By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Government, as usual, put its own spin on what happened in Hambantota when some UNP parliamentarians decided to check out the airport and harbor. Mayor Eraj Fernando’s antics, however, were caught on camera. There’s no erasing that kind of belligerence (that’s a mild word, by the way) regardless of one’s spin-doctoring skills. Attempting to do so would invariably result in convincing the audience that its intelligence is being insulted. The next option is damage control. And the best damage-controller around is Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Last week, when he met with the editors of print and electronic media institutions, the President said ‘no one is above the law’. He added that he was not talking about the Bodu Bala Sena only when he made that remark. It applied to politicians as well, he said. He gave a lesson in history by way of providing context. He spoke of other politicians who have been attacked. He spoke also of politicians who have gone berserk. He named names. He even fired a broadside at the media, pointing out that when crowds, egged on by politicians, attack members of the ruling party, the media calls it ‘reaction by angry citizens’ whereas when a group of people led by a member of the ruling party take on opposition politicians, it’s an ‘paalaka pakshaye mera kandaayamak’ (thugs of the ruling party). Having provided context, he came up with the ‘no o’ne is above the law’ statement.
The point on history can be conceded. The President certainly can’t undo time. He is, however, the leader of the UPFA and the fact that these people who are not above the law continue to thumb nose at the law and law enforcement authorities are not going down very well with the people. They vote. It ought to be a concern.
Complicity in such attacks aside, President Rajapaksa made a very pertinent point about politics in general. He said, ‘game ayath ekka giyaa nam ohoma venne nehe’ (this would not have happened if [they] had gone with the locals). He observed that the visiting MPs had not invited UNP stalwarts of the area Sajith Premadasa and Dilip Wedarachchi to be part of the delegation. We don’t know if they were deliberately sidelined, but we do know that there’s no love lost between Premadasa and this particular team. There is an obvious reference to intra-party squabbles here. The ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ page that’s relevant, however, is the one about ‘game aya’ (village-people or ‘local folk’).
If there’s one major difference between the UPFA (under Mahinda Rajapaksa) and the UNP (under Ranil Wickremesinghe), it’s this matter of being with or being above the ‘game aya’ , respectively. That’s not ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ strictly speaking. It’s basic politics or a fundamental tenet of pragmatic political practices that can yield benefits to practitioner. It’s become part of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ by default, i.e. simply because it’s something that the UNP doesn’t do or does poorly.
Sajith, when he’s not wrecking the party by berating the leadership in public (it’s hard to think of a time when an opposition figure of corresponding stature was this soft on the particular government), spends time with his voters, that much has to be conceded. As a pretender to the UNP throne, he ought to be on the move, on the ground, covering all parts of the country, but surprisingly, the man has declared he will restrict activity to Hambantota. The tragedy is that conceding limitations of that self-imposed restriction, Sajith is streets ahead of the rest of the UNP.
One thing is clear. Voice-cut regime-critics won’t cut too much ice with the general public. It is easy to organize a press conference. It is easy to fire off a media release. It is easy to make scathing attacks in parliament. That’s essentially AC-politics, comfy-zone politics. Enough to get enough votes to make it to Parliament but not enough to take the party out of the political quagmire it now resides in, forget dragging it up the mountain to the high seats of power.
To go with the game aya, one has to go to the game aya. Rounding up a couple of dozen people from the electorate to make numbers at a demonstration in Colombo doesn’t add up to going to or being with the game aya. There are a few UNPers who do that, but that’s the exception and not the rule. You can’t fight a game manussaya (a local man) like Mahinda Rajapaksa that way.
Mahinda Rajaksa goes to the gama. In many ways. He makes unplanned stops. He visits old friends. He pays respect to old timers whose youth was spent working for the party. If in an earlier age, the king walked among subjects incognito to find out what’s what, Mahinda Rajapaksa does it up front. He may be misled on policy matters by ‘experts’, but few would say that he doesn’t know what the ground situation is like. That’s knowledge that counts when it comes to vote-getting. Sure, it’s not about turning the country around, it’s just politics, but it is politics that work.
It is unlikely that President Mahinda Rajapaksa was giving a tip to the UNP about how to do politics. He was probably playing on intra-party rivalry. Still, he let slip something. It’s a catch the UNP can take with both hands.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com