It was truly a Kafkaesque experience. I have for nearly twenty years gone to Sleek Salon on Vajira Road. On the Friday before May Day, as I was getting a haircut, a fellow customer received two calls and made one. There was no attempt whatsoever to leave the men’s salon to take the calls, or to conduct the conversations in a hushed tone. The first call was a negotiation over extra buses to cart people to a rally on May Day. The political party making the request wasn’t clear. Evident, just by listening to the responses, was that a significant premium on offer if the buses were supplied. The caller was told, apologetically, there were no more buses available, at whatever price. The second call had the recipient repeatedly state his official designation and where he was, which to the caller was at an important meeting. The import of this blatant falsehood was only evident in the third call, which he made to his legal counsel. On this call, all of us in the room were privy to the news that an open warrant had been issued for his arrest, and that the Police were in his office awaiting his return. According to what he informed his lawyer, it was around the non-payment of a large bill for which he apparently bore no responsibility.
An official clearly holding an important government position, with impunity, loudly speaking in public as a broker for public transport used for partisan purposes, apparently wanted by the Police over financial anomalies, calls a lawyer to keep him from going to prison, all the while calmly seated getting a haircut, and at one point asking the barber to jot down the mobile number of the Police constable waiting to arrest him. Save for furtive glances reflected through mirrors and cocked eyebrows, the rest of us in the room didn’t know how to react.
The whole episode was a snapshot of Sri Lanka today – where the positively bizarre exists cheek in jowl with the ordinary, and where the lack of shame over serious allegations or even the threat of arrest is the norm for those with clear political clout or are proxies to power. As it would have to others present in the room, it reminded me of what things were like under the Rajapaksa regime and what Asanga Welikala, an academic and friend, calls the ‘normalisation of the exception’, a disturbing socio-political condition where what is ethically suspect or essentially wrong and violent in form, substance, spirit or implementation, nevertheless garners popular support over time by appearing to be the usual way of going about business, or conducting governance.
And this is how we went into May Day.
Most May Day rallies now resemble rock concerts. Guest appearances, soundbites, music, song and dance before and after the main stage appearance of some pretentious individual – beyond the reach of even those attending – livestreamed, plastered across social media and this year, captured through drones as well. A leading journalist vented, not incorrectly, that May Day is more about the genuflection towards select individuals heading political parties than anything remotely related to highlighting the rights and struggles of workers. Not that the crowds seem to care – out of coercion, curiosity or some coordination – they come in droves, sometimes, as was the case on Galle Face this year, even to die. It is unclear whether they listen to what is said on the main stage, or care enough to. Those on the main stage clearly don’t care about anything they say they do – if they did, at the very least and on May Day, they too would come in buses and trains, not luxury SUVs. The fiction around rally, congregation, stage, speech, intoxication and subsequent dispersion is a well-known, rehearsed script.
But beyond public theatre, May Day is also anchored to the projection of power and the perception of popularity. This completely pointless contest between political parties is nevertheless an inescapable, annual litmus test, outside uncertain timelines of elections. All leading politicians and political parties plan for May Day as a show of strength. And this year, the Joint Opposition’s rally at Galle Face green put the others to shame. Judge the success of it not by what the JO says, but the degree to which those in government, and in power, go to downplay it.
On social media, one young card-carrying UNP supporter tried to suggest that the area in front of the main stage had only ten thousand seats. Even a cursory glance at any photo suggests a density, in that area alone, of at least three to four times more. Other attempts appeared to be more scientific, but were in fact anything but – blocking out grids in the crowd and suggesting each grid had one hundred people, a patently absurd under-estimation.
Lest we forget, the power of optics is more than just the number of people who attend a rally. It is about how the rally is covered and from what angles. Here too, the JO was ahead through better, more strategic planning. From the time the crowd was coming into Galle Face green, with video footage put on social media by Namal Rajapaksa, and taken from what appears to be the rooftop of the Taj Samudra hotel, to the perspectives afforded by drones, the live coverage as well as carefully selected photos released to the public gave a sense of scale. In comparison, what is to date publicly available on the social media accounts of the President and Prime Minister focus on a few individuals, and less on the (smaller) crowds that came to their rallies. And even here, as any novice photographer worth her salt will attest, angles matter. There is simply no spatial awareness in the government’s official output, no sense of scale, perspective, a framing that conveys numbers or the use of vantage points to communicate the length of a procession, or the breadth of a crowd.
If May Day is essentially a contest fought around the projection of popular support through media, as much as if not more than actual feet on the ground, the JO came out on top. And this is a vicious cycle. How crowds are enticed to participate is well-known – few ever come out of their own desire. And yet, this is beside the point. The photos of the JO rally carry a currency the government cannot easily or effectively match, which when coupled with debilitating strikes in the near future, strengthens a perception that the government is haemorrhaging the popular vote. The JO only has to show this in order to sow uncertainty, fear and doubt in the minds of citizens, business, investors and diplomats. The government as a basic minimum response has to demonstrate how much of the popular vote it retains, a task that is increasingly difficult.
I end where I began. For far too many, May Day’s theatrics aside, governance as a feeling and something that is experienced is disturbingly familiar today to what so many thought was voted out in January 2015. Intellectually, the analysis may with sound reasoning argue that things are indeed very different. But the heart wins over the mind. If like at Sleek Salon, hapless citizens are only ever entreated to impunity, the abuse of power and a corrupt political culture, it is likely they become either apathetic, angry or both – anathema to a government in power, that hopes to retain it. It is unclear the political leadership we have today cares enough for course correction.
First published in The Sunday Island, 7 May 2016.