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Lanka Lore: Plain beats glitz

By Kingshuk Mukherji 29 Jan 2015, 07:12 am

Lanka Lore: Plain beats glitz
January 14, 2015 Guess how much Maithripala Sirisena’s no-frills swearing-in cost the government, a journalist colleague from Sri Lanka asked after the new president was sworn into office on the evening of January 9. “A princely Rs 6,000,” he informed. And, he had the break-up too. They spent Rs 1,000 on a garland and the rest on electricity.”

I don’t know if that’s true, but it goes to show how no-nonsense Maithripala is as a politician. “Had it been Mahinda Rajapaksa’s swearing in, he would surely have spent a bomb. There’d be firecrackers, a high glam quotient and show-off,” the colleague added. In the last leg of the short-and-bitter campaign that I was in Lanka, I didn’t see a single Maithripala cut out as we drove down from Jaffna, through the Lankan heartland down to the southern-most tip of the island and then onto Colombo.

Rajapaksa, though, was there in full regalia. In village after village, his party’s campaign offices had blue polythene flags fluttering. In some, the man was pictured in trademark white sarong and coat as he marched out of posters hands folded. In others, he was in a flashy red shirt with large showy buttons, sometimes intimately holding up a beaming child, head to head, chin to chin, or embracing an old woman, her skin shriveled, frame bent by age. The Maithrapala posters were typically austere, showing just his face smiling stiffly.

“Common candidate Maithripala”, as most referred to him, had apparently issued stern instructions to his campaigners that they must run a dignified, low-cost, low-noise campaign. Cutouts were a strict no-no and use of polythene was banned. “In fact, of the many issues on which Rajapaksa was voted out, one was adding to the country’s pollution burden with the free use of polythene. Lankans are very sensitive about issues like pollution and cleanliness, and that’s common to the Tamil areas and those dominated by Sinhalas,” the colleague said. Indeed, after Rajapaksa’s last-ditch rally at Jaffna days ahead of the vote, the grounds opposite the Jaffna library were an eyesore, littered with plastic and paper.

Compared to the glitzy election campaign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, his rival and now President Maithripala Sirisena had a low key one.
Compared to the glitzy election campaign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, his rival and now President Maithripala Sirisena had a visibly low key one.
The man voted out, many say, had actually prodded the army to ensure he continued to hold power, irrespective of the outcome of the polls. But to be fair to him his conduct after the elections were called was dignified. His spokesman conceded defeat on January 9 and the very same evening, Maithripala took oath of office at the impressive Independence Arcade in Colombo. The crowds were orderly, there was rejoicing but no revelry. Nobody got drunk, nobody fired gunshots. Some firecrackers went off, but they did not create a nuisance.

For an Indian used to the endless drag called multi-phase polling, democracy’s Lankan dance was super fast and punchy. The nation voted on January 8 and they used ballots, no voting machines. After polling got over, they moved the ballot boxes to counting centres across the country for the count to begin. By noon next day, the picture was clear. By the end of day, the election had been called, Rajapaksa conceded, Maithripala was in the saddle. Breathless stuff, this. The verdict was sealed and delivered in a matter of a few hours.

I never got to see a Maithripala rally, though. But that was primarily because TV channels hardly beamed any in the last days of the campaign, Rajapaksa and Co. hogging the airwaves. I got to see at least two of his mammoth rallies and him theatrically hectoring the nation. The turnout at both rallies was impressive and those attending got chairs to sit on and didn’t seem to have been herded from far flung villages to fill empty spaces in the audience.

But considering that Maithripala was helming a complex political formation, he seemed well in command and quite a stern, authority figure – stiff jawed and determined to deliver. He appears to have his game plan chalked out and knows the way he’s going.

At the end of the day, it was a contest between flamboyance and plainness. And, in this fight the understated won the day. I was lucky to have been witness to a nation in transition.

(The writer is an Associate Editor with a leading Indian English daily and a passionate traveller)


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