The crowds phenomenon
We have seen this phenomenon occurring with regularity in Sri Lanka for a long time. We never learn lessons. Supporters of rival sides go into euphoria. That is the purpose in political parties gathering crowds. It is to create a false perception about winning in order to set up a bandwagon effect on the population at large.
On the other hand, we have known many a time in the past that crowds at meetings do not necessarily translate into votes. Crowds gather for different reasons and your guess is as fair as mine. This is not to speak of the fact that crowds are by nature fickle.
During the last presidential election huge crowds were drawn to Mahinda’s meetings and the Government-owned television media relayed that ad nauseam. The result said something else. One has to make the important distinction between spontaneous crowds and manipulated and organised crowds.
What we have seen in political rallies in Sri Lanka for many decades are organised crowds. They are being brought in provided transport from faraway places. They are given a kind of payment in kind or cash or both for coming. Left to themselves, these poor folk would not have come all the way to fill a ground in Colombo. Two in the crowd died the other day.
Soothsaying from crowd attendance
I do not have an accurate assessment of the relative attendances. But for the sake of argument, let us say that Mahinda’s rally was more impressive than the other three rallies. Sarath de Alwis’ reasoning isn’t lucid even then. That is not merely due to the obvious truth that one cannot jump from the premise of crowd attendance in one spot on one day to the inference that Mahinda has already won even the momentary concurrence of over 12 million voters spread out all over the length and breadth of Sri Lanka. It is also because the voting time is still over two years away.
Furthermore, Sarath de Alwis has not even bothered to recognise the simple maths that the totality of the crowds of the other three meetings would have far exceeded Mahinda’s rally. The UNP rally, from all accounts had been huge. The JVP’s was impressive, too and the SLFP rally even in the countryside at Getambe was not far away despite the heavy rain. All those are, presumably, anti-Mahinda voices. Then, what about the votes of our Tamil and Muslim brethren? The net result is obviously negative for Mahinda. Logically Mahinda has no chance on this line of reasoning.
DJ was thrilled he got a place on the podium and he could not outlive that excitement. He wrote that the meeting signified Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second rising. But, like any politician, DJ wouldn’t care repeating fiascos.
The basic assumption of politicians in Sri Lanka is that masses can be fooled; that they suffer from memory loss. DJ is by now a scholar muted into a politician. He is on record (I have the video), during a Mahinda Sulanga meeting, rhetorically asking the audience: “Do you like a son of yours becoming like a Mahinda Rajapaksa or a Ranil Wickremesinghe?” Would you call a person like that a scholar or political analyst?
Positives from May Day crowd dragging
Another positive thing happened this time on May Day. It was that the CTB made Rs. 69 million just on one day – hiring its buses for rallies. This is a sign of Yahapalanaya because previously Mahinda and his men ordered the buses but never paid for them; the State had to bear the cost. This time all parties including those of the Government paid for the hire. Even enemies of the YP Government should congratulate President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for this record.
Our intelligentsia has a responsibility
I keep constantly pointing out that Sri Lanka’s academics and general intelligentsia have let the country down. From this point of view, I applaud the movement for Yahapalanaya headed by the late Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Thera and well supported by a few academics and intelligentsia like Professor Sarath Wijesooriya, Gamini Viyangoda, Victor Ivan and so on.
This is not satisfactory. More educated people must come forward and form a strong critical mass of non-sectarian influencers. We all have to realise one serious fact, namely that our country is in poor economic shape. On the other hand, lots of sectors-health, education, housing, infrastructure, etc. need State help and intervention. But that role can be played by the State only if the economy grows to afford it. The common-sense line is that we cannot live above our means; we will eventually collapse.
What we see now is that Sri Lanka is in the grasp of a severe debt trap. We have to extricate ourselves from this pathetic situation. Since the year 1977, we have not had a single year of trade surplus. It has been a case of recurring deficit trade balances. We have been living far above our means. We managed our Balance of Payments largely because of foreign remittances and that simply means that our economy has been sustained by the slavery of our housemaids.
We have boastfully shown “growth,” but that growth is built on debt. We fool the people and the media by concealing that fact. We speak in hyperbole to deceive the masses asserting we are a nation in lower middle-income status. The current Finance Minister recently went on record saying we are going to reach high middle-income status in 2019! This is all a joke. The urgent need is to restructure our economy from an import -dependent one to an export-led one. This means we must create an environment for foreign and domestic investment.
If we do not do this and instead help in the process of creating instability in the country for political gain all Sri Lankans are doomed to a tragic plight. Some of the intelligentsia who act as spectators and cheer squads will find a way out for their families and themselves. So will politicians with dual citizenship. They will join the shouting diaspora. The powerless will stay behind and reap the havoc of populist policies.
Enough of populism
Opposition political parties are most irresponsible opposing as they do any new economic thinking shown by the Prime Minister and his Government. They don’t realise we have to get out of inbox -thinking and planning. Trade Agreements with other countries will sell our land, they say. Joint investments with richer countries are a sell off, they say. Privatisation of uneconomic ventures are a crime, they say. Reconciliation attempts with our Tamil brethren are another sell-off, they say.
Sri Lanka has to change the basic rules of the game of governance and this can be done only by changing our present dysfunctional constitution. We have to get better quality political representatives to Parliament. A different constitution can go a long way to facilitate that. On the other hand, the Opposition says the proposed constitution is another sell-off.
This is the Opposition refrain. May Day antics are another public manifestation of populism. We must stop this crowd dragging. May Day is a day for workers and not for politicians. It is interesting to note how writer Sarath de Alwis is impressed by Mahinda being a ‘master of emotional politics,’ and how he deprecates Ranil Wickremesinghe for his appeal to rationalism. I like to tell Sarath that what Sri Lanka needs is precisely an appeal to reason. Emotional politics is the pursuit of the dishonest and selfish.
(The writer can be reached via email@example.com.)