Vishnuguptha Probes in to why the strike failed
“I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery.”
Whatever, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka’s the Leader of the Opposition has not learnt about the intricate planning and strategizing involved in gaining political power with a view to establishing a government led by his Party, the United National Party, he surely has learnt how to sabotage a campaign launched by a so-called joint opposition. And he has learnt it well.
The Island-wide one-day strike organized by the joint-opposition for May 21, 2013, exactly four years after the end of the Northern War, fell flat on its face. The organizers must be schooled in political campaigning before they make their next attempt at organizing mass campaigns against a government that is losing its popularity by the day. The prime-mover of a campaign of this magnitude and scope should have been the leader of the opposition, the leader of the United National Party, which still enjoys more than thirty five percent of the popular voter base and certainly more than ninety percent of the total Opposition vote bloc.
There are three critical sectors whose participation is mandatory for any political agitational campaign, if it is to be successful. They are electricity, water and transport. Stoppage of the supply of any of these three sectors could jeopardize the country’s economy and its people’s daily lives to an extent that is not tolerable by any standard. It was quite obvious that the water and electricity sectors would be functioning at normal levels, yet the strikers’ failure to secure the participation of the transport sector totally in this venture made it collapse even before it started. As Minster of Labor, Lokuge said well prior to the island-wide agitation program the strike was still-born.
This is no time for experimentation. Such experimentation should have been undertaken by the organizers very much before calling for such action. President Mahinda Rajapaksa is no novice. Political naiveté will always be overcome by experience, craftiness and prudence, which qualities are amply possessed by the current President.
In fact, the current President seems to have overtaken R Premadasa in running of state-affairs with much ease and consummate assuredness that would have even astonished an experienced politician like J R Jayewardene. Astonishingly, even the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna, the left-wing representatives of the under-class of Sri Lanka were apparently misled into thinking that the fall of the Government was imminent when confronted by some sporadic disruptions to the service sector of the economy.
Yet, given the absurdly laughable history of the JVP and its aborted attempts at toppling an incumbent government, it is not so astonishing that they too got carried away by their own rhetoric. In this context what Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke has written a while ago on the six myths that obstruct the path of the political recovery of the Opposition in Sri Lanka is quite effective and pertinent. In his argument Dayan most coherently articulates the real validity of a so-called ‘united opposition’ and asserts that the mere ‘unitedness’ of all forces in the Opposition would not be a sure way of recovery from the pits that the current Opposition has fallen into in Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, the failure on the part of the United National Party to render decisive leadership to any and all forms Opposition agitation against the incumbent Government is even more emphasized at a time when one sees the absence of key UNP figures in the forefront of such agitational action.
What was organized on May 21 was essentially a Trade Union action. What preceded it on May 15 as a mass protest campaign drew very large crowds, and that by itself put the opposition into their usually lazy comfort zones from which these sluggish politicians who are not used to hard, sustained political crusades could not extricate themselves. This lethargic approach adopted time and again by the UNP and its leader has led the Party into oblivion for the last twenty years.
What was once a very active and vibrant political entity, the United National Party and its higher echelons have gone into deep slumber. While in this slumber, they keep day-dreaming, making nominations for their future Cabinet of Ministers, offering Chairmanships and high government slots to their henchmen and calculating how much more money they could make once they form a government. All this and more, are the demons that have taken possession of the current UNP.
While the party hierarchy is dwelling in this dreamland, the leader is busy making himself very comfortable in his present position as the undisputed Leader of the Opposition. He has realized that the proverbial train has passed the station. So, why bother? The cruel irony is the leader has managed to bring the party and some of its remaining heavyweights too down with the fall.
Those who saw the writing on the wall have already crossed over to the Government. They, after betraying their own cause, have placed a better value on the rewards that they receive from the Government. They in fact have bartered their conscience and self-respect for the mere pittance of a Cabinet portfolio or a lucrative government billet. But they are clever in that they have now placed their bets with a winner rather than with a perennial loser.
What Ranil Wickremesinghe could not do in eighteen years, surely he would not accomplish in the nineteenth or twentieth year. It’s plain logic. This simple truth has not yet dawned on the Working Committee nor has it visited on other close associates of the Leader of the UNP.
The money power that the Government could boast about, the muscle that it commands and the immense personal popularity of the President himself are great obstacles to overcome in an election. But there are historical parallels that could be drawn. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was personally more popular than J R Jayewardene and R Premadasa was on the same footing as far as Gamini/Lalith duo was concerned. Yet both, J R and Gamini/Lalith combo managed to overshadow their respective rivals by sheer hard-work, exemplary personal demeanor, disciplined messaging, professional approach to management of politics, great motivation and above all else, an astute sense of timing.
One of the main causes for the failure of the May 21 island-wide strike was its timing. The people were not yet ready nor were they adequately readied for such an operation. And the Opposition did not have sufficient man power in the Trade Union sector to galvanize the working class in the country to such a task. The May 15 protest and its perceived success may have sent the wrong signal to the Opposition that the people were ready. But a trade union action is quite different from an average mass protest.
For a mass protest to be successful or for that matter, for it to look like being successful, the organization component that is necessary is much less demanding than that for an island-wide stoppage of work by the working class. In the case of the former, the mere presence of onlookers could swell the crowds to a very large and adequate extent to render a better-than-real picture. In a trade union action, the political entity that organizes such an action needs to have the political organizational structure in place and those manning such a structure need to be properly educated as to the consequences, if any, of such a stoppage of work that would affect the workforce if the Government decided to curb the strike by way of violence, intimidation, bribery or by a declaration of essential services for the particular sectors that are supposed to go on strike. None of these essential conditions were met by the Opposition prior to organizing this island-wide strike. So failure is the most logical end.
Moreover, the lack of attention paid to detail, especially in the sphere of selecting the critical sectors that needed such detailed study, such as the sector of transport and its failure to go along with the strikers were the main causes of the failure. The UNP could boast about dominating one of the most powerful trade union organizations in the Ceylon Transport Board in the olden days.
With the privatization of the transport sector, however, that dominance is gone. Yet the President of the Private Bus Owner’s Association, Gemunu Wijeratne is rumored to be a UNP sympathizer quite cozy with some close associates of the UNP leader. But they all succumb to real government pressure. In the absence of any hope for an impending regime-change, they would rather throw their lot with the powers that be than fighting on the side of a loser.
It is also greatly discussed in the grapevine that Ranil, while ostensibly advocating opposition to the Rajapaksa regime, most surreptitiously directed his trade union chiefs- not that they enjoy a large number of membership- to boycott the whole operation by avoiding taking decisions when they mattered most. This diabolical behavior is not alien to the UNP leader. Right throughout his career, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been operating in the shadows.
During the 1994 Presidential Elections, his active involvement in sabotaging Gamini Dissanayake’s campaign is no secret any more. If Mahinda Rajapaksa has a close ally in the Opposition ranks, undoubtedly Ranil grades among the highest. With such a dependable partner in the Opposition, President Rajapaksa has no worry at all, for Rajapaksas know how to manipulate the weak and intimidate the strong.