20 April 2015

Mahinda’s post-presidential relevance

'Look at the Tamils and find yourself' or 'Look at yourself and discover Tamil brethren'?
Thousands and thousands visiting ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no longer news.  He is arguably the most loved post-Independence leader this country has known; this despite all his many flaws, it must be added.  What is ‘news’ and continues to make news is the fact that in an opposition-less context opposition to the current regime has to materialize outside parliament and as such ‘Mahinda’ is a natural rallying point. 

The Mahinda-Factor is growing larger each passing day.  The longer the ‘Opposition-Issue’ is left unresolved, the more value accrues to this factor.  How the Sri Lanka Freedom Party addresses all this is left to be seen.  If one buys into the adage that there are no permanent friends or enemies in politics, then all is possible including a Maithripala-Mahinda ‘patch-up’ (not in the interest of the nation but for reasons of political expedience).  How such a patch-up materializes and in what form, again, are left to be seen.  Let’s leave time to decide all that and delve into a different aspect of this phenomenon of Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming a pilgrim’s destination, so to speak. 

Many of his detractors have dismissed the phenomenon thus: someone died, others are not allowing the body to be buried.   Mahinda is not politically dead, though.  That’s why he is ‘rallying point’ for those who feel that the new regime has effectively disenfranchised them. They have a point because the majority voted for Maithripala Sirisena but the country is being run by a man and a party that have not won elections in years.  The SLFPers who voted for Maithripala and those who voted for Mahinda both have reason to be disgruntled. 

Whether or not one voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa, few would disagree that he is widely credited for defeating the LTTE, ridding the country of the terrorist threat, removing associated fear from the minds of people as they go about their lives etc.  Even Ranil Wickremesinghe has acknowledged this.   This is why people go to Medamulana.  It is less about rising against the Ranil-Maithri Government than about being conscious of the fact that Mahinda helped restore dignity to a nation and a people. 

A year ago, I wrote about wars or rather continuing wars.  Here’s a quote: When do wars end?  Do they end with surrender, with military annihilation of protagonist, the recovery of livelihoods, reconstruction of houses, hospitals and schools, the return of the displaced, the erasing of things with military signature, free and fair elections and a shaking of hands all around?  Do wars end that way, ever, though?  Isn’t it true that the wars that have truly ‘ended’ for all practical purposes are those which are beyond recall and whose identity-ties have been smudged by the movement of people and dwarfed by event after earth-shattering event? Thrishantha Nanayakkara makes a valid argument thus: ‘All wars have been fought twice; once in the battlefield and once down the alleys of memory’

We are talking about the alleyways of memory.  For the Sinhalese (mostly), Mahinda Rajapaksa represents something positive about who they are.  Even after 500 years of colonial rule if you said you were a Sinhalese or worse a Sinhala-Buddhist you would be subjected to all kinds of name-calling.  They were vilified as racists, chauvinists, war-mongers etc., etc.  Their dignity took a hit.  Somehow, during Mahinda’s time they felt as confident as anyone belonging to any other community to assert their identity.  There’s gratitude, therefore.  That has nothing to do with party politics or returning Mahinda to power. 

What’s important in this is that it provides an opportunity for Sinhalese to understand their Tamil brethren, especially those who demand directly or indirectly an acknowledgment of who and what Velupillai Prabhakaran means to them.   

Few Tamils would come out and say Prabhakaran was a saint or was utterly blameless.  Few Sinhalese would say the same thing about Mahinda Rajapaksa.  For all his many flaws, Prabhakaran gave Tamils a sense of community and even pride (we see this even in the extremely racist strains color rhetoric of former Supreme Court judge C.V. Wigneswaran). 

There are many differences between the two men, but the key here is that Mahinda is still alive and Prabhakaran is dead.   Whereas those who attribute dignity-recovery to Mahinda can assert the fact in tangible ways that reach Mahinda, Tamils who see those positives in Prabhakaran simply cannot.  This is perhaps partly why Tamils have agitated to win the right to mourn their dead on ‘Victory Day’.    It is as much about remembering kith and kin as about expressing gratitude to an absent leader.  You might call it a cathartic need. 

The battle along the alleyways of memory will take some time to end, sure.  There’s no harm in doing the little things that help us deal with the demons of memory.  I can do little better than refer to an observation made by Dr Pradeep Jeganathan three years ago in an article titled ‘Forgive but do not forget’: I am asking that we stop taking sides, because it will destroy us all. We need to understand and remember that we all did terrible things to each other, and in so doing, try to not forget, but forgive each other, and forgive ourselves.

Icons help, but we can grieve and celebrate with or without them.  Indeed the fact that icons are necessary is a sad reflection on our ability to grieve sans grieving framework.  Mahinda may or may not be politically relevant in the coming years, but it can be argued that if his post-presidential contribution is nothing more than helping Sinhalese understand through their ‘loss’ the losses of their Tamil brethren, it’s achievement enough.