General Tapioca, Mahinda and the Uncommon ‘Common Candidate’.

Colombo, Sri Lanka and Tapiocapolis, San Theodoras have suddenly begun to look alike. San Theodoras is the banana republic one comes across in Herge’s TinTin: the instable state where two military generals — Alcazar and Tapioca — periodically push each other out of office through coup and revolt. In TinTin and the Picaros we learn how Tapioca, in his latest bid for power, has ousted his rival and renamed the capital after his own name: Tapiocapolis. Tapioca comes on TV, occupying prime time. His rhetoric is charged as he accuses of “foreign conspiracies” against his transparent and just government. More crucially for this article, Tapioca billboards and cutouts are sprinkled across the metro.

Colombo, Sri Lanka — starting from last week — is bustling with energy, where cutouts of all sizes and shapes of a beaming head of state have stormed the city. With the phantom of a budget (which the President delivered in parliament as if reading from Alice In Wonderland), the president’s own birth day and the climate being set for the declaration of a presidential poll all seemed to have fuelled the Rajapakshic propaganda machine in unleashing the spree of a wholesale advertising campaign. Greater areas such as Nugegoda, Maharagama, Kirullapona, Gall Face Area etc for instance, were bombarded with posters — a new poster run each day — with improvised cut outs accompanying in both main roads and by roads.

Level crossing at Railway Avenue, Nugegoda

Level crossing at Railway Avenue, Nugegoda

A huge larger than life cut out near the Galle Face Hotel had congratulated the President (regards the ‘Alice In Wonderland’ budget), while bearing the signature of a particular Police outfit. Posters bearing vague signitories and dubious authors praising the Tapioca in the “budgetary concessions” included a poster I found funny, supposedly put up by the “Jathika Shishya Vyaparaya” (National Students’ Movement) thanking the President for promising a hike in the Mahapola stipend from 2015 onwards. Incidentally, each of these successive posters would appear in the same billboards and spaces, more or less in the same lettering and in similar wording.

Poorwarama Road, which stems off Stanley Tillekaratne Mawatha in Nugegoda and runs parallal to Railway Avenue is arguably one of the least affluent neighbourhoods in the area. This road, which begins near the Nugegoda railway station comes out near Siebel Place, where it connects with Highlevel Road. The road is a narrow 1-1.25 KM passage, running by a chain of low income habitats. From the Railway Station side entrance to Poorwarama Road, all the way up to the temple (which is about 200 meters from the Highlevel-side exit) bust-shots of the President were to be seen put up every 10-20 meters or so. Lamp posts, trees, or any other organic or inorganic object on which a foot by foot placard can be hung had been used for this purpose. In fact, even the signal post at the level crossing had been used to give temporary elevation to the portrait of the head of state.

Intriguingly, the Mahinda Rajapaksha photo used as a template for these promotional items was of a “younger” Mahinda, as we first encountered him at the national level as a presidential candidate in 2005. The face is clearly of that younger man, though age and puffy cheeks would have given a greater resemblance to General Tapioca. Taken together, what we see in these before-hand preparations is the all out bid in the President and his proxies to stamp and seal a third bid for power: the very deformed monstor which he conceived through the 18th amendment to the constitution.

General Tapioca (with cigar)

General Tapioca (with cigar)

When (some of the) parties within the Opposition have collected their energies and consensus together in bringing forth Maithreepala Sirisena as the “common oppositional candidate” to the President’s candidature, it is with this ruthless Tapioca that their horns are locked. This is a regime that shows enough and sundry signs that they heed no democratic measure, if that measure is going to serve them short in their giddy bowl. It is a regime that, as witnessed over the past 9 years (but, specially, since receiving its post-2009 high), shows neither consideration or mercy. It is a regime that heeds no opposition, takes no prisoners and lets noone out free. It will thoroughly abuse state resources as its track record proves, and will squeeze dry every possible avenue to ensure an advantage.

The positive from the Oppositional perspective, however, is that what has been formed to face the Rajapaksha syndicate is one of the broadest possible alliances in the history of the nation. It is one of the most “common” forums in multiple ways, as much as it was a shock to many. In fact, the National Freedom Front leader Wimal Weerawansa was found hours prior to Sirisena’s revelation assuring the press that whoever the opposition’s candidate would be, it cannot be Maithreepala Sirisena. The newsrooms were flooded with feed from the Oppositional camp, while for the first time in as many years as I care to remember we saw a full news bulletin which had swept the government into a stuttering insignificance.

Sirisena’s candidature is equally marked for its strategic significance, as he draws out of the Rajapaksha den a potential of SLFP members. The schism that is thus formed is vital for a re-orienting of the power balance within the governmental ranks which, since 2010, has been reeking with a supernatural 2/3 majority: a battering ram on democracy in the country which the government has been using to demolish every perceived “barrier” to its self-centered ambitions. The re-aligning of the fault lines, if properly used, can be an impetus for a long term sustained change: a hinge on which the “last chance” of the nation’s survival (in our age) may well depend.

Maithreepala Sirisena

Maithreepala Sirisena

So far — and with the inclusion of Wasantha Senanayake — six SLFP / UPFA activists have cast their lot with the Opposition-led “common candidate”. The next day or two will reveal what further “comings” or “goings” are to be seen and witnessed. One source hints at a number between 29 and 34 possible crossovers from the ranks of the regime to throw their dice with the Oppositional cause. These 34 exclude two senior ministers who were today seen in parliament to voice strong opinion against the regime. Tapioca has been stirred to fight for survival. But, the “common Opposition” has to launch themselves with application and foresight. Maithreepala Sirisena has to be protected, looked after and groomed properly on the run up to the election. Preparations should from now itself be undertaken to ensure safety and assurance of a (bare minimum of a) “fair field” on the run up as well as on the election day. The Opposition has to use its contrained energy, resources and connections to achieve these ends. A sustained campaign, more so, has to be channelled and driven among the people and the diverse communities: a campaign that will gather strength, muster belief and transmit to the common voter the decisive juncture to which we have now arrived.

Tapioca will come with all guns. The Opposition cannot, however, fight back like a bunch of drunk Picaros. They, with the choice of Maithreepala, have gained a psychological first mover’s edge. The shock waves released are still in ripple form. They, the Opposition, must maneuver this common rallying point and drive home the advantage.

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