By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“And the people bowed and prayed, To the neon god they made” Simon and Garfunkel (The Sound of Silence)
How more blatant can it get?
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had reportedly wanted a special exposition of Kapilawastu-relics at Temple Trees.
‘Relic diplomacy’ is a standard weapon in the arsenal of those in possession of movable holy-objects, from the Catholic Church to India and China. The Rajapaksa version is relic-politics: using sacred items venerated by masses of believers as a means to bridge popularity deficits.
Kapilawastu-relics were brought to Sri Lanka in 1978, when the Jayewardene administration was implementing a broad expanse of less than popular measures (such as the abolition of the rice-ration book), in an economic atmosphere reeking of steep inflation and growing income inequalities. The UNP government, though more popular than the SLFP-led opposition, needed diversions to keep public attention away from insalubrious economic issues.
The Opposition understood the stratagem and condemned it as a blatant attempt to use religion to gain political mileage; the more radical elements within the Opposition even claimed that the relics were ersatz.
Mahinda Rajapaksa was a leading light and a very vocal voice of that opposition which condemned the UNP’s unholy use of relic-politics. 34 years later the same Mahinda Rajapaksa made a far crasser effort to exploit relic-politics to his electoral and familial advantage.
The first round of provincial council elections conflated perfectly with the arrival of the relics in Sri Lanka. Even if that timing is passed off as a fortuitous coincidence, the fact that the national peregrination of the relics made the three first stops in the three provinces where polling was scheduled indicates that the relics were used to buttress the UPFA’s electoral fortunes.
From Kelaniya, the relics were taken to Pelmadulla (Sabaragamuwa Province), Anuradhapura (North Central Province) and Kantale (Eastern Province). That schedule was a blatant political decision aimed at drumming up electoral support for the UPFA; just as the appointment of Presidential offspring Namal Rajapaksa as the ‘lay custodian’ of the relics was motivated by the need to create an identification in the public mind between these objects of public veneration and the Ruling Family.
Race and religion are potent weapons in the Rajapaksa arsenal and the Ruling Family does not hesitate to use both with a meaty-fist. Burnishing the image of the Rajapaksas as the ‘sole protectors’ of Sinhalese and Sinhala Buddhism is especially handy when the regime’s Southern base is in need of fortification.
For instance, during the grand finale of the Defence Ministry organised reality-show, Ranaviru Real Star in the election year of 2011, actor-filmmaker Jackson Anthony claimed that the Rajapaksas are related to the Buddha himself via King Dutugemunu!
The request to allow a special exposition of the relics at Temple Trees was taking the relic-politics to a new, embarrassingly coarse low. The Indians reportedly refused, arguing that Temple Trees was not a “place of worship and that it is merely the official residence of the Prime Minister or the President” (Ceylon Today – 9.9.2012).
This need to strengthen the nexus in the public mind between the Rajapaksas and Buddhism/Gautama Buddha becomes explicable when the election results are analysed.
The UPFA won the first round of PC polls as anticipated. This wholly expected and totally unsurprising victory hides a deeper malaise – the UPFA’s vote base is eroding. Compared to its performance at the 2011 local government elections, the UPFA’s tally has declined by 58,908 votes in the North Central Province and 60,454 votes in the Sabaragamuwa Province.
Even if the decrease in the Sabaragamuwa province can be partially attributed to the CWC factor, it is not so in the case of the very Sinhala and very Buddhist Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa. The UPFA vote in the North Central Province has decreased by about 15% in just one year; clearly the water-starved farmers of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa found the UPFA’s fairy tales somewhat harder to stomach.
The UPFA base is eroding, and not very glacially either; and that erosion is symbolic and symbiotic of the slow weakening of the Rajapaksa magic.
This decrease in the UPFA’s vote should be seen in conjunction with the small vote gain by the UNP, a party in the midst of a veritable existential crisis. The UPFA lost votes despite the best efforts of the Rajapaksas to win votes.
The UNP gained 50,670 votes in the North Central province (it lost 9,090 votes in the Sabaragamuwa province), despite the untiring efforts of Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Alternate Leader Sajith Premadasa to push ordinary UNPers into apathetic despair with their ill-timed and juvenile antics.
The JVP is finished as an electoral force. It cannot compete with the Rajapaksas on the ‘patriotic’ front with its anti-devolution, anti-Indian platform (the mainstay of the Second Insurgency) under Rajapaksa occupation. If the JVP cannot remake itself as a modern left party, it will decline into total irrelevance a la the old left.
But the UNP is still not dead, and that is a measure of the growing public disenchantment with Familial Rule. However, the elephant’s unexpected return to flickering life will be lost, if the UNP does not get its act together. Consequently the Rajapaksas will do all they can to worsen the internal conflict in the UNP.
Apart from the TNA (sometimes the SLMC), the UNP is the sole surviving opposition party.
No serious effort at resisting Rajapaksa rule can get off the ground without taking into account this reality. There will have to be a return to Ranasinghe Premadasa’s alliance of the poor and the powerless, of the economic have-nots and the minorities (plus the discontented elements of upper and middle classes) – a policy prescription which seems to be as alien to Sajith Premadasa as it is to Ranil Wickremesinghe.
Massive billboards (managed by the Presidential media unit) hailing President Rajapaksa as ‘Our President forever’ are mushrooming in Colombo. The first principle of Rajapaksa politics is familial power. Anything which impedes familial power is opposed while anything which enhances familial power is promoted.
So the forthcoming rounds of provincial polls will be characterised by even greater abuses of state power and resources. So Mahinda Rajapaksa, the progenitor of the Workers’ Charter, is trying to impose arbitration on the striking University dons; as the FUTA pointed out, this demand indicates “duplicity on the part of the government…(and) raises issues of tremendous concern with regard to the state of governance in this country” (Colombo Telegraph – 11.9.2012).
So the Education Ministry works tirelessly to militarise the school system: “Selected school principals are being offered the ‘Colonel’ rank, following a one-week training programme which commenced this week… 23 principals had been called for interviews in Rantambe…” (Ceylon Today – 13.9.2012).
The realisation that the Ruling Siblings are nothing but illusion-manufacturing ‘neon gods’ is beginning to seep slowly from the cities into the Sinhala-Buddhist heartland. In the absence of a strong opposition this erosion of Rajapaksa magic will happen too slowly to challenge Rajapaksa Rule any time soon. But its very existence will make the Siblings nervous. The foreseeable future will not contain a regime change, but it may well bring about more dissent and greater repression.