The astounding election promises of Sajith and Gota took us down memory lane for six decades to the lines of that epic Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun: Anything you can do I can do better, I can do anything better than you, No, you can’t, Yes I can, Yes I can, Yes I can… [...]

Sunday Times 2

‘Anything he can do I can do better’


The astounding election promises of Sajith and Gota took us down memory lane for six decades to the lines of that epic Broadway musical, Annie Get Your Gun:

Anything you can do I can do better,

I can do anything better than you,

No, you can’t,

Yes I can, Yes I can, Yes I can…

Promises have gushed from both candidates and their supporters in the past two weeks; Gota slashing all taxes on agriculture; farmers loans, providing fertiliser free of charge; insurance scheme for farmers; wages of estate employees hiked to Rs 1,000 per day and more, while Sajith promised Free fertiliser for all farmers, including fruit and vegetable cultivators; a guaranteed price for paddy ; permanent insurance scheme for crop damage; electric fences to minimise elephant-human conflict and raising estate employees’ daily wage to Rs 1,500.  Both promise to remove some taxes and reduce some tax burden on the middle class. Bonanzas for undergrads and school kids and a whole lot of goodies are likely to be pledged by both before election day.

Are the people convinced by these promises dancing on the streets in anticipation for a post-election Sri Lankan paradise, come Sajith or Gota? Not so. They know that not only in mother Lanka but the world over, politicians are known for broken election promises. Despite all that, right now their supporters are determined to make their man win by hook or by crook. That’s the Sri Lankan tradition.

A cynic asks whether even the most ardent of supporters listen to the profound thoughts and promises expressed at rallies by their leaders.  At a recent election rally (Anuradhapura), Mahinda Rajapaksa after waxing eloquent over ‘development’ done by him and his government lashed out at the government (Yahapalanaya) for ruining the country and promised better things. The ‘Yahapalanaya’ ruined agriculture and the transport system of the country, he charged with much indignation.

But seated on the platform he was speaking were the ‘Yahapalanaya’s Minister of Agriculture Duminda Dissanayake and Minister of Transport Nimal Siripala de Silva who had joined the Rajapaksa ‘Pohottuwa’ on the same day!

Mahinda Rajapaksa would certainly have been aware of the two recruits to his coalition on stage. If so, was it that he did not give a damn about what the cheering mob would have thought? He fits in neatly to H.L. Menecken’s definition of a demagogue: A demagogue is one who knowingly preaches lies to those he knows to be idiots. But the idiocy of the masses should not be taken for granted. At the last presidential election they threw him out with his government.

The UNP, a few weeks ago, was little different to the Pohottuwa platform with Ranil and his supporters having daggers drawn at Premadasa and his backers. But the Grand Old Party like all such parties buried the hatchet in its own interest and rallied around Premadasa. These events beg the question, on what basis do Lanka’s voters make their decision: candidate, party, promises or political and economic principles?

Sajith Premadasa’s advantage over his opponent is that his Sinhala idiom resonates with the rural folk and the urban proletariat which none of the frontliners of the UNP or ‘Pohottuwa’ can do. He is projecting mostly himself to the electorate—as most candidates do and new candidates should do. But this egoism should be within limits. His speeches should not overtly be: I, me, myself and me and my father. It will go with his committed supporters but not the undecided neutral vote. He has to expose his vision on the contemporary world politics and the global economy much more. We have heard him briefly touch upon on New Economic Liberalism but that is not enough and he must be more expansive even though the time span between now and the presidential election is short. Since developing countries need direct foreign investment, his policies on this issue have to be expanded on. This is particularly in the context of the prevalent school of thought in Sri Lanka that views foreign investment as a ‘conspiracy to parcel out the country to foreign capitalists’.  This pernicious theory has been successful in the past four years in its objective of keeping out foreign investors.

Premadasa has on his own successfully fought his way to the top but he needs genuine experts — qualified personnel as any national leader should have. Ranasinghe Premadasa though successful in many of his endeavours attempted to govern the country mostly by himself which resulted in his governance being described as a ‘One Man Show’ quite in contrast to his predecessor J.R. Jayewardene who delegated wide powers to his ministers but had a tight grip on all. The Elpitiya election showed that Sajith and his party are still not out of the woods. The sycophantic explanation has been: Sajith’s political prowess was demonstrated in the Galle Face rally and the Elpitiya debacle was solely Ranil’s failure. But others point out that the ‘Sajith Magic’ failed to increase the UNP vote even slightly at Elpitiya. It is imperative that he should find out the reason for it and act on it and not seek solace in the Galle Face crowds.

The fear about Gotabaya is that history will repeat itself in the form of family rule where three brothers controlled a greater part of the economy that led them to disaster. Already brother Mahinda who hopes to be Gotabaya’s prime minister, is his mentor even at public meetings and press conferences. Gotabaya speaks of a sure cure plan which his Think Tank boys have worked out but not yet spelled out in detail. Plans of course have been aplenty since Independence — 71 years ago— but the problem with plans is that they don’t work out as planned.

In the final analysis what is the choice before the voter in this election: party, politicians, plans or promises?

So far there are only promises to go by and ‘Anything he can do, I can do better’.

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