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Populism, despotism and mass psychology



Mussolini the prototype authoritarian did not take power in a coup

by Kumar David

The authoritarian most pertinent to the Sri Lanka scene today is not Stalin or Hitler and interestingly not JR either, because none of these stood atop a gush of populism; it is Benito Mussolini; elected by the people, admired by an array of sycophants, darling of the army and eventually strung up from a lamppost in Milan. The commonality with Lanka is the psychological bond linking Mussolini and the people. In our case at this stage in our political conjuncture we need to carry in our minds not Gota alone but the Rajapaksas as a whole into the analysis, given the waning but continuing dominance of Mahinda in the mass mind and among parliamentarians. Initially Mussolini fused mass politics and street mobilisation while the military stood aside. It’s different in Lanka, the masses and the Brass have preference for Mahinda and Gota, respectively. (I do not wish to underestimate Gota’s popularity till the 20A effort backfires and rising inflation bites).

What stirred my interest in the Mussolini prototype was the republication in 2019 by Veroso Books of Teodor Adrono’s (1903-1969) influential 1950 book The Authoritarian Personality. In his Introduction Peter Gordon says: “It represents one of the most sophisticated attempts to explore the origins of fascism not merely as a political phenomenon, but as the manifestation of dispositions that lie at the very core of the modern psyche”. It has spiked international interest in the context of Trump and Modi and why I want to bring it to the attention of Lankan readers is its correspondence to a humble thesis I have been pushing for a few weeks. On 20 September, I said in Colombo Telegraph and highly regarded Indian website South Asia Analysis (

“Lanka is Rajapaksa country; the mass psyche resonates with ‘Rajapaksaism’ as Medieval Europe was inured to the Church. Deep Rajapaksasim was explicit in January 2015; it was to defeated Mahinda’s ranch that thousands flocked in pilgrimage, it was to him that they vowed fealty. There is a psychological manifold embracing the Rajapaksa ethos and the Sinhalese mass. Behaviourally it manifests as political consciousness (explicit support) and in voting patterns; in the subconscious it is a deeper bond such as we have seen in history at other times in other places. Most interesting is a subliminal slice of this embrace; a willingness to overlook and forgive, corruption, crime and crudeness. Analysts can wait to see how this pans out; political activists can’t. The need is to get down to work now, not after the ship of state starts sinking. It is the subliminal that will fracture first if there is turmoil in the economic domain”.

And on the 30 of August I lamented:

“Lanka is Rajapaksa country. This bond will not be easily severed or diluted. What is its genesis? Spiritually, both resonate in their modes of thought; passions of the same genre. Politically it is populism; for the mass corruption is OK if it is populist corruption. The bond will be strained by economic adversity but it remains to be seen whether hardship will drive the mass away from the Rajapaksa ethos. The oath has person-to-masses overtone as with Mussolini and Peron; forget the SLPP, it is burlesque. The third element is Sinhala nationalism, but not exultation in war victory alone. It is abhorrence of demands to bring the military to justice in the courts. The Rajapaksas will not do so, and this is the fourth factor. These factors all gel together”.

Adorno’s thesis about the Authoritarian Personality summarised in an introduction by Peter Gordon I find very nicely says about Mussolini what I am trying to say about the Rajapaksa phenomenon. A Gordon paragraph – after editing substantially for length – reads as follows.

“The ‘Authoritarian Personality’ challenges liberal assumptions by showing that the potential for fascism lies not at the periphery but at the heart of modern experience. Fascism is something deeper than a political form: it correlates to psychological patterns of domination and submission. It tends to conventionalism, rigidity and stereotypical thinking; it insists on a stark contrast between in-group and out-group and jealously patrols the boundaries between them. Fascism is the political manifestation of a pre-political disposition. The authoritarian personality does not always turn fascist; its politics may remain dormant, only to emerge under certain social conditions. This thesis offers an important corrective to those who prefer to see fascism as discontinuous with liberal-democratic political culture: fascism is not mysterious, and it is not something otherworldly or rare; it is the modern symptom of a psychopathology that is astonishingly widespread and threatens modern society from within”.

Adorno’s argument that Mussolini is the “symptom of a psychopathology that is astonishingly widespread and threatens modern society” and his view that fascism is “deeper than a political form (and) correlates with psychological patterns” corresponded unexpectedly to my argument that there is a psychological manifold embracing the Rajapaksa ethos and the masses and a behavioural bond that manifests itself in voting and I noted subconscious patterns of the same genre between these two and also a subliminal element. I was unaware of Adrono’s writings on this topic when I drafted these essays, so I was surprised by the similarity despite Mussolini’s consolidation of power (the infamous March on Rome was Oct 1922) and today’s polity in Lanka being separated by a century. I cannot say I am pleased by the notional parallelism because the message itself is so scary.

The hard part comes next. It is to think through the differences between the Mussolini story and unfolding events here. I see three points of divergence: (a) Power sharing in Lanka is more complicated and contested, (b) the different role of influence-bearers on whom the main actors (Mahinda, Gota and Basil) lean, and (c) a different international milieu. Excellent though the relationship between the Rajapaksa siblings is, nevertheless the three are not one person – not the Holy Trinity nor Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. Though Gota has improved his image he still does not stand as tall as Mahinda in Parliament and in the mass mind; his personality cannot replicate that charisma. It may not matter much now because the sibling bond is strong though it did come under pressure when Parliament and public showed distaste for 20A. The opposition (JVP, SJB, Tamil and UNP) onslaught on, and after 20A is enacted, will shake the regime and put sibling relationships under stress. Will the MR-GR joint-Bonapartism stand, or will an alternative Gota-Kamal Gunaratne (I use the name for military Brass and the Viyathmaga cronies together) authoritarianism prevail? The odds now seem evenly split (what a lousy pun). It was not like that with Il Duce’s; his authority in party (Partito Nazionale Fascista), military, state and Church was unquestioned.

Where Gota’s hand will be immeasurably strengthened is if for health or other reasons Mahinda steps aside. This is where (a) above merges into (b). The regime intends to fix the constitution via 20A so that in Mahinda’s absence Basil will be first choice for Prime Minister. Basil has neither charisma nor mass appeal but he is said to be clever. Gota will then have a smart second lieutenant at his call without needing to share the spotlight. A Siva-Vishnu alliance having eased out Brahma! But there is much chance and probability in these thoughts so it is not gainful to speculate further.

What about Muslims and Tamils on one side and Wimals, Gamanpilas, Vasudevas and Sarath Weerasekaras on the other? Il Duce’s had no noteworthy ethnic problems; and tensions between the rich North and the poor South did not become complex. Mussolini did crush the communists and the socialists; many were killed or imprisoned. King Victor Emmanuel III was a puppet in fascist hands. Overall, I am on safe ground in saying that fate has dealt a weaker hand to the Rajapaksas than the banquet that inter-war European calamity laid for the consolidation of Italian fascism. Italy not Nazi Germany, Franco’s Spain or any other, is the exemplar of Classical Fascism.

Finally, I will make a few comments on point (c). Brevity is the soul of wit. I am aware that long columns are a soporific; readers skim not read. (Those not wishing to dispense sleeping pills must keep below 1700 words). Mussolini was popular after he built the Auto Strada, drained the swamps and trains ran on time. The 1936 invasion of Ethiopia proved that there is nothing like an “external enemy” to ignite nationalist passions. Italian fascism also drew strength from the Nazi tide but it was Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933 that enabled the so-called Axis Alliance in 1936. Fascist Italy had strong international supports till the outbreak of war but an authoritarian state in Sri Lanka at this time will face opprobrium in human rights circles and from Western liberals and even governments. China will not say anything negative and Hindutva Modi will be pleased so long as the Lankan regime stays manifestly anti-Muslim though Indian public opinion will frown. In a nutshell, a cash-strapped Sri Lanka will be on the weak international wicket if it turns authoritarian. This too will be a significant constraint on a hard-line authoritarian project but a domestic Vissa Eppa (Iruvathu Vendam or ‘No to 20’) mobilisation is more important. Democratic opposition in Sri Lanka must be adept at melding together a multi-class, politically plural, ethnically diverse and organisationally multifarious (trade unions, monks, civil society) alliance.

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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