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An affair of the heart ... and the heartland

By Dayan Jayatilaka

(January 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The (geographic) periphery proved to be (politically) peripheral, while the road to power lay through the paddy fields and the provinces of the Sinhala heartland. Mahinda Rajapakse gave the lie to the notion that the minorities, especially the Tamil minority, held the key to the outcome of the election. Given the demographics on the ground, namely that the Sinhalese constitute an overwhelming majority, Rajapakse proved that even in peacetime, winning an overwhelming majority of that overwhelming majority was a viable path to victory, leaving the Tamil voters relatively peripheral to the outcome just as the Tamil majority areas are peripheral to the island.

The Sinhala peasantry which provided the manpower to sustain the war against the Tigers and finally prevail over them, provided the votes needed for a political victory for the incumbent over the Fonseka option chosen (ironically) by the unreconstructed Tamil nationalists. The foot soldiers who loyally followed Gen Fonseka as Army chief, voted with their families for Mahinda. It is not that they deserted Fonseka but that Fonseka was perceived as deserting the camp of Sinhala nationalism. Rajapakse romanced and won the hearts of the heartland.

The question remains as to how the Opposition’s strategists, Western diplomatic opinion and the overwhelming majority of media pundits got it so very wrong. Not only were they on the wrong side of History and totally oblivious to the sentiments of the vast majority of their fellow/Sri Lankan citizens, their demonstrated powers of analysis require them to get to the back of the class and work it out.

A cursory acquaintance with modern history would have told them that no military chief has bested a strong national political leadership in a political struggle in the aftermath of a historic, victorious war or revolution. A Fonseka bid could have had a chance only in the context of a military defeat, an economic depression or an incumbent with a wimp factor. Furthermore, an Obama-model campaign can work only with an Obama-model candidacy, not grafted onto a John McCain or Ariel Sharon one. A Terminator-type candidate had no chance against a serial smiler with proven machismo and warm if rascally, piratical charm.

The statistical starting point of the opposition strategists and most commentators, not to mention those who sent an array of ‘polls’ by email, was the Presidential election of 2005. We were informed that "the facts were undeniable" when the only thing that was undeniable was the hollowness of pure empiricism as an analytical methodology and perspective.

It was truly imbecilic to take 2005 as the base line, when (i) the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga had thrown her not inconsiderable weight behind former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at that election and (ii) the intervening period was taken up with a full-on war and victory, making the difference between 2005 and 2010 one between distinct historical periods, "pre-war" and "postwar", or "the Prabhakaran period" and the "post-Prabhakaran period" with their qualitatively different dynamics and altered states of collective consciousness; of national moods.

The election was held in a period that was post-war, post-Prabhakaran but not post-nationalist or post-patriotic. The reckoning that Fonseka’s military record could neutralize that sufficiently, even to the extent of bearing the burden of an alliance with the TNA, the Tiger fellow travelers, (and Ranil, the Tiger appeaser) proved disastrous. Above all, the Opposition, its western backers/handlers, its Diaspora Tamil allies and local pundits grossly underestimated the patriotism/nationalism and anti-interventionism/anti-imperialism of the Sinhala masses, as well as their democratic aversion to the risk of Bonapartist tyranny.

In Gramscian terms, the vital "national popular" and "national democratic" dimensions were ignored by the opposition’s strategists and ideologues, except in the most superficial sense of fielding a war hero as candidate. Those factors, the depth and extent of which were underestimated, were (re)activated not only by the perceived threat to the main political leader who had restored national pride, but by the presence of the pro-Tiger TNA and Ranil Wickremesinghe’s unrepentantly pro-appeasement UNP at General Fonseka’s side, the reactivation of the "war crimes" propaganda in the West, and certain gratuitous remarks by some Western diplomatic representatives.

The model for Rajapakse’s defeat was supposed to be that of Churchill in 1945, but not only was ‘born again’ politician Fonseka no Clement Attlee, Labour leader Attlee did not contest in alliance with Nazi supporter Oswald Mosely and appeaser Neville Chamberlain! Though unaware of its Biblical provenance, "tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are" seems to have been the criteria of the Sinhala Buddhist voter.

Is the newly and handsomely re-elected incumbent then secure from challenges? The first challenge is the avoidance of hubristic adventurism. President Jayewardene won a 5/6ths majority at the parliamentary election of 1977 and promptly disenfranchised his main opponent Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike. He won the Presidential election of 1982 comfortably, but blundered by postponing a parliamentary election and substituting a referendum instead. These two superfluous moves, coming in the wake of clear victories, de-legitimized the administration, generating a huge crisis with a bloody denouement. One can only hope that President Rajapakse is not nudged along the same path.

What now, what next? The Sinhalese have voted overwhelmingly one way, the Tamils the other. What this means is that despite developmental successes and economic reintegration, the Administration’s stewardship of the North and East and relationship with the ethnic minorities in general has been as stark a political failure as its relationship with the Sinhalese has been a political success. One is the reflection upside down, of the other.

Today, the majority of the Tamil–speaking people of the North and East have voted as a single bloc, and barring the Sinhala majority areas, the North and East have psycho-politically re-merged! The failure to win notably large political support from the Tamils and Muslims in the East, despite the progress of economic development, not only reveals the flaws of that model of development - perceived as ethnocentric - but of the administration’s central and abiding weakness so far: its blind-spot regarding the political and psychological dimensions of the ethno-national question and its insensitivity to the dimension of ethnicity and the management of difference.

The ethnic polarization of the map of Sri Lanka reveals a basic structural weakness of the Lankan state formation. Samir Amin tells us that systems decay precisely at their periphery, and this I believe is true of state formations too. While President Rajapakse has resolved the long crisis of state power, in that he has restored the state’s territorial borders (once again co-extensive with its natural ones) and monopoly of violence, he has not yet resolved the state’s crisis of legitimacy at its periphery. There is no political consensus which cross-cuts ethnicity and runs from North to South, East to West. Thus, the crisis continues.

Sad, troubling, but more affordable in the final analysis for the Sinhalese than the Tamils because the former have the sheer numbers, the big guns, the relative resource endowments, the engines of economic growth, the ideological fuel of re-assertive nationalism and the historical memory-driven collective political will to maintain or restore coercive control over the North East. This means that the majority of the Tamil minority, having now seen that (a) they wield no veto over political outcomes (b) Sinhala sentiment tends overwhelmingly one way, and (c) the incumbent is here to stay another term, have one more chance to negotiate its way into the mainstream or remain an alienated periphery in more senses than one.

That last chance or those last chances are at the parliamentary and provincial council election (as well as within a constituent assembly if one is constituted). It is not a seller’s market. The Tamils need to become stakeholders of the Rajapakse administration and partners – neither posturing competitors nor pliant clients — of Sinhala nationalism. This entails a double and mutual shift: on the part of triumphant Sinhala nationalism and the re-elected presidency, to greater openness, generosity and accommodation of Tamil sentiments, and on the part of the Tamils, to leaders from their community with whom the Sinhala nationalist dominated centre is willing and likely to deal with. Here, I can only think of Devananda and (perhaps) Dharmalingam Siddharthan. Prudence, responsibility and constructive partnership are the need of the hour. Let us hope the hour is not too late.

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