By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Having spent the better part of a decade overseas and exactly six months back home, I’d say the most accurate political insight I have got was at the showing of the satirical play Puswedilla, at the Lionel Wendt in May.
When a savage political satire produced in an urban centre for a sophisticated audience shows the Opposition leader as a snivelling clown and a pathetic prop while the President dominates the socio-political scene through sheer force of personality, and has the audience cheering, then the UNP is in some serious electoral trouble including in its own social constituency. Then again, who’d have thought that Mr Wimal Weerawansa, who hardly exemplifies urbane charm, would have beaten the leader of the UNP in the popular vote in the district of Colombo?
A satire such as Puswedilla staged not late at night on a campus or bohemian coffee club but at the city’s leading theatre tells me that however distorted and devalued our democracy it isn’t a dictatorship or tyranny that we live in. The stormy cabinet meeting on the 13th amendment some weeks back contrasts with the UNP’s Working Committee decision around the same time, to sack over a dozen dissidents. In which dictatorship does open dissent and plurality of views in the Cabinet stand in stark contrast to the suffocating atmosphere in the main Opposition? The conformist zombies do not seem to be in the regime but in the main opposition.
A week after watching President Puswedilla dominate the Lionel Wendt stage through his personality, I unexpectedly encountered the real President at a cosmopolitan wedding in Colombo of two well–educated articulate youngsters, one of whom was a former student of mine with a postgraduate degree from London. It struck me that Mahinda Rajapaksa has even more compelling and politically effective a personality than his version on the stage, and that was not due to forcefulness, but because he had the most disarming charm and appeal in the room. People like him.
In President Puswedilla’s and the play’s punch-line, he decides to make the Leader of the opposition the Prime Minister and then swiftly moves to pre-empt Ajith Lovedasa, the aspirant leader of the opposition, from taking over the vacancy by threatening to split his governing coalition, continue to rule with a simple majority, transfer some 40 plus MPs back to the Opposition benches thereby creating a bigger Opposition than the present UNP which has barely 41, and make his son the Leader of that marginally larger Opposition. Before the audience burst into laughter and applause, there was a second of stunned silence. The scariest thing was that though the drama intends a touch of the amusingly absurd, the arithmetic actually hangs together. In real life as in the satire Mahinda Rajapaksa does have that option, thanks to the ‘push factor’ so intrinsic to the Opposition leader.
The drama also makes clear that there is only one potential candidacy, one potential Opposition leadership that disconcerts President Puswedilla, making him reach for the button of his doomsday weapon of parliamentary reverse arithmetic. That is the candidacy of Ajith Lovedasa, callow youth though he is depicted as, given to bursting into ballads on public occasions. One cannot help but wonder why President Puswedilla or his real life counterpart would be in the least apprehensive about the candidacy of the seemingly unthreatening Lovedasa or his real life avatar. Could it be that the incumbent intuitively sense that here is an ‘outlier’ who could have a resonance among provincial/rural voter as well as the urban underclass?
The counter-assertion of defenders of the UNP’s status quo is that Ranil almost won the presidential election of 2005; that he lost because of a boycott by the LTTE, and therefore he is not merely a viable candidate but within striking distance of the Presidency at his upcoming outing, especially if that election is against the backdrop of economic hardship and a spoiler third candidate splits the UPFA vote.
This line of argument fails to identify or chooses to avoid three fairly fundamental issues. Firstly, why Mr Wickremesinghe was vulnerable as Mahinda Rajapaksa was manifestly not, to the LTTE boycott. The answer is that Ranil Wickremesinghe had rendered his electoral fate vulnerable to an LTTE boycott as Mahinda had not. It is still relevant. To put it crudely, Ranil was dependent on the ethnic minority vote while Mahinda by contrast, had got his base and his basics right.
As explained to me by a maestro of campaigning (for a viable leader that is, not for himself), Sirisena Cooray, the segundo of President Premadasa, there are four fundamentals:
- One must have a saleable product. If the product is not saleable, no marketing machinery or campaign, however superb, can do the job. The candidate must be saleable.
- The candidate himself/herself must not become an issue, a lightning rod.
- The candidate must aim at and be capable of winning the majority of the majority. In a country in which 75% are Sinhalese, this means winning over a majority of the Sinhala majority.
- Doctoring the vote can never win you an election. Only politics can. The election has to be won squarely. Stuffing the ballots or subtler manipulation can only enhance the margin of a victory you have already won by fair means.
Any decent campaign strategist (a Lankan James Carville or David Axelrod) would know in his bones that Ranil does not fit this bill. He doesn’t come even close.
In 2005, the outgoing President was not exactly campaigning against Ranil and for Mahinda. At the least, there were mixed signals. This will not be the context, to put it mildly, at the next Presidential election.
The lame celebration of Ranil’s performance in 2005 incredibly ignores a fact so massive that it dominates not merely the politics of the day but this period of our history. That is, the war. Ranil’s supposedly narrow defeat took place before the war and the demonstration of proof that the Tigers could be defeated. Mahinda inherited a war which had not been won for decades, had been written off as unwinnable, and won it.
Between 2005 and today lies that monumental historic fact. That fact has given birth to another, namely that there has been a tectonic shift in social consciousness. The country moved on, and on the issues of security and sovereignty, will never go back again. Under Ranil the UNP remains stranded on the other side of the chasm. This alone makes him the worst of all possible candidates to challenge Mahinda Rajapaksa.
If that weren’t bad enough, there is a second fact that makes him a lousy candidate unless it can be contrived that his opponent is the guy who invaded the cricket pitch in Wales wearing a Tiger flag. That fact is that Ranil has no mass appeal, while Mahinda Rajapaksa is a warm, affable personality who also conveys strength and stature. He has proven that strength by presiding over the defeat of the enemy who loomed so large over our collective and individual destinies, Velupillai Prabhakaran— and that singular achievement has lent him stature. It will be diminished by other circumstances (as Churchill and de Gaulle learned) but that will take either a patriotic social democrat like Clement Attlee or another decade and a half.
The supersession of Mahinda Rajapaksa will neither be at the hands of Ranil Wickremesinghe, nor redound to his benefit. In point of fact, if the latter is perceived to be the beneficiary of a spoiler candidacy, that third candidacy will be blighted and the voters will be driven back to the incumbent, at least in the second preference.
So, come September (as the old song went) when the results of the provincial council elections in the former UNP strongholds of the Central province and the North West are in, some corporate entity should buy up the tickets of the next show of Puswedilla and ensure that every member of the Working Committee of the UNP and their spouses get to be in the front rows.