Leader of the Democratic People’s Front and former Colombo district parliamentarian Mano Ganesan who now commands over 15% of the Colombo city vote speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about his choice of a common opposition candidate for the forthcoming presidential election and the logic of ethnicity based politics.
Q. If we start off from the most important current controversy, are you in favour of an apolitical common candidate from outside the party system or are you willing to support a UNP candidate at the forthcoming presidential election?
A. The candidates have been shortlisted now. The apolitical candidate is Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera and the political candidate is Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a party leader in the opposition, I cannot commit myself to a candidate at this moment. A common understanding has not been arrived at yet.
Q. In your view, who would have a better chance of defeating Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe or Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera?
A. Both have the ability of winning as the common opposition candidate. We are now close to finalising a decision on the candidate. But I cannot divulge anything now. I can say that both Ranil Wickremesinghe and Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera will play important roles in the common opposition. The UNP cannot think of defeating Mahinda on its own. In fact Mahinda is also not contesting alone but with an alliance. So the UNP needs to get accustomed to the culture of political alliances.
Q. Do you see the UNP as a party that is responsive to the needs of the minority communities? We see that you have been only too willing to form alliances with the UNP whereas you don’t seem to be keen about forming any alliance with the UPFA.
A. I consider the UNP led by Ranil Wickremesinghe to be responsive and comparatively liberal on ethnic and religious issues. I place stress on the words ‘comparatively’ and ‘Ranil’. So we have a working relationship with the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe. However, I don’t have any eternal antipathy towards UPFA or harbour any personal vendetta against the Rajapaksas either. In fact I admire Mahinda Rajapaksa for the hard work and dedication that has brought him to helm of the nation. He is an example for all of us. My issue with the UPFA is that I don’t see any openings there in respect of policy. The UPFA has many left and centre parties and they are my political friends including some in the SLFP. The UPFA successfully used a steering team during the war. The problem is that the UPFA is using the same steering team now even in peace time. Due to this reason, it has failed to achieve peace though it won the war. They are looking for a tiger behind every tree and bush in the name of national security. I am not underestimating national security issues. But this is too much. The prime architect of the war strategy was Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He should have left aside the military machine and entered the political arena long ago. I told him this when I met him recently at my mother’s funeral. He will prove to be a better political leader than a defence secretary.
Q. If you deem the UNP to be responsive to the demands of the minority communities then why is it necessary to have all these ethnicity and religion based political parties like the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and your own party the Democratic People’s Front?
A. We are not the TNA, SLMC or even the CWC. My party is not an ethnic party, in principle. Most of our members are Tamils. So we speak more on the Tamil issues. similarly the UNP and SLFP, speak more on the Sinhala issues. Trust me, I don’t believe in a separate Tamil only journey or a Muslim only journey or a Sinhala only journey. I am a firm believer in a singular Sri Lankan journey. But the so called national parties are not national in reality. They are also ethnic and religious parties. The two big parties, the UNP and SLFP need to become more Sri Lankan first so that we can move in. Though I find I am more national than the TNA and SLMC, I justify the existence of those two ethnic parties led by Sampanthan and Rauf. We are a Sri Lankan political family. The elder brothers are the UNP and SLFP. They have to be more accommodative and sensitive towards their younger brothers. An accommodative attitude will bring amalgamation.
Q. At the Western provincial council elections held earlier this year, your party took a lot of votes away from the UNP. On the one hand, you consider the UNP to be more favourable to the minorities than the UPFA, yet you destroy the UNP from within by siphoning off votes. By thus undermining the national party most favoured by the minority communities, aren’t you undermining your own cause?
A. You are asking this question based on your belief in a two party system. We received 51,000 votes at the WPC elections. These are our votes. I will obtain more at a parliamentary election. How can they be UNP votes? The UNP can obtain these votes only if we are in alliance with the UNP. I will tell you something to think about. At the WPC elections, if I had contested in alliance with the UNP, a sizable number of our votes would have gone to the government. I was able to block our votes from going to the government side by being independent of both the UNP and UPFA. That was the situation during the WPC elections. Therefore I did not undermine my cause but I helped our common opposition cause. It was so at the Colombo municipal elections too. Though we contested separately we are sitting in the opposition with them. In fact we are helping the UNP to maintain a working majority in the CMC. So why complain? Let us march together. The era of Tamils unconditionally voting for the UNP at local government, provincial council and parliamentary elections has now ended in the North, East, Central and Western regions. You check the latest statistics. This is the era of alliances. At a presidential election, we can bring most of the Tamil votes to the UNP but only if the UNP is willing to work with us in an alliance. If they think they can obtain Tamil votes using some of their own UNP Tamil politicians, they will regret that decision.
Q. At the last parliamentary elections, you insisted on contesting from the Kandy district. Since there are only a limited number of seats in that district and the UNP could win only a few, Tissa Attanayake had to stand down as a result of your coming into the fray. Ultimately you lost and are now out of parliament. At the next parliamentary election where will you be contesting from, Colombo or Kandy?
A. I did not fail in Kandy. What really happened was that my victory was robbed through hooliganism and intimidation of Tamil voters in Kandy. My efforts did not go waste. We have gained a provincial council seat in Kandy. I honestly believe that I am parliamentary material. My parliamentary tenure from 2001 to 2010 was very challenging and I enjoyed the experience. I am not in parliament today but I wish I was there. I was suddenly denied entry on the UNP national list and my brother betrayed me. But I didn’t go into retirement. I have bounced back today. I am not only heard and respected in Colombo city but also by the Tamils in the Central, Northern and Eastern provinces. I am the only Sinhala speaking Tamil politician who is recognized by the Sinhalese people too. I have achieved this due to my hard work. Colombo is my home. I will go to parliament from Colombo at the next parliamentary elections. I did not know that Tissa stood down due to my entry in Kandy. This time he need not worry. He will top the list with Kiriella.
Q. Coming back to the question of the need for ethnic and religious parties, do you believe you have been able to serve your people better than say a Devanayagam or a Rajadurai? In similar vein. Do you think the Muslims are better off with a Sri Lanka Muslim Congress than they were when figures like Hameed and M.H.Mohamed in the UNP and Badiuddin Mohamed in the SLFP looked after the Muslim interests?
A. Devanayagam, Rajadurai, Hameed, M.H.Mohamed and Badiuddin were figures of the pre-war era. We are now in the post-war era. Today society is ethnically polarized. The ethnic parties are the result of that. This is not a good situation. I accept that. But you can’t single us out for blame. Devanayagams, Rajadurais, Hameeds, Mohameds, Badiuddins cannot exist today. We don’t see any such figures in the UNP and SLFP today. All this is because the so called national parties started moving away from the Sri Lankan national identity. When the SLFP and UNP accepted the policy of Sinhala only in the fifties, Tamils slowly started leaving these parties. Even those who stayed back within lost the battle to the ethnic leaders outside the so called national parties. But look at India. They have plenty of ethnic, language and religious conflicts. Yet the Indian political establishment thinks in national terms. That is why a Muslim could become the president, foreign minister and even the boss of the Indian intelligence service of India. A Sikh could become the prime minister. Even in the fields of cinema, all big names are “Khans” and even in the sports arena you have Muslims and other minorities in India. Do we see that in this country? I am confident that I have all qualifications to be the president of this country. But I know, I cannot because I am an ethnic Tamil.
Q. Other minority parties like the Muslim Congress and the CWC and even the EPDP think nothing of vaulting from one side to another in the name of serving their community. But you seem to be intent on staying put in the opposition until a UNP government comes into power. Since that is the case, wouldn’t it be better for you to become a member of the UNP outright?
A. Ranil Wickremesinghe made that invitation to me and Rauf Hakeem some time ago. But I said I am convinced that I can serve my people better through my party. This situation may continue until a fair solution to the national question is found. If I become a member of the UNP, I will face certain constraints. For example I played a frontline role in the human rights campaign during the war. I would not have been able to do that if had been a UNP member. It would have made the UNP uncomfortable. But of course sometime in the future when changes happen I may consider amalgamating my party with a “national” party. I said earlier that I don’t see any openings in the UPFA. I mean policy openings and not any privileges or positions. I am staying put with the opposition not just in anticipation of a UNP government but on a matter of principle. I am proud that in my political journey I never went after privileges but fought for justice. If there is no election but a referendum to extend the life of parliament, I may not be able to go to parliament next time as well. But I will have no regrets. I know I have served my people during the most pressing days.