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Food for votes and votes for food

During elections, anything could become a bludgeon in the hands of politicians all out to beat their rivals like undergraduates engaged in a campus battle. They are guided by Rafferty's rules! A few years ago a group of students used a computer to smash a rival's head at the Jayewardenepura University. In Parliament, politicians have the habit of jabbing one another's private parts with mobile phones when debates get out of hand.

In the Central Province which is going to the polls on Feb. 14, the Opposition is using food as a weapon against the government. Opposition and UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on Thursday accused President Mahinda Rajapaksa of influencing voters in the run-up to the polls by giving them food. He vowed to institute legal action against the SLFP-led UPFA's Central Province candidates on the grounds that their party leader (President Rajapaksa) had violated election laws and to have them stripped of their civic rights.

Ironically, in 1977, the SLFP came under attack from the UNP and was thrown out of power because it had restricted people's access to food through draconian methods such as miris polla, haal polla (barriers put up to prevent people from transporting rice and chillies without permits) and paan polim (bread queues). The UNP capitalised on the chronic food scarcity that characterised the SLFP-led United Front regime to defeat it and form a government with a steamroller majority. The rest is history.

In 1953, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had to resign, when his government's decision to scrap a subsidy on rice among other things triggered a wave of public anger which culminated in a hartal.

It was a long time ago that our politicians found the road to the voter's heart lay through his stomach. Every regime that tried a different route faced electoral disasters.

Food has also become the main attraction at political rallies. A novel feature at the present-day political events including the May Day processions is the sachet of kasippu which comes in handy for the gyrating tipplers.

JRJ, who was responsible for the rice subsidy cut in 1952 later realised the importance of 'respecting' the voter's stomach. Hence, in 1977, he promised that he would give people eta atak (eight pounds of grains) if he became prime minister. He was elected but people got no eta. He managed to reign supreme thanks to a castrated Opposition, which took 17 long years to stage a comeback.

President Ranasinghe Premadasa also famously promised to enable each and every person to eat bath and gaslabu (rice with papaya for dessert), when he entered the presidential fray in 1988.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga did not care whether people ate or not. She did not have to worry about hunger or poverty as the UNP had mastered the art of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at elections. She was without any threat to her rule as people were without an alternative. She lost control of Parliament in 2001, when the present UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who promised the youth necklaces, bracelets, mobile phones, and chewing gum, formed a government. The stress of his party was not so much on rice and curry for natives but kottu roti for foreigners. He lost in 2004!

President Rajapaksa has said in response to the UNP's charge that he does not expect anything in return when he offers food to someone. He says he got the habit of sharing food with others from his parents who always kept an open house and gave food to anyone who happened to visit them at any time of the day.

True Sri Lankans, he has said, attach no strings to food and the western saying that there is nothing called a free lunch has no validity in this part of the world. His argument sounds tenable to some extent in that this country is known the world over for feeding even strangers. During Vesak, anyone can live on free food for days. During Poson in Anuradhapura, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims depend on dansel for victuals.

Even terrorists in this country have been beneficiaries of people's generosity. No government has ever denied them food in spite of their barbaric violence and political assassinations. That they were never short of food was seen from a large number of sacks of rice and dhal they had used as substitutes for sand bags around their bunkers.

Curiously, why didn't the Opposition challenge President Rajapaksa's election in 2005 on the grounds that he had turned the Temple Trees into a dansela since he moved in there as Prime Minister the previous year?

Cynics may say he is feeding people by way of penance for his party's sin of starving the public for seven years from 1970 to 1977.

People who are fed up with Barmecidal banquets, a wag says, richly deserve a square meal once in a way from politicians fattened on heavily subsidised food at the Parliamentary canteen and various other places maintained by taxpayers. Should the hoi polloi be denied that rare moment of pleasure?

If you cannot beat someone, it is said, you must emulate him. So, in case the Opposition fails to put the kibosh on the presidential dansel by legal means, it should seriously consider holding ice cream or fruit salad dansel next to the Temple Trees or the President's House in Kandy to counter President Rajapaksa’s successful 'food drive'. Voters usually remember what they get last of all.

But that is no surefire way to win elections.

At the 1977 General Election in the South, a well-heeled physician showered money and food on his constituency seeking a shortcut to Parliament. His meetings were fairly well attended and he grew confident. On the polling day, he distributed over 10,000 meal packs among his ardent supporters who had been trailing him for weeks. And when the results were announced, he got the shock of his life. He had polled only a few hundred votes. He threw a tantrum, hurled expletives and kicked the hangers-on sozzled to the gills out of his house.

The moral of the story: Free food does not necessarily translate into votes at elections.

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