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Our man or alien

Ranil or Rajapaksa - the question lingers in everyone's mind, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Nov 07, 2005 20:14 IST

Though the countdown for the November 17 Presidential election has begun, the question remains as to who would be the next President.

Opinion polls conducted by professionals and impressions, during personal visits to politically important areas over the past two weeks, depict a conflicting picture.

While surveys done by professional pollsters predict a close fight, if not a win for Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP), personal visits to the field indicate decisive support for Mahinda Rajapaksa, the candidate of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

A visit to the North Western and North Central Provinces of Sri Lanka last weekend, showed that the Sinhala-Buddhist community, which dominates Sri Lanka, was backing Rajapaksa, while minority communities like the Muslims, Christians and Indian Origin Tamils, were backing Wickremesinghe.

In the rural out backs of Anuradhpapura, Polannaruwa, Matale and Kurunegala, Rajapaksa is seen as a man of the Sinhala-Buddhist masses, a true representative of their type, a person who reflects their hopes, aspirations, concerns and fears. In other words, he is seen as "their man", giving full credence to his catchy campaign slogan "Ape Mahinda" (Our Mahinda).

Rajapaksa is contrasted with Wickremesinghe, who despite a strong campaign on economic issues with a practical and workable solution to all problems, is seen as an "alien", who does not reflect the common man's hopes, aspirations, fears and concerns.

UNP's strengths

UNP supporters concede that the districts of the "Deep South" like Galle, Matara, and Humbantota are a bad wicket for them, but they are dismissive about claims that Rajapaksa has a decisive lead in the Sinhala-Buddhist areas outside the Deep South also.

They cite an opinion poll conducted in late October, which said that Wickremesinghe had a lead of four percentage points over Rajapaksa in Anuradhapura, and 33 percentage points in Polonnaruwa. In Kegalle and Kurunegala, the polls showed Wickremesinghe trailing only by two percentage points in each. UNP supporters also claim that figures given by a state intelligence agency more or less support these findings.

It must be conceded that the people of the coastal belt, north of Colombo, do not see Wickremesinghe as an "alien" or someone who does not reflect their hopes, aspirations and fears. This is because this area has a strong Catholic population. Besides Catholics, there are Indian Origin Tamils and Muslims too. To these minorities, Wickremesinghe is a non-communal man, who will not pander to the communal demands of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in the island.

In the past, there had been disillusionment with Wickremesinghe's party, the UNP, in the coastal belt. But currently, no alienation is seen. The UNP is seen as a party which can arrest the decline of the economy and put more money into the pockets of the common man.

Those interviewed spoke about the skyrocketing prices of essential commodities and other goods, and said that Wickremesinghe's policy of continuing with the peace process (which he initiated as Prime Minister in 2002) and giving priority to economic development, were the only answer to the problems of the common man in Sri Lanka.

The minorities did not share the apprehension of the Sinhala-Buddhists that Ranil Wickremesinghe would divide Sri Lanka on ethnic lines by giving in to the demands of the separatist LTTE.

Rajapaksa's campaign alleges "sell out" to minorities

A personal visit to the Sinhala-Buddhist strongholds gave a very different impression. Here it was Mahinda Rajapaksa all the way, with only the ethnic and religious minorities rooting for Wickremesinghe. The persistent chant of "Mahinda Nama" all through the rural areas of Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Matale and Kurunegala, led one to imagine a landslide victory for Rajapaksa.

His campaigners are drumming up the allegation that Wickremesinghe will divide the country on ethnic lines with the whole of the North-East from Puttalam in the North West to Amparai in the South East, being handed over to the Tamil separatist LTTE on a platter through secret dealings.

A handbill distributed by Rajapaksa's supporters in Chilaw said that Wickremesinghe's alliance partners would each get a slice of Sri Lanka to be run as an independent country. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran will get his Eelam; the Indian Origin Tamil leaders Arumugan Thondaman and S Chandrasekharan will get their "Malaya Nadu"; Mano Ganesan will get a slice from Colombo district; and the Muslim leader Rauff Hakeem will get a Muslim Desam in the South East!

The pictures of these minority leaders and Wickremesinghe superimposed on a truncated Sri Lanka was meant to incite fears among the Sinhala Buddhists, who believe that Sinhala Buddhists and Sri Lanka are synonymous, inalienable and indivisible.

Indeed, in the North West and North Central areas, the Sinhala Buddhists do believe that Wickremesinghe will divide the country into two, giving de facto control of the Tamil-speaking areas in the North and East to the terrorist LTTE. The people are critical about the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) signed by Wickremesinghe and LTTE leader Prabhakaran in 2002. They say that while the LTTE has been able to infiltrate the South and kill people there, including a "Mahatma" like Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Sinhala people and the Sri Lankan army cannot go to the LTTE controlled areas.

"While our government gives medical treatment to the LTTE's wounded and sick, our policemen going to catch a child abuser are jailed there. What kind of agreement is this? " one man asked.

"Soon we may have to take visas to go to the North East," said a shop keeper. "Rajapaksa will never divide the country. He loves Sri Lanka," stressed another.

Many Sinhalas do not know that they can travel to the North via the LTTE headquarters of Kilinochchi and that hundreds of their fellow Sinhalas go to Jaffna by this route daily. They do not understand the concept of federalism but believe that any division based on ethnicity is despicable.

"We want a Sri Lanka in which all communities can live anywhere they like, and work anywhere they like. This is not possible now, and will not be possible if there is division," is the refrain.

Class division

In the North Western and North Central districts, there seems to be a sharp class division and a bit of a rural-urban divide too. The UNP, especially Wickremesinghe, is identified with upper, or business classes. "The poor, and the rural people do not like Wickremesinghe," is fairly constant refrain.

But despite this, the UNP has hardcore supporters spanning the entire social spectrum. UNP supporters generally are not swayed by communal or nationalistic considerations. For them, trade, cost of living and economic issues are the main concerns. But it must be conceded that only a minority of those spoken, look at the economic issues as the decisive factor. And even if they did, they said that Rajapaksa would solve economic problems "from the Sri Lankan perspective".

Rajapaksa equated with nationalism

The Sinhala-Buddhist middle, lower middle and poorer classes want a "Sri Lankan nationalist solution" to their economic problems. They are against imports and foreign involvement in the economic and political spheres. They do not understand that for developing Sri Lanka, foreign investment has to be attracted. They do not appreciate that solutions to some of the key economic problems in Sri Lanka lie in the hands of world powers and these powers will have to be engaged, cultivated and accommodated. They prefer the economic nationalism of Rajapaksa and his ally, the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), to the pro-West pragmatism of Wickremesinghe.

Novelty factor

A factor, mentioned quite often, is novelty. "Rajapaksa is a new man," said a tailor in Anamaduwa. The Sinhala-Buddhist voters here believe that Rajapaksa has not had a fair chance to prove himself though he is the Prime Minister and had been a minister for long. They think that Wickremesinghe had been given a chance between 2002 and mid 2004, when he was Prime Minister, but he had failed miserably to deliver.

"Few got jobs during his time. Yes, he stopped the war; but our lives did not improve. The doles given to the poor were cut," was a constant refrain.

Trustworthiness

Trustworthiness is another factor. Wickremesinghe does not enjoy the trust of the Sinhala Buddhists who tend to see him against the backdrop of the daily violations of the Ceasefire Agreement by the LTTE. They believe that there was, and is, a secret deal between Wickremesinghe and the LTTE. They are taken in by Rajapaksa's promise to consider every section's views before entering into any deal with the LTTE and that he will talk to the LTTE leader Prabhakaran directly, without foreign intermediaries "with dubious agendas, like Norway".

The performance of local party leaders is also a consideration. One did hear of people leaving the UNP fold because of the indifferent performance of local organisers. "The UNP's organisers spend more time doing business in Colombo than being here and serving us," said a vegetable seller in a way- side shop off Polannaruwa.

(PK Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times in Sri Lanka)

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