Mangala at the crossroads


The JVP undoubtedly takes the cake as masters of futile endeavour in this country.  Last week they had their party convention at the Sugathadasa stadium under the theme "The struggle for socialism against imperialism and social injustice". While it is true that this was a convention for the party faithful and not a meeting for the general public, still, a convention is a public event of sorts because proclamations emanating from it reach the public.  How many of those below the age of 45 today will be able to relate to a theme that includes the terms ‘socialism’ and ‘imperialism’? Clearly, the JVP is engaged in an assiduous endeavour to wipe itself out of existence.  Never in the history of political parties in this country did a political party that had so much going for it,  voluntarily abdicate all of it for the sake of clinging on to a receding ideological dream.

After the parliamentary elections of April 2004, the JVP was in a much stronger position than any Marxist political party has ever been in this country, controlling 40 seats in a 225 member parliament and also having enormous clout over the government of the day.  They could have used that power to run their ministries their way and to show Sri Lanka how a ministry could be run efficiently.  If the rest of the government was inefficient and wasteful and corrupt, the JVP’s ministries could have been oases of efficiency and honest service. Thereby, they could have gradually increased their votes at the expense of the SLFP and who knows, even eclipsed it in the end. But the JVP preferred to preserve their socialist virginity rather than go into a marriage with a capitalist party and what we now have is just a fringe party with one tenth of the MPs they had earlier and teetering on the brink of extinction.

What this shows is that political parties have their ‘core competencies’ and cannot function outside that role. The JVP’s role is that of a party of protest and complaint and that is what they do best and they will continue to do that until they finally disappear. The same could be said of the Tamil National Alliance. It will be a moot point as to what they will do with the local government authorities of they win in the north and east. The TNA has never governed anything and probably never expected to govern anything either.  They obviously had been living in the expectation that the LTTE would run everything and all they had to do was to lounge on an armchair talking about Tamil rights.

What will the TNA PS and UC chairmen tell the Tamil yokels who come to them asking for toilets after next month? Going by the usual practice of the TNA, they’ll probably get a lecture on how the Sinhalese have toilets and the Tamils have to resort to the bushes because they are Tamil, and that toilets will be a distant dream unless a separate Tamil state is carved out of the north and east and that they should continue to use the bushes until the Tamil dream –an independent state of their own – is achieved! In this context, we must hasten to add that the piece written last week in this column about Mafia rule in Jaffna was not in any way meant to undermine the Tamil political authorities who can govern and are used to governing. It was only meant as a ground breaker to get some answers to questions that have been raised.  The Tamil people of the north badly need representatives who can govern.

For decades, governing was a dirty word in the north. Protest and complaint was what was looked up to. Even after the S.J.V.Chelvanayagam led ITAK formed a coalition with the UNP in 1965, neither the ITAK nor the Tamil Congress which had been a long term partner of the UNP by then wanted to have anything to do with governance. So G.G.Ponnambalam who could have got anything he wanted from Dudley Senanayake opted not to hold any portfolio so that his proximate enemies in Jaffna could not brand him a stooge of the government. Chelvanayagam who also wanted to preserve his political virginity did not accept any portfolio either and an outsider - a retired Solicitor General M.Tiruchelvam was brought in to sully his hands with the unspeakable act of holding a cabinet portfolio and actually trying to run a ministry. 

A good show

The UNP’s much touted mammoth anti-government rally on the 9th of February, though not quite of the proportions it was originally projected in, was generally good given the position the UNP finds itself in. Originally, the idea mooted by Mangala Samaraweera in the working committee had been to bring one million people to Colombo.  As the weeks went by, the projections were gradually pared down and on the day that the rally was finally held, there had been something like 3,500 people present.  That however is a good crowd given the fact that so many are busy with their election campaigns and resent being pulled out for shows elsewhere.

The meeting for local government candidates held at the open air theatre at Viharamahadevi Park was attended by more than half the candidates contesting in most districts except those of the Northern Province.  The February 9 affair was organized by Mangala Samaraweera who is now one of the key figures in the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction of the UNP.  Mangala has a reputation for being a ‘gamekaraya’ and many people thought that he would be able to come up with some sort of a strategy to give back the lost initiative to the embattled Wickremesinghe.  But one thing that was made clear at Wednesday’s meeting at Viharamahadevi Park was that the initiative was still with Sajith Premadasa. 

It was Sajith who got the most attention and the most cheers from the assembled local government candidates. This was the real grassroots of the UNP and the signal they sent to everybody was unmistakable. It was only he who was given a standing ovation by the candidates while RW hardly got any applause at all. What Mangala did last Wednesday was to assemble the party grassroots activists for a second time after last December’s party convention, to cheer Sajith and reaffirm their faith in him.

After last December’s party convention, one strategy of the Wickremesinghe faction was to launch the Grama Charika programme in the hope that an activist programme would get the UNP grassroots activists to forget their disenchantment with RW and rally the party faithful around the party if not the leader. Well, the Grama Charika was in that sense a failure because it soon became clear that if a Grama Charika programme is to be successful, Sajith has to be in it. The party general secretary Tissa Attanayake managed to salvage his self respect by getting Sajith to attend the Grama Charika held in Kundasale. But the Wattala Grama Charika had to be cancelled because Sajith refused to come owing to a dispute he had with RW over the suspension of the three Galle district electoral organisers  Maithri Gunaratne, Bandulal Bandarigoda and Anada Lanerolle.  What the Viharamahadevi Park meeting on the 9th showed was that even if a meeting is organized by Wickremesinghe loyalists, the star attraction will still be Sajith.

The difference in the two messages given to the assembled UNP rank and file at Viharamahadevi Park by the incumbent and the challenger was that Sajith was holding out a hope of better times while RW was trying to score points on the cost of living and the slow response of the government to the floods.  And RW was speaking to a UNP audience which knew better than anybody else in this country that had RW been in power, he too would not have been able to do anything about either the cost of living or the response to natural disasters.   In fact they know that RW would not have been able to deliver even as half as well as the incumbent government.   

The UNP show last week was good and due credit should go to Mangala who organized it.  The original idea was to march from Viharamahadevi Park to Lipton Circus but because of the large crowd present they marched to Punchi Borella from where everybody dispersed.  One of the reasons why all local government candidates countrywide were told to attend this meeting was to be able to assemble a crowd without the Sajith factor. Since the number of candidates was a few thousands, their attendance alone would have ensured a good crowd. But it is doubtful whether they would have had the crowds they did if Sajith did not attend.  Sajith for his part, attended this meeting because it was the kick off for the local government election campaign and his absence would not have gone down well with the candidates.

It is noteworthy that in organizing the February 9 show, Mangala had not asked for Sajith’s cooperation, unlike Tissa Attanayake who thought caution was the best part of valour and invited Sajith to take part in the Kundasale Grama Charika. Sajith was not invited for the Matara Grama Charika organized by Mangala either.  Ravi Karunanayake had also addressed the meeting but he had left the venue when Sajith was speaking and had come back after the speech. The UNP is facing the local elections at a time when it is deeply divided and in the throes of a leadership struggle.  The meeting at Viharamahadevi Park would have decided who was going to lead the LG election campaign and the candidates themselves have unequivocally chosen Sajith by popular acclaim. So basically, what Mangala has unwittingly done has been to organize a show for Sajith to star in.

What everybody expected was that since Mangala had taken matters to hand, he would come up with some kind of a ‘jilmaat’ to ensure that RW gets the pick up from his meeting. But what the events of last Wednesday showed was that there no longer is any ‘jilmaat’ that can resurrect RW. When a truce was declared between the Sajith and RW factions to present a united front at the local government elections, one fear that the UNP reformists had was that the reform movement would run out of steam by the time the elections ended and that it was best to strike while things were still hot after the UNP’s December convention. Well, one thing that the Viharamahadevi Park meeting showed was that the reform movement has most certainly not run out of steam. He who fuels the reform movement is RW and so long as he remains as the leader, the reform movement never need fear running out of steam.  The RW faction has now run out of options and it is a moot point as to what they are going to do next.  More importantly, what is Mangala going to do? 

Buddhika’s flexibility

Some weeks ago, a political writer K.W.Janaranjana had written an article in the Ravaya where he had raised the question what Mangala’s future would be if Sajith takes over the leadership of the UNP in the context where Buddhika Pathirana is a forceful presence in the Sajith camp and also in the Matara district. Pathirana had in fact got into a conversation about the issue raised in this article with provincial councillors Shiral Lakthilleke, Rohana Gamage and some others one day and he had told Laktilleke to tell Mangala to make his own investigations as to who the average UNPer was asking for and to make the decision to join Sajith. Pathirana had then told Laktilleke to tell Mangala that if his (Pathirana’s) presence in the Matara district and in the Sajith camp is an obstacle to his joining Sajith, then he is willing to promise not to agitate for the Matara district leadership and to be Mangala’s deputy in the district, and that he can afford to wait because he is only 36, whereas Mangala is now 55. 

Pathirana got more votes at the April 2010 parliamentary election and will probably continue to get more votes than Mangala at elections because in the Matara district a key criteria in voting is caste (to a much greater extent than in most other districts) and the Govigamas heavily outnumber the Duravas. So this offer not to start jockeying for the district leadership would no doubt provide some breathing space for Samaraweera if he avails himself of it.

Since RW is not going to be invited for any public meetings by the candidates, if Karu Jayasuriya is hoping to follow RW, then he may end up not really playing much of a role in the campaign. Sajith on the contrary is being invited to meetings all over the country because it is him that the ordinary people want to see and hear.  So if Karu J wants to play a role in the campaign, he may be forced to fall in behind Sajith who has been a much sought after figure even in electorates organized by party seniors.  On Thursday, he was taken right round the Ja Ela electorate to speak at more than four public meetings by Joseph Michael Perera. The week before last, he was taken to the Wattala electorate by yet another Wickremesinghe loyalist - John Amaratunga.

The candidates who had come for the Viharamahadevi park meeting had the complaint that while they had been brought to Colombo for a meeting, which they had to attend at their own cost, they had not been given any help by the party for their election campaigns.  This time not a cent has been allocated to the candidates. What they had said was that even if money was not being doled out, at least a leaflet printed by the party for all candidates setting out why people should vote for the UNP could have been given to them, especially since all of them were being brought all the way to Colombo just to show a crowd to the world.

The distribution of money at elections by the UNP has seen many ups and downs. At the presidential elections of 2005, each electoral organizer had been given Rs one million. Then when it came to the eastern provincial council elections of 2007, each organizer had been given 300,000. However as the UNP lost the PC elections one after the other, the quantum given out had diminished until when it came finally to the Southern Provincial Council election, no money was given by the party, but Daya Gamage had distributed Rs 50,000 to each candidate, from his own pocket.  Then when it came to Sarath Fonseka’s presidential bid, each UNP organizer was given Rs 350,000. At the parliamentary election of April 2010, once again, nothing was given out and this makes it very unlikely that the local government candidates will get anything at all this time.  The point raised by the candidates who had come to Colombo was that if each had been given at least a few hundred copies of a party leaflet to be distributed to households in their areas, that too would have been of help to them. 

Wickremesinghe for his part will most probably be taking wing overseas before the end of this month for a trip to the UK and there onwards to Europe.  Reports indicate that the UNP branches in the UK have already been told to expect a visit from him. UNP types have been making sarcastic comments to the effect that RW will be canvassing for votes overseas, while they canvass for votes in Sri Lanka! But then again, if RW is not being invited for election rallies, and everybody, even Wickremesinghe loyalists like John Amaratunga and Joseph Michael Perera, would prefer to take Sajith around in the electorates, then what is the point in Wickremesinghe twiddling his thumbs here?

Last week RW did attend some UNP gatherings. But these were not public meetings. They were meetings of UNP candidates or activists - internal affairs of the party. For instance he addressed a meeting of UNP candidates for the Haputale Urban council at the house of the Haputale UC opposition leader Prageeth Kaushalya. The Haputale electoral organizer Vishvanath Kulatunga was also present at the meeting.  At the commencement of the meeting he had to listen to the usual complaints of those who did not get nominations to contest. He stayed that night at Arcadia, a holiday home in Diyatalawa home owned by the Wijewardene family.  From there he went to Welimada to attend an electoral organization meeting arranged by Ravi Samaraweera. RW still can attend internal meetings of the party as the party leader but his interaction with the public, seems to be at an end.

Anuradhpura district provincial councilors Rohana Gamage and Kasthuri Anuradhanayake had been summoned to RW’s Cambridge Place office and the two feuding provincial councilors were assigned electorates to oversee the local government elections Anuradhapura West going to Anuradhanayake and Horowpotana to Gamage.  When the UNP parliamentary group meeting was held on Monday it was decided to register a protest at the disruption of the Independence Day demonstration of the UNP and to highlight the fact that the government’s response to the floods had been inadequate.  It was also decided to raise the issue of strained relations with Tamil Nadu over the alleged shooting of an Indian fisherman by the Navy. 

The UNP reformist group met at Bodhi Ranasinghe’s place yesterday morning, to map out their strategy for the election campaign. With the party leader planning to go overseas, the reformists are now aware that they will be left holding the baby.  This was not unexpected. Sajith had pointedly told RW at a working committee meeting that if he is the leader, he must lead the local government election campaign and visit all the electorates. But now it turns out that even committed RW loyalists are jittery about organizing public meetings in their electorates for RW to address because they fear that UNP voters and indeed the candidates themselves may boycott the rally. So now the reformist group has decided to go themselves around all the electorates.

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