Rajpal's Column

10th September 2000

Mastering the art

- Of being the attack dog

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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In the sub continent, politicians are being politicians, and it is getting good to watch. Musharaff, the Pakistani Chief Executive, has been given a good dressing down by the Indian Prime Minister.

But, in this region and closer home, things are getting even better. Anura Bandaranaike has said his father "will turn in his grave'' upon news reaching him that Varthrajah Perumal has been appointed a national list MP.

But doesn't Anura know, every Tom Dick and Lucien is in the national list these days? But this war of words. It's more interesting than the war of posters, or the war of sticks and stones. (A UNP convoy has actually been "stoned.'' No fuss, no guns and goons. Just the basic method.) "The UNP was guilty of bumping off more people than Pinochet'' says one politician. Then there is Mr. Perumal, in classic style saying there is a bi-lateral understanding between him and Chandrika Bandaranaike. But, the understanding between Prabhakaran and Ranil he says is "unilateral.'' (Pity, he couldn't raise that flag the other time, and become a head of state. He would have put Arafat to shame with his statesman-speak.) Politics in the region therefore is the spectacle of the attack, the Jugular technique. In Hindi, Vajpayee attacks Musharaff at the United Nations. Musharaff had attacked him the day before. In Sri Lanka, statesmen attack each other in Sinhalese or Tamil, but when they want to get really profound they lapse into the English. There is more gravitas in saying "turning in the grave.'' And Perumal sounds statesmanlike saying "unilateral'' and "bi-lateral'' instead of using the enna - poe language he had in mind when he said what he actually said.

Basically, political discourse is either acumen with sticks and stones, or ability with language. Persons such as the stately Mr. Kuda Banda Ratnayake or Mr. Lakshman Jayakody have none of these. Attack mode politics is not in their grain. And they cannot say things like "UNP killed more people than Pinochet,'' with straight faces.

But, attack politics is the rage, and in the US the Presidential candidates are attacking each other and at the same time swearing they are not attacking each other. ("Gore is carrying out negative politics,'' says Bush, and cries "Mummy''. Two days before, he called Gore a fraud.) But that sort of thing is brazen crude and American, like Pepsi or something. What's happening in these regions is I think far different. It's so brazen, that people don't think it is. And attacks are delivered in such style, that people actually don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

When Vajpayee attacked Musharaff for instance, he didn't once mention the name of the wretched General he was supposed to be attacking. He just droned on, in Hindi of course, but with language like "those who do not allow fundamental freedoms at home are imparting to us a discourse on the value of freedom.''

Very impressive stuff, especially when delivered without names, with the correct amount of gravitas. Back here at home, it is considered that breaking bones is a lot easier, but there are some people who unfortunately cannot do that. Not that it goes against their grain or anything like that. Therefore, they have to do terrible things like mentioning names such as "Pinochet'', which are so jaw-breaking these people would have wished they were able to break some bones like their colleagues…… Still others can't even talk, or drop names like Pinochet, but they have succeeded in sounding even more attacking in print. See, in the spoken lingo, you need to use words such as "uni-lateral" and "bi-lateral'' to carry out your attack with a straight face and a degree of gravitas.

But, with a pen or a word processor, attacks can be far more sophisticated, and would leave those such as Bush and Gore blushing in the face. You need the proof? Two persons — absolutely two — have within the last six years, gone from the route of political non-entity to Chairman of Lake House to candidate for Parliament. Yield the pen, and you can make old time fossils such as Speakers and others look absolute obsolete.

Sophistry has reached such a level that, people can't recognize it. In the U. S for instance, it is terribly recognizable. The President told his inquisitors " it depends on what the definition of the word is is? '' Recently, when Bush was asked whether he practiced negative politics, he said " it depends on what the definition of negative politics is.'' But, here, there is no such recognizable tinkering with words. You just tinker whole concepts at a time, and there is sophistry that you can't tell from real sincere analysis. Only Anura Bandaranaike will say his father is turning in his grave, but that's not real attack politics. That's just family home vs home argument.

But, those such as Perumal, and this Minister who brought Pinochet into the whole contretemps, have mastered the art of sophistry through time. But, the past- master is of course the President, the queen of the genre. In her sixth year in power in, she will say things like "the UNP ruined this economy for seventeen years, obviously this is the reason for the sharp rise in prices.'' It's a new concept. Over time it will be honed. Repeated enough. She will say – in pure Sinhalese — not the Vajpayee sort of pure mother tongue but rawer in the element, that she has allowed the press to be free, but they are abusing their rights, which is why Editors are being sent to jail by the score. No wonder she can't have K. B. on the national list. She needs Goebells himself.

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