Politics of Memory
‘Brobdingnagian’ is the term Jonathan Swift invented to denote unbelievably enormous phenomena, Gulliver encountered in his travels.
It was a ‘Brobdingnagian’ display of popular solidarity behind candidate Sajith Premadasa. What took place on Thursday at the Galle face Maidan was a masterly managed exercise of crowd psychology.
For someone to be a member of such a motivated crowd, he, she had to renounce the solitude of the meek and the cunning of the coward.
Their presence in the mad melee was to be a party to freedom. Freedom of one’s own and for anyone else who wished to lay claim to freedom. Because, they stood against the ogre of evil and tyranny.
It was an amazing orchestration of crowd symphony performed in that historic venue of our political spectacles.
One awaits with baited breadth for the other party to attempt to better it.
That said, such euphoria of solidarity should not deflect us from an accurate reading of the ground situation or what Lenin called the ‘balance of forces.
What is our categorical imperative now?
Every citizen is possessed with an equal worth that deserves equal respect. Our categorical imperative in this presidential election is to uphold that simple tenant.
Securing the gains of democratic progression after 2015 and arresting a regression towards the kakistocracy that we dismantled is the categorical imperative of our time.
That calls for an equally ‘Brobdingnagian’ consensus among the wide, varied, profusion of parties and players now navigating towards the identical ideal of democratic accountability.
They are sailing in different vessels, using different charts. Yet, they all face the threat of obliteration by the one merciless storm that is quietly gathering its countercurrents!
They have good reason to be where they are. They are split up on ideological grounds as in the case of the JVP led national people’s movement. In the case of the highly articulate and fastidiously proper Mahesh Senanayake, the civil society candidate of the National Peoples Party, it is nothing but the plain revulsion for the UNP’s duplicitous politics coupled with the charlatanry of its leadership since 2015.
The modernizing autocrat has an extreme rightwing agenda. It is an action plan to further the ends of predatory capitalism propped up with xenophobic tribal loyalty.
It is a policy that ignores the common good. It mocks the social contract that we nurtured from the days of colonial rule introducing social safety nets. It is a toxic mixture of ethnic superiority, ultra-nationalism, militarism, and plain politics of disposing dissent and opposition.
Its pivotal strategy is obedience to a powerful strong man. Hatred is regarded as an act of patriotism. Economic barbarism would rule the stock exchange. Ethical apathy would be its guiding spirit.
There is a video clip ‘Voice of youth’ in circulation with the polite entreaty “please share this clip among the social media accounts of Youths. This clip has several interviews with young girls and boys who introduce themselves as university students. The need of the hour they claim is for a single-minded, fearless and tough leader capable of disciplining a system in disarray. A kind of leader under whose rule you will cross the road only on the yellow line and drop your dross only in the designated bin. The clip is a clever piece of a primer in fascism courtesy Maria Montessori!
When the autocrat speaks of the virtues of meritocracy, it is a brazen attempt to accommodate sycophants on the power structure. Unjust advantages for singing the leader’s praise is the accepted norm.
Vested interests commanding mass media outlets will operate in a captive market. As Yale Social theorist Jason Stanley argues, known ideals will be turned on their heads and against themselves.
Propagandists are not outright liars. They are only insincere when they announce the news. They have mastered habits of thought that justify their elite privileges. Their sole purpose is to present their leader – the super predator as the single answer to the demand of the people for a tough guy.
For four and half years, we have meandered in the cozy comfort of democratic disorder. We have arrived at a critical point.
Politics should focus on what works and what is best in the larger interest of society. That requires compromise. Political parties and formations will champion differing ideologies and will disagree with each other. Yet on the issue of democratic freedom, human rights and the rule of law, they must not hesitate to seek middle ground. If, instead, they seek temporary refuge in their respective fringes, the dictator will have a quiet walk to occupy center stage.
I have never been a devotee or enthusiast of president Ranasinghe Premadasa. On the contrary I subscribed to the view that his presidency was far more personalistic and predatory than that of his predecessor and architect of the aberration we know as the Executive presidency.
As a reporter on the staff of the ‘Ceylon Observer’ I knew Ranasinghe Premadasa the parliamentarian. During his presidency, I did not live in Sri Lanka. I had one disastrous encounter with his presidency that I have no desire to revisit.
Watching the fascinating spectacle at Galle face on Thursday, I couldn’t resist the thought that there was some magic to the politics of memory associated with Ranasinghe Premadasa.
I realized that Mangala Samaraweera – the political beast had a sharper sense than mine. I was harshly critical of his choice just a few weeks earlier.
Politics of memory is the subjective experience of a substantial social group that has a sustained and sustainable relationship with power. That relationship can be personal and private. It was the case with me. I had a taste of the nepotistic facet of his presidency.
On the other hand, the multitude who greeted his son and political heir were motivated by politics of memory that was collective and public. Ranasinghe Premadasa carved his niche in the politics of the poor people. Ranasinghe Premadasa understood the core essence of poverty. Poverty was not a failure of character. Poverty was due to lack of motivation. Poverty was simply a shortage of money.
The French historian Pierre Nora has resolved the issue of memory politics with elegant lucidity. Memory in political terms is a ‘perpetually actual phenomenon’ – a sort of a knot that tied us to the eternal present.
While I watched the spectacle in Galle face, it occurred to me that Ranasinghe Premadasa introduced the ‘Janasaviya’ and launched the 200 garment factories project.
So, I asked a recognized repository of all that is wisdom in the apparel industry – what happened to the two hundred garment factories.
The dear fellow went into delirious orbit.
When it was launched the learned and the wise scoffed at it. It was ridiculed as fantasy and laughed off as impractical. Logistics did not allow it. Infrastructure was not only inadequate but was nonexistent.
Today, in retrospect that determined effort has helped Sri Lanka to become an upper-middle-income country.
Today, the apparel industry’s revenue exceeds USD 5.5 billion. If we did not lose GSP + for five years from 2010 we could have reached USD 8 Billion by now. The industry employs a million people ubiquitously spread around the country.
“The 200 garment factories project transformed a vast network of rural villages into thriving economic ecosystems having many multiplier effects to the rural regions of Sri Lanka.
An illustrative example of this transformation is Dehiattakandiya.
These factories operating in all parts of the country, now including the north and east, are thriving economic players pumping billions in consumer spending into the rural economy through jobs and in the form of ancillary services.
The original contours of the 200 Garment Factories Project have changed today. Majority of the original operators were operating on orders under the multi-fibre agreement on the European quota system.
When the multi-fibre European Quota System ended in 2005, the smaller players could not take the heat of competition in the global market. The larger Sri Lankan exporters took over and expanded these rural factories. They created higher volumes and generated more jobs.
By taking the garment industry beyond the restricted zones earmarked as export processing zones, he enabled entrepreneurs to access human resources with higher productivity. Rural employment opportunities nearer home provided social stability when the larger economy reeled under the burden of the war.
The rural reservoir of manpower was productively harnessed when the other alternative available was seeking employment abroad under trying conditions.
The 200 Garment Factory project altered the rural landscape. If Sri Lanka is among the top 10 apparel sourcing countries, its genesis is to be found in the 200 garment factories project – a simple straight forward maneuver by a man who dared, despite the odds.
In the collective conscience of Sri Lankas’s rustic hinterland, Ranasinghe Premadasa is remembered for winning another kind of war.
The Galle face multitude cut across class, creed, and culture. Our democracy though flawed has the capacity to grapple with and disarm the emerging fascist pseudo-patriotic thuggery.
Time now, to draw a lesson from Sun Tzu.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”