Ranil’s message not getting through
Esmond Wickremesinghe, press magnate and the power behind the throne in many a United National Party (UNP) regime, once told his second son Ranil, then a young minister, over dinner: “I have done many political campaigns all my life, but one thing I have still not worked out is, what goes on in the mind of the Sri Lankan voter before he votes”.

The older Wickremesinghe was a fashionable Marxist in his youth, and later became the Managing Director of Lake House, which was so powerful when the UNP ruled, it used to be said “what Lake House says today, the Government does tomorrow”- not what the Government does today, Lake House says tomorrow as a newspaper is meant to do.

He was privy to, and very much part of the UNP leaders of his time, their backstage battles and their election campaigns. Hence his comments must have been borne out of the fickleness of the Sri Lankan voter who in those days changed governments every five years, no matter what, so much so it became known as the ‘thattu maaru’ system. After more than thirty years in active politics, being twice the Prime Minister and twice a presidential candidate, Ranil Wickremesinghe must surely be pondering the answer to his late father’s remark many years ago. But, if the campaign of the UNP is the yardstick, the party hasn’t figured it out either.

It was convenient for UNPers to say, after the 1999 presidential election defeat of Ranil Wickremesinghe to Chandrika Kumaratunga that the LTTE bomb attack on the President ensured her victory, especially after Kumaratunga’s brilliant post-explosion performance on national television, one eye-swathed in bandages and tears streaming down her cheeks. Here was a lady who had given an eye and all she was asking for was your vote!

What they were implying was that had the bomb attack not occurred, Ranil Wickremesinghe would have won the election. That simply is not true. President Kumaratunga’s majority was more than 700,000 votes, or more than eight per cent of the valid votes. To say this percentage of voters was swayed by sympathy to Kumaratunga is to assume they are extra-ordinarily naive.

What the bomb attack did do however was to push President Kumaratunga over the ‘fifty per cent plus one vote’ hurdle, where she received just over 94,000 votes above the required number. That could well have been the difference from the sympathy vote, thus not having to resort to a second round of counting.

More recent post-election analyses on the poor performance of the UNP has been focused on why the party lost the 2004 general election after receiving a mandate from the people in 2001. That is indeed relevant because the UNP’s main rival, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) contested that poll in alliance with the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), the kind of combine that the UNP is up against in this election — plus whatever vote base there is left of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) of course.

The general consensus then was that the government was unpopular because the cost of living was sky-rocketing with no relief measures in sight while there were also reports of widespread corruption about which Wickremesinghe, although being ‘Mr. Clean’ himself, was doing nothing about. Add to this the poor platform performances of the UNP speakers in general and Wickremesinghe in particular, pitted against the considerable charisma of Chandrika Kumaratunga and you have a recipe for disaster.

This time around, the equation is significantly different. The rising cost of living is a huge plus factor for the UNP and the charges of corruption are directed at Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse whose charisma is fire-fly like in comparison to Kumaratunga’s. And yet, reports suggest that the Premier is doing alright, especially in the ‘south’ at this point of the race. What then is not clicking in the UNP campaign?

Parakramabahu era
Wickremesinghe’s advisors have correctly identified that the previous campaign did not appeal to the village based, mostly Sinhalese Buddhist voter. So, they thought they would roll back the years, drop the make-Sri Lanka-a-Singapore call, and revert to the Parakramabahu era, offer to build the largest Buddhist ‘dagoba’ in the world, teach Buddhist monks Pali and send them overseas to propagate Buddhism. Throw in Bandula Gunawardena’s coconut pluckers using mobile phones to find out how many coconuts they need to pluck and Rajitha Senaratne wanting to dress up farmers in denims jeans and Nike T-shirts, and Wickremesinghe’s campaign is the laughing stock, especially when at the mercy of the oratory of the vitriolic Wimal Weerawansa.

It was in 1999 that Wickremesinghe promised gold chains and chewing gum to the farmers at Polonnaruwa and came a cropper. But it appears that Wickremesinghe’s strategists have not learnt a lesson from the past. They don’t seem to understand that somehow, Parakramabahu in denim jeans is not an image most Sri Lankans, be they rural or urban, would be comfortable with.
The tragedy is that the message that Wickremesinghe is trying to convey — that he is a politician who has a vision for the country built on peace and economic prosperity for all segments of society — is lost in the mad milieu of mass communications while ‘Mahinda aiya’ (or ‘Mahinda maama’, if it is children who are interviewing him) gallops ahead by default.

The brief that Wickremesinghe is arguing before the jury of the Sri Lankan voter is not a bad one: he says he will strive to provide his countrymen with a decent standard of living, a modern economy that can stand up to the rigours of the world market, an economy that will not just be providing housemaids to the Arabs but be a robust economy away from the clutches and clichés of our glorious agricultural past because farmers today are not kings, but paupers committing suicide because they cannot service their bank loans.

Wickremesinghe contends that our economy is so dependent on foreign aid that, however much one may shout at the World Bank and the IMF, ultimately even the great Marxist Finance Minister Dr. N.M. Perera had to pay pooja at the altar of these Washington-based Siamese-twins and even the Nationalist JVP couldn’t quite ‘pull the plug’ from the World Bank though they promised to do so.

Where the UNP ers is when it portrays the brave new world for the rural farmer as being one of Nike shirts and denims jeans. There is a point in the UNP message – that they want to uplift the ‘status’ of the farmer, but there is a mis-match in conveying it across. Our rural farmer will be quite happy to re-pay his loans, buy a new tractor, and perhaps some good clothes under Wickremesinghe’s economic reforms. The transformation from ‘amudey’ (span-cloth) to the denim will perhaps eventually come, but that is not how the UNP message came across.

Wickremesinghe is also probably wasting his money when his campaign is run predominantly electronically -- through expensive advertisements mostly in private television networks which have a lesser area of coverage than the state media which are being blatantly misused for ‘Mahinda maama’-style interviews. Indeed, the UNP would do well to realise that this election is not being decided in urban areas where private television networks have their audience -- or by mobile phone owners with SMS capability!

Talking to Tigers
Then, Wickremesinghe says he will talk to the Tiger rebels, but not surrender the sovereignty of this island-state and see it divided; he says that he will negotiate with the rebels, but put the final solution to the people to accept or reject at a Referendum; that he will bring peace as he did with the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with all its flaws, and in the long-run ensure neutralisation of the LTTE as a guerrilla organisation and have them return to the democratic field, just as the JVP did; that Federalism with all its faults is as far as he will go, and that it is worth offering this in return for permanent peace with the separatists. Valid arguments, but is the message getting through?

In reply, Mahinda Rajapakse says that Ranil Wickremasinghe is dividing the country and that strikes a chord, more so with the Sinhala Buddhist voter. What the UNP has not highlighted enough is that it was Ranil Wickremesinghe who brought about the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) which in turn brought about relative peace and forced the Tigers to walk a tightrope constantly looking down at the ‘international safety net’. When the Tigers step out of line, they fall into the net and are placed back on the tight rope, most recently so vis-à-vis the European Union travel ban.

Of course, the CFA is not ideal and the Tigers do blatantly transgress its terms but isn’t it better than bombs at the Central Bank, the Pettah bus stand, the Dehiwela railway station and yes, the bombs at the Dalada Maligawa and the massacres at the Sri Maha Bodhi and Arantalawa? And the over-running of military camps? Isn’t it better than not knowing whether your father or son will return home from work or school in the evening even if they are living in Maharagama, Matara or Medawachchiya?

It doesn’t take rocket science or an advertising genius to realise that a campaign which takes voters back to those uncertain days before the CFA through images, video clips, posters and campaign speeches will have an impact -- much more so than hair-splitting arguments about the merits and demerits of federalism versus the unitary state. But surprise, surprise, the UNP has chosen not to go down that route, probably scared away by the JVP-led campaign that the UNP is trying to win by frightening the voter.

Then there is this issue of Wickremesinghe’s ‘image’: his smile appears contrived, his wave has an awkwardness about it and his voice does not resonate as much as the deep baritones of Mahinda Rajapakse, they say. In general, he is not the ‘pat-you-on the back’ politician. And he is surrounded by Colombo-centric men with a private sector mentality.

The answer to this from the UNP campaign appears to be to compel Wickremesinghe to do what he is uncomfortable at doing. And the result is plenty of video footage for Rupavahini to use -- and repeat ad nauseum, such as when Wickremesinghe plays the rabaana -- for a picture is worth a thousand words.

Maybe the UNP could view again the interview Wickremesinghe had with the Maha Sangha. He was calm, collected and composed, handled the questions with ease and gave the impression of being a confident and competent leader. As he was speaking to a small audience and that too to members of the Maha Sangha, there was no arm waving histrionics or belligerent slogan shouting. The net effect was far more impressive than his platform oratory.

One recalls that J. R. Jayewardene had a similar handicap -- and also had a limited command of the Sinhala language -- but in his latter political career this was hardly noticed as JR took to delivering matter of fact speeches sans the gesticulations and gyrations. What he lacked in flamboyance, he made up for in brevity and wit. This should be food for thought to Ranil Wickremesinghe -- he is better off emulating his mentor and uncle on the campaign platform rather than try to do a Wimal Weerawansa impression.

And he could get help from those who can do what he cannot -- the Lokubandaras, Premadasas, Bakeer Markars, Hemakumara Nanayakkaras- -- to articulate his vision in Sinhala, so that it is understood by the masses and not misrepresented by the hostile state media. And, to dispel the notion that he is in the clutches of his secretive inner coterie, he would do well to enlist the support of those party faithfuls who do still have a following: the Sirisena Coorays, Ranjith Atapattus, Harold Heraths et al, who will also serve if they merely stand and wait on the political platform. And it will help take away the hostility directed towards the jhonny-come-latelys of the UNPs, the Moragodas and the Peirises and their ‘padanamas’( Foundations ).

Not much has been made of the fact the fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe does hail from a family with long traditional connections with the historic Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara; that his personal knowledge of the Buddha's Doctrine, and of Buddhism, the religion of the great majority of the people, is far greater than those who carry trays of flowers and worship at temples for the cameras. Wickremesinghe’s interview with the Maha Sangha was a step in the right direction, but it needs to be followed up.

So, if the people of Sri Lanka see Ranil Wickremesinghe as an urbane politician who is cut away from the realities of the common man and his difficulties and his aspirations, as one who is going to sell the country to the LTTE rebels and hand-over one-third of the nation to them on a silver tray, and whose economic theorems and theories are good for America, and not for Sri Lanka, then it is largely the fault of his campaign machine.

Need to go forth
Indeed, if the Bandaranaikes are accusing Mahinda Rajapaksa of giving them the ‘karapincha’ treatment, then to use a similar turn of phrase, Ranil Wickremesinghe is your ‘karawila’ candidate: bitter to swallow but good for you.

But with only 32 precious days to go for the poll, Ranil Wickremesinghe and his campaign minders will need every minute of it to trek to the backwaters of Sri Lanka, instead of remaining in the cold comfort of their air-conditioned offices in Colombo to spread the message of their Leader. Relying on a few television advertisements and posters to do the job, is just not going to be enough. Karawila, we know, packaged and labelled in a bottle, doesn’t sell as well unless properly marketed.

Wickremesinghe is seasoned enough to know that in a Presidential election, he must have the votes of rural Sri Lanka, and those of the minorities. He’s got the latter in the bag. What about the former? Surely, he must go after those crucial votes unless he ends up as the only UNP leader never to have become the leader of the country.

(Next week; The Rajapakse campaign for the presidency)

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