In search of the kurahan
By Malinda Seneviratne
If something new entered the lexicon of
local politics in the course of the run-up
to the last Presidential election, it is the
kurahan saatakaya, the piece of cloth
that came to symbolize Mahinda
On the plus side it became the metaphoric rallying point to all those for whom
nation and national identity were too important to be subsumed by the sterile
economic in this election. Indeed there were many who saw the kurahan
saatakaya as a metaphor amenable to multiple application, so much so that even
the economy could be wrapped, so to speak, in that elegant piece of fabric.
I have no doubt that we have not heard the last of the kurahan saatakaya even
though it has done its work in terms of idiomatic application, at least in the first
round of the game of power politics. Mahinda Rajapakse’s detractors (and of
these there are many) will continue to cling to it with much desperation and
caricaturing intent. So would the sycophants typically drawn to the locus of power
who are likely to see it as a lifeline and little else.
What this kurahan saatakaya is, what it means and where it is found, are of
course open to all kinds of readings as per the political predilections of the given
reader, but an exploratory comment would not be out of place, I believe.
The kurahan saatakaya is and was essentially defined by what it is not, namely
the tie-coat world as one would put it in “Sinhala”. It was the perfect “other” to
everything represented by the (adopted) children of the colonial project, the
privileges they enjoyed and the elitism they fostered and fought for tooth and nail
perhaps never as ferociously as in this election. Still, it was not merely a matter of
style, preferred clothing, notions of fashion etc. People can vote for any number
of reasons but it would be safe to say that few would have factored in the choice
of dress in their decision. It was what these things represented and the extent to
which the avowed representation was manifest in programme and ideological bent
that settled the issue, I believe.
This is why the kurahan saatakaya cannot and should not be read as something
that marks the outward persona of the President. In other words, it is not
something that hangs around his neck, or not something whose meaning is limited
to where it is worn and how. Its broadest possible articulation covers much
political, cultural, economic and philosophical terrain, at least in aspiration if not in
concrete ground-reality terms.
Rajapakse obviously understands that in real political terms his hard earned
victory on November 17 only resulted in the kurahan saatakaya just scratching the
politico-cultural edifice it challenged. In this sense it was a very small victory. The
tie-coat, to use that convenient though not inappropriate short-hand, hangs
around the necks of every institution, the vast majority of state officials, the
thinking of important sections of the most influential players in the economy, the
hegemonic cultural drives and indeed the dominant ideological and philosophical
frames of reference. The difference is that the kurahan saatakaya has executive
power and as such has the potential to reform the politico-cultural-ideological
edifice. The battle, then, has moved from the electoral register to the larger and
more complex terrain of institutions, territories where Mahinda Rajapakse is at a
The establishment, as Art Buchwald would put it, is “live and well”. It suffered a
rude shock, true, but only the utterly naïve can expect it to lie down and die on
account of that particular poke in the behind. The establishment does not see a
kurahan saatakaya. It sees an amuda lensuwa and it is a gaze of derision, a
looking-down-the-nose, something that should be out of sight, mind and the face
of the earth. This is why Rajitha Senaratne’s comment on that dignified and
appropriate garment cannot be seen as a simple slip of the tongue but a precise
political statement and objective. The establishment operated in according to a by-
any-means-necessary logic in trying to defeat Rajapakse and will operate in the
same vein in trying to bring him down. The establishment knows the ins and outs
of the system and is deeply entrenched too. All mechanisms available for
subversion will be employed, rest assured. These can take the form of from subtle
foot-dragging, vilification in the media, positioning of saboteurs in key locations,
fostering unrest, feeding terrorism, arm-twisting courtesy the World Bank, IMF,
WTO, ADB, USAID and other agencies and other forms of political subterfuge. I
would not put assassination past the establishment for there is much to lose and a
lot to gain by burning the kurahan saatakaya.
It will be interesting to see how Mahinda responses to these challenges, how he
plans to infuse the deshaye suwanda into tie-coat infested institutions, hearts and
minds and wrap it all up with the kurahan saatakaya. It will be interesting to see if
he succeeds. He has demonstrated, looking back, an admirable ability to suffer
humiliation after humiliation especially from those in the party he represents and
fought to protect, some of who left and returned at will. He has shown patience
and knows the virtue of biding his time. He has shown that he has remarkable
powers of persuasion and an ability to bring together and keep together divergent
political forces. In offering a ministerial post to Anura Bandaranaike and people
like Sarath Amunugama who were clearly at odds with him during the campaign,
he has shown that he is not vindictive. In short, he is a skillful politician. As such
he can be expected to pursue a path of reform and not purging in trying to correct
the tie-coat edifice that stands between him and bringing to fruition the
programme for which he won a mandate.
One thing is certain. He has a monumental human resource problem to overcome.
He has very few he can trust and even fewer who have the skills necessary to out-
smart the establishment that besieges him, Executive President though he is. He
has one asset. The people who voted for him, those who made the kurahan
saatakaya the 21st century symbol of a 500-year struggle to free the country from
the shackles of colonialism.
He would do well to understand that we have come 49 years since ’56, which was
an upturning that was ill-informed and poorly, very poorly and injudiciously
executed. Today we know that a switch to swabhasha would not solve all our
problems overnight. We know that “the nation” does not exist in a national dress,
a national flag or a national anthem and will not be obtained simply by changing
name boards from English to Sinhala.
We know that there can be a vast difference between appearance and substance,
that the fault lies not in the tie-coat that is the preferred dress coat, but in the tie-
coats of the mind, that lie in the ideological realm, in lifestyle and demeanour.
We know that the kurahan saatakaya around the neck of an Executive President
will not by itself deliver the nation to us, ourselves to us. We know that the
struggle is to establish the validity and practicality of the kurahan saatakaya in all
things subject to the caveat that there is nothing to say that the tie-coat universe
has nothing to offer to us.
If there comes a day where every single institution insists that all employees wear
a kurahan saatakaya we would still not have won if they continue to have tie-coat
heads. On the other hand, if these institutions continue to insist that employees
wear Western attire, replete with tie and coat, but the people inside these clothes
have a kurahan saatakaya frame of mind, then the November 17 decision would
most certainly have produced something we can be proud of as a nation. I humbly
submit that this is not impossible.
[Courtesy: Daily Mirror]