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The rise (or fall?) of Mano Ganesan

The Central and Wayamba provincial council elections are now less than two weeks away but UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is yet to visit Wayamba or the Central Province for the campaign. Instead, he toured the Maldives on invitation last week, in the company of parliamentarian Sagala Ratnayake. One of the salient features of this election campaign is the lack of professionalism shown by the UNP. Wickremesinghe will be visiting the Kandy campaign office located at Mulgampola on the Peradeniya Road for the first time only on February 5. Then he is due to address meetings in Kurunegala district on the 9th and 11th. This behaviour is in complete contrast to that of the President Mahinda Rajapakse who spent time in Kandy the week before last as reported in our previous column and at the time of writing is once again in Kandy. The president met the Japanese Peace Envoy Yasushi Akashi and the Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukerjee in Colombo and he has been in Kandy from Jan. 29-31. As one distraught UNPer said to this columnist, the president is busy using his charm to make friends and influence people "Janadhipathithuma mulu nuwaratama kanna dunna". The president apparently had been meeting various groups and feeding them at President’s House in Kandy. This is definitely going to strike a chord among the Kandyan populace who would not have had that experience since the time of President D.B.Wijetunga who had a similar approach to dealing with people.

A question of professionalism

Despite the fact that it is the government that can really afford to rest on its laurels and take things easy, they are not doing that. The president is personally taking an interest in the Central Province election, being present on the spot. Kandy has always been a bastion of the UNP and for the UNP as a party, it would be a tragedy if this bastion too falls due to the aloofness of the UNP leadership. This raises the question of professionalism in politics. An indication of how professionally the government has approached these two elections can be gauged from the fact that the presidential sibling, Minister Chamal Rajapakse has been in Galgamuwa almost continuously for the campaign for the past three weeks. The campaign in the Kurunegala district is under the overall supervision of Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and Chamal Rajapakse is handling only one electorate. But even that single electorate is being assiduously cultivated by the presidential sibling. What we are seeing now is a reversal of roles between the UNP and the SLFP. In the 1980s the UNP, then in government, had a very professional approach to politics, assiduously pasting posters and having activists in every village. In contrast to that the SLFP was lying supine, unwilling or unable to lift a finger for their own salvation.

It now appears that the UNP has settled into a role reminiscent of the SLFP in the 1980s. It must be said here that UNP deputy leader, Karu Jayasuriya, who has been assigned to Wayamba has been doing a professional job, being almost continuously present on the scene. But given the general indifference that seems to have set in, his valiant efforts can hardly be expected to produce results. During the Eastern provincial elections, UNP parliamentarians were present in their numbers in the east and in fact it was said that the government ministers who came to the east barely ventured out of their hotels due to the fear of terrorist attacks; whereas the UNP parliamentarians moved about freely and went canvassing. Today, however, even those who had been specifically assigned to certain electorates had not up to the time of writing, turned up to campaign. In the Kandy district, Moneragala district parliamentarian Ranjith Madduma Bandara had stayed several days. Gayantha Karunatilleke as reported had come for one day and gone off, never to return. Lakshman Seneviratne had done some canvassing in the Hasalaka area. Imtiaz Barkeer Marker had made a brief visit to Kandy. And UNP Western Provincial Councilors Kithsiri Kahatapitiya and Palitha Thavarapperuma had been in Kandy but had disappeared the moment the WPC was dissolution was announced.

So much for Kandy. During the Sabaragamuwa PC election, the man who spearheaded Ranjan Ramanayake’s chief ministerial campaign was S.B.Dissanayake. Now when Dissanayake himself is running for the position of chief minister, Ramanayake had wanted to come to Kandy to help out in the campaign but he had been told by the party leader to go to Wayamba instead. To have Ramanayake by his side would have been helpful to SB and the party leader obviously wanted to prevent that. Enthusiasm was no higher in Wayamba. Vajira Abeywardene had turned up briefly, and Rosy Senanayake had sent some people to work for the campaign. Former parliamentarian Jayantha Ketagoda had arrived in Wayamba as had Karunasena Kodituwakku and Manjusri Arangala, the UNP’s Homagama organizer. That was the lot.

If SB is being given step-motherly treatment in the Central Province, it is only because of the fear that he would win and become a contender for the leadership. If not for this tendency of the UNP leader to fear his own shadow, SB would have made an ideal partner for Wickremesinghe. SB shares most of the views of the UNP leader. He too believes in the economic models espoused by Wickremesinghe. He too is against the war and is for an accommodation of Tamil aspirations in an extended devolution of power. He too is pro-western and pro-Norwegian to the same extent as Wickremesinghe. While being all this he, unlike Wickremesinghe, is a man of the people - one of the very few in the UNP who can even think of making some effort to sell this line of thinking to the general public. Yet he is sidelined by the very man who should be his biggest patron.

Enter Mano Ganesan

During an ordinary provincial council election enthusiasm will be generated only towards the last week of the campaign. This could be one reason as to why the UNP leader has not yet bothered to visit either of the two provinces. But now, given the head start that the government has got in the campaign, the UNP’s leaders and parliamentarians might as well not visit the two provinces during the next two weeks as well. It was widely believed that the EPC elections would mark the beginning of the end for the Rajapaksa regime. Hence there was a great deal of heat generated from the very beginning. Then came the NCP and Sabaragamuwa elections, where once again the UNP put its best foot forward with two prominent candidates and sufficient funds for the campaign. In contrast to this, SB has not yet received a cent from the party for the campaign and even the customary handout that is given by all political parties to their candidates has not been given to the Central Province candidates. Is it a lack of cash or has the UNP has for all practical purposes given up hope in the two provinces?

In the middle of all this gloom is one hope for the UNP in the unlikely form of Mano Ganesan of the Western People’s Front. Ganesan is a relative newcomer to the public eye. He entered parliament in 2001 on the UNP ticket as his party was a constituent member of the UNP led alliance. He was re-elected in 2004, once again on the UNP ticket. His political antecedents lay in the Democratic Worker’s Congress, an offshoot of the Ceylon Worker’s Congress, which broke away in 1956 under the leadership of Abdul.Aziz. The political wing of the DWC was where Ganesan cut his teeth and he has since come up in a big way. The Western People’s Front which he formed, has since been renamed the Democratic People’s Front and today the UNP’s hopes of being able to win the up-country Tamil vote centers on Ganesan. In this Central Province election campaign Ganesan has declared war on both the CWC and the UPF led by Chandrasekeran. Ganesan holds that the up-country Tamils are the most backward community in the country and for this state of affairs he lays the blame on the political leadership of the up-country Tamils - the CWC and the UPF - much more than on the successive Sri Lankan governments.

What are the chances of Ganesan being able to pull off what he has set out to do? He today leads the Democratic Worker’s Congress, the revived DWC of.Aziz. The total membership of this trade union is given as 19,000 by Ganesan, the members of which are scattered throughout the Nuwara Eliya, Kalutara and Kegalle districts. To the question as to how he hopes to defeat the CWC and the UPF with just 19,000 members, Ganesan says that the total membership of the CWC is only around 40,000 and that in any case, Tamil plantation workers in the Nuwara Eliya district do not number more than 89,000. Up-country Tamils have moved out of the plantations in large numbers and are doing other jobs. Ganesan sees these non-plantation Tamils as his constituency. His party has two candidates contesting on the UNP ticket and both of them are graduates. Ganesan had been planning for this change for some time. The change of name of his party from Western People’s Front to Democratic People’s Front was obviously to appeal to the up-country voter.

Ganesan is an ambitious man who has taken an educated Jaffna Tamil, Kumaraguruparan as the general secretary of his party. Kumaraguruparan was formerly a senior vice president of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. He resigned in 2004 to join Ganesan. Thus for the first time we have a political entity where an Indian Tamil leads a Jaffna Tamil in a political organization. It always used to be the other way round. Ganesan may even have hopes of one day being able to exploit the power vacuum left by the LTTE in the north. During the short period that he has been in the political limelight, he has shown himself to be a skilled political entrepreneur. He emerged as an advocate for Tamil rights when he spoke out against the spate of abductions of Tamils, almost all of whom were Jaffna Tamils, in 2007. Thereby he not only won over some northern Tamils, including the Tamil Diaspora – a possible constituency for him in the future, but he also gained the attention of the international community and became a national figure in his own right.

Selling intangibles

Ganesan’s strong point up to now is that he has been an agitator and a human rights activist. As a politician, what he would be talking about would be human rights and minority rights. Hence, what he would offer the up-country Tamils would be more like what Amirthalingam offered the northern Tamils and not like what S.Thondaman offered the up-country Tamils in past decades. What Ganesan would be offering the up-country Tamils is mainly ideology – minority rights, human rights, notions of self respect etcetera. But his rivals, Arumugam Thondaman and P.Chandrasekeran, both offer tangibles in the form of better housing, roads, schools and so on. Today, if Ganesan is able to announce that most up country Tamils now live outside the estates, that is because of the tangibles including citizenship that Saumyamoorthy Thondaman was able to provide them over a period of thirty years. Even though Thondaman Snr. was originally in the troika leading Tamil United Liberation Front, he opposed the ideological approach of Amrithalingam and Co and concentrated on tangibles for his people in a mutually beneficial partnership with J.R.Jayewardene.

The Tamil people of the up-country have not been exhausted in a 30 year quest for intangibles unlike their northern and eastern brethren. So it remains to be seen whether the intangibles such as ‘minority rights’ that Ganesan has placed on offer in the hill country will attract the Tamil voter. In this context, it should be noted that the CWC, and to a much greater extent the Up-country Peoples’ Front led by Chandrasekeran, were also strong on the intangibles front. Chandrasekeran in particular was well known for his posturing on minority rights and for paying pooja openly to the LTTE. Hence one may assume that if some mileage was to be gained from this kind of approach upcountry, Chandrasekeran has already captured the market. Up to this point the conventional wisdom in the hill country was that unless one had access to state patronage and the ability to dole out tangibles to the Up-country Tamils, one got nowhere. As Ganesan himself has observed, only about 50% of the upcountry Tamils still work on estates. The reason why so many have been able to move out of the estates is because of the tangibles doled out primarily by the CWC and later by the UPF as well over the past decades. So it remains to be seen whether the hopes reposed by the UNP in Ganesan’s ability to challenge the entrenched influence of the CWC and the UPF will be realized.

Last week marked an unadulterated foreign policy triumph for the government. The Japanese peace envoy Akashi met the president, and there were no calls to stop the war. When Akashi met the JNP leader Wimal Weerawansa, he was already talking of the post LTTE scenario. His question to Weerawansa had been what they would do to win over the Tamil people once the LTTE was gone. It was the same with regard to the Indian foreign minister Pranab Mukerjee’s visit. One of the salient features of the Indian foreign minister’s statement following the visit was the comment that he was "Pleased with the comprehensive briefing by the Sri Lankan side". There is a willingness on the part of India to listen to the Sri Lankan side instead of being stampeded into action by agitation in Tamil Nadu. In short, there is a world of a difference between the situation that prevailed in October last year and now. It would appear that the international community, seeing the LTTE’s inevitable end, has decided on a hands off policy, while waiting for the inevitable to happen. The government’s policy of standing up to pressures from without in pursuing national goals has paid off handsomely.

The Indian foreign minister did not call for the fighting to end despite the fact that the Tamil Nadu government has put the central government on notice. The Indian government seems to have come to the realization that succumbing to pressure from Tamil Nadu to intervene in Sri Lanka would be far more costly than any damage that the withdrawal of Tamil Nadu support will have on the government. In the wake of the Mumbai terror, it may be that the ruling Congress government is far more confident of being able to galvanize the support of Indians across the subcontinent to oppose the new terrorist threat. And for them to be able to do that, they have to demonstrate consistency – and hence probably the hands off policy towards Sri Lanka.

One of the lighter moments in the Indian foreign minister’s visit was the president’s offer to send his personal physician, the now famous Dr Eliyantha White, to cure .Karunanidhi the ailing Tamil Nadu chief minister. White was earlier assigned to cure and win over Lasantha Wickremetunga. So why not use the same strategy on Karunanidhi, seems to have been the president’s thinking.

Catch-22 situation

Last week, the UNP leader held a press conference after the liberation of Mullaitivu where he stated that everyone should be happy about the liberation and he thanked the president, the cabinet and the service chiefs who made this victory possible. Thus, the trend that was set by Rukman Senanyake in an interview with The Island, has now become UNP policy. The party seems to have belatedly realized that opposing or criticizing the war efforts is not the most expedient policy in the present circumstances. This new approach of the UNP has not been welcomed by some of their minority party allies. Mano Ganesan for instance, in his personal website, has questioned the UNP’s strategy in the following terms. The title of the statement goes as "UNP should re-do the war and peace strategies with guts and vision."

Ganesan says, "We did not want the UNP to oppose the defence vote. But after hearing the UNP general secretary at his Defense Watch performance, we thought they would at least abstain. This thought became stronger again when Hon Range Bandara MP talked of 12,000 deaths and 12,000 injured during the rule of the present government. But instead the UNP has joined the war chorus and is playing side roles to the government."

"It (the UNP) is calling on the people to put it into power at elections after elections. Why should the people do that when the UNP itself is endorsing the very lifeline of the government it wants to defeat?"

"It seems the UNP strategy is to oppose the government on all other issues and to support the government on the war effort…The government has failed in all other avenues…The people themselves are aware of the failures and blunders of the government. The government’s one and only survival avenue is war. The UNP’s campaigns on other failures and issues will be effective only if they come coupled with a campaign against the fruitless war effort. Otherwise these campaigns are just a waste of time. The biggest danger is that innocent Sinhala people are arriving at the decision of continuously supporting the government. This is because of the fact that the very opposition which wants to topple the government is approving of the government’s war. Therefore, unless and until the UNP challenges the fruitless war and exposes the true facets of the war effort of the government, nothing is going to change. The government will be sitting where it is very prettily."

Ganesan’s criticisms of the UNP strategy would be food for thought to all those in the UNP. As a party, the UNP indeed is caught up in a catch-22 situation. They cannot get the people to even listen to them if they don’t approve of the war effort. If they do, that cuts the ground from under their own feet. The reason why the UNP has been compelled to make these flip flops on policy is because they have not been able to sell their thinking to the public and have been compelled to fall in line with the agenda set by the government. This again underscores the importance of a man like SB who can hold a position and sell it to the public. As for Ganesan’s characterization of the war effort being ‘fruitless,’ many people would question that today and it does appear that the government has produced some results. This in fact could be one reason why the UNP high command has virtually given up on the PC elections and are relaxing in Colombo and making overseas visits while the campaigns are on.

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