Royal British horse a game changer in Sri Lankan presidential polls

The supreme leader has changed the face of Sri Lanka. A war of 30 years has been put to an end, the world’s finest cars are speeding on newly built expressways, theeconomy is spurting at a handsome 7 per cent, tourism is booming at an unheard of 22 per cent — and yet the peasants of the country are obsessed with one silly horse. The horse imported from the royal stables of Buckingham for millions of rupees has become symbolic of the plunder and private excesses of incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa, as he gets battle-ready for a third term, when the island nation goes to polls on January 8. The horse was reportedly shipped in by MR’s youngest of the three ‘princes’ as a gift for his girlfriend. Opposition leaders are going to town on the campaign trail telling the common man how the prince flies down from capital Colombo to the quaint hill station of Nuwara Eliya in a private chopper to ride the horse and is back home in time to party the night away in the capital.

Even as a tourist in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to miss the campaign buzz in the country. Going by visibility, Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party has painted the town blue, totally drowning the efforts of the fledging opposition. Putting the state’s official machinery to use — or rather misuse — is little effort for a man who has run Sri Lanka with an iron hand for the past ten years. At an opposition rally in small town Hambantota, to show his loyalty to MR, SLFP’s mayor personally leads a gang to beat up opposition members and frighten the electorate, even as the police looks away.

In capital Colombo, where the world’s eyes are watching the happenings, muscle power is replaced by money power. A massive multimedia marketing blitz has been launched to project Rajapaksa as a saviour. One day, the headline is how he won the hearts of Tamilians in Jaffna by speaking in fluent Tamil, while on the other day, it is how Muslims of Sri Lanka owe their vote to him for protecting them and giving them an environment to flourish. This is significant given that Sri Lankan Muslims are an enterprising lot, controlling much of the trade, compared to the easy-going Buddhist majority.

communalIn fact, till six months ago, Rajapaksa’s popularity was at an all-time high and there was not even a semblance of an opposition. With everything going for him, and confident of another term, the president himself announced a snap poll. In a matter of days, the pitch turned. His own health minister Maithripala Sirisena left the party and became his opponent as the united candidate of the opposition. Tales of corruption and wrong-doing began pouring out — commissions on key contracts, kickbacks on projects touted as nation builders, benami investments in foreign countries and secret offshore accounts. Not to mention the nepotism, with the president’s three brothers and three sons holding key government posts. It’s all in the family, but in the public eye, the president’s pristine image has been dented.

The local media is doing its bit to save the day for the president. The right hand pages carry full-page ads of MR and the left hand pages are dedicated to stories of his achievements. They refer to Sirisena as so-called opponent and have already announced the winner. The final decision, however, will be in the hands of the Dambulla peasant who’s struggling for a meal far away from the five-stars of Colombo, and the Kandy man in the crowded mini-bus who envies the prince’s cosy choppers. That royal horse may just be the Trojan horse in Rajapaksa’s kingdom.

The author is journalist with dna; @kehrathod