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Selective policing and opportunistic congregations

Veni, vidi, not quite vici. I came, I saw, but I didn’t quite conquer.

The main Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), led by former President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son and presidential contender Sajith Premadasa, and a mass of party supporters took to the streets last week. This was amidst an animated police force that proactively sought to thwart the protest – firstly by invoking the jurisdiction of various courts seeking injunction orders against the conduct of the protest to mixed results. Secondly, it was by blocking the free and peaceful exercise of the constitutionally enshrined and guaranteed rights of speech and expression, assembly, association, and movement, by turning away busloads of people seeking to enter the epicentre in order to protest against what they described as an “accursed government” that had replicated an earlier epoch of queues for essentials and was seeking to foie gras the battle of their bulging midriffs through corrupt deals whilst decrying a foreign reserves crisis.

Under a smattering of rain, addressing the gathering in Galle Face on 16 November, SJB and Opposition Leader Premadasa issued a clarion call to the people to rally for a “new era” under a “new vision” and a “new programme” that would see the “victory of the country and the people” via a “new government” that would espouse exemplary human resource management practices – giving the skilled, talented, competent, and capable the pride of place.

Not to be outdone in the art of demagoguery, the Government, in particular its Public Security Minister, was quick to conjoin the Opposition with the growing rank and file of the hydra that is Covid-19. Of late, the virus, packaged in the form of arbitrarily decided, hastily cobbled together, and increasingly selectively enforced, circulars, and regulations, purporting to prevent the further spread of the pandemic, has become the Government’s favoured tool of political hypocrisy and the suppression of dissent, despite political shindigs and soirees of the ruling party carryings-on being held with less publicised fanfare and media glare.

Now that the dust has settled on the said protest and the focus has riveted back to the pressing issue of bipeds caught in the battle royale meant for cephalopods – thus ensuring that much like the survivalist South Korean Squid Game, working-class men and women are able to stand in line in the queues for “gas, fuel, kerosene, milk powder, rice, and sugar”, as Premadasa described the order of the day, whilst also earning their daily keep and perhaps, time permitting, have a vital meal – and the Budget of vacuous truths for the next financial year, with its debates composed of white noise staticity interrupted only by the occasional unedifying bray, bombards the idiot boxes in this land of our lady of sorrows – Sri Lanka; one may pose the question: What was the purpose of this protest?

Was it to overthrow the Government that has a, however tenuous, two-thirds parliamentary majority, sufficient to get the said Budget in through the out door? Was it, as some have claimed, an anti-people-friendly act of political expediency meant to destabilise the already doddering Government which is painting itself into the madcap lunatic fringe of the “idiot, full of sound and fury” brand of political desolation, through the criminal spread of its microscopic foe Covid-19? Was it a protest for the sake of a protest? Was it a warning to the Government of the united and collective disenchantment of the body politic? Was it a “rational rebellion against intolerable conditions” (as Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich notes in The Mass Psychology of Fascism) of a socioeconomic nature? Or, was it a step towards a worthwhile endeavour?

Regardless of the answers to these questions, one thing is apparent from the turnout at the protest: The SJB – the phoenix which has risen from the ashes of the United National Party (UNP) in double quick time, as seen at the last presidential election, without any way near the kind of pre-preparation and time and not to mention the absence of an overbearing oedipal patriarch stymying the severing of the political umbilical noose, as enjoyed by the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) that had a similar meteoric rise at the local government elections held after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) candidate, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s defeat – has taken a positive step towards breaking the hoity-toity, uppity, too good for the proles kind of fat of the land elitism of the UNP, and sought to shed that faux superciliousness at the innervating feet of the salt of the earth and to touch base with the ground beneath the feet, the grassroots level.

It is important, therefore, for both the Government and the Opposition to keep the rules of the game, so to speak, of its individual political objectives in mind.

Based on the contributions to the debates of the Budget, no clear picture emerges of what the SJB would do to resurrect Sri Lanka from the eddy of the economic maelstrom. Clarity on the so-called “new vision” and “new programme”, in this hour of Sri Lanka’s need, needs to be the driving force, if they are to make any contribution, as is their duty by the people, to the legislative process, at least in the form of introducing and pushing through any amendments to the budget proposals without letting their future election manifesto cat out of the bag but instead allowing the people a glimpse into the “vistas of prosperity and splendour” that the SJB can conjure up.

For its part, the Government should not see such protests as acts of seditious Thoreauvian civil disobedience, but as a reminder of the pertinent need for the Cabinet of Ministers to take up the role of the coxswain and to make haste to course correct, by steering clear of naval gazing and in some cases, lotus eating, and to instead actively seek solutions which are rooted in reality, moored by expertise and anchored on honest patriotism.

Towards this end, it is well for the Opposition to understand what Scottish author Charles Mackay describes in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds as the “peculiar folly” of “every age”, where it plunges into “some scheme, project, or fantasy, spurred on by the love of gain, the necessity of excitement, or the force of imitation”. After all, the SJB Leader should, as a student of history, know that the sins of fathers do visit upon the children.

It is also opportune to remind both the Government and the SJB-led Opposition as the purported government in waiting of Reich’s anti Machiavellian sagacity contained in Listen, Little Man!: “You think the end justifies the means, however vile. I tell you: the end is the means by which you achieve it. Today’s step is tomorrow’s life. Great ends cannot be attained by base means. You’ve proved that in all your social upheavals. The meanness and inhumanity of the means make you mean and inhuman and make the end unattainable.”

Veni, vidi, not quite vici.