Apples and oranges

“If Gotabaya Rajapaksa comes to power it’s not due his own merits but due to the great betrayal and incompetence of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena. My so called influence has no bearing.”

Departing US Ambassador Atul Keshap was in the news last week, associated with comments around Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his bid for Presidency. The substance of whatever this senior diplomat said is not what I am interested in, and in any case, has been unsurprisingly denied by those he met with. It is Gotabaya Rajapaksa as an idea, and Viyathmaga – his political project – as a platform. In recent weeks I have written about my own fears of the man, and the surveillance I was unknowingly subject to for years as a consequence of running afoul of the Rajapaksa regime. Many others have expressed similar sentiments in the media, and some with much greater insight into the man and his militant machinery. It is however his political project I am more interested in, independent of his individual identity and past.

Viyathmaga’s vision and mission, which I’ve read many times, is compelling. In spirit and tone, if not in substance and thrust, it is impossible to be opposed to it because it captures in essence the same vision for the country as the Sirisena manifesto did late 2014. Respecting difference, the value of meritocracy and a democratic credo are all anchored to personal frames of action and spirituality – a slight (calculated) shift from the Sirisena manifesto embracing what animated people in 2015 and plugging it for 2020. It is necessarily silent on everything else, because populism is essentially that – a thin ideology, that in its projection of authenticity opportunistically embraces other cultures, ideas, processes and people in the pursuit of its own goals. Gotabaya Rajapaksa plays an old game, but with some new tricks.

In 2011, Prof. Andrew Wilson coined the term ‘political technologist’, capturing through an examination of Putin’s Russia how through the adroit manipulation of media, including social media, authoritarian power can be strengthened and sustained. The model of containment and control is an interesting one. The use of physical violence ranging from murder and torture to abduction and intimidation is strategic and almost mathematically methodical – aimed at a few, always with plausible deniability. At the same time, the regime gives the public through entertainment unfettered access to a plethora of competing, often confusing content to debate endlessly and be distracted by. The real concerns over governance and democracy are thus limited to a select few, either geographically contained or weakly linked, who cannot gain any real traction for their work amidst an enduring tsunami of likes and shares. Even if episodically able to attract attention, the sheer volume of misinformation and disinformation can very quickly, and relatively easily, drown out critical content.

China’s model – simplistically and often projected as blanket censorship of anything politically inconvenient – we know is anything but. A dissertation by Margaret Earling Roberts called this fascinating framework a mix of fear, friction and flooding. Fear, the most obvious, to control the production and spread of inconvenient truths. Friction, being processes by which through delays in loading times, challenges around access, the requirement to register, or see some unrelated content beforehand (think of all those annoying ads before a YouTube video starts to play, but for much longer and with no real option to skip) critical commentary isn’t censored – it’s just made harder to access. Genius stroke, because human nature is geared to consume the content of least resistance. Finally, flooding, which not unlike Putin’s Russia, gives the public what they want and like the most – entertainment.

Given the relations with Putin and Xi Jinping, and looking at the media output of the JO in general, it would not be unrealistic to think that the some of the advice around regaining power is linked to how technology can be leveraged to channel popular discontent to parochial ends. But while this is conjecture, the data around the JO campaigns and content on social media suggests they are leveraging – consciously or purely by coincidence – dynamics of what Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells calls the ‘network society’. When I made a brief presentation of this to some senior policymakers and politicians late last year, anchored to a paper on technology and referenda, the response was revealing. A few minutes devoted to concern, surprise and praise for new thinking around older challenges. The rest of the discussion was around how the existing, ageing, unrepresentative, illiberal, corrupt, failing, frustrating and futile party political architecture could address the risks outlined around authoritarianism’s propensity to weaponise democratic affordances.

In other words, no one in the room got it. The campaigns of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Namal Rajapaksa get it.

Suffice to say that it is possible to see through data in the public domain, how Viyathmaga and Namal Rajapaksa’s media output fare, in relation to what the government through its leaders or constituent political parties put out. By almost any yardstick, the engagement with content generated by the JO today across all social media is by order of magnitude consistently greater, wider and deeper than anything, anyone from government has produced at any time since 2015.

Quite frankly, the interesting study here is not so much how far ahead of government the JO is, but what the data suggests are strategic differences in the political vision and campaigns of Namal and his Uncle. One, aiming to cultivate adulation, admiration and adoration for harvesting a decade or two hence. The other, networking with high net worth, influential individuals, framing, projecting and producing content with a more immediate, tangible political goal. The two networks are fluid and overlap, but also in demographics, reach and engagement, diverge. The real contest, as other political analysts have hinted at, is not so much what comes after yahapalanaya, but what comes after what will most likely replace it.

Always up-front with what I feel and think around those I like, I wrote a while ago to someone who spoke at one of Gotabaya’s events. Part of the response I received, quoted above, tells its own story. The Rajapaksa’s offer a vision that, ironically, appeals most now to those who voted in this government in 2015. Unmet promises fobbed off by those in power, indignity, insensitivity, enduring economic hardship, existentialist fears around faith, future and identity and more, from all parts of the country, have now metastasised into active, sustained and importantly, entirely organic engagement with criticism of government, framed by the JO, involving millions.

Counter-intuitively perhaps, the response isn’t technological in the main.

Those who feel marginalised, unheard, disappointed, disconnected and anxious need to see, hear and importantly feel they have a way to communicate their grievances. This requires regular, physical contact and consultation. Not Facebook updates about Vision 2025. Photos on social media soon after 10th February revealed that the SLPP had a booklet distributed amongst its elected officials across all the LG bodies around how to work towards 2020. I haven’t seen what is in it, but the intent is clear. It is unclear what if anything the government has by way of a similar, bottom-up, strategic, comprehensive and cohesive vision that connects it with the people.

Instead, we have those in government who can’t even grasp the disconnect, and worse, honestly believe it can be solved by what has been done before.

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First published in The Sunday Island, 17 June 2018.

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