Politicians, we know, are no strangers to acting. In fact, they seem to be acting most of the time. Therefore it is strange that only a few actors have taken to politics at the highest level: yes, there is Ronald Reagan and M.G. Ramachandran but closer home we have only Vijaya Kumaratunga and his much less illustrious nephew Jeevan to boast of.
But aren't we forgetting someone here? It is Mahinda Rajapaksa of course. Sixteen years ago, Rajapaksa acted in a movie titled 'Nomiyena Minissu' where his role was yes, that of a General! And surprise, surprise, the Colonel he was commanding was played by a Fonseka -- not Sarath of course, but the legendary Gamini -- although since Gamini was the Director, the Fonseka campaign would probably like to say that even sixteen years ago, Rajapaksa was being told what to do by a Fonseka.
We are reminded of all this movie memories because the campaign -- which as we said last week is not debating any issues of substance -- is now discussing experience. The Rajapaksa campaign is saying the President has forty years in politics as against Fonseka's forty days. General Fonseka responds saying that he has forty years in uniform against the President's forty days -- which he presumably spent while filming 'Nomiyena Minissu'.
The roles of President Rajapaksa and General Fonseka will be dissected with a fine toothcomb in the days to come. We propose to discuss the role of someone else instead --that of Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, who arguably may be even more important than the candidates themselves in the run-up to the election.
There was a time when our sympathies were with the man. There he was, well past his retirement age (like General Fonseka!) and not in best of health too but still serving King and country, although not ungrudgingly.
We remember how he petitioned the Supreme Court in 2003, then a boyish sixty one years of age, pleading for his retirement. The Court headed by another Sarath, Silva to be precise, rejected his plea. At the conclusion of the 2005 presidential election which President Rajapaksa won, he made a public and rather emotional appeal saying that he hoped he would be allowed to retire.
Well, he hasn't. But that is beside the point. He is still Commissioner of Elections and he has got an important job to do -- such as electing the country's next President and doing it in a fair manner. And he says he will.
And that exactly is the problem. Although Dissanayake says he will, nothing he says has happened so far. Last week, we said that the NATO (No Action, Talking Only) should be given to Tissa Vitharana and his All-Party Representative Committee. Correction -- now we think it should be given to Dayananda Dissanayake instead.
And why not? He is telling us that he will order cut-outs to be removed. Of course, the poor man who is now approaching sixty eight cannot go around climbing the eighty feet scaffolding at Alexandra Place junction to bring down the smiling features of Mahinda Rajapaksa.
But he should get it done-and although he has indeed dealt with the monstrosity at Alexandra Place, at other places cut-outs abound. In Mervyn Silva country at Kelaniya-Kiribathgoda, for instance, you dare not look up because you see visions of M & M-not Murali and Mendis selling sausages and insurance respectively -- but Mervyn and Mahinda smiling beatifically at you!
Well at least that should give the Fonseka campaign some ideas. Here they are, complaining that they are not allowed to put up cut-outs and that any cut-outs or posters that they manage to string together are blatantly removed by thugs of the ruling party. From what we have seen dotting the landscape so far, true, I daresay.
But I don't think that, with just 23 days to go for the election, they should be moping around. Maybe they should get Fonseka sponsored by a mobile phone company. And maybe he can be shown on advertisements to say, rather smugly like Kumar Sangakkara, "mama than me peththata maru wuna, eka simple wedak ne!" At least that way, he will have more cut-outs out there!
But we digress from our topic of discussion: Commissioner Dissanayake. He says he is 'closely monitoring' the media after issuing 21 guidelines to the state and private media about impartial coverage. That was over a week ago.
I really don't know what the man is doing. Maybe he is sitting in his office drinking cups of tea with fat-free milk and reading all the newspapers and watching all the television broadcasts and taking copious notes, so that he can arrive at a decision. It may be good for his health having suffered a few heart attacks (or is it, really?). But it certainly isn't good for the health for the nation.
If the Commissioner wants to really know whether the coverage is biased or not, he could ask a fifteen year old schoolboy. Or the neighbourhood tuk-tuk driver. Or even Anura Priyadarshana Yapa who manages to keep a straight face even if you ask him whether Karuna is a terrorist.
Now, after what we presume is intense 'monitoring' Commissioner Dissanayake says he will appoint a separate official to, again, 'monitor' the media. Is he the much awaited Competent Authority? No, not quite, says Dissanayake. What does that make him? An Incompetent Authority, maybe!
And Dissanayake does have powers vested in him to appoint a Competent Authority, mind you. But he chooses not to. Maybe he wants to wait until election fever really reaches a peak -- which in his estimation might be at 4 p.m. on election day after polling closes.
To give the man his due, one issue that he dealt with is Police transfers. He ordered them stopped. And the matter reached a crisis point when an officer was transferred from Ampara to Kilinochchi. Dissanayake intervened -- although the cancellation has yet to take effect. (The name of that officer, by the way, is J.R. Jayawardana; rings a bell, doesn't it?)
Why cannot Dissanayake do the same with the media and crack the whip? When he eventually does it -- if he does it at all -- it may be too late. And we are worried with good reason. We have seen the spectacle before: Dissanayake comes on television and explains to everyone why he couldn't do it and even if he had done it, how it would not have altered the eventual result etc. etc.
If Dissanayake really wants to, there are many issues he can deal with: involving public servants in propaganda activity, entertaining voters at public expense, and using state resources for election work. We know that the Commissioner is busy sending letters to all and sundry saying 'please don't do this' but those must be surely finding itself to the WPB.
We do understand that parliament has not given you the powers you wanted. As a result you have become a bit of a joke, confining your role to sending cautionary notes and guidelines. The lack of legislative support has made you a toothless commissioner and you must be envying your Indian counterpart. But you have a task to perform — a duty by the people. Our Constitution says sovereignty is in the people and it includes franchise.
Come on, Commissioner. Look on the bright side: crack the whip will you and try, for once, to have a free and fair election. If they don't like what you do, the most they can do is to sack you. And that is what you want, isn't it? It's a 'heads, I win, tails, you lose' situation — and it will save you the lawyers' fees for your next fundamental rights application.
Unless of course, there is a catch to the whole story: like, for instance, if you really want to stay on or alternatively, if you wish to get an international posting.