(The translator’s job is to translate. It is up to others to review a work but in this case, my role as translator and my role as an independent citizen of Sri Lanka got admixed. Here therefore, is the strange phenomenon of a translator actually reviewing his own work)
I have never voted in an election despite the fact that it was my right and my franchise to do so. I refrained because I was not entirely convinced of the truthfulness of modern representative democracy when the word Demokratia (demos / kratos) meaning “people’s power” and direct democracy said that any citizen of a nation or community or group who wished to engage it, could participate in government.
People in my country, in general, over the last seven or so decades have rarely if ever had a chance to participate. Their only claim to civic glory was “I voted for this or that government” or “I hate this or that government because I didn’t vote for it”. In each of the dozens of elections hidden behind a much touted, oft misunderstood, definitely popular democratic façade, the new government voted itself in, riding on the short term machinations of a few individuals keenly cognizant of an individual’s worth either as a brand (saleable) or as a commodity (essential). I do not vote because history has shown me that regardless of, despite of, because of, the people’s aspirations of heaven after a given election, the politic has failed people’s power and I am not sufficiently dumb to believe that the next election would be any different from those that preceded it.
Yet, the civic conscious citizenry of the country, whether they vote or not, primarily, keep their ears to the socio-politic, the political-economic and socio-environment baseline and secondarily, look for extraordinarily ordinary fellows (not as in the derogatory way that term is used in these days but rather in terms of brothers) who are smart enough, brave enough and committed enough to engage in demos-kratos for the social, political and environmental benefit of all. They are at best reviled or at worst snuffed. Such is the madness we call this country of ours.
On the 21st of December 2014, I met such a one. On Polhengoda road. I was buying groceries. His small office and my small home share the same lane so the meet wasn’t entirely happenstance. He rolled down his window and I said “සිරා game එකක් ගහනවා කියල අරන්ච්ච්යි.”. He said “මහින්දගේ කාලේ ඉවරයි” I said, “මෛත්රී ගන්න එක ලෙහෙසිත් නැහැ, රනිල් ඉල්ලන එක නවත්තන්න ලෙහෙසිත් නැහැ. කොහොමද වැඩේ කෙරුවේ?” He gave me an enigmatic smile.
That man was Asoka Abeygunarwardana, the key political strategist in the multiplayer, multipart drama that brought down the supposedly invincible incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse. In his recently published book “Yuga Peraliya” translated into English as “The Revolution of the Era” he gives us an electric commentary of the punch-by-counter punch political chess game that should keep people staring sightless, hours after the last page is read, shaking their head in wonder at how something this far-fetched could actually happen.
With a powerful incumbent with near total control of the political machinery of a country drowning in corruption, a fractured and weakened opposition and the citizenry resigned to “more of the same” subsequent to a “sure-thing” Mahinda victory, this world-shocking transition could only have happened if the key moves were made by someone with great civic aspirations and no political ones.
Asoka seems to have fit the bill to the T and as one reads through the incidents, one starts to understand the self-promotional rationale of politicians regardless of the country and becomes increasingly aware that only a relatively neutral but highly civic conscious person could have managed to engineer the enabling conditions for an opposition victory. In the immediate aftermath of the opposition victory, there were many claims made by many people as to how important their role was in bringing about the envisaged change but one realizes as one reads through the book that those claims are highly questionable. Asoka sums this up with a cliché that is nevertheless true in these circumstances “Victory has many fathers but defeat is an orphan”.
He is at his abrasive and honest best in his portrayal of the battle of our times and he makes no excuse for it. Having known him for a decade and having much respect for similar honesty on the part of his father before him, this came as no surprise at all. In a heady narrative, Asoka takes us back to January 27th 2013 and the determining factor that turned the worm as it were and started the campaign and how Mahinda, riding upon a bucking, over confident bronco, charged forward on a journey towards self-destruction. Describing the aftermath of that decision, he takes us through the launch and public acknowledgement of the Pivithuru Hetak Movement (PHM) and, the simple but brilliant political strategy engineered by Asoka and Shiral Lakthilaka to bring the two nationalist forces under Ven. Ratana and Rev. Maduluwawe Sobhitha who headed up the National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS) together towards the launch of the proposal for the 19th Amendment to the constitution. He states the high regard he has for Rev. Ratana and how he single handedly wrested control of the nationalist forces from the insanity of the Bodu Bala Sena and how he managed to engineer an alliance between Sinhalese and Tamil nationalists towards a common goal. Reading like a political thriller, the story takes the reader through the political sharpness of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the role of Patali Champika Ranawaka, the betrayal of Udaya Gammanpila, the tragedy of Dayaasiri, the madness of Tissa Attanayake, the doubt of Nimal Siripala, the actions of minority parties, the astigmatism of the JVP. It barrels the reader through a campaign never started, a campaign undone, a campaign floundering, a campaign resurrected literally from the ashes. From the reason why 300 days were cut to 100 days, through manifesto before marketing, past මෛත්රී පාලනයක් vs Unite for Change, money vs no money, cutouts vs no cutouts, the book unravels intrigue upon intrigue, outlines failed strategies giving rise to innovative thrusts and pulls, storms before the calm and loud calls of confrontation, manipulation, confusion, conviction and sacrifice as the variously positioned pieces of this nationwide chess game move inexorably towards checkmating the king.
|The incumbent used every undemocratic practice to prevent the opposition message from getting across to the people and yet, that very strategy backfired on a campaign blinded by a totalitarian ideology and an insatiable ego.|
Three facts emerge from this book that cannot be contested. The first is that Maithripala Sirisena, in one of the bravest and most selfless moves in modern politics anywhere in the world, walked out of the SLFP and literally off the political ledge, with only a fleeting glimpse of vague political possibilities as his surety and thereby created by default, the force behind which an opposition could fall in line despite the fact that it was at sixes and sevens with itself. The second is the debunking of the claim that the opposition victory was due to the minority vote. The third is that the floating vote that was created by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in 2004 gestated, matured and ripened over a decade and became the key block that swung the election in favor of Maithripala Sirisena.
Hanging over all of these political pyrotechnics, Asoka points out this significant determinant: The people were sick of Mahinda, sick of his high handed ways, sick of the misery he was unleashing on everyone through his henchmen, sick of the opposition and its weak, goalless meandering and desperately searching for a political personality that had been largely unscathed and unsullied by personal desire or personal gain and they found that person in Maithripala Sirisena and voted for him.
Yet, despite of all of that, Asoka points out that this is still a work-in-progress and that initial mistakes in the immediate aftermath of the victory have resulted in relative chaos with respect to the executive and the mandate given to parliament and whether or not that mandate is valid. Such is, when one sees the selfless collide with the selfish.
As Bobby Fisher said “Every checkmate is a stalemate at another level” and as my friend, intellectual critic and fellow debater Kumi Nesiah says “The reason why nations use Democracy as the state religion is not because it prevents revolutions through higher satisfaction but because it channels the energies of dissatisfaction into false revolutions called elections. Like any state religion, it's just another façade”. I am not able to contest those assertions either as a master chess player then nor a civic conscious a-political thinker now.
Still, all is not lost. As long as there are people like Asoka who understands the egos and manipulations of the many and the strategy to create democratic spaces that had been severely compromised in the recent past, others who hid themselves in civil society action for the people when the rulers had reneged on that promise are now capable of involving themselves directly in government through demos-kratos.