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Imagining Minister Basil Rajapaksa in India

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By Austin Fernando

Former High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in India

When Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s visit to Delhi was announced, my imagination ran riot. What I imagine here is based on the behaviour of Sri Lankan governments and how they have related to Indian leaders. I imagine the following scenes and conversations between Minister Rajapaksa and the Indian leaders:

“Namaskar, Good Morning Your Excellency” is the friendly greeting from Minister Basil Rajapaksa to Madam Nirmala Sitharaman, Indian Minister of Finance.

“Ayu-bo-wan! Good morning Your Excellency” is the reciprocation from Minister Sitharaman. High Commissioner Gopal Baglay has briefed her on Sri Lankan traditions. (Minister Rajapaksa thinks that hailing from Karnataka she knows our traditions.)

The purpose of the ministerial meeting is predictable. HC Baglay’s brief to the South Block on the Sri Lankan economic crisis has reached Minister Sitharaman. It is not confidential since, in the Parliament, the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and economist turned parliamentarian Eran Wickramaratna have let the cat out of the bag.

HC Baglay’s messages are easily understood, both politically and technically, by Minister Sitharaman. Her capacity to understand such has developed over time by representing India at international economic fora, pushing agreements on trade, commerce between India and other nations, attending World Trade Organization meetings, inter-country business conclaves, participating in India-EU summits and bilateral meetings in African, Asian, European countries, meetings of G-20, BRICS Summit, etc. Knowing her wide international exposure, Minister Basil Rajapaksa, with less exposure on these areas, attempts to match them with his strategising prowess.

“Excellency, we understand you are facing a grave crisis at present?” The discussion commences after the exchange of pleasantries. She can be informal, and tough, too, as I have personally observed previously, in her office, and at Lok Sabha.

Minister Rajapaksa replies: “Madam Minister, you will understand the difficulties caused by COVID-19 and its impact on our economy.”

“Yes, true. But our situation was far worse. We had about 467,000 deaths due to the pandemic.” (This is straight-nosed Minister Sitharaman’s equally straight-nosed response, diplomatic but sternly brushing away the Covid argument.)

“Covid hit us severely and our exports were affected, tourists did not arrive, foreign remittances shrunk, creating an extremely serious foreign exchange crisis,” says Minister Rajapaksa, getting to the point.

“Yes, I hear of it. My information is that former PM Ranil Wickremesinghe has said in Parliament that foreign reserves have dwindled to 1.5 billion dollars and the net is 1.2 billion when gold reserve value is deducted. It is precarious and dangerous, I presume.”

(A bell rings in Minister Rajapaksa about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s utterance, and the further capacity reduction quoted by Eran Wickramaratna, i.e., “to less than one month’s worth of imports, which is the “lowest in history.”) “Madam Minister, it is true, and the forex crisis may worsen the shortage of essential food items, medicines, aside from being expensive. It will create a shortage of fuel and may lead to power cuts. Industry and businesses will face difficulties. Our foreign debt burden is exceedingly high. In that light, we have to request India’s assistance.” (He downplays the resultant political crisis.)

Assuming a confrontational mood, Minister Sitharaman says: “Chinese debt? (Laughs!) Or international sovereign bond debt? We were lucky because we managed the economy efficiently, and thus our foreign exchange reserves position is comfortable in terms of import cover of more than 18 months and provides a cushion against unforeseen external shocks. Yours is only a one-month import cover? Our foreign exchange reserves have been increasing from 370 billion dollars in 2016-2017 to 478 billion in 2019-2020 and this year to 577 amidst the pandemic.”

Minister Rajapaksa wonders, “Why cannot India help us with a billion dollars to purchase fuel, on a long-term credit basis? Indian reserve performance is a one hundred billion dollars increase in one year with Covid ravaging the whole country. India can well afford to assist.” (He is happy that credit ratings are not mentioned.)

“We sought relief from several donors. In January we must pay USD 500 mn as debt repayment. Another installment will have to be paid towards mid-2022, amounting to one billion dollars. My government has advised me to seek India’s help and initiate negotiations on terms for an immediate response. It is not financial assistance alone we need; we require trade and investment for which we offer incentives.”

Madam Sitharaman inquires about such repayments without naming countries:

“I think when you meet Prime Minister Modi, please discuss with him this request formally. I will discuss with my officials and colleagues, especially with Foreign Minister Dr. Jaishankar, and brief the PM. You can request Minister Jaishankar, too.”

And, she continues, “Incidentally, I remember meeting Minister Malik Samarawickrama as a representative of President Sirisena’s government in 2019. He promised positive actions but did not follow up. He discussed the Economic and Technology Co-operation Agreement (ETCA). Minister Piyush Goyal told me that he promised to follow up on ETCA with him, too. Nothing has happened. He mentioned the LNG project, and now It has gone to an American company. No consistency. Delays. The PM may express his concerns over and above financial and economic matters. By the way, I would like to know your stance on approaching the International Monetary Fund, which most countries turn to in such eventualities.”

“Excellency, the IMF solution is being considered by us. Yet, we have not finally decided on it. We have differing views on the subject. I am aware that accessing the IMF eases the problem.”

Minister Rajapaksa retreats thanking her for all courtesies and support extended (though nothing concrete has emerged from their discussion!) with a passing comment regarding his kinship with Indians through the marriage of a sibling.

Madam Sitharaman grasps the point on the ‘extended family connection’ and says, “Yes, I heard about it. Now, we are not only friends, neighbours, and relations, as your brother President Mahinda Rajapaksa said earlier, but moreover true relations!” A hearty loud laugh from both sides.

Minister Rajapaksa retreats, thinking of Minister Sitharaman’s camouflaged advice and issues that may be raised by PM Modi. He knows that PM Modi could be blunt at times. The Minister discusses details with his officials and the new High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, Milinda Moragoda, who has prepared a roadmap, which concentrates on benefits to Sri Lanka, as it ought to be, but the Minister knows what PM Modi will want to know how it will serve India’s interests.

Minister Basil Rajapaksa meets PM Modi with High Commissioner Moragoda and Secretary SR Attygalle.

Prime Minister Modi in his usual friendly manner greets the delegation. Making the meeting informal PM Modi inquires, “I heard that you met Minister Sitharaman already?”

“Yes, Your Excellency, it was a fruitful meeting,” says Minister Rajapaksa, though she did not offer to help sort out Sri Lanka’s foreign reserve crisis. However, knowing the toughness of PM Modi’s approaches he waits to hear his “demands.” He knows that there is no such thing as free lunch diplomacy or international relations. He has learned it even from the Chinese.

The PM gets to the point straight away:

“Minister Sitharaman indicated to me that you have a serious foreign exchange crisis, and you face an extremely serious economic and political crises as well, and you expect our assistance, too. Of course, we have accommodated your requests earlier, too, by way of assistance, swaps and investments.”

Though Minister Rajapaksa did not explicitly mention a political fallout, Minister Sitharaman has understood it and briefed Prime Minister thereon. “Yes, we are faced with economic and political crises” replies Minister Rajapaksa. (He does not say it is ‘grave,’ though it is so.) As a strategist, he knows that if he shows weakness, Indians will take the upper hand, as happened to President JR Jayewardene during PM Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in 1986-1987.

“I understand it well. We were faced with extensive problems with a larger pandemic impact on our society. Still, we have enhanced our foreign reserves irrespectively. Even Bangladesh has achieved success in it. I know you had issues with trade unions and farmers. It is common to us, too. We had farmers on the roads for months. Still, we have propped up our foreign reserves. Of course, you have just taken over the finance portfolio. But you are a seasoned politician, I know. Still, you must look at bilateral, multilateral, and regional policies and issues as a continuum.”

“Yes, Your Excellency. We should.”

“I am happy that you endorse continuing with already followed policies and issues. I need not mention to you about the LNG Project at Kera-wala-piti-ya. It was to be taken along with Japanese participation and now that is gone to a US firm, I am told. It may be a new development after you became the Minister of Finance.”

Minister Rajapaksa worries: “Was it a reference to the Minister’s dual citizenship, as alleged in Colombo?”

“Future projects I believe are on the cards. For instance, gas exploration in the Mannar Basin. One of your Tamil MPs – I think Mr. Adaikkalanathan has told Parliament that the project to collect natural gas in Mannar should be granted to India. It is not we who say it.”

“I will make note of Your Excellency’s concern” replied Minister Rajapaksa.

PM Modi goes on: “The former government agreed with us in 2003, I presume, to settle the Trincomalee petroleum tanks issue. Later in 2017, a project was considered for Mattala Airport, which I understand the government wishes to develop now. In 2017, Foreign Minister Madam Sushma Swaraj signed an MOU with Sri Lanka. The progress was extremely slow. Eastern Container Terminal agreement was scrapped. However, I am aware the West Container Terminal matter is progressing, and happy, although some trade unions are opposed to it. I sense there is some dialogue on the Trincomalee oil tank project with slow movement. I think you can solve your foreign exchange and oil supply issues if Sri Lanka correctly plans out the Trincomalee- oil tanks, port, industries in the hinterland, beaches, Ramayana Yatra tourism, fisheries, agriculture, etc. Don’t you think so?”

“Your Excellency, all these are negotiable. To negotiate this government should be in office sans financial and economic problems” responds Minister Rajapaksa. The foundation for financial assistance is slowly ‘pushed in.’

“Since you were willing to follow through earlier bi-lateral relationships I may mention economic and political issues that have been carried over for decades. One is the ETCA which was also mentioned by Minister Sitharaman. How many rounds of talks were held? More than ten? No finalisation.

The second economic issue is the fishing in Palk Bay, which is a humanitarian issue too. There too there is a Joint Working Group, which has met about three or four rounds but without solving problems.

“There are two political issues. One is the repatriation of refugees for which our foreign affairs officials should work together. The second is more important. It is the devolution of power. You will recall President Mahinda Rajapaksa was ready to go even to the 13th Amendment plus. He told this to former Minister of External Affairs SM Krishna. Your present Foreign Minister repeated in support of devolution, I remember.

“When I was following through, I found in a statement, even you have said that the Indian side called for the implementation of the 13A and greater devolution of powers to the provinces and that you emphasised that the President of Sri Lanka and his government were committed to a political process that should lead to a sustainable solution. Don’t you think that it is time to carry out that pledge?

“Minister, please keep in mind that this request had been made by all Indian governments, irrespective of Congress or Bharatiya Janata Party. It is meant for the Tamil people to feel that they are equal citizens of Sri Lanka, and they could lead a life of dignity and self-respect. Your brother Mahinda Rajapaksa said in 2009 that he was willing to do so. President Sirisena’s government promised it in 2015 at the UNHRC. A domestic issue that became bilateral with us was internationalised by them. These go along with human and fundamental rights. We had to deviate from your stances at the UNHRC twice and abstain once in recent times. We did so with a heavy heart. Sri Lanka should act to make its friends stay forever. With the promulgation of the new Constitution, isn’t it fair to emphasise devolution?”

Minister Rajapaksa says, “I agree with you on power-sharing and qualitative upliftment of minorities. I will bring this to the notice of our government.”

“Finally, I have to say something about the Indian Ocean’s security, peace, and free movement. As you are aware the Asian seas are affected by the intrusion of some nations. I believe you too would appreciate that the Indian Ocean should remain as the Indian Ocean and not by some other name!”

“I understand what Your Excellency explains. Of course, bi-laterally we have already taken some economic measures. We are misunderstood due to such relationships. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in Delhi during his maiden state visit that Sri Lanka would not do anything detrimental to India’s interests; he has repeatedly said India should put behind them the misunderstandings and move ahead. He told this to Foreign Secretary Shringla when he met him in Colombo. Excellency, please note that the President’s commitment will stand firm and solid. Hence, your assistance at this difficult juncture will reinforce that firm, solid, longstanding unwavering friendship. We will not forget it.”

The dialogue seems extremely productive.

“Thank you, Minister. I made note of your statement. I will advise my Ministers External Affairs and Finance to look at your request very positively, and further influence the private and state sector agencies to promote and encourage investment and trading opportunities in Sri Lanka. I wish that your government will speedily ease systems and approaches to support such investors. I think the Minister of Finance will keep you happy. I wish you well in the new portfolio”

The Minister bids adieu with a sigh of relief. The results will be known soon. (I think it will be positive. If negative, we will be done for. Best wishes Mr. Minister!)



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Features

The ubiquitous Tuk Tuk elevated to ambassadorial level

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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.

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Features

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

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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.

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Features

HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1950s)

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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.

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