Namal Rajapaksa, the politically aspiring Rajapaksa scion, has called his protest in Colombo last week,the largest ever in Sri Lanka’s history. That can only make sense if Sri Lanka has had no history before him, or if he is ignorant of any and all of the country’s modern political history before the Rajapaksas collectively arrived in Colombo. Only the latter can be true. Politicians with no knowledge of history are no longer strange animals, courtesy the Donald Trumps of America and elsewhere. Even before the Trump phenomenon, the bar for success in politics in Sri Lanka had dropped to rock bottom. All you need is to be a member of a political family. Imagine if the children of doctors, lawyers and engineers are allowed to obtain professional licenses merely because one of their parents is a professional in one of those fields. Although, some might say that even the non-doctor children of old school doctors will show greater empathy to patients than the current GMOA doctor upstarts. But in Sri Lankan politics, you only need to be a son, daughter or a sibling in a political family to become a professional politician.
The grand old party of uncles and nephews had a feudally cultivated way for distributing offices, perks and privileges among its contenders. They had learnt well from their colonial masters not only the art of the possible but also the limits of their possibilities. They conducted themselves more democratically and less brutally than, say, the Saudis. The other Sri Lankan family party had a martyr figure in its founder to successfully navigate the political waters. The parliamentary system also enabled, just as it had done in Britain, the co-existence of feudal relations and modern democracy.
The two parties, the UNP and the SLFP, have run their course. One of them, the SLFP is at a dead end. The older UNP, now 72, is said to be preparing a new line of leaders for 2030. That’s what Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told his followers at the Party’s 72nd birthday party. What about 2020? Or even 2019? That’s the problem with too much visioning. The Rajapaksas, the new major family of politicians, have a different problem.
There are one too many of them, Rajapaksas, contending for the country’s singular political office – the presidency. Ay, there’s the rub, for Lanka’s modern prince, Namal Rajapaksa, who too has uncles to contend with. The prince might be undercooked for high office, but he is not unprepared to flex his muscle in public to send a message to his family. He might not be ready for the next presidential election, but his path to the office should remain clear. A Gotabhaya presidency might be too risky for eventual succession by Namal Rajapaksa. And alternative scenarios have their own problems.
The trial balloon floated to test the air for another Mahinda Rajapaksa run burst open no sooner than it was released. GL Peiris and Sarath Silva have gone quiet after their unsolicited and ill-advised advocacy. And Dr. Nihal Jayawickrema seems to have given up on his somewhat far-fetched interpretation of 19A after seeing the chorus of criticisms that he had generated. That leaves the option of getting Maithripala Sirisena, who is still Sri Lanka’s President, to run again as an SLPP/JO/SLFP candidate. No one knows where this option will go, unless we get some creative writing from our new Ambassador in Moscow on a second Sirisena presidential run in Sri Lanka.
Protest to what end?
This is the rather banal political backdrop to the janabalaya protest in Colombo. Even the claim that this was the largest protest in history is banality at its worst. At the end of it all, no one could remember what the whole fuss was about. I am not the one who is saying this. The Sunday Island political columnist took time to monitor the protest perhaps to say something about its historic significance. But this is what he wrote in The Island, yesterday, and it is worth quoting for its own significance:
“When the demonstration ended at midnight the buses were on hand to take them away, and the cleaning parties were on standby to clean up after them. This was supposed to be a protest, a demonstration against certain issues. The biggest weakness in the organization was that nobody was shouting slogans on the issues that were to be highlighted. They were supposed to be demonstrating against the proposed new constitution, against the Singapore-SL FTA, the high cost of living, the increasing tax burden, and many such issues. The whole purpose of a demonstration is to display banners and placards highlighting the issues and to shout slogans. Given the media coverage received, all the issues would have received a great deal of publicity. But as it turns out, even the slogans that were shouted out were lost in the crowd, the placards and banners were rendered ineffective. Having been at the venue, this writer can’t remember a single slogan written on the placards or banners.”
It was not merely an organizational failure. It was a protest without a purpose and was staged as a show with no substance. That’s what differentiates this protest and all Rajapaksa led protests from the political protests of earlier times. As JVP MP Vijitha Herath described it, “the janabalaya protest march … has undermined the people’s genuine protest against the government.” Worse, as the MP said, “Wednesday’s protest was a comedy with the people partying on the street after consuming liquor. What happens in such cases is the diluting of the protest against the government. That is why it became a failure with even the organizers admitting it is a failure.”
Tellingly, the day after the protest, parliament was forced to adjourn proceedings for want of a quorum. In the past, there was a real connection between proceedings in parliament and the protests on the streets. The Left Parties provided that connection and it was that connection that gave the parliamentary system whatever effectiveness it had. The Joint Opposition does have an argument in not being recognized as the official opposition party. But that should not prevent the JO from attending parliament in full force and dominating proceedings. In their glory days, the LSSP and the CP dominated parliamentary proceedings regardless of the status they were given in parliament. The LSSP was not always the official opposition party, the CP was never the official party, but the two worked as independent units to provide a common opposition to the government. The two parties had exceptionally brilliant parliamentarians but their real source of strength was in the mass support they were able to mobilize outside parliament between elections.
There is another difference between now and then. The Left Parties and even the other political parties in times past did not have any skeletons in their cupboards. They did not have to launch political protests as a firewall against potential prosecution, which seems to be the main purpose behind the Rajapaksa protests, from the Nugegoda rally in 2015 to the janabalaya protest last week. And the protests seem to have had some scaring effect on the present government at different levels. For that reason, albeit a wrong reason, one might call the Rajapaksa protests a historic achievement.
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