we continue to vote for the government even as we curse it). 

This state of affairs, this strange benefitting from the non existence of a default option, is clearly not sustainable.  Perhaps the ‘internal opposition’ is a relatively safe safeguard against collapse.  But is that the only ‘opposition’ to Mahinda Rajapaksa?

A few weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected President in 2005, in an article titled ‘In search of the kurahan saatakaya’ I made some observations on the challenges he would be confronted with.  The following are some extracts:

‘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. 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, and 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 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 or loin cloth 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. 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.’

As of now, it appears that the battle between the kurahan saatakaya and the tie-coat is not going in favor of the former. When it comes to policy, the latter has prevailed. It is only the kurahan saatakaya of his natural ways that allows the President to retain mass support.  Within him, then, is the true opposition. The one moment when the kurahan saatakay prevailed was during the operations to defeat terrorism. On that occasion it was not the ‘tie-coats’ that stood by him but those of the kurahan-saataka ideological bent.  Such people have been marginalized or even evicted from relevant circles in the matter of policy formulation.
Nine years ago, I made the following observation:

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.


That day has not arrived, clearly.  It has not arrived because the arrival upon which Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political future depends on is being detained.  Detained by Mahinda Rajapaksa himself.  That’s the true opposition.  He cannot deal with it the way he deals with the ‘visible opposition’ but deal with it he must.  His future and that of the UPFA depends on it.  
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