Ranil Goes To War Without Armour
Ranil Wickremasinghe and his UNPers preparing for elections are like medieval knights going to war without body armour, swords, lances and even horses. Elections in the 21st century are fought with the media – press, radio, TV and now on Internet – but Ranil’s faction of the UNP which is the main body of the Grand Old Party has none of them. The Young Turks of the UNP – the dissenting faction – too are in a similar predicament save for one TV Channel giving them half-hearted coverage. A thing which this election warriors should realise is that you can’t win an election without media at hand.
Elections won without media
In the history of Sri Lanka elections there are a few occasions when political parties without any effective media support triumphed. There is the 1956 sweeping victory of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) led by Solomon Dias Bandaranaike who not only had no newspapers to back him but even had the two most powerful newspapers groups – Lake House and the Times Group – working vehemently against him.
That was however a one-man revolution where Bandaranaike put together the Five Nationalist Forces (Pancha Maha Balavegaya) comprising Buddhist monks (Sangha), native physicians (Veda), teachers (Guru), farmers (Govi) and Workers (Kamkaru) which proved to be an invincible force that resoundingly triumphed over the UNP which ruled Sri Lanka for eight years after Independence.
The other sweeping victory sans media support was in 1977 where J. R. Jayewardene who took over the leadership of the UNP and in four years scored the biggest ever electoral victory – winning a 5/6th majority in parliament defeating the SLFP matriarch Sirima Bandaranaike who reigned over the country like a queen with absolute power. She took over Lake House, the most powerful media organisation at that time, sealed the Sun Group of Newspapers and even had the Times Group taken over by her party supporters. JR, like Bandaranaike too not only had no mainstream media backing him but had them virtually abusing him.
Yet he turned tables on Sirima Bandaranaike who seven years before had swept the 1970 elections under a coalition banner of her party, the SLFP, the Trotskyites and the Communists. Sirima Bandaranaike however had the backing of the Sun Group of Newspapers (in 1970) which had a significant percentage of Sinhala readers at that time.
Chandrika Kumaratunga too had no mainstream newspapers backing her but journalists of all varieties rallied around her to form the Free Media Movement which at that time proved to be a formidable force. She also received the backing of the informal newspapers which spread out like mushrooms to oppose President Premadasa’s ‘One Man Show’.
In all these elections the party in power had the backing of the state owned radio, the most effective media of reaching out to the people in all parts of the island.
Range and power of the media today
But the range and power of the Sri Lankan media today is vastly different to that which existed in 1956, 1970, 1977 or even 2001.
Before 1977 there was no TV, only two main newspaper groups and one state owned radio. Today, newspaper companies have proliferated, most of them ‘independent’ newspapers under the blessings and patronage of the Rajapaksa regime and of course supporting the regime. So are the new TV channels and radio stations that have spread out like mushrooms – all arraigned against the UNP and Wickremasinghe. Even his family owned newspaper provides him with only half hearted support. So can the Grand Old Party and its leader exposed to all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune win against the Rajapaksa juggernaut?
Another negative factor against the UNP is that the country has become stratified into two distinct regions: The Western Province and the rest of the country. The Western Province has the money, most of the electronic media including Internet while those living outside it apart from urban centres like Kandy, Galle and Matara, live in isolation.
A friend living in not too distant Dambulla says he lives in isolation. The Only TV channel that provides a good reception is Rupavahini that gives him the glorious deeds of the Rajapaksas ever so often and even other independent TV channels have a Rajapaksa spin on, he says. He has to travel miles to get an English language newspaper and is lucky if he can get one.
The most damning factor for the UNP, he says, is that the Sinhala language newspapers – even those who claim to be Independent – are heavily loaded for the Rajapaksa regime. Apparently the Rajapaksas have been able to cultivate Sinhala language journalists well, even most of the editors. They are honoured and frequent guests at Temple Trees and this not only boosts up their egos but make them sing the praises of the ruling clique ever so often.
Journalists and even editors attending functions and even wining and dining with the notable and quotable are excusable but should take care not to sell their souls to the entertainers.
A factor that operates in favour of the UNP is the age old ‘oral tradition’ – Kata Katha .This is the way of disseminating news where the news or gossip goes from mouth to mouth. After the ’56 victory of Bandaranaike this ‘oral tradition’ was recognised as a very effective media. A well-known journalist of that time said that this country was one where two people after work meet with newspapers folded under their armpits and ask each other: What’s the news? Is it the oral tradition that helps the UNP to still poll around 40 per cent of the vote. Perhaps party loyalty is also an operating factor.
UNPers, if they are serious of winning elections, should think of reviving their old party paper the Siyarata which can go from hand to hand as it did in the pre 1977 elections. It should also attempt the ‘alternative newspapers’ as well particularly in the provinces.
A factor operating in UNPers’ favour is the ‘overkill’ of the Rajapaksa cheer squad where all that’s bright and beautiful are projected as the creation of one man and that man alone.