By N Sathiya Moorthy
Election time is also felicitation time in the country. Suddenly, ‘friends’ of politicians discover that their man – or, woman – has reached or crossed – or, is about to reach or cross – a ‘milestone’ in their political career or even personal life, demanding a public celebration. Rather, it is a public display of what at times could have been a private celebration.
It’s a message to the powers-that-be, to take note of the man, who had done so much for the party and the nation but has not been rewarded enough, beyond what he may have been conferred thus far. It’s a message to the masses that there is a man – or, woman – in waiting, rearing to go but shackled by circumstances. To both, the message is this: ‘Help to free him/her from those shackles… Then, he will be free for you all to use him, free and freely…”
Political history the world over has repeated this pattern in varying forms and to varying degrees. With times, the tools of communication change, but the message is all one and the same – and clear. Obama’s small donations internet call was a product of his time, painting him in pictures that his strategists wanted believed. Nothing else changed, possibly including the big money that his campaign spent.
Long knives, but…
Ahead of upcoming election season, you have a felicitation for Minister John Amaratunga one day, another for another Minister, Mangala Samarweera another day. The usual milieu of local leaders, from incumbent President downwards is a must – and does not change. More celebrated one becomes if there is a foreign dignitary, someone who has specially flown in, for the purpose to greet and congratulate the lad of the evening!
Credit be given to the nation’s political class that they leave behind their long knives in their homes or vehicles before joining the rest of them in saying all nice things about the man or woman at the focus of the arc lamp. They do not say nice things about any other on such occasions, but then they also do not say bad things about the political adversaries.
Whether family weddings, political felicitations or other social functions, Sri Lanka’s polity would happily pose for joint photographs and make merry with one another, only to pull out their knives in their cars as they drive to the next political rally. This part of their life is as sincere and serious as their adversity. This kind of social behaviour and courtesies are becoming increasingly impossible in the rest of South Asia, in much of the rest of the Third World, too.
Less said better
In the instant cases, President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and another former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga (CBK), were all present to felicitate Minister Amaratunga. Apart from most of them, former US Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, too, was on hand to deliver the ‘Mangala felicitation oration’.
Going by claimed records for the two, only as a contemporary comparison, Amaratunga has spent 40 years in politics and ‘public life’ against Mangala’s 30. In chronological order, he should be considered senior to the other, but the reality of politics is the other way round. So Mangala has a Power by his side at the felicitation whereas Amaratunga is a John out there, but still!
It possibly owed to the three qualities that Samantha Power highlighted in Minister Samaraweera’s very being – namely, ‘dignity, modernisation and democracy’. Maybe, it is thus, Amaratunga continues to hover around as Minister for Wildlife and Christian Affairs when Mangala has jumped from Foreign Affairs to Finance, one more challenging and more creditable than the other.
Samantha Power did not stop with identifying the best qualities of Mangala S. She also went on to talk in some detail about each of these qualities in he who seems to have become an abiding friend of hers in the international arena. This was despite Mangala telling Power beforehand, the ‘less you speak about me the better’.
Samantha Power did not stop there. Rather she started there, but left a lot more possibly unsaid. To her, Mangala Samaraweera has ‘just started’ his political journey. Those in the audience, including Mangala’s party and governmental boss, PM Wickremesinghe and friend-turned-political foe, Mahinda R would have felt uncomfortable in their seats, but were as graceful as ever in public, and did not show their possible discomfiture. They may have even concluded that ‘this woman does not know’ Sri Lanka politics and political-play, and just ignored her.
President Sirisena could not have done so, when Samantha Power saluted ‘Sri Lanka’s defeat of anti-democratic forces’, a possible reference to the ‘twin constitutional crises’ of late last year, where he was the central figure and architect. Maybe, he was advised not to stay on to hear Samantha Power, maybe protocol demanded that the Head of State did not stay back to hear out a former foreign diplomat without having a possible inkling of what may come out of her mouth. Sirisena left after greeting and congratulating Samaraweera – and before Samantha Power had had her say.
Designer par excellence
In her speech, Samantha Power talked about Mangala’s designer ambitions, and how as a youngster he was upset over the killing of thousands of youth at the hands of the armed forces. It was a reference to the ‘Second JVP insurgency’, 1987-89.
As if to contrast Mahinda Rajapaksa, then and now, S Power also mentioned how Mangala had joined hands with the other man to found the ‘Mothers Forum’, to highlight the plight of women whose children ‘went missing’ in ‘Insurgency-2’. As if to contrasting the past with the present, she made a pointed reference to Mangala P’s efforts to launch the ‘Office of Missing Persons’, post-Eelam War, where his one-time friend Mahinda is in the political dock.
Those that recall Mahinda’s very successful and even more imaginative maiden presidential poll campaign of 2005, will recall the power of Mangala’s design – as it was/is believed to be. It was a white Sri Lanka outlined with a kurukkkan-coloured satta wrap-around, as only the Rajapaksas are known to wear.
For even a casual international observer of contemporary Sri Lanka, the powerful picture needed no words to say what it intended saying. To the tentative Tamil community, it meant either a united Sri Lanka, or a ‘Sinhala Sri Lanka’ – depending on how one wanted to interpret the power of the ‘white’ background and outlined in blue, the latter referring to the seas that surround the nation.
White was also the colour that Rajapaksa wanted to be seen in public, and if there was a resemblance of a relatively small head placed on a wide-bodied physique, with a substantial middle, the Sri Lanka parallel said it all. To the Rajapaksas, since their parental times, the colour maroon, or the colour of maize, which used to be the staple diet of their southern populace, was theirs. It has remained even more today, with Mahinda’s son, Namal, taking it to the third generation in the family. In Elections-2005, the combo campaign said it all.
Gain or loss?
It is anybody’s guess if ultimately, design industry’s loss is the gain of politics and public administration – or, if it would be viewed the other way round. Just now at the very least, there is no need for complaints or despair at Mangala’s progress in politics and public administration. If nothing else, his patience has only helped him thus far.
Having left the Rajapaksa Government and neighbourhood in a huff after being Foreign Minister only for weeks and months, he has now prospered in the rival Wickremesinghe-led UNP camp. How far or far away from here is what Mangala’s future is all about. So will be the run-up to the upcoming series of elections too!
There is no harm or anything wrong with a political climber of Samaraweera’s all-round talent to be ambitious, for the self or the party or the nation. There may also be nothing wrong in a political leader wanting to lead the party and/or nation in his time, to give it a better leadership and direction in ways he feels would do good for either or both.
The likes of Mahinda and Wickremesinghe did not hesitate to display it, to varying degrees, and their success and failures too have been to varying degrees. Sirisena hid much of it, and still is there, but without the kind of popular base and political support of the kind that the other two continue to enjoy in their current stations. He has been tottering all along, and if he has not gone away already, it owes to the constitutional protection he enjoys and the vagaries of political climate in the country, now and almost ever.
In all this, including a ‘silent killer’ image and limited popularity that he enjoys, Mangala seems closer to Sirisena than the other two. But he also seems to have known his limitations. If nothing else, the ‘dignity’ with which Samantha Power associated Mangala with may also be a stumbling block.
‘Civility’ could be a better word, but then, most urbane UNP leaders, and those from the rival SLFP and SLPP, not to speak of all those ‘minority’ parties are all endowed with those characteristics. Hence is also the innumerable felicitations and innumerable photo-ops.
Mangala may not, and cannot hope to replace Wickremesinghe at the helm unless others do it for him – or, Wickremesinghe does it himself. But the latter is not the type. Better and more resourceful UNP leaders like Speaker Karu Jayasuriya and Minister Sajith Premadasa have tried and failed – both jointly and severally, and any number of times in the past. It is another matter that the very force that gets Wickremesinghe out of the way should also install Mangala in his place, else the latter’s chances are remote, considering the internal battles within the UNP, which are fewer yet deeper still, just now.
Yet, Samantha Power’s references to ‘democracy’, etc, at a public function in a foreign land, where the entire polity gathered to felicitate one of them, may not have gone well with many participants, independent of the party they may belong to. The SLPP and SLFP second-line may have a campaign-point that they could twist and turn at election time. The UNP cadres, outside of their urban elite strategists, would be squirming for the kind of parallels that had lost the presidency for the party over the past several years and many elections.
That way, yes, Mangala, whom Samantha Power said had advised him to ‘speak less about me’, would have done well for himself and the party if and if only he had also told his friend, to talk even less about Sri Lanka and democracy. It is the kind of alienation from the masses that has hurt the UNP even more than any of their political adversaries, majority or minority, long-term or short-term.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: email@example.com)