By Vishwamithra –
Gamperaliya: Ranil & Mangala, Before Transforming The Village, Transform Yourselves; Your Optics Are All Wrong And They Do Matter
“Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.” ~Arthur Burt
One does not have to look beyond the banners. They tell the whole story. Either both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera are incredibly stupid or they are dishearteningly insensitive, or maybe both. If it’s stupidity, then one can understand, may even forgive them for such stupidities, but if it’s insensitivity, they shouldn’t be in politics. The banner included among the written content, photographs of Ranil Wickremesinghe, our Prime Minister and the leader of the United National Party, (UNP) and of Mangala Samaraweera, the Minister of Finance, both clad in their Western dress, tie and black coat. One couldn’t find a more incongruous attire for a launch of a program aimed at rural Sri Lanka.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, of course, has been a stubborn and inflexible leader. This quality of his has not only cost him personally in particular, but the Party that he is supposed to lead, with many an achievable goal in general. The change that SWRD Bandaranaike brought in in 1956 has come to stay. The overwhelming majority of this country is Sinhalese Buddhists and the way in which that majority looks at its political leaders may be utterly narrow and warped, but that reality must sink into the mindset of our political leaders.
Optics in politics is of paramount significance. The image that is created at the very beginning lasts a lifetime in the minds and hearts of the observer, the people. Examples are aplenty. Bandaranaike after stepping on the soil of Ceylon in the early twentieth century, with a burning ambition to be the Prime Minister of the country, changed into the ‘national dress’. JR Jayewardene, although there is no evidence of any such ambition, when entered the then State Council, chose the ‘national dress’ as his professional attire. He never deviated from it and when he visited the United States of America, he appeared attired in this ‘national dress’ before President Ronald Raegan and made a most eloquent speech outdoing the US President himself, both in diction and content. However, when making his famous San Francisco speech on Japan’s independence’, JR was dressed in the western attire.
But ever since 1956, almost all Sinhalese politicians chose the ‘national dress’ as their fixed customary dress. For instance, the official photograph of the ’56 Cabinet of Ministers is a prime example of this custom. All the Ministers were dressed in their national dress. The optics of such a photograph were tremendously successful. The immediate relatability of such optics is an essential part of a politician who is ambitious enough to go the extra mile, so to speak, in order to satisfy the superficial, yet burning desire of the voter in the context of ‘Identity’ politics’.
1956 was a watershed in local politics. The transformation of the mindset of the average voter and its lasting consequences are real; influence on Sri Lanka society by English-educated elites became history; the replacing class which was and is still being vernacular-educated and predominated by nationalistic fervor cannot be undone. Modern-day politics is being totally defined and shaped by this new class of society that has resorted to easy and entitlement syndrome-solutions. The problems that emerged after Independence are complex; they were exacerbated by the new sense of nationalism that was felt and assumed in day-to-day real lives. The anger and phony patriotism, brainwashed by the Buddhist clergy dispersed in the four corners of the Island, of our men and women assumed most violent and aggressive forms. The politicians, by this day are mostly clad in the so-called ‘national dress’, were identified by the great majority of Sinhalese Buddhists as ‘Apé evun’ (our ones). Anyone dressed in the western dress, other than at weddings or when flying abroad, were considered the ‘other’. Polarization of our society as ‘ours’ and ‘others’ couldn’t be helped.
Yet, the system of Presidential Elections in which the constituency assumed the whole country, instead of electorate by electorate, required that the entire population of which the Northern Tamils and Eastern Muslims are an integral part of our country vote, as one single nation. This changed the course of our political journey for good. But behold: all those who won the Presidential Elections up to date. JR Jayewardene, R Premadasa, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena were all identified as ours and those who were defeated at each of these elections were, Hector Kobbekaduwa, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Srima Dissanayake (this needs to be disregarded as the then prevailing circumstances were exceptional), Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sarath Fonseka and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
In all these elections, Ranil Wickremesinghe stood out as the ‘other’. Clad in western suit, never trying to change and stubbornly clinging on to anachronistic values of yesteryear, Ranil Wickremesinghe has failed to attract the ‘ours’ voter. But he must take into consideration the invaluable lessons from his uncle, JR Jayewardene. JR was born to the Colombo elite. His father was the epitome of that class of society that existed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Yet JR foresaw as early as 1930s that if he were to be successful in politics, he needed to be identified with the majority Sinhalese Buddhists in the land. He not only changed his religion, he changed his attire. Never failing to be attired in spotlessly white national dress, J R stepped into the halls of the then State Council with pride and honor of the local majority. Never did he appear in anything other than his national dress in the local scene, whether it was a political function or a private party.
Being clad in the local national dress is no mere appendage; it was an integral part of the identity of the man in post-Independence Ceylon. It becomes even more emphatic and illustratively arrogant if those politicians who profess that they represent the ‘common man’, deliberately appear in clothes that are not identifiable with those of the ‘common man’. Optics of a launch of a major government-financed politico-economic program aimed at the poor and/or underprivileged déclassé, needs to be perfect, not 99%, but 100%. The failure on the part of Ranil Wickremesinghe is understandable, given his insensitivities to the mundane affairs of the poor, yet a gross violation of political dynamics by a media-savvy Mangala Samaraweera is unforgivable.
Mangala is one of the very few, who they say, could influence the mind of the Prime Minister. Influencing the mind of the Prime Minister should not be limited to non-political matters. At this hour of dire need, refining and polishing the UNP-Brand is more important than anything else. Mangala is known to be clever and bright in the business of advertising and branding. Then it is not beyond anybody’s wildest expectations that he would assist in the rescue of the Party’s vanishing style and Brand. Creating the optics of a given event- the way in which such optics deliver the core essence of the event- sustaining that essence over a substantial period of time and making adjustments and improvements to those initial branding dynamics are part and parcel of the event and its optics.
Gamperaliya program is a massive politico-economic program the government has undertaken with a clear view to enhancing its appeal to the rural masses and generating firstly, the enthusiasm of those who take part in the program to enrich their current lifestyles and incomes in general and secondly, increasing the chances of their favor at the polling booth come election time. These are not the seventies, eighties or nineties. This is the twenty first Century. Its susceptibility to the impulses of social media and lewd gossip is enormous and immeasurable. In such a complex context, politicians need to be extraordinarily sensitive and alert to the responses of the masses. And if complex and sophisticated methods need to be employed in order to reap the benefits of programs that are earmarked for vote-getting, politicians are expected to do the right thing. There is no trophy for the second place in politics. First place secures power while second place secures retirement. An exit in ignominy is no strategy, it is weakness and impotency in power-play.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org