‘Death of a Salesman’, perhaps the greatest of 20th century tragedies, is in fact the story of two people. The aptly named Willy Loman, the protagonist, is a modern tragic hero, but his even more aptly named son Biff also merits study. The play ends with Willy committing suicide so that Biff could have a wonderful future with the insurance money. Biff is not carried away by this gesture, and not only, one hopes, because it is highly unlikely that the insurance will pay up after such patent subterfuge.

There are other parallels with the recent Presidential election. Willy’s act of great sacrifice occurs after father and son are at last reconciled, following high drama and denouncements. Willy finally declares, after years of having concealed it, even from himself, that Biff is full of spite. He claims that Biff destroyed his own life – and by extension Willy’s, given that Willy could claim he had lived for his eldest son – through bitterness.

Certainly the bitterness the General displayed during the election campaign can be seen as a characteristic feature. But even more relevant is what Biff claims, not in extenuation but in explanation. Though this measure of self-awareness is not likely in Sri Lanka, Biff tells his father that his failure was due, not to spite, but because he had been filled with hot air. His father in particular, but others too, had made him think so much of himself, that he had built his life on a myth, unable to accept the fact that he was just an ordinary sort of guy.

General Fonseka is not an ordinary sort of guy, and we should not forget his capacity as a soldier and his contribution to the victory over the LTTE. But, sadly, he began to feel that he had more to offer. Like Biff, he began to think that the world owed him a living, and that he was entitled to positions for which he had not equipped himself.

And, like Biff, he got into this preposterous position because there were others who encouraged him, who filled him full of hot air so that he thought there were no limits to what he could achieve. The question now is whether he will begin to understand something of what was done to him by people concerned, not with him, but with their image of him and how it fitted with their own predilections.

To do this properly, we will need, as he does, to consider the varying motivations of those who encouraged him in his recent adventure. These were, in descending order as it were of their hot air generating capacity, the elite of Colombo, the JVP, the UNP, the TNA and elements in the international community. I would suggest however that the reverse is the order of the capacity of these elements to disrupt the body politic in Sri Lanka, and also subvert what should be the General’s one and only claim to fame, his vital role in the destruction of the LTTE.

With regard to the international community, I believe that some accounts are ridiculously exaggerated, as for instance the claim in an article by an Indian journalist that Bob Blake had been behind the General at every stage. Mr Blake, as a good diplomat, would obviously have kept his options open, but it is unlikely that he would have wanted a field day for the forces to which the General entrusted his campaign.

At the same time the General’s claim, that he has deposited valuable information with those who would use it were anything to happen to him, should be seen in the context of the report that this had been one result of the General’s trip to America. Certainly the overt declaration of his intentions occurred after that visit, and it is entirely conceivable that he received encouragement from what Paul Scott would have described as the dark and arcane side of the imperial enterprise, as opposed to the ineffable lightness of Mr Blake.

That the General and his elite backers should have believed the West supported them is not in itself surprising, and they could have seen a community of interests that they could argue were not opposed to the national interest. This however is not plausible with regard to TNA backing, and that is perhaps the strangest of the range of alliances the General ventured into. The hot air pumped into him by Mr Sambandan and his associates was obviously intended to be let out again as soon as possible – and even if the General thought he could deal with this, he must have realized that the strategy he would have been best able to deploy would have been smartly nipped in the bud by his other friends.

Chief amongst these other friends was the UNP, and it was principally on them that the General sought to piggyback. As I was told by one very perceptive BBC reporter, not I think entirely facetiously, it is they who should have most feared assassination by the General had he won the election. They would have been the principal threats to the absolute domination he would have assumed was his right and, given their international backing, they would probably have got him under control had there been any protracted power struggle. He and his more congenial mates in the JVP then would have surely dealt with them swiftly, though the excesses predicted by the BBC would not have been essential given how easy it is – as the LTTE proved – to keep Ranil Wickremesinghe under control through apparent kindness.

Fortunately the UNP seems to have realized the dangers of dancing with the General, and have managed to distance themselves from him expeditiously for the General Election. He is left then with the JVP, for whom he would have been a more natural ally to begin with. Certainly he must be grateful to them for giving him at least some sort of a position now, but at the same time he should be wondering about their role in convincing him to give up his previously exalted status to turn into their tool for revenge on the President. Obviously he too wanted revenge, but to think this was possible through an election victory based on his motley coalition was equally obviously the result of the hot air with which the JVP filled him, combined with their fond delusions of massive support within the rank and file of the army. 

In passing I should note that this delusion will prove beneficial to the country at large, because it will confirm the need to develop a pluralistic army as soon as possible. I believe the Secretary of Defence is committed to this because, even at the height of the war against terror, when it would not have been prudent to recruit potential LTTE terrorists into the fighting forces, he instituted measures to recruit minorities as officers in the Cadet Corps. A recent news report indicated that this policy is being pursued apace, with the visit of the Corps Commander to schools in Jaffna. I have full confidence that the forces, which behaved so admirably in the rescue and now support of Tamil civilians, are not in any way racist, but the best remedy for possible indoctrination by the Fonseka philosophy is institutionalization of comradeship between all segments of our citizenry.

Meanwhile it remains to be seen whether the comradeship of the elite in Colombo, which plumped for General Fonseka against all rational argument, will continue during the General Election. Doubtless the minorities amongst them, and the less chauvinist, will rally to Ranil, but I suspect there will be some, those for instance who saw nothing wrong with Cyril Mathew’s antics in the eighties, who will stick with the General. After all Ranil Wickremesinghe himself was supportive of the Mathew philosophy in those days, and there is little doubt that the Jayewardene elements in the old UNP had a racist streak, as was made clear by the Kelaniya resolution of 1956 and the brutal assaults on Mr Bandaranaike’s efforts at compromise on ethnic issues over the next few years.

It will be ironic then if the hot air pumped into the General leads to the flattening of Mr Wickremesinghe in the forthcoming Election. Willy Loman, with all his faults, was a more endearing character than Biff, and we can only hope that Mr Wickremesinghe will return to Parliament without any need to pander to the forces he helped to bring together to anoint the General as a common candidate.