FAST & FURIOUS: THE POPULIST ‘POHOTTUWA’ PHENOMENON
Posted on January 30th, 2018

By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke Courtesy  The Daily Mirror

Where a class abdicates its moral right to leadership, it is already doomed and must surely die.”   -Mervyn de Silva, Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 1967   

The UNP Establishment has just raised the stakes. It is proclaiming from every platform that if it wins the upcoming local government election it will form a UNP government perhaps with TNA and SLMC participation, launch its own Presidential candidate next year and that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe will definitely be that candidate. The PM and front-line ideologues Mangala Samaraweera and Eran Wickremaratne are declaring the policies that will be adopted after Feb 10th, and all those policies involve a qualitative leap in neoliberal globalization or more simply, foreignization.

The strident public threat of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, Champika Ranawake and Rajitha Senaratne that Mahinda Rajapaksa and/or Gotabaya’s civic rights are likely to be removed in accordance with the (alleged) recommendation of PRECIFAC will not only be counter-productively polarizing, it simply cannot hold. Mahinda is vastly more popular and stronger than Madam Bandaranaike was when her civic rights were removed (1980), while today’s UNP government is vastly less popular than its predecessor of 1977. The economy in 1980 was growing at 8%. With low growth, and a Presidential election inescapable next year, hawkishness will blow-back at the Provincial Council elections of 2018, and at all subsequent elections. An invulnerable Mahinda proxy candidate (Chamal, Dinesh?) can sweep the Presidential election next year on the promise of restoring MR’s civic rights in 24 hours –rather like the slogan of ‘Sinhala Only in 24 hours’, which did the trick in 1956. As the Parliamentary election follows, not precedes, the Presidential election, Mahinda will have his civic rights back in time to run for Prime Ministerial office in 2020. The anti-UNP backlash after the eclipse of Neoliberal Democracy in 2019-2020 won’t be pretty– remember 1970 and its aftermath. So don’t even think about it.

The UNP has lost the moral right to lead. President Sirisena, the head of state and government, and leader of the official SLFP, the coalition partner of the UNP, has given several devastating reasons why.  Coming on the heels of the bond scam revelations which was the first massive loss of legitimacy by the UNP leadership in government, the President’s whistleblowing leads inexorably to the conclusion that it would be unethical, immoral and unforgivably stupid to cast a single vote for the UNP. The Daily Mirror headlined the page one lead story as follows: President says State revenue given to private firms on political links during past 3 years”. The story goes on to say:   …President Maithripala Sirisena said yesterday the government incurred a major loss of revenue during the past three years because it had been channeled to private companies on political connections.

A populist anti-Establishment movement of a nationalist character, it has the advantage of being led by a mainstream national leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a comeback just as Churchill, de Gaulle, Indira Gandhi and Vladimir Putin did

Amid this unscrupulous trading practice, tea of inferior quality was imported to Sri Lanka for value addition before being re-exported as tea of Sri Lankan origin. It has brought Sri Lanka’s tea trade into disrepute. In addition to tea, even pepper, dry arecanuts called karunka and pineapples were imported to be re-exported in this same manner,” he said.

The President said there was a huge price difference between the actual cost and the retail prices of various items sold in the local market and that he had raised this matter on more than 100 occasions in the Cabinet though little or nothing happened.

The President said though this government was elected to eliminate corruption, the ‘General Treasury’ was plundered barely two months after it assumed office and asked how he could remain passive…in the face of such massive frauds…” ( Feb 27th 2017, pp. 1 & 2)

Wouldn’t the UNP’s Big Rip-Off continue or expand, if nothing changes decisively?

The Pohottuwa”, an amalgam of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (the SLFP’s populist wing) and the parliamentary Joint Opposition (JO), is the fastest growing political movement I have seen in this country in my lifetime, surpassing even the growth rate of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) led by Vijaya Kumaratunga in the 1980s and the DUNF of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanaike in the early 1990s. It operates on the grid superbly built from bottom up by Basil Rajapaksa for his brother Mahinda.

Interestingly and uniquely, this political phenomenon is commonly referred to by its symbol: ‘Pohottuwa’. This means it has seized the public imagination. A populist anti-Establishment movement of a nationalist character, it has the advantage of being led by a mainstream national leader, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is making a comeback just as Churchill, de Gaulle, Indira Gandhi and Vladimir Putin did. None of those leaders headed a populist movement, but classic Third World comebacks have been of nationalist or patriotic leaders heading populist movements, be they radical or umbrella movements containing right, left and moderate-centrist camps. The classic comebacks have been Latin American: Argentina’s Juan Peron, the paradigmatic populist, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, heading the Sandinista Front.

The populist opposition movement seems to have erupted out of the earth itself, with massive crowds enthusiastically participating, vocally interacting and urging on Mahinda Rajapaksa to defeat the government. Mahinda himself departs from his script and responds spontaneously to the promptings and suggestions of the massive crowds. In my political memory (which goes back to 1964 and includes seeing Madam Bandaranaike addressing the Senate) the country has never witnessed such a powerful comeback by a political leader.

I wager that when this column reappears on February 14th the electoral outcome would have shocked the UNP and the country’s pro-UNP, pro-Western elite. This has happened more than once before. In a two-part think-piece entitled 1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left” and The Left Awakens from Romance to Reality”, in the Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16th & 23rd, 1967, my father Mervyn de Silva, aged 37 at the time, reflected retrospectively on 1956, prospectively shed light on the anti-UNP Opposition front that crystalized at Bogambara, Kandy, in 1968 and prophetically signaled the fall of the rightwing government in 1970 (three years after his essay’s publication). The present Prime Minister’s parents, the most influential bosses in Lake House at the time, scoffed at his warnings, marginalizing Mervyn for his critical insight:

The singular characteristic of a genuine mass movement is not only that it becomes the physical expression of the mass mind in action but that the popular will continuously impresses itself on the leadership, pushing and patterning it to the often inarticulate though feverish needs of the masses…
…In the course of one century, this English-educated class was totally alienated from the people, uprooted from the soil. This apartness deepened the cleavage to a point where a Disraeli might have said there were two nations. The gap between the one percent (or what Mr. Mettananda was to call ‘the microscopic minority’) and the rest was never bridged even with Independence.

It was a class therefore destined for a rude shock…Meanwhile the masses lay dormant; watching, waiting, resentful. By 1956 the equation was complete, the issues, the new class, the leader, the political alignments, the socioeconomic forces which would jet-propel the masses into action. In 1956 they moved: they moved with such a terrific momentum that it shattered the Right (temporarily) and shocked the Left. For both it was a traumatic experience.” (Mervyn de Silva, Ceylon Observer Magazine, May 1967)

In this country, History moves in cycles. The present PM’s parents were the ideologues-cum-strategists of the insensitive, myopically arrogant rightwing elite that was ousted by the nationalist-populist ‘Silent Revolution’ of 1956. Today, the Second ‘Silent Revolution’ against the UNP-driven government is led by five sons of two iconic patriarchs of 1956, DA Rajapaksa and Philip Gunawardena: Mahinda, Basil, Chamal, Gota and Dinesh. History is about to repeat itself.

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