Connect with us

Features

Failure to Launch: Leninism and the NPP Manifesto

Published

on

By Kusum Wijetilleke

Desperation has been a central theme for much of Sri Lanka’s citizenry long before the pandemic. Although it may seem far removed from the present multitude of issues, the Yahapalana/Mahinda Rajapaksa Constitutional crisis of 2018 set in motion a series of events that have contributed significantly to the current tragicomedy of the Sri Lankan State. At the time the ‘Unity’ Government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was struggling along, the economy was in a state of inertia, having recorded a GDP growth of just 3.1 percent in 2017, the lowest in over 15 years. For the sake of balance, there were notable accomplishments under Yahapalanaya that deserve mention: Independent commissions, increased exports to the EU, successive primary account surpluses and 1990 Suwa Seriya, to name a few entries on the credit side. The debit side entries only continued to grow, beginning with the infamous CBSL bond scam and the close association of the then PM to those involved. The public outcry over this major scandal, from a coalition promising ‘good governance’, was only compounded by the Hambantota lease agreement with China Merchants Port company.

Complexities arising from the 19th Amendment, especially regarding the powers of the Executive Presidency and the devolution of powers to the provinces, sparked claims from the Opposition that PM Wickremesinghe was steering Sri Lanka into a future federal state. The Ranilist faction, with hindsight, lost that battle in the court of public opinion. The co-sponsorship of the UNHRC Resolution of 2015 (30/1) and its explicit mention of “foreign judges… and investigators” was another major contributor to tensions that led to the eventual disunity at the heart of Yahapalanaya. The alleged and as yet unconfirmed assassination plot regarding President Sirisena cleared a path that led through the Easter bombing to the current presidency and policy paradigm of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Pohottuwa.

Seasons of missed opportunities

The December-January season is critical to the Sri Lankan economy; the boost to local consumption from the season as well as the influx of tourists and remittances represent a windfall that sustains the operations of many businesses for much of the year. In December 2018, there were major disruptions to tourism and hospitality industries arising from travel advisories issued by major tourist origin countries, based on fears of political violence. Sri Lanka’s forex reserves reduced, the Rupee depreciated further and investors sold off treasury bills, all of which contributed to a ratings downgrade and a 3.7 percent drop in industrial activity during that period. The Governments of Japan and the US temporarily froze some $1 billion worth of development aid.

This season of missed opportunity would replay and extend itself in 2019 and beyond. The Yahapalanaya rupture and resulting security failures led to the Easter attacks and ultimately, to an election defined by national security. The context matters; Yahapalanaya, especially with the benefit of hindsight, was clearly an act of desperation. Some three decades of war against a terrorist organisation failed to spawn a meaningful National or ‘Unity’ Government, yet voters were desperate enough to hope that this coalition might be fruitful. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election was also a sign of desperation. The wave of anti-Rajapaksa sentiment that brought in Yahapalanaya dissipated and the public was sold a grand promise of a Lee Kwan Yew-esque administrative juggernaut with fresh ideas, powered by professionals promoted through a meritocracy. These notions seem almost delirious considering what has transpired.

As the President carries on, seemingly unwilling or incapable of making any of the very obvious policy ‘u-turns’ that might help ease the suffering, voters are beginning to feel that familiar tinge of desperation. Against this backdrop, the main Opposition, SJB has been accused of not meeting the moment with requisite energy and fortitude, leading to question marks over its position. There has been a media tilt towards alternatives with the National People’s Power coalition (Jathika Jana Balawegaya) and its leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) showing increased energy and organisation.

The JVP-led NPP recently released a manifesto of sorts entitled “Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges”; the voting public eagerly anticipated a set of policy alternatives, desperate for some semblance of a strategy to set Sri Lanka on a sustainable path to recovery. AKD’s strength has always been his clear, precise and colourful articulation of the corruption and excesses of government. It might be forgotten to history that the JVP was once a political ‘king-maker’ of sorts, propping up, for example, the UPFA Government of 2004 and the Mahinda Rajapaksa candidacy of 2005. The opening lines of the NPP manifesto alludes to the “misguided economic and social policies pursued by various governments…” of the past, of course this must necessarily include the JVP and many of its present leadership including AKD, who was cabinet minister in the mid-2000s. This argument is also used against the SJB leader Sajith Premadasa due to his seniority in the UNP during its brief periods in power. The crucial difference is that Premadasa, while senior, was certainly outside the UNP establishment of that time, unlike AKD, who was very much a leading figure in the JVP’s support for the UPFA.

Bullet points firing blanks

Political history aside, the NPP must be judged on the merits of its ideas and what proposals it can bring to the table. In discussing the economy, the manifesto makes an immediate critique of the open economic policy of 1977, specifically its “prioritisation of personal gain over social responsibility”. The heading of this section reads “A Thriving economy instead of a Dependent Economy” which then leads to obvious questions.

Given the interdependent and interconnected nature of global economies, given the limited size, scope and production capabilities of Sri Lankan industry and Sri Lanka’s inherent dependence on exports, how does Sri Lanka become self-reliant? Further, if the open economy has been destructive, what form does the alternative take? There are severe efficiency gaps in Sri Lanka’s manufacturing sectors, compounded by strong labour laws and regulations; just some of the reasons the worlds manufacturing conveyor belts are concentrated in specific countries. Does the NPP intend on enhancing manufacturing efficiencies, do they intend on relaxing labour laws, if not how do they intend on reducing the cost of Sri Lankan manufacturing? In fact, the NPP makes the point that “neo-liberalism” has failed to prioritise production and was instead focused on financialisation. This critique fails to realise that Sri Lanka benefits from “neo-liberal” trade policies, in fact Sri Lanka’s exports and consequently its economy depends on open markets and free-trade throughout the world. It must be said that the NPP is hardly alone in making a confused critique of neoliberalism and free trade, yet it points to the fundamental challenge facing the JVP led coalition; the need to balance its Marxist-Leninist roots with the challenge of positioning Sri Lanka in a global market. Turning away from the global market cannot be an option for Sri Lanka.

The Rapid Response Manifesto continues with a section titled “Our Approach” which advocates a “value-added economic approach”, with a number of Bullet points, that once again lacks any specifics with the only clue being to “gradually discourage the importation of goods that can be produced locally”. Here the NPP takes a popular route to production and industry but misses the key factor of cost. There are undoubtedly products that are imported which can be produced locally, the question is at what price. There are reasons why Sri Lankan businesses prefer to import raw materials for the production process rather than source locally and these include: cost, quality and supply chain efficiency.

Any plan to shift production locally must consider these key attributes of production; unfortunately, the NPP manifesto makes no such considerations.

The Bullet points continue with a call to “generate more foreign exchange by joining the global supply chain”. This supply chain is part of the aforementioned and much maligned global open-market and a direct result of globalisation, something the NPP rejects as a precursor to “financialisation”.

In discussing how to tackle Sri Lanka’s rising Government debt, the manifesto further states that more detailed measures will be released in the future with some basic measures being mooted for the time being. These include some sort of punitive action for members of previous administrations, a ‘formal’ five-year plan, working ‘diplomatically’ with creditors for debt restructuring and a mechanism to enhance contributions from migrant workers.

Presidency or Westminster?

These are wasted bullet points given that the country is facing both liquidity and solvency challenges. There is no critique of IMF programmes, no roadmap to restructuring and few plans to increase Government revenue. The very least one might have expected from a coalition with Socialist origins was a broad proposal for income redistribution through an overhaul of the SLPP regime’s tax cuts. As Sri Lanka now has some of this region’s lowest corporate tax rates, it represents an open goal for any political manifesto, one that the NPP seems to have missed completely. Rapid Response, despite the title, does offer some longer-term benchmarks on vital investments on healthcare and education, calling for annual minimum expenditures of five and six percent of GDP respectively.

AKD and the JVP have long been critical of the Executive Presidency; the NPP manifesto reiterates the need for a cabinet accountable to parliament and not to the President. It goes further in calling for the President to be elected by Parliament instead of by the people. This is perhaps where the political rubber meets the road when it comes to Sri Lanka’s unique electoral dynamics. Colombo’s liberal vote base seemed to support similar notions judging by their votes for Yahapalanaya and its purported Westminster model. The Executive Presidency is viewed by the liberal elites as a poisoned chalice, while rural voters in the Sinhala-Buddhist heartland believe this seat and its occupant to be a guarantor against minority rule through globalist proxy.

The NPP gets credit for articulating its position unambiguously; the question remains as to whether the Westminster gambit will be digestible to an electoral base that firmly rejected this parliamentary model in the 2019 election. This brings us back to the aforementioned inertia of the Yahapalanaya regime with its competing power centres and contradictory rhetoric, compounded by an inability to even issue a simple gazette. Sri Lankans will notice that little has changed with the current Pohottuwa administration, Consequently, Executive President or not, the inertia has come full circle.

The NPP’s stance on the Executive Presidency will perhaps force the hand of the main Opposition party in one direction or another. The SJB has political-brand name recognition; few in Colombo perhaps appreciate the strength of the Premadasa name in rural Sri Lanka. On the other hand the SJB also possesses other personalities that have won the trust of the electorate to varying degrees; MPs Harin Fernando, Dr. Harsha De Silva, Eran Wickramaratne and Champika Ranawaka to name a few. These MPs have all carved out their own niches in the wider electorate, consequently, the SJB ‘Team’ might bring its own set of advantages. Whether the core of the SJB believes steadfastly in the Westminster model or whether they utilise the innate ‘brand-name’ might well depend on which election the administration calls first. However, from an ideological standpoint, the SJB must clearly define its path, now that the pretender to the oppositional throne has made its stance clear.

Opportunistic vanguardism

Rapid Response, overall, represents a missed opportunity for the NPP to provide an actual roadmap to economic sustainability and political stability; to be perceived as a real alternative for the electorate. The manifesto seems confused about where it wants to take Sri Lanka’s economy and its people and this is somewhat emblematic of the Marxist-Leninist Communist JVP.

The ideological confusion may seem pedantic but it is hugely informative of why there always seems to be so little convergence of leftist movements and why they are so prone to circular firing squads. Lenin himself is a much-debated figure in history, especially among scholars of Socialism. Prof. Noam Chomsky has written extensively about Leninism and in particular its allegiances with Stalinism noting that for many ‘mainstream’ Marxists of that era, Lenin was a right wing deviation of the socialist movement.

Two of the more famous Marxist intellectuals, Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek have referred to what they view as Lenin’s ‘opportunistic vanguardism’. Chomsky notes that Lenin’s writing changed character around 1917; the notion that the radical intelligentsia were going to exploit popular movements to seize control of the state and then organise the populace into the kind of society that they chose. Considering the very core of socialism: Workers’ control over the means of production, this deviation by Lenin seems completely inconsistent. The original Marxists or what Chomsky refers to as ‘left Marxists’ such as Luxemburg and Pannekoek were notably aghast at the moves made by Lenin following the October 1917 revolution, something Chomsky refers to as a ‘coup’ rather than a revolution. One of Lenin’s first actions after seizing power was to destroy the Factory Councils developed by the Soviets, weakening worker control over production: The very antithesis of socialism. As per Chomsky: “Lenin reconstructed the Tsarist systems of oppression” moving away from the libertarian-socialist origins of Luxemburg and Pannekoek.

The JVP led NPP would do well to better understand what Lenin believed, right up to his death; that a socialist state would not be possible in Russia and was instead a holding action for the “real revolution”, which as per traditional Marxist theory would occur in the most advanced industrial capitalist state, which at the time would have been Germany.

The Rapid Response manifesto does little to suggest that the JVP/NPP represents a vanguard intelligentsia of any creed, offering nothing of substance as an alternative in these most desperate of times.

(Email: kusumw@gmail.com, Twitter: @kusumw)



Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

Published

on

The Sri Lankan three wheeler or tuk tuk and the Indian auto rickshaw are equally loved and despised, but used very much in both countries. Over here they have spread to every city, hamlet and even village. Needless to fear there will be no transport to hire when one descends from bus or train. There will always be the little bug waiting for a fare. And once in a while such a vehicle is the only negotiable one on rutty, inclined roads.

Love and hate? Car-less and permanently driverless women love the little three wheeled contraption. They are taken around marketing, shopping, escorting kids home from school. But male car owner-drivers detest them as dangerous clogs in traffic. They see dark pink when a tuk tuk is observed, red being reserved for private bus drivers. Most housewives adopt a three wheeler that makes for convenience, safety and even camaraderie with the guy at the handle bar. It’s good to adopt a known guy. I have two such – the white capped charioteer and the ex-sportsman gone to spread. The former will take me right into a bank or shop if at all possible. Compromises by stopping with no space left between entrance step or door and invariably warns “paressamen, hemin”. The other takes time to enquire after an ex-domestic whom he carefully conducted to visit relatives and my grandson who loved spinning around with his ‘Sampatha.’ These two are definite blessings in life, I count.

The Ambassador’s vehicle

Ambassador from Mexico to India (2015 – 2018), Melba Pria, made a definite statement of her belief in equality and her avowed aim of “promoting inclusion and strengthening public policy in Mexico and abroad” when she commissioned an auto rickshaw as her official vehicle in New Delhi. She had an auto rickshaw custom built for her designed by a visiting Mexican artist, thus earning herself the sobriquet of ‘Auto Rickshaw Diplomat.” A video sent me had her happily riding behind her suitably suited official driver, Jagchal Chana Dugal, flying the Mexican flag and the cab painted carnival bright with flowers, birds, fruit. The driver may have been duly shocked and to an Indian, a lowering of status. He had to learn to drive a lowly vehicle. Pria’s statement was that she considered herself a Delhi-ite and living in the city did what Delhites did – riding auto rickshaws all the time.

Parliament did not allow this type of vehicle in the premises. She promptly sent a letter of protest/request to the Speaker and won her case. In Sri Lanka a three wheeler is considered a lesser vehicle and many places do not allow such to proceed beyond a certain limit. I’ve met this setback when visiting friends in Crescat Apartments. Also, three wheelers are not allowed in the car park of HSBC, Baudhaloka Mawata. They may have their reasons and Nan won’t fight for equality among vehicles, though to her as a woman who uses them constantly, she feels they should be treated on par with other vehicles. Little wonder that such as I retches with disgust when she sees politicos arrive in their massive limousines provided gratis by the government and petrol paid for by people’s taxes.

Ambassador Pria had visited India previously and was an admirer of Tagore. She sat on the lap of Ravi Shankar and played the sitar when her mother was the Mexican Minister of Culture. She even boastfully claims her name is part Indian and means ‘pleasant’. “India is friends, family, home and so many other things, even my doctors are here.” She loves Delhi with its range of cultural activities.”Delhi is many cities within one city but one must be brave to be an outdoors person here.” She cycles too.

Her affinity to the country was shared by her brother, who, when ill, was brought by her to Delhi to consult a doctor. He died but had said he wanted to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganga in Benares. His ashes were given her with the pot draped in an Indian cloth. She went home with a Mexican cloth over the Indian, symbolically. When she was posted to Japan after her stint in India, she took her auto-rickshaw along. However, what I read did not say it was driving her around the streets of Tokyo – very improbable with the Japanese almost maniacal about cleanliness and atmospheric non-pollution.

Antecedents

The tuk tuk that is now ubiquitous in Sri Lanka having invaded the Hill Country too is, with its relatives overseas, a vehicle descended from the two-wheeled Italian scooter – Vespa. Italian aircraft designer Corradino D’Ascania evolved the three wheeled vehicle in 1948 and called it Trivespa. In 1956 a cab or hood was added and it was knows as the Piaggio Ape; ‘ape’ being Italian for bee, the vehicle making a buzzing sound.

In Sri Lanka

Recently the tuk tuk came into prominence. Asked to leave his post, OK, sacked, State Minister for Education Reform, Susil Premajayantha, left his office for good in a hired three wheeler which took him home. Or out of camera sight. Did he transfer to his own vehicle (luxury or not) when safe from media scrutiny? No doubt it was a PR stunt. Was it to show he is just one of us? He has no vehicle of his own? He was quoted in a tv clip saying he’ll get himself a car. Whether a dismissed Minister or not, he is a politician with all its attendant characteristics. No pity felt for this SLFPer who was the first to sign membership of the SLPP.

The lowly but much appreciated three wheeler gained customers since Covid 19 when people were advised to travel in open vehicles and taxi drivers hardly ever lower their windows in their air conditioned vehicles. We heard rumours the tuk tuks were to be taken off streets and imports banned by this government when it was new in office. A trick up its collective sleeve? We need this poor man’s vehicle in this country driven to poverty by persons in power who lived grand and built white elephants beyond their and the country’s means.

Of course you get the odd bod in the driving seat – the inexperienced, even unlicensed driver; the aspiring Formula One speedster; and the Lothario who looks back more than watches the road. The advantage is you can tell him off, exhibiting the umbrella you have in hand. That’s a plus point –being able to hop off a tuk tuk with no doors to delay or keep you in.

Continue Reading

Features

Lady in red: Mysterious painting hidden behind a prominent Lankan’s portrait

Published

on

ECONOMYNEXT – At 9 a.m. on December 11, 2021, at the National Art Gallery of Sri Lanka, a portrait of Ananda Samarakoon, who famously composed the national anthem, was lifted off its frame to reveal a perfectly preserved painting of an enigmatic woman dressed in a red saree. Who she was, why she was painted and why she was eventually covered up, remains a mystery.

The painting, unearthed during a conservation project of 239 art pieces, is attributed to Mudaliyar Amarasekara, a towering and pioneering figure in Sri Lanka’s art scene.

The project was headed by Tharani Gamage, Director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Hiranthi Fernando, Curator at the National Art Gallery, and an Art Restoration and Exhibition Committee comprised of eminent artists and scholars in the country.

Jennifer Myers, an easel painting conservation expert from the US, was brought in to assist with the project.

“So I’m just looking at this painting and I notice that the fabric of the canvas that was on the front was different from the canvas at the back… I was kind of pushing between front and back and I could feel there was an air space,” she says.

The conservationist noticed something unusual about the dust collected at the back of the painting.

“Because it’s a painting that’s done in landscape orientation, the dust should be at the bottom of the frame, but here the dust was collected on the side and that was really odd, so we slowly started taking off tacks from the corner and when we looked underneath, it looked like layers of paint on top of a canvas. That’s when we realised there could be another painting at the bottom.”

According to committee member Professor Jagath Weerasinghe, a mural painting conservation expert, Myers used archaeological principles to determine the existence of the second painting underneath.

“It’s very impressive, and precisely why we wanted to get an expert to help us with this project,” he says.

The newly discovered painting was found as a result of an initiative taken by the gallery to preserve some of its most exceptional pieces. From charcoal and watercolour to acrylics and oil paintings, the collection at the gallery spans two centuries and a diverse mix of mediums.

Professor Weerasinghe talks to EconomyNext about the difficulty of finding qualified individuals for the project.

“There is a lack of experts on easel painting conservationists in Sri Lanka. We do have academically trained experts on mural conservation, and they are the ones who made up the committee. We have trained in places like India, Pakistan and Japan, and we knew we had the practical capacity to pull it off.

“But working on a national collection is a difficult task, and we wanted someone from an internationally accepted programme, who had had academic training in the subject to work on it, which is how Jennifer was brought in.”

Myers, National Endowment for the Humanities Painting Conservation Fellow at the Chrysler Museum of Art, laughs as she tells us her title. “It’s a bit of a mouthful,” she says.

Myers has a degree in Museology, and a background in Archeology, Painting, Human anatomy and Bone Structure, all of which are useful for conservation work, which she studied at the University of Delaware.

“My professors at the university spoke about this project, and I was intrigued. This was an opportunity for me to learn about artists and a country that I didn’t know much about before, which is a personal interest of mine. I also thought I had the skills that the gallery was specifically looking for, so I could bring that to the project as well.”

The diversity of the collection was something that she did not expect.

“It was an amazing experience. I learnt about so many artists that we don’t get exposed to in America that often. The diversity of the collection was greater than I was expecting which was interesting and fantastic. There were paintings from a range of years, styles and there were more contemporary pieces; European and European inspired pieces, which I was surprised to see. It was a collection of surprises.”

The project, taken up by the Central Cultural fund at a cost 1.8 million rupees allocated by the Department of Cultural Affairs, was started in October 2021 and is set to be wrapped up by February 2022. Of the collection numbering 240 (with the new painting), 76 will go up for permanent display in the main gallery, and 88 will be exhibited temporarily in the eastern hall.

Professor Weerasinghe, who is also a contemporary artist and archaeologist, stresses the importance of official backup on cases such as these. “The ministry listened to the word of the professionals. So many artworks have been destroyed because of badly done conservation efforts. That’s precisely why we called in an expert. The decision to value professionalism is the most important thing that happened here. If they didn’t do that, none of this would have happened.”

Mithrananda Dharmasiri, Chief Mural Conservation Officer at Central Cultural Fund of Sri Lanka, touches on the misconceptions around conservation. “A lot of people think, can’t an artist just paint over the damage, isn’t that what conservation is? But conservation is a much more scientific, and a completely different thing.”

Professor Weerasinghe agrees, saying, “That is an important point. A conservator is not a scientist. A conservator is not an artist. A conservator is a conservator.”

Gamage gives us some official perspective on the matter.

“This was a joint effort by the ministry and the Committee and it was pulled off beautifully. This is the first time in Sri Lanka that such a large conservation project is being done, with international collaboration as well, and Jennifer was an invaluable part of the team,” he says.

Though Sri Lanka is home to some of the top mural conservation experts in the world, there is a great need for artists who work in other fields as well. With a humid climate that is especially treacherous to paints and fabrics, a greater effort must be put to protect the national artworks of the country, and give systematic education for those who are interested in the field.

The staff at the gallery are hopeful that the opening, as well as the discovery of the new painting, will revive the underappreciated art scene in the country. Finally set to open to the public in March 2022 after its closure in 2013, the new exhibition and the renovated buildings are a tribute to the great artists and artworks that were once hidden away.

Continue Reading

Features

HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

Published

on

by Chandra Arulpragasam

I must admit that my experience of elections is limited only to one district (the Batticaloa district), long ago (in the 1950s), and not at the national level. Moreover, as the second Returning Officer, I played second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite responsibilities: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers of executive rank; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for the counting of ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. (This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts). I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa, where I was actually able to see an act of impersonation for the first time. This case was so outrageous that I will remember it till I die. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face with only the eyes showing, was challenged. To my utter surprise, ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a beard and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant!

Many years later, I used this practical experience (of Kattankudi) to convince SWAPO, the independence movement in Namibia to withhold their agreement to the Turnhalle Agreement. The leader of SWAPO, who became the Prime Minister of Namibia was eager to get my views. I stood by my opinion that they would surely lose that decisive election – for independence – unless they were able to control or at least monitor the whole implementation process of that election. This delayed their independence by about 10 years – until they were able to train the requisite number of workers to monitor the implementation of the whole election process. The experience of Kattankudi went a long way!

To return to my story about the Batticaloa election, I still had to cast my own vote for the Batticaloa town seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for. I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling uneasily and guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On Election night, there was a grand counting of votes in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did. And I was the first to shout “Spoilt Ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir, which gave water to the Paper Factory. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer. So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding – though there had been no rain at all! He grumbled loudly for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA dorai”.

Then the “impossible” happened. One of our guests, who had had too much to drink, had slipped and fallen into the reservoir! Knowing that it was deep at this point, that he could not swim and that there were crocodiles in the reservoir, I jumped in and hauled him out quickly – before the crocs could get me!

I heaved a sigh of relief when my election duties had been successfully completed and my social obligations – of playing herdsman to the officers from Colombo – had finally ended.

Continue Reading

Trending