By Uditha Devapriya –
Harin Fernando, addressing the media at Sirikotha, has commented on the recent meeting between Maithripala Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa. He dismisses any chance of a reconciliation between the two and pours scorn on those who believe in an imminent bridging (of sorts). He offers balm to hoot: “We reduced the price of koththamalli for those jokers who think the President will join hands with thieves.” He identifies those who support such a reconcilition with one word: baiya. Point well made indeed.
Now Fernando is not the sort of politician who’d make such a comment. The baiya-toiya dichotomy as I stated in an earlier piece is symptomatic of veiled prejudices against those who voted for Rajapaksa. I can only conclude that Fernando made his remark not knowing (or caring) what he said. The problem however is that his own party isn’t helping him in this regard.
I have always believed that if there was ever a division which showed in the presidential election, it was largely class-based. Rajapaksa won in electorates where poverty was rampant. He won Anamaduwa, the poorest electorate. He won Attanagalla despite the Bandaranaike “presence”. Ethnicity did not factor in there. But everyone seemed to be concerned about the ethnic rift. That is why they ignored the class-factor in the election. For the most part.
The UNP is facing a popularity-deficit. This we know. It can’t fill that gap by pandering to capital interests. That may explain its attempts at grabbing the rural vote through a self-deemed “populist” budget. But this isn’t enough. Attempts can be made. Easily. Validating and exhibiting them is the name of the game however, and where this is concerned President Sirisena and the SLFP still hold the cards.
In this regard reducing the Mahinda-Maithripala split to the baiya-toiya dichotomy is not going to help the UNP. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, going by past conduct the party hasn’t exactly helped to “bridge” the gap between baiya and toiya (the rural poor and the urban affluent). Given this it’s hardly surprising that many view the party to be in favour of class-rifts. I am not saying that this is the case. But perceptions count. Even when they remain unsubstantiated.
Secondly, I am amused whenever I hear people saying that the UNP “won”. Well it did, but not the way some would have wanted it to. Electoral victory remains as yet a distant dream. But if this remark amuses me then the next one tickles me: “the UNP is the best option for this country, but it cannot win on its own.” Now one can argue that electoral numbers don’t always bode well for the country.
UNPers (especially the more affluent ones) seem content in “shrugging off” democracy this way. People-power however remains potent, whether they like it or not. So they go on calling Rajapaksa’s supporters “baiyas”. Some of them go as far as calling them “yakkos”. Remarks like these reflect on those who make them. Badly.
Harin Fernando is one of the more intelligent members of the UNP. He is young but he has humility. His remarks are all the more surprising because one can’t expect any intelligent politician to reduce the SLFP-UNP rift to the baiya-toiya rift. True, by baiyas he would have meant those who support Rajapaksa. But this is not what it means. Baiya means villager, or rather “village idiot”. When used in particular contexts it is as insulting and stereotypical as black-faces at a minstrel show.
The UNP will not get over its perceived anti-rural bias if it continues to pettifog this way. It doesn’t take a political analyst to add two and two here. Despite the party’s best intentions, continuing to depict the electoral split in the country as a battle (of sorts) between baiyas and toiyas will not be in its interests. Quibbling over imagined differences will not help. Nor will statements disparaging villagers add credence to party, even if they are made outside context.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has a presence. It arguably is bigger than that of any of his predecessors, barring perhaps Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Even there the gap is clear: Rajapaksa has within 10 years achieved what Premadasa couldn’t in four and Bandaranaike couldn’t in 15. The irony is that he retains popularity even when he clearly is tainted. No one has venerated a man this corrupt here before.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is different. Some call him the shrewdest politician we have here. I would agree and disagree. For starters, it was under him that the UNP underwent a facelift. If JR Jayewardene stood for mild capitalism and Premadasa for populist conservatism, Wickremesinghe’s UNP successfully took on the SLFP during the Kumaratunge years and embraced liberal conservatism. It also unfortunately took on an identity-less identity thanks largely to the ceasefire years.
It is this transformation which effectively undid both him and his party, owing partly to the misconception that the SLFP was leftist. Well, the SLFP has never been leftist, at least not since 1975 when Felix Dias Bandaranaike became Finance Minister. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s “leftism” was in reality a more crony version of Premadasa’s populist capitalism, never mind how many leftist parties were and are with him.
My point is this: Wickremesinghe’s shrewdness can be his undoing. He gambled when he embraced Sirisena as the common opposition candidate. His party retained that liberal conservative streak when he gave key ministerial portfolios to his faction. He is surviving in the government thanks largely to a sleeping president who seems content (thankfully, one notes) in not exercising his powers fully. In this context it would make sense for the UNP to capitalise on the ground situation through a facelift.
Writing about a month before Sirisena became the common candidate, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka assessed the ground situation and presented his ideal Opposition context:
“The good news is that there are two chances at the coconut shy; two interlinked opportunities to dismantle the clan-based oligarchy. One is at the presidential election – but that’s already pretty much a goner. The other is to use the presidential election as a massive consciousness raising exercise – with Sajith Premadasa, Sujeeva Senasinghe, Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickremaratne, Rosy Senanayake, Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Sunil Handunetti, Vijitha Herath, Wasantha Samarasinghe, Lal Kantha, and Tilvin Silva in a pincer move.”
Outside Sajith (given his conduct one can hardly agree with what his champions cut him out as), the rest of the names from the UNP merit serious assessment. Neither Harsha nor Eran has shown himself to be a follower of any anti-baiya streak. Rosy Senanayake is a different matter of course, but she is no Chandrika Kumaratunga and neither is Sujeeva Senasinghe another Ravi Karunanayake.
That is one point. The other is policy. That has always been the UNP’s strong point. Ever since 1975 it has effectively undone the SLFP when it comes to reason-driven development, barring the latter part of the Jayewardene regime and the Ranasinghe Premadasa years. Harsha de Silva is (to my mind at least) a near-perfect technocrat, in the mould of N. M. Perera, and certainly a right-wing J. K. Galbraith. It is policy that drives him. Reason-driven policy. That wins my vote any day.
The UNP’s “pincer move” to redesign itself will not work as long as the Ranil faction is given precedence. Neither Harsha nor Eran belongs to this group. They are politically nonaligned. They are not pro-Ranil but that doesn’t make them anti-Ranil either. That is why they do not belong to the Sajith Premadasa camp. That is why it makes sense to promote them, because they and they alone have what it takes to redefine the party and possibly make it more progressive than it already is. Part of this redesign will no doubt remove the anti-baiya prejudice it is associated with at present.
In this regard it would also make sense to stop raising hairs with the baiya-toiya conflict. That is past. This is now. Seasoned politicians do not poke fun at those they oppose with the hillbilly tag. That offends not just those the UNP can get from the opposite camp but also those they already have outside the urban affluent crowd.
For now at least, Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the man of the moment. It would be tragic indeed if he goes down in history as a man who wasn’t able to capitalise on this moment. Given past conduct, however, I think it’s safe to assume he will go through this. Meanwhile, he and his party must go through that facelift. The one will not be possible, one should note, without the other. It’s as simple as that.
*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com