Work, cults and pushback: The politics of the unusual | Sunday Observer

Work, cults and pushback: The politics of the unusual

When an iconoclastic new journey is embarked upon, there is one thing that’s guaranteed from the sidelines, and that’s pushback. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to reform the system, or make systemic change that is lasting, and that’s blindingly obvious.

But this kind of change is never easy. The system will fight back, and is fighting back even as this is being written. So far this pushback has taken various forms, and has significantly come from within the president’s own Alliance ranks. Some who expected Cabinet posts have resorted to self pitying laments on public television. This of course is the least of his problems. But in his signature style, Gotabaya Rajapaksa wants to get a job done. Also, in his signature style he wants no sycophancy, and no fanfare — or gratuitous waste.

So he ordered all pubic portraits of himself, and of Ministers off the walls of Ministerial offices. The pushback comes at him in a subtle way. Various society grandees and some pious personages are saying he should not embrace unsavoury elements at the expense of those other faithful. Where was he going with that one? We’d never know.

One thing is certain. If President Gotabaya is afraid of pushback, he isn’t Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It’s true that upending the system, and upsetting comfortable realities would have its own backlash. He wants to have competent people running state institutions, for instance.

That will invite pushback from hangers on who used to take plum state posts for granted in those days before 2019. But the country’s needs comes first. Besides, if he is going to be Gotabaya Rajapaksa — somebody who is different, because that’s what the people voted him in for — he cannot be seen to compromise, or to just cave in at the drop of a hat.

But if he is going to solve problems the way he prosecuted the war, he will handle the pushback and the backlash too, and find other ways to keep the hangers on and the cheer squads happy in the melee. He will have to. Change is not one dimensional. It takes problem solving at multi layered levels to effect change.

Momentous statement

Total vociferous condemnation of his moves by opposition parties was of course to be expected, and among these is the reaction to his deployment of the armed forces to maintain law and order in the country, for example.

That type of visceral anger from opposition ranks is the order of the day — and is par for the course in any democratic polity, and is entirely to be expected.

The pushback that is referred to above here, on the other hand, is resistance from within his own party and coterie of long term supporters, and faithful.

Those who pushback or grumble in this fashion are naïve to a great extent. They seem to have forgotten that Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the first non politician President to be voted into office by the people. It’s correct that he is a politician now, but the Presidential run was his first foray into the political whirligig, and he won.

In and of itself, it’s a momentous statement that the people made, and it was made in no uncertain terms. People do not want business as usual, period.

The President is delivering on the promise, and what do you find? Various grunts from within, from deep in the bowels of the entrenched political establishment. No doubt this was to be expected. Those who are caught up in the old order will fight back, but if he is going to make the country work, he will have to make the country work, no ifs, no buts.

Those who advocate business as usual or going back to comfortable past practices have to be insane. The people learnt something from the five years that are behind us.

Here is a flashback: The UNP-Maithripala alliance came to power promising Yahapalanaya, or good governance. But, there was no policy banning Ministerial photographs, or anything close to that. Instead, the former Health Minister anointed himself Suvapathi, (the grand druid, one might say) and had his likeness plastered all over Colombo. While Rajitha was Suvapathi-fying in this fashion, there was somebody else who was supposed to be putting up houses in earnest. But, his poster and hoarding campaign took up a major slice of his budget and defaced city landscapes. The optics of this waste and hubris, was scandalizing.

Among a thousand other reasons, this was one solid rationale for the people deciding they want no part of this Yahapalana type of dance anymore. The economy was falling apart, national security was in shambles, and here were all these good governance chaps building up personality cults, in a way that would have made Kim Jong Un want to blush.

So there can be no pushback when President Rajapaksa says no photographs, no diaries and calendars from state institutions, because that’s all life saving medicine that is prescribed to cleanse the system from the hangover of this Yahapalanaya plague. Any pushback on that type of thing will be insane.


When the President met the parliamentary group last week, incidentally, it is said that some concerns were raised by MPs who said that constituents want favours such as State tenders, etc. Apparently, the President said the people are to be served as a collective, and granting individual favours is not part of his playbook.

That’s one more indication that there will be no tolerance of pushback, but there will be pushback on no-pushback also, if you know how far traditional politics with its image centered, icon loving culture will go, to preserve itself.

That reminds me of the ex Singaporean prime minister with whom President GR has been compared, not without good reason.

It’s the same people who pushback now that would ask for solutions if their pushback succeeds, and election time comes around. If there are rumblings in the electorate about how the collective was ignored, and certain people got tenders or other state favours, they will say it’s an uphill battle fighting an election when there are such currents of discontent among the voters. They would have forgotten that they are the cause of these rumblings.

Reminds me of the anecdote about Lee Kwan Yew who visited the US during the height of the Vietnam era fallout, when some US scholars and politicians asked him for advise on how to stop the long running Vietnam war which had become a massive powder keg issue that inspired student protests leading to shootings and deaths at Kent State University, for instance.

The prime minister didn’t pause to ponder. His answer was clear and pithy, and was delivered Singaporean style. He said, ‘I told you this and that about how to solve this problem long ago when the war was just beginning, and you didn’t listen to me. Now, you come to me when things have gone beyond anybody’s control. So please don’t come to me now, ok.’

Incidentally, Mr. Lee was also averse to icons, and to narcissistic image building, and ministers who are irritated by the example of President GR asking that his photographs not be displayed in state institutions, should be told about the former Singaporean premier and his Oxley Road home.

Personality cults

Mr. Lee had decreed that his private residence at 38 Oxley Road Singapore be demolished, after his death, because he didn’t want people to make it a monument to him.

It shouldn’t have mattered, even to his son, who has refused to demolish the house for reasons best known to him. It seems that all Singaporeans have a monument in their hearts for the late premier. Mr. Lee on the other hand, was not image conscious, even in death.

That brings us back to the story of Mr. Premadasa and the former Health Minister who was suvapathy-fying during his tenure with both of them vying with each other to build personality cults around themselves, spending obscene amounts of money belonging to the people in that pursuit.

People will remember leaders by their work. Gotabaya Rajapaksa was remembered for his work as Defence Secretary which is why there was a clamour for his nomination from among the mass of people who backed the SLPP. There were no photographs of him as Defence Secretary, that appeared on hoardings or posters, for the simple reason that he was not a politician at that time. But people recalled his name when they thought of a new leader, and suva-pathy would struggle for that kind of recognition, after all of those publicity campaigns pursuing his druid type personality cult.

Those who pushback on the new reforms, and the desire to clean up the political act in the cause of public service, should remember that the work they do will speak for itself. There will be no rumblings at election time, if they hold back on their pushback, but instead let their work do the talking.