“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”
– Martin Luther King, Jr.
The pillar of success?
With the total flop of the one-day Island-wide strike of May 21, 2013, organized by the so-called joint-Opposition, the air went out of the balloon,
deflating the huge imaginary bubble that the Opposition had been blowing. Why and how it failed was explained in detail in one of my recent columns but I thought it fit to pen some thoughts that ran across my mind for the sake of their sheer authenticity and validity in the current context for one, and secondly as I truly believe that a little pontificating on my part would do no harm either.
In 2004 American Presidential Elections, incumbent President George W Bush faced Vietnam War veteran John Kerry (Kerry is currently the Secretary of State under Obama) as his Democratic opponent. John Kerry had many stories of heroism to tell, yet the Republican juggernaut led by Carl Rove who at the time served as Deputy Chief of Staff to President Bush and the chief architect of the Bush campaign, swift-boated Kerry and that operation was so successful in that, the war-hero Kerry was diminished to be a ‘traitor’ and Bush who dodged going to the Vietnam warfront was made to look like a real ‘hero’ and ‘patriot’. This reminds one of the 2010 Presidential Election campaign in Sri Lanka when the real war-hero General Fonseka was made out to be a national traitor and those who did not fire a single bullet in the war against the LTTE terrorists were made heroes beyond all recognition.
But what stood out as a masterpiece of political maneuvering by the architect Rove in the Bush campaign, was identifying some one or two key issues that were placed on the ballot paper as special measures in State elections, measures that would really galvanize the hardcore Republicans in these key States and thus bring them out on the day of the elections to the polling booth. He did this so brilliantly: the key issue- gay-marriage-that was identified as crucial for the diehard Republicans who would not otherwise gone to the polling booth in a second term Presidential Election, catapulted the average Republican to the polling booth and while voting his or her preference on the issue found the time to vote for their Party candidate for Presidency. However, the gay-marriage issue did play a diametrically opposite role in 2012 elections and it did work for the election of Barak Obama in that year.
The Thirteenth Amendment to Sri Lanka’s Constitution is the issue identified by the Rajapaksa Re-election Team as one single issue that would not only unite almost 95% of the Sinhalese-Buddhist voting bloc in the country, but would also propel the unsuspecting voter belonging to this bloc to the polling booth against any candidate that would oppose the chief protagonist of the abolition of or any amendment to the13th Amendment. In other words, any talk on or even a slight reference to the 13th Amendment keeps the ‘patriotic’ fires burning inside the otherwise cold and chilled insides of the average Sinhalese-Buddhist voter. The thirteenth Amendment alone would ensure a clear way to electoral victory for the Rajapaksas and the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
When the Jathika Hela Urumaya led by arch-racist Champika Ranawaka and the National Freedom Font led by its demagogue-in-chief, Wimal Weerawansa launched a campaign against the Thirteenth Amendment, at the behest of the powers that be, it pushed the main opposition Party, the United National Party (UNP) into a most uncomfortable corner-‘to be or not to be’. Could the UNP extricate itself from this entangling web that the Rajapaksa clan has woven around it or would they be trapped inside it forever awaiting its certain demise, not knowing what to do or not do?
How did the UNP fair so badly in the hustings?
This is exactly where J R Jayewardene found himself in after the electoral debacle that his Party suffered at the hands of the Sirimavo-Felix-Marxists axis in 1970. What did J R do? He went back to the drawing board. With such a charismatic leader like Dudley Senanayake holding the reins of the Party- Dudley’s acceptance as a ‘loveable leader’ was immensely manifest in the hundreds of thousands who attended his funeral in 1973- and being the main political party that introduced, among others, free education, massive development schemes like Gal Oya and Minneriya irrigation projects and as the Party that won ‘Independence’ for the country in 1948, how did the UNP fair so badly at the hustings?
Jungle and his book
The only book that details out the J R-campaign in the seventies is T D S A Dissanayake’s (popularly known as Jungle) “J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka”. In the pages 6 and 7 in that book, Dissanayake writes thus: “Hence by a process of elimination J R concluded that his fundamental assessment was correct. The major flaw in the UNP was in its policies. The UNP just did not reflect the aspirations of the masses which the SLFP did so magnificently…J R was indeed convinced that the basic defect of the UNP was that it was out of step with contemporary times.”
In the name of God go
How true are these words today, particularly in relation to the policies and postures adopted by the UNP and its frontline leaders? J R even went much further; on March 21, 1971, while addressing a meeting at the New Town Hall J R stated: “If I were a youth, I too would join with them and utter the following words of Oliver Cromwell. “You have stayed here too long without delivering the goods. In the name of God go!”
It was an open challenge to Dudley and his close comrades who were wallowing in their own ‘comfort zones’, fearing to take the daring first step, for they knew not where the stairs may lead! On the contrary, J R in his infinite knowledge and foresight was willing to take that ‘daring first step’, first to wake the UNP up from its sleep and then to inject a fresh sense of urgency and immediacy into the quagmire his Party was enmeshed in. The untimely death of Dudley Senanayake solved many issues for the UNP.
It thrust J R to the helm of the Party and he wasted no time in effecting the changes in it. Making R Premadasa its Deputy Leader when the seniors of the caliber of E L Senanayake, E L B Hurulle and Montague Jayawickrama were eying for the same position, changed the image of the Party overnight from one representing the ‘privileged class’ to that of the ‘commoner’. Giving prominence to the urban young such as Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali and rural-based youth like G M Premachandra, Samaraweera Weerawanni, Loku Banda and Wijeratne Banda painted a picture of a political party intent on reaching every segment of society including the remotest of remote villages in the country. J R changed not only the rules of the game, he changed the game itself and the people realized that they had a ‘game-changer’ in their midst as against a status quo-ridden ‘Radala, Kandyan Kumarihamy’ with a flock of corrupt yes-men and women around her.
A flock of YES men and women
The parallels are incredible. One might say that the situation and objective conditions of that era are so drastically different from those of today. Yes they are different, but the fundamentals have not changed. On the one hand is a Government so buried in nepotism, corruption and inefficiency and an Opposition divided along policy and personality lines making any reconciliation impossible. The fearlessness that J R displayed in his campaigns against the Sirimavo-Felix-Marxists axis was infectious. What he began with the Lake House newspapers boycott until he reached the zenith of agitation in the Satyagraha in Anuradhapura and the sheer audacity, courage and raw personal bravery J R exhibited ensured in his supporters a sense of bravery and daring which did not diminish until the day of the General Elections in July 1977.
The only chance the UNP has
Unfortunately there is no ‘game-changer’ in our midst today. The war-victory has changed the political culture irrevocably and each politician and party are being measured and judged only through that prism of war-victory. The sooner the UNP leadership realizes it, the better for its own future existence. In such a despairing context what can the UNP leadership do? It can gather a set of experienced men and women who had the rare privilege and honor to have served in the J R era. Get them around and add a few new faces of the academia, rural youth and business executives. Ask them to work for three to four weeks and not to retire until they arrive at a plan of action with fresh policies and executions spelt out lucidly and with clarity. That might be the only chance the UNP has, or for that matter the country has.