Hidden campaigns

I can’t see Basil Rajapaksa. Social media doesn’t record his actions, feature accounts by or content on him. He isn’t the subject of memes. He doesn’t appear in any of the ego-centric, selfie laden photo albums or posts of the larger more social media savvy family. On Facebook, he was featured just a handful of times during the constitutional coup last year and for around two days after the conclusion of the presidential election this year. Nothing much is said by him in public fora. Reciprocally, few speak of him openly. What he does, says and inspires is best known to the ruling family, and there too, perhaps some brothers more than others. It’s easy to write him off as a dinosaur, outmoded, outdated and unable to capture the considerable potential of digital propaganda vectors to secure electoral gain or edge. Many his age and with a similar profile are indeed irrelevant. Basil Rajapaksa is not. By all accounts I’ve heard over the years from disparate individuals including from opposing political parties, he is reverentially referred to and feared as one of the best political strategists in Sri Lanka. His absence on social media, given this reputation, can only be strategic and intentional. And he is key to plans around the consolidation and entrenchment, through the general election in 2020, of the significant capture of power by the SLPP through a consequential election this year. He is, single-handedly, the best example of why politics in Sri Lanka cannot be understood without the much harder, and possibly downright impossible access to how political strategy is created within a party.

An example from the official cooling period – 48 hours before the election when all campaigning has to stop – showcases what is very likely the foresight and strategy of this Rajapaksa, and how much in tune he and party are with the dominant Southern psyche, myth and limbic response. The Premadasa campaign, aside from frequent verbal diarrhoea and cringeworthy demonstrations of artificial intelligence, was in tone, timbre and thrust a mirror of tenets Gotabaya Rajapaksa proposed in his manifesto, and campaign speeches. Unlike in 2015, when Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa offered two fundamentally different visions, only the JVP offered a radically different take on national policy in 2019’s presidential election campaign. The two leading candidates agreed on much, on paper at least. What the Premadasa campaign harvested – evident in the manner in which posts and accompanying framing was crafted and expressed – was data. The Rajapaksa campaign, on or over social media, did the same and better. But what the Rajapaksa campaign also had was a non-digital powerhouse of voter mobilisation. Temples and telegenic monks featured heavily in the campaign, and to a degree visibly more than in 2015. The campaign symbol of the SLPP was chosen deliberately to resonant with offerings at and symbols associated with Temples. This was particularly effective during the cooling period when the pohottuwa symbol was both digitally distributed sans overt reference to the then-candidate, as well as physically given to devotees at temples. Monks reminded the faithful of a new King all heavenly signs had promised would arrive to save the motherland. The Kelaniya Temple’s discovery of a snake bearing sacred relics of the Buddha in its belly, captured by leading private TV stations and broadcast incessantly, went viral on Facebook. Gossip pages produced video clips that looked like professional news segments. The original clip gave birth to many more shorter ones and still images. The emotional contagion was real, as thousands on Facebook unreservedly worshipped what was seen and believed to be a miracle heralding a saviour, or King. But the discovery was first and foremost captured by and for traditional TV. Additionally, thousands who visited the Temple during the cooling period were reminded of what the sacred relics symbolised and given a pohottuwa. Here was a campaign within a campaign entirely offline in nature and intent, harnessing the unparalleled reach of blind faith as a vector to promote a political candidate as the anointed one. Pure genius.

In various discussions over the past month, I’ve pointed to two examples of why, presently, the SLPP is unassailable. Firstly, the disappearance of Sajith Premadasa after the election. Expressing interest in the conservation of leopards and with posts capturing his love of cricket, the erstwhile candidate demonstrated his inexperience and ineptitude by deserting millions who had voted for him by posting bizarre, banal content and staying silent while media platforms central to his campaign were raided. Secondly, how a network of temples and their chief incumbents were used in a campaign promoting the incumbent President. It is this network, combined with an equally hard to study community of current and ex-military personnel that form the twin pillars of the month-old Presidency’s strategic vision. The incumbent needs a core constituency distinct from and ultimately more enduring than his older brother’s following, captured by charm more than competency. Aside from technocracy, the new and far less charismatic incumbent will rely heavily on these two effective, pervasive and loyal networks to undermine any and all opposition to rule and regime. The digital manifestation of this will be through content – continuously produced and promoted – that projects or promotes Buddhism through a narrow partisan, political lens, through gossip pages that celebrate Buddhist culture and associated beautification of cities and through thinly veiled propaganda or dog-whistle politics guised as sermonising first broadcast on TV, and then shared widely over Facebook. It is a strategic, near-total capture of the public imagination in the South, with long-term intent, to a degree the Rajapaksa regime during 2005-2015 wasn’t able to manage, and the yahapalayana government couldn’t even dream about.

In capturing the highest political office in a manner never thought possible, the new President and his techno-political strategists have created new realities we are only beginning to realise the contours of. I am a student of social media dynamics but am in awe of what the SLPP manages to do outside digital landscapes. One can be distressed and depressed by all this. Hand-wringing aside, the study of these dynamics is central to ways of seeing how power is constructed. The still magnificent Jetavanaramaya’s foundations in Anuradhapura go right to the bedrock, allowing for the construction of the massive, brick stupa. In a similar vein, temples and the military are the new Presidency’s bedrock, and they both go deep into the Southern Sinhala psyche’s mythical, psychological, cultural, linguistic and religious identity. The scaffolding of the Gotabaya Presidency is still new, but in focussing on and preparing for what is to come, civil society risks missing out on lessons from just the past month around what already is, and firmly cemented. The essential disconnect I fear afflicts the UNP as well, where post-election pronouncements and silences suggest a party entirely outmanoeuvred and rudderless to boot, without realising either.

What comes in the future will be more of what gave rise to the incumbent President. Part of this will be digital in seed, scope and scale. Much of it will remain pegged to old-fashioned, face to face, human contact and the cultivation of loyalty and votes through sustained contact with citizens – something the UNP, under Wickremesinghe, never ever got. The mix of what can be seen and studied and what is more hidden in the open, is a new dynamic in political communications that heralds an entirely new chapter in governance.

Perhaps the snakes do feel what’s coming in their bellies and are coiled in waiting.


Published in The Sunday Island, 22 December 2019.



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