If parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes

(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)
(Photo from internet, labeled for reuse)

This column was published in Lakbimanews on October 7, 2007. I’m going to dedicate this to the timelessness of Sri Lankan politics. When all else falls apart, our politicians remain honest and true to their complete lack of morals or principle.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was chasing buffaloes last week. And not metaphorically speaking either.

Nobody could have missed the president in his buttercup t-shirt, diving into a good sized patch of paddy with the intention (we think) of getting everyone to grow rice. Hiking up his checked sarong–stick in hand–he trailed a pair of fierce-looking buffaloes while the shutterbugs clicked furiously from the sidelines.

It was a photo to die for–the kind that Ranil Wickremesinghe fails to supply, time after time. There’s something about Mahinda Rajapaksa that makes great pictures. And Sri Lanka loves great pictures, to hell with good governance.

Wear a sarong at Number 10 Downing Street and, boy, you’ve got it made. Rig oneself out in a three-piece suit under the blistering sun (as Ranil often has) and you really have lost the next election.

Meanwhile, let’s talk about metaphorical bull-chasing. Or buffalo trailing (whichever applies) because there is a LOT of that happening Sri Lanka side. Out in the real paddy fields, hundreds of varicose-veined farmers have enlisted the assistance of buffaloes to plough the soil. Some use these animals because they prefer the old-fashioned method. Not only are they good work beasts, they fertilise the field while turning the soil. Many farmers fall back on buffaloes because they can’t afford mechanisation.

In Sri Lanka, however, other farmers mobilise buffaloes for other reasons. In fact, there’s no shortage of farmers and certainly none of buffaloes. Let’s imagine–for a moment–that parliament was a paddy field and parliamentarians were buffaloes. And that party leaders were farmers. Doesn’t Sri Lankan politics now become far simpler to understand?

Party leaders desperately need buffaloes (metaphorically, speaking) for survival. The mechanisation option is not open. This would explain why just the other day Rajapaksa, the chief farmer, called upon yet another bunch of buffaloes to hoe his patch of paddy field, if only for one year.

It was the JVP buffaloes he was wooing this time. Speaking at the wap magul ceremony after doing his bit for the cameras, Rajapaksa insisted that JVP support was essential if his government were to deal with the ethnic issue and economic problems. “Join my government for at least a year,” he implored.

Only hitch is that competing farmers have been trailing the same buffaloes in recent weeks. Our Ranil goiyya even banished federalism from his vocabulary in an apparently vain attempt to get our Marxist buffaloes to draw his capitalist plough instead. So far, however, the JVP has shown little interest in cultivating–and fertilising–anything but their own acreage.

Does this mean other beasts would have to be approached before the budget in November? Upcountry buffaloes, perhaps? Muslim buffaloes? Sinhala Buddhist buffaloes? The whole damned lot?

Ultimately, Sri Lankan politics in recent times has seen nothing but buffalo canvassing by this party or that. Every year–as the budget vote nears–some farmer or the other claims he will topple the government and promptly starts chasing buffaloes.

And, so, a futile, pre-budget frenzy begins. Journalists whip out their notebooks and start doing the numbers. How many in this farmer’s party and how many in that? Which parties did all these buffaloes originally contest with? How many, if ten buffaloes cross to the other side? How many, if twenty buffaloes come back? Which buffalo is most likely to defect? How much would he go for and to whose patch of paddy? Which buffalo has no intention of defecting but is claiming he would? How far would farmers go to keep these buffaloes back?

Journalists start interviewing farmers–and buffaloes–about which way they would vote at the budget. With quite an unnecessary sense of foreboding, the media begins stories about possible elections. Some farmers say an election is coming soon and even start campaigning. Other farmers–and the buffaloes that work under them–go around the country saying they’re not scared of any bally election.

And nothing happens. Every year… nothing happens. The budget vote comes. The budget votes goes. There is no toppling. Not even close. Months are wasted in an unprofitable, vapid debate that produces nothing at the end. Not even fertiliser.

It is, to be sure, a clean case of janathawa gonata andanawa. How’s that for a good picture?

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National government: A suppository like no other

Ranil Mahinda
(Photo from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s twitter feed)

THE idea of a national government has been bandied about in the past, often to facilitate crossovers. It is a concept that helps parliamentarians save face while defecting for personal gain. While going through my old files, I stumbled upon this column I wrote in the Lakbimanews of December 2, 2007. It was another time; a another national government. Here is a slightly edited version of that column.

Our chieftains are blithering again about a national government. Strictly speaking, this is not news – because there is a national government founded every year.

You see, a national government is very much like a suppository. It is cheap. It can be easily inserted into the Sri Lankan psyche where, just moments later, it brings instant relief to a multitude of painful symptoms. (Does not cure the ailment, but it covers the symptoms).

And like every good Sri Lankan national government, a suppository melts and dissipates in minutes. It is, therefore, not uncommon for various politicians of various hues to start gibbering about a national government when things get a little sticky.

Not to imply that Mahinda Rajapaksa is stuck in a pot of glue or something. But it cannot be nice lingering till December 14– twiddling the proverbial thumb–to see whether his government will make it through the third budget vote.

After all, Ranil Wickremesinghe (in moments of rash bravery) has been boasting about toppling the Rajapaksa regime. Unlikely as this may be… what if it were TRUE?

The ground situation is also politically precarious. The war may be going Gotabayesquely well but, even at the best of times, war is such an unreliable political gimmick. Success, one moment; abysmal failure, the next.

More importantly, the cost of living has become a symptom that even a suppository is hard pressed to appease. Bandula Gunawardane, who knew more economics than Adam Smith while he was in the Opposition, is proving more of an economic disaster in government.

The Central Bank says the economy is doing great. The ordinary man (clichéd as that sounds) only knows it would be cheaper to DHL a cow than to buy milk powder. And that the Government wants him to starve himself while they splurge money on themselves without accountability.

On top of this, the JVP has gone inconveniently mutinous. The CWC and a few other parties, who are being heavily wooed by the Opposition, cannot be trusted. And Tamil millionaire Charles Gnanakone is reportedly lurking in corners with bags of money to lure members from the Government to the Opposition on the orders of the LTTE.

So what better suppository than a national government to cure the symptoms? To banish the fever, vomiting and diarrhoea, verbal or otherwise.

Just talking about the possibility of a national government brings with it a degree of relief. It makes the public think that the light at the end of the tunnel may not be a train. It fools them into forgetting those unnecessary, sticky issues that a government cannot solve. And, it might even encourage the opposition to mull over something other than the defeating of a government.

We hear that it is the UNP breakaway faction, led by Karu Jayasuriya, who is mooting the idea of a national government this time. After decamping en masse–and piling portfolios upon themselves like cheap tinsel on a Christmas tree–they have now generously offered to campaign for Ranil’s appointment as prime minister in a future national government.

Luckily, our Wickremesinghe has not been fooled by the latest ruse. One reason may be that, the last time he decided to experiment with a national government, he got–not a suppository–but a kick up his backside.

The 2006 deal he signed with Mahinda Rajapaksa became the double-crossing joke of the century. The president smilingly flourished the agreement to the international community while simultaneously sneaking out UNP members from under Wickremesinghe’s very nose. One hell of a national government that was.

So here we are, heading towards yet another budget vote as if there’s no other business in the country that requires attention. Bombs explode as the war continues; corruption goes on as the MPs get richer and richer; inflation is ballooning as the prices climb higher and higher… and all they can offer us is a cheap, miserable suppository.

Welcome to Sri Lanka. We wish you a pleasant stay.