by Sanjana Hattotuwa
“The lie is revealed. There was no summons served. The photo depicts a lookalike of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The FBI is engaged in an effort to ascertain who produced this false information”. The Facebook Page with this content originally in Sinhala also featured a screenshot of a news story from a leading private electronic media institution. This TV channel, with pages on Facebook in both Sinhala and English that regularly generate very high engagement, ran a story which strongly suggested news of Gotabaya Rajapaksa being sued in the US was false and incorrect.
Also on Facebook and in response to the entirely unexpected development around the former Secretary of Defence when on holiday in the US, nearly a dozen posts in Sinhala venomously decrying those who brought the lawsuits, journalists who reported it and anyone who welcomed it was published in the space of a day. Each post saw very high levels of engagement by way of responses and sharing. The usual hate prevailed, with one post on a fan page with close to 100,000 followers noting that the entire pack of dogs who brought lawsuits against Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be chased out beyond the ends of the earth once he became President.
Official social media accounts of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the time of writing this column, were silent on the lawsuits but published other content featuring meetings and gatherings in the US. Namal Rajapaksa, soon after the first reports of his Uncle being served papers at a car park in the US, tweeted a denial anchored to ignorance of the family around what at the time was carried in the media. A deluge of tweets around his birthday, the day after, soon subsumed this single tweet on the Uncle. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was completely silent, producing absolutely nothing by way of a vehement denial or a post indicating strong support.
Google Trends, which showcases search interest over a term or phrase of a given period, showed a dramatic increase in interest around ‘Gotabaya’ from April 8, by way of domestic as well as international traffic. Disaggregated by Google, much of the search traffic from Sri Lanka came from the Western Province, followed by the Central and Southern Provinces. On Twitter, the news spread rapidly. Just two tweets by BBC correspondent Azzam Ameen on the lawsuits respectively filed by Ahimsa Wickrematunge and the International Truth and Justice Project generated nearly 700 likes in under two days.
Clearly, on account of this, vicious posts on Facebook against Ameen’s reporting appeared on pages linked to political parties and politicians allied to Gotabaya Rajapaksa or the SLPP. A motley array of braying apparatchiks on social media took to two common themes to dismiss concerns arising out of the lawsuits, noting that any publicity was good publicity and that the news served only to strengthen Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appeal and prospects of candidacy. On WhatsApp, news of the development was repeatedly shared with me as well as the concern around the safety and security of those involved or referenced in the lawsuits, including family and relatives in Sri Lanka. Though not explicitly noted, there was fear and anxiety over even expressing an opinion around the development in public.
For a man who has yet to be officially nominated as a candidate for the Presidential election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s every statement and move already generate tremendous levels of interest and related media content. There is clearly more on him than there is content produced officially by him, which fits a pattern; on the one hand, a strategic distancing from the frothing fans and their open racism, hate and violent nationalism.
This allows for plausible deniability when the worst of this content is highlighted, while at the same time allowing the content to seed and spread amongst audiences it was clearly aimed for. On the other hand, through both Viyathmaga and official accounts pegged to the individual, the careful construction of an identity which is part saviour, part visionary and all about delivery. A cardinal mistake would be, entirely independent of the prospects of candidacy, to dismiss all this.
As with all populists, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is a product of a system of governance that has fragmented polity and society. His appeal is in effect the desire for the good life by those who are tired of its pursuit and angered by its unreachability. While the deep or the dark state economy will obviously throb and thrive under Gotabaya, the perception of so many whose comments I study online is that there will also be the opportunity for many others to succeed in a society where order and discipline prevail. This is a compelling fiction projected and promoted in extremely nuanced ways over many platforms. It is an illocutionary act, which disguises strong demands through utterances and content disguised as that which expresses the will of the downtrodden, forgotten or a majority interested in a better future.
The campaigns – and it is very much in the plural – of Gotabaya Rajapaksa are engaging studies in the adoption and adaptation of media for populist appeal. From creating enemies of elites to emphasising the sovereignty (or power) that resides in the people, campaigns also promote an exclusive Sinhala-Buddhist heartland which represents core values of culture, country and community. Problems are flagged, but instead of government or state responses or redress, Gotabaya’s campaigns perennially promise personal attention or action – promoting self and individual power over democratic institutions.
The lawsuits in the US will fuel the heightened production of content that is anchored to all this. But in a larger sense, the dynamics before the dramatic development in the US, endure at least in the complex media ecosystems I study and their relationship with electoral outcomes. Gotabaya is isolated from within the family, unable, yet, to elicit even a single tweet from Mahinda even after a significant development.
Gotabaya attempts to cement, and soon, his candidacy as a given by feeding a large, pulsating fan base, tearing, straining and snapping at anything or anyone hindering an official nomination. It is this feverish, frothing, feeding frenzy that elder brother and nephew stand, for now, apart from. But this may change, and developments in the US may serve to in the short-term, strengthen domestic appeal, forcing the hand of those who have held back. The New Yorker magazine in 2011 published a fascinating account of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, where the writer was shown four sharks in his garden, in massive tanks. When describing them, Gotabaya giggled softly.
This succinct capture of man and mentality still gives me shivers. But he represents a growing disconnect between elected officials and ground realities, which cannot be defeated by derision, denial or dismissiveness. Gotabaya’s sharks, we are told, needed fresh sea-water every fortnight, which was trucked in. All predators thrive in conditions that allow them to feed and grow. Sri Lanka’s socio-political rot, decades in the making, is populism’s rich nutrient base. That’s the problem. Gotabaya Rajapaksa is just a symptom.