Notes from an Election: Gotabaya and Gota-Baya

“When a future historian writes the political history of the most obtuse and inept government in post-independence Sri Lanka, he or she will doubtless identify the zenith of idiocy having been the Constitutional prevention of Mahinda Rajapaksa running for President in 2019, thereby opening the door for the fulfilment of the worst fear of the neoliberal democrats, namely a Gotabhaya candidacy pointing to a Gotabaya presidency.”

The problem with Gotabaya Rajapaksa is that he is not Mahinda Rajapaksa. That, at any rate, is what I gather from Dr Dayan Jayatilleka’s critique of him. To say the one is not the other is to say nothing at all. But the devil is in the detail, and I think we ought to give Dr Dayan the benefit of the doubt. In any case, it’s futile now to deny the debate, because the cat’s out of the bag: one of our foremost intellectuals, and probably our foremost political commentator, philosopher, and theorist, has placed before us an interesting critique of one of the two frontrunners. To support the critique, much use has been made of certain dichotomies, all of which cover one of the two (not the one being excoriated, obviously) with glory.

There’s little, in fact nothing at all, inconsistent in Dr Dayan’s pieces. The oppositional space after 2015, cut off from the presence it ought to have been allowed in parliament, had two options to take. One was the path favoured by stalwarts like Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dinesh Gunawardena, Kumar Welgama, and Wimal Weerawansa, centred on Mahinda Rajapaksa’s charisma and charm. The Nugegoda rally, at which Dr Dayan delivered Mahinda’s speech, was the first step. If there was no Gotabaya addressing the crowd, it’s because he was the personality those who preferred the second option wanted. That second option congealed into its own front, its own conclave of technocrats, professionals, and capitalists. Viyath Maga and Eliya, which took off in 2017, not only sealed in Gotabaya, but also sealed out and pre-empted the first option.

Only once before, as Dr Dayan observes, was the SLFP able to win over the bourgeoisie from the UNP, and that was when Chandrika was on (and up) her way to the presidency. I’ll get to the relevance of that comparison in a later essay, but the point is that it happened before and it has happened again: “the heavy hitters,” he observed about the 2018 Viyath Maga Seminar, “weren’t lurking on the flanks, hedging their bets.” To be sure, they were not: Colombo’s powerful, invisible capitalist class was there, at Shangri-La, listening to Gotabaya, to Nalaka Godahewa, and planning on their next move: they had given up on Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP. And here’s the clincher: they had defected to Mahinda and Gotabaya, but they wouldn’t have made that leap without Gotabaya. Project Gotabaya, in that respect, has all the vices of technocratic authoritarianism without the compensating virtues. It’s neo-liberalism plus neo-fascism and minus soft populism. Or so Dr Dayan implies.

It’s no secret that sections of the Podujana Peramuna which favoured the first option did not favour Project Gotabaya as much as the Viyath Maga and Eliya crew did. There is a problem there: the first option was and is largely favoured by those seen as spent, old, and ageing politicians. If that sounds like an insult, rest assured that though it probably is, I’m not the one hurling it. 2015 displaced the establishment in favour of a fringe opposition, but it did so while displacing the establishment WITHIN that fringe opposition. Those who take to the JO thus look beyond the “moderates” into the eyes of Gorgon, and though they haven’t been turned into stone, they continue to be seduced by the gospel of authoritarianism the Viyath Maga Eliya set put out. The “moderates” have not been displaced as much as they’ve been replaced: both Welgama’s obstinacy and Vasudeva’s hesitancy indicate it. No doubt personal grievances have a say there, but these have been subsumed by the bigger picture.

Thus ends Dr Dayan’s classification of these two ideological strands and denunciation of the more authoritarian of them. Before I lay down my critique of the critique, I should observe at the outset that the prospect of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency neither interests nor daunts me. Indeed, as of now, it’s hard to say that he’s the frontrunner (i.e. that he’s ahead of Sajith), though this shouldn’t worry anyone. In any case, of all candidates he’s hands down the most authoritarian. If Sajith can equal the record of his father (more on that a little later), he has the potential to be as authoritarian, but we have not seen Sajith’s authoritarianism (even if it is there, in his arrogant displays to the media — bewildering, given how certain media outlets are explicitly propping him up — and in his very odd third person self-referencing) while we have seen, only too clearly, Gotabaya’s. But that’s another story.

I do not think Dr Dayan is being inconsistent, because he’s been making the same point about Gotabaya for as long as I can remember, certainly from the time of Mahinda’s presidency. In Long War Cold Peace he calls Gotabaya the “Security Tsar”, identifying him with a security complex that began with Oliver Goonetilake and continued with J. R. Jayewardene, Felix Bandaranaike, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ranjan Wijeratne, and Anuruddha Ratwatte. There was a time when he praised the man (“Gota has demonstrated his developmental vision and capacities beyond any reasonable doubt”), but that was before his foray into the Viyath Maga and Eliya. And yet, this, the strongest defence of his critique that I can mount — that it’s not inconsistent — also happens to be the weakest point in it. Ideological consistency salvages his argument, but it does not validate it. There are two reasons why it does not.

The first. With or without Viyath Maga Eliya (VME), Gotabaya is Gotabaya. Dr Dayan sees a break, or a breach, between the two: he presents to us a pre- and post-VME Gotabaya. It is tempting to cave into this dichotomy, but such demarcations don’t work out in reality, and are certainly not convincing. Dr Dayan’s assessment of Gotabaya “precedes” VME; if that pre-VME assessment of the man is anything to go by, there is not a breach but rather a line of continuity, ideological or otherwise, between the one and the other. If he was a security tsar at the time of his brother’s presidency, and if he was neo-fascist and a centre of gravity for Colombo’s tycoons, he remains so with or without VME. Ergo: VME has captured Gotabaya just as much as Gotabaya has captured VME. This chicken-egg dilemma cuts into the analysis, because VME doesn’t represent a break from Gotabaya. The one didn’t come before or after the other; the one IS the other.

The second. One can’t account for his blunt assessment of Gotabaya and VME without taking Sajith Premadasa into consideration. Sajith is Sajith, with or without his opponent or that opponent’s ideological outfit, but he represents the perfect counterpoint, for Dr Dayan at least, through whom we can square Gotabaya with the kind of militaristic, authoritarian, and neo-fascist oppositional space he peals warning bells about. But if neo-fascism is what peals the bell, Sajith isn’t the person to toll it. I say that for two reasons: one, he represents the extreme populist faction of the UNP, led by people no less savoury or unsavoury than the Reid Avenue Regency it opposes; two, he promises to take us back to his father’s era, which, for all the rosy nostalgia it evokes today, was as bloody as it was rosy.

It’s interesting that Dr Dayan, in Long War Cold Peace, can, with the same sharp, analytic rigour with which he dissects the industrial-military complex in Gotabaya’s conception of the State, brush aside atrocities committed by the government headed by the father of the man he champions, by reducing an entire decade’s worth of bombings and bodies burning in tyres and floating on rivers to “the eight years from the July 1980 general strike and the smashing of the trade union movement through the sacking of 60,000 workers, up to the first round of provincial council elections and the decompression of 1988.” What happened after those eight years, we are not told, nor are we made to feel we should be; by this I am not grilling Dr Dayan, of course.

I can write more, and I should, but I won’t. Let me instead sum up everything in one go, then. Gotabaya is Gotabaya with or without VME. Sajith is Sajith with or without Gotabaya and VME. Dr Dayan, in distinguishing the one from the other, has overlooked this fact. Despite overlooking it, he makes his views consistent, even a little sound. But not too sound. And as for relative merits between Sajith and Gota, well, let me quote Sarath de Alwis: “All of king’s horses and all of king’s men will not make me cast my second preference for his [Mangala’s] candidate.” For in politics, as in love, relative merits are never an absolute must.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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