The electors in Sri Lanka operate on a very simple principle – they vote for those who work for them or at least pretend to work – and many do just that. The term ‘work’ in the Sri Lankan context, especially where elections are concerned is where those that seek office are seen as having in some way or the other contributed to the welfare of those from whom he/she seeks votes. The operative word is keleguna – where loosely translated into English would mean, you help me, I help you – in other words gratitude.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, being the political animal that he is, knows all about this principle and for the first time in the history of elections in this country, we saw how he openly went to the people in January and told them point blank that he expected their gratitude for what he had done by giving leadership to the battle to eliminate the LTTE.
Now the question that needs to be asked is what exactly is it that the UNP has done to warrant any sort of keleguna. The least the party rank and file and most importantly the candidates that sought nomination should have done, was to go to their respective electorates and empathize with the people. If one analyses the results produced by the UNP, it does not take long to realise that those who were elected could be categorized in to two streams: 1) Those who nursed their electorates and earned the gratitude of the people (Sajith, Ravi etc.) and 2) Those who were elected because of their popularity in the entertainment field (Paba, Ranjan R. etc.).
Those in the latter category may well get elected due to their popularity but could be of little use to electors as in the case of Paba, who cuts a sorry figure when facing an interview on TV or a debate in parliament — the young lass still finding it hard to come to terms with the fact that she is an elected people’s representative in the country’s legislature. What laws she is capable of formulating, only heaven knows.
The time is ripe for the main opposition party to do some serious soul searching and begin at the very beginning, focusing on the next big election which is all of six years away. The search for candidates must begin now, not when the Elections Commissioner calls for nominations five plus years from now. The candidates must be given target areas to nurse and their activities must be closely monitored. No such thing is happening at present, thanks largely to ineffective individuals occupying key positions in the governing structure of the party. At present, there is a process in motion to re-invent the wheel at the one-time champion party that no opposition party could easily challenge. As far as this columnist is concerned, all that needs to be changed in the party are the set of individuals holding/hogging the top positions.
When it comes to the day-to-day affairs of the party, it is the general secretary that calls the shots. The present secretary, who has had a fair innings in the post, has proven to be as lethargic and ineffective as his leader and the two complement each other to perfection to the detriment of the party.
If reforms are being proposed where elections are to be called to elect a party leader and deputy leader, there is no reason why the all-important post of secretary should not be open to contest as well. The changes proposed so far do not envisage this for some peculiar reason. It is obvious that Tissa Attanayake falls way short of what is required from the individual holding that post and it is only when he is replaced will a change in leadership of the party have any real meaning.
The mishandling of the Palitha Ranga Bandara case, where he was attacked by a fellow party member but little or no action of any significance has been taken on the matter so far other than for Attanayake to issue statements to the effect that the matter has not officially been brought to his notice, is enough evidence if any is required at all, to prove the incompetence of the man.
Today the government is providing all the necessary ingredients for the opposition to go to town and make life difficult for it but such is the lethargy that has set in to the grand old party, that it would be an elephantine task to even get it awake. Contenders for top posts in the party must make use of the opportunity presented by a bungling government to get the sleeping elephant on to the streets and do something tangible that will win the confidence of the people. Now is as good a time as any to get started and the government is providing all the incentives to do so. To not grab the opportunities that arise will be the equivalent of committing political hara-kiri.
One can only imagine, should Mahinda Rajapaksa have been the opposition leader, the racket that would have been created in the backdrop of what is happening now. There would have been paada yathras and various other gimmicks employed to win over the people. His ascent to the top did not come overnight – he worked for it for a long time. Despite all his bravado against the UN now, who can forget that it was this very same Mahinda Rajapaksa who in the late ’80 went begging to the UN calling on the international body to intervene in the country, yes, citing human rights violations by the then government! Wasn’t Sri Lanka “a sovereign country capable of investigating its own problems” at that time? If Sajith Premadasa wants to be the UNP leader he would do well to study what Mahinda Rajapaksa did as a mere opposition MP.
Premadasa, like his party, is expecting things to fall on his lap. He must remember that Hambantota is not Sri Lanka and winning in Hambantota in not winning the whole of Sri Lanka. He must work for it, putting national interest ahead of everything else. So far he has failed miserably in this department.
The UNP must shift away from its present Wickremesinghe/Attanayake inspired culture of campaigning by remote control through daily press conferences and appearances on TV talk shows. This method, the easy way out to tackle issues, has proven to be utterly ineffective, yet the party still relies on this strategy to deliver the electoral goods.
When elections are over and a budget is due, one thing can be guaranteed – price hikes. And last week saw unprecedented price hikes in almost all essential consumer items. First the government set the stage for the bitter main course by announcing the appetizer, that taxes would be slashed, of all things, on vehicle imports and electrical goods. As was to be expected, this was followed by steep price hikes in gas (over Rs. 200), milk powder (Rs. 50 a kilo), flour (Rs. 10 a kilo), liquor (Rs. 50 a litre), cigarettes (Rs. 1 per cigarette) and sugar among others.
It was shocking to note that a kilo of carrots was being sold at the princely sum of Rs. 240 last week. Vegetables across the board have soared in price and we can only pity the masses who must surely be having a tough time making ends meet.
Despite all this ready ammunition where people are crying out for some party to speak out on their behalf, all that the UNP has been doing is resort to its usual press conference at its air-conditioned office in Colombo 7. If this is going to bring them any keleguna come the next election, then pigs will soon be flying. If those recently elected and those seeking nomination at future elections don’t get their act together now, not in six years and make the government answerable for its actions, the party is doomed.
What is unforgivable is that the UNP, which made the economy and specifically the cost of living its main platform at both the presidential and general elections earlier this year, is not taking the bull by the horns when the opportunity has presented itself making it clear to one and all that their election rhetoric was just that, rhetoric. In addition, we are yet to hear the stance of the party on the GSP issue that came to a head last week which can have far reaching ramifications for the economy and not just the US$ 150 million the government has told the EU to stuff you know where.
On the part of the government, it is simply unconscionable that the present wave of price hikes have been imposed in a scenario where the country is at peace sans war. It is in this context that the government must answer why defence expenditure has been increased significantly to Rs 209 billion this year and why millions have been busted on parades that no one in this country was really interested in.
During the days of the war the constant refrain was ‘tighten your belts till the war is over and then there will be relief provided.’ The war is over and we are reminded of it every single day but the promised relief is yet to materialise. Instead burden after burden is being piled on the people without a second thought. And for this we have the opposition to thank for.