The Aragalaya: a postscript

Ranil Wickremesinghe is no longer president in an acting capacity. He is the president, period. Did someone say ‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry?’ I am pretty sure someone did. Did someone say, ’who wudda thunk?’ Well, if two or three years ago, if anyone suggested that in July 2023 Ranil Wickremesinghe would be the president of this country, there would have been laughter and tears, if at all, would have been of mirth.

But get this: he is legit. Yes, he barely got into Parliament. Yes, his party returned just a single member and this only through the National List. And yet, as per constitutional provisions, he was legitimately elected President. Interestingly, his ascension is similar to that of his uncle, J R Jayewardene in 1978. There was no Presidential Election in 1978. The newly elected United National Party, with JR as Prime Minister enacted a new constitution with a provision for Parliament to elect a president with executive powers. It was only in 1982 that JR actually faced a presidential election; one which was fraught with allegations of widespread malpractice over and above the fact that his government stripped Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the individual with the best chance of defeating him, of her civil rights.

2022 is a different kind of year/situation. Wickremesinghe was appointed Prime Minister by the politically beleaguered President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe’s legitimacy came into question. That was in May. Today, he is the president as per the majority will of Parliament. Today, however, there are still people questioning his legitimacy on account of his party’s and the number of votes garnered at the last General Election. However, until such time an election is held, parliamentary or presidential, there’s no other mechanism to test the legitimacy of the illegitimacy-claims.

How did we get to this, some vociferous ‘Aragalists’ are asking themselves and anyone willing to listen. Interestingly, that question betrays a curious and all things considered irresponsible understanding of political processes, including provisions for change enshrined in the constitution. Let’s elaborate.

If ‘single-minded’ was what the Aragalaya was about then it was apparent in one thing alone: the slogan “#gotagohome.” Aragalists, for the most part, pooh-poohed those who asked ‘and afterwards, what/who?’ First things first, they said. In other words, they deliberately back-shelved the question pertaining to post-Gotabaya Sri Lanka.

As it might have been expected, the protest lost must vim and vigour the moment the demanded outcome materialised. Some even posed, first cautiously and later quite vigorously, that the aragalaya (in other words, the aragalists) should go home. It looks like some were happy to take home a consolation prize while for others it was THE prize, i.e. evicting the Rajapaksas from the political stage. In all this, one thing is startlingly conspicuous by its very absence: zero effort to address the systemic flaws that pushed Sri Lanka over the brink, flaws that were deliberately created, sustained and made worse over almost half a century. So it was just a power game, nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the day, Ranil Wickremesinghe has become the de facto leader of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna or, as someone might say, he has skillfully taken over that party. How he deals with the SLPP and how he performs as president is of course left to be seen, but that’s for later. Right now, his detractors within and without parliament (and these probably include many who supported Gotabaya Rajapaksa) are left to rue what may have been. How they regroup, re-imagine Sri Lanka and re-think strategy, is also left to be seen.

These turn of events have produced many questions. First and foremost, while there’s no denying the widespread displeasure and anger at the previous government (opposition which congealed naturally into an anti-Gotabaya riot of sorts or rather a ‘bread-riot’ wrapped in the #gotagohome streamer), it also provided fertile ground for all manner of political racketeers. They were essentially peddling their wares at Galle Face. Some had axes to grind. Some were far more devious, far better organised and focused. It has come to light that the US Embassy was thick in its involvement, funding directly and indirectly media outfits, ‘research’ institutes, think-tanks, NGOs, activists and social media operatives, many with pretty sick histories. Twitter feeds, instagram and Facebook posts leave trails. Makes for interesting reading. More will be known soon.

However, it is left to be seen whether such movers and shakers thought beyond #gotagohome. Is Ranil Wickremesinghe the desired ‘outcome’? It’s hard to tell. The aragalists, after all, began targeting Wickremesinghe the moment he was appointed as Prime Minister. The US Ambassador, perhaps covering all bases, exposed the JVP leader to endless vilification from left circles with endorsement that stopped just short of cuddles and kisses. She however tweeted that Wickremesinghe’s appointment as premier was a necessary first step. The JVP, after pooh-poohing the aragalaya in early April, attempting to hijack it later on by saying it needed a head (essentially ridiculing aragalists for being airheads, at best), later claiming outright ownership and on Wednesday putting forward Anura Kumara Dissanayake as presidential candidate and losing, now stands in opposition to the new government. Friends inside and friends outside. Happy times, certainly.

Reality check all around, though. The aragalaya is now positioned to shed the instigators with shady agenda who were living in the pockets of foreign governments, religious organizations and such. The nationalists have got rid of the Rajapaksa dead weight that had in effect crippled them. The Kolombians have distanced themselves from wannabe Kolombians. Wannabe Kolombians have been rudely awakened to the fact that in the face of Kolombians they are just another set of rowdies whose only redeeming feature was that at a particular moment in history they stood against their longtime nemesis, the Rajapaksas.

So, is this some kind of postscript for the aragalaya? Not necessarily. It didn’t start with any talk of bringing Ranil Wickremesinghe to power and it need not end with him becoming president. Time is long. Battles are lost but this doesn’t mean wars will also be lost. Betrayals are part of the story. Disappointments are to be expected. Falling short is not a crime. Some people, mostly youth, with exemplary idealism, courage, determination and innovative rush, decided to fight. It is unfair to ridicule them for not having emerged victorious. The aragalaya, some say gleefully, is dead. Some aragala, i.e. in the plural, did die, some would wounded, some retired hurt and some just quit. There’s another aragalaya that still breathes. Sobered, perhaps. That’s a good thing.

By Malinda Seneviratne



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