It’s a fair comment to make that the people who cut short work and desperately tried to get out of Colombo early on 5th September by far exceeded those who came in as part of Namal Rajapaksa’s Jana Balaya campaign. Social media posted photos of hapless commuters hanging precariously on trains leaving Fort Railway Station, as the city braced itself for what was called by some involved in the protest, an ‘invasion’ of Colombo. But it is evident that not ‘all the sons of Apachchi’ (which some in the campaign used to refer to those in it), were interested enough in Jana Balaya to come out and join what at the end turned out to be a string of street parties, street entertainment and drunken revelry. The question is why.
On social media, Jana Balaya arguably created the most amount of engagement around any event of its kind on Facebook and Twitter. During the day, around live video feeds on Facebook alone, close to 2 million watched the political theatre of Jana Balaya as it unfolded. This included close to 400,000 on Namal Rajapaksa’s Facebook page alone. A staggering 600,000 watched live feeds over the Facebook page of a private TV station. It is clear that amongst a specific demographic, television is no longer the primary vector through which live news broadcasts are consumed. Each of these live feeds generated tens of thousands of comments and reactions. I haven’t yet looked at the engagement driven by photos, which is usually high. On Twitter, there were over 5,000 tweets with one or all of the three official hashtags used by the protest. There may have been many more that tweeted on the protest without using one or more of these hashtags. Each of these accounts acts as an amplifier, showing to their friends and followers what was posted or republished. The likely digital footprint of content around Jana Balaya potentially, if not demonstrably, runs into the millions over just two of Sri Lanka’s most used social media platforms. Preliminary metrics around the scale and spread of content on Instagram – a photo sharing network that is also very popular – suggest Jana Balaya generated tens of thousands of likes. Overall then, the campaign was digitally unprecedented in Sri Lanka, generated the kind of engagement organically, that campaigns which boost content through paid advertising, can’t often reach. Millions were interested, engaged, watched, commented, shared and reacted. Namal Rajapaksa as an individual, and Namal Rajapaksa as a vehicle or platform to communicate the JO’s discontent is unassailable, with an active, devoted fan base by order of magnitude larger than anyone else, even in his own family.
And yet, few turned out to join the protest in Colombo. Independently and easily verifiable estimates done by me using a web platform designed to calculate crowd density, in turn based on photography put out by the organisers themselves as well as two leading journalists reporting for international wire news services. The analysis indicates the number partying on the streets, passing out or occasionally clinging on to the top of lamp-posts was at most around 50,000. At my most charitable reading – giving Jana Balaya tens of thousands of protestors more than were actually present – the numbers still fell far short of the crowd that gathered at the massive JO May Day rally at Galle Face, in 2017 as well as the massive crowds in Nugegoda, in January 2017, around a rally that Mahinda Rajapaksa spoke at. Given the silly, amateurish pronouncements by the government before 5th September around the possible use of rubber bullets and attempts to use legal means to shut down venues, it is clear they too believed that engagement online would translate into feet on the ground. My interest in ascertaining the number that turned out, in the end, was piqued by what the organisers themselves said. Milinda Rajapaksha, the spokesperson of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, claimed thousands of buses were coming into Colombo. News reports on the 5th claimed 700 buses had left from Kurunegala alone. Namal Rajapaksa, towards evening, tweeted that crowds were still pouring in, even though, ironically, an accompanying photo indicated the opposite. These figures simply didn’t match with those present around a single junction in Colombo, which had shut down not because of Jana Balaya’s crowd, but in anticipation of a much larger, more geographically spread protest.
If this was Namal Rajapaksa’s show of strength in a non-digital domain – an attempt to demonstrate to family and beyond, that he could rally the troops as it were, it is unclear how it can be termed a success by measures the campaign itself had set for itself in the weeks before 5th September. From framing to focus, from ideas to intent, the content and commentary during the day, tellingly, were anchored to Namal and his father, not Gotabaya or anyone else in the JO. Gotabaya appears, then just disappears. A tired Mahinda Rajapaksa, even with a faulty sound system, generated ripples of enthusiasm in the crowd by the sheer force of his charisma and amongst friends who clearly yearn for him to be back in the office he once held. Yet, content online doesn’t capture any discernible, strong political message the campaign was ostensibly anchored to. There was no lead up to anything politically significant or anchored to the core tenets of the Jana Balaya campaign. The banners, placards, posters, and chants of the crowd simply dissipate into pockets of revelry or aimless wandering. The skill of coordination and organisation behind the campaign seems to have planned for a much larger turnout. The organisers then took to the promotion of falsehood – the closure of shops, and the supposed growing number of attacks on buses bringing in protestors, perhaps as a measure to explain the low turnout. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, not to be outdone or outshone, went further and tweeted a photo of the massive crowd for his brother’s rally in Nugegoda, in January last year, as one that was taken in Colombo on the 5th of September. Several retweeted this before, only upon naming and shaming, the content was deleted with no apology or clarification. It isn’t even clear whether Namal, Mahinda, Gotabaya or a single leader of the JO stayed the night with a dwindling crowd of supporters who staged a satyagraha of sorts by sleeping out or sitting on the road.
The failure of Jana Balaya to live up to its hype is even more strange given the SLPP’s electoral fortunes in February. One reading is that Namal Rajapaksa’s digital footprint may only be that. The significant inability to get his fans and followers to come out and join a protest could be entirely independent of his enduring ability to influence or inform their political frames, in the lead up to an election or referendum. Another reading could be that the politics of rallies and protests have given way to a politics of digital dissent and witnessing, where the preferred mode of participation or engagement is primarily through smartphone or browser. This is concerning when juxtaposed with what Mahinda Deshapriya, the head of the Elections Commission, has already flagged as very low voter registration. Namal Rajapaksa must be commended for trying his best to get fans and followers out on to the streets. His inability to do so is something we should seriously reflect on more, beyond partisan frames. On and after the event, cracks within the Rajapaksa family are evident too, and more broadly, within the JO, with websites linked or deeply partial to Wimal Weerawamsa, dismissing Jana Balaya soon after its conclusion. Just a few months ago, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was primus inter pares as a Presidential candidate. There’s already a complete shift, or reversion to type with Mahinda as godfather and Namal as the scion. Fluid, flammable, familial configurations and reconfigurations are afoot, not unlike what Mario Puzo conjured.
At its most democratic, Namal Rajapaksa’s idea is laudatory and not something his father’s authoritarianism provided any space for – a non-violent platform for people to freely express dissent. What however Jana Balaya became, revealed and failed to achieve, on 5th September, was more illuminating, resulting in a political message far removed from what the organisers intended.
We live in interesting times.
First published in The Sunday Island, 9 September 2018.