Basil says SLPP hopes to get 2.5 million members; whither the SLFP?

  • New party’s headquarters buzzing with activity; its main tactician says new policies are also being worked out
  • SLFP Gen. Sec claims party’s support base intact; hopeful of forming a new alliance with SLPP under a common symbol
  • “Let the power of the village take the country forward,” it says, in bold yellow Sinhala letters.
  • “I can’t speak for the SLFP,” said Basil Rajapaksa, wearing a shirt in the SLPP’s trademark maroon
  • The SLPP considers Israel to be a good example of how to take an economy forward, Mr Rajapaksa said. There were also “a few European countries”….and China.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP)’s Battaramulla headquarters is buzzing with activity.

It’s a Poya, Thursday. The roads are empty and quiet. But inside the maroon-and-white two-storey building, workers are noisily erecting a cubicle. A new trade union office is about to be opened to accommodate a growing membership. And a woman in a crisp white lungi is busily sweeping the dust out of Basil Rajapaksa’s office.

First registered in November 2016, the party secured around five million votes at the 2018 local council elections. It is now on an aggressive membership drive. “Our target,” said Basil Rajapaksa, “is to enlist 2.5m, or fifty percent of this, as members. Up to now, we have signed up around 30 percent or around 1.5m.”

For a new party, the SLPP is remarkably organised. It was floated to target the local council elections. In 12,000 grama niladari divisions (excluding the North and East), the party appointed conveners who gave a written undertaking to set up party branches.

“We started out with conveners, no boards of officials,” Mr Rajapaksa, the tactician, said. After pulling off a massive May Day rally in 2017, the SLPP started setting up branch societies and kicked off the membership campaign. And it performed well at the local council elections.

“It was the first time in local Government history that a party not in power won,” he said. “Not only that, the 72-year-old United National Party and the 67-year-old Sri Lanka Freedom Party were reduced to their lowest ever percentages at a local council election.”

It was a searing wake-up call to the UNP, something party seniors openly admitted at the time. But what is happening to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as a result of the SLPP’s success is starker. Political analysts predict the demise of the old party and its replacement with the new one. This, Mr Rajapaksa unabashedly admits, “is also my hope”.

In Darley Road on Poya day, the SLFP head office is deserted. Every entrance is locked. In a passage on the left, six multi-coloured dustbins are topped with rubbish. There are two banners on a wall. The bottom one depicts President Maithripala Sirisena hugging Mahinda Rajapaksa, his predecessor. “Let the power of the village take the country forward,” it says, in bold yellow Sinhala letters.

apparently warm relationship, not even the SLFP General Secretary knew that Mahinda Rajapaksa would join the SLPP so soon after the events of October 26, when President Sirisena sacked Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and caused political chaos. Mr Rajapaksa decamped to the new party on November 11, followed by his son and multiple other SLFP seniors.

“We knew Mahinda Rajapaksa would be invited but we didn’t know he would join the SLPP so soon,” said Rohana Luxman Piyadasa, who was appointed SLFP Acting General Secretary in June. “We thought that, as a senior politician, he wouldn’t do that. Our ordinary members were very disappointed.”

But the SLFP will work closely with the SLPP at a future election, vowed Prof Piyadasa. And whatever front they form will contest under a new symbol–not the flower bud, not the hand, nor the betel leaf. “We might finalise a symbol next week,” he said. “The SLFP will draw up its manifesto and discuss it with SLPP. The new front’s constitution is also being drawn up.”

While the SLFP seems eager to hitch its wagon to the SLPP, the latter is keen to forge a separate identity — fronted by the man Basil Rajapaksa called “our spiritual leader”. “Everything,” he said, pointing to SLPP application forms with former President’s photo on one corner and the flower bud on the other, “is Mahinda Rajapaksa.”

“We don’t want to make the same mistake we made in August 2015,” he said. That year, they all contested the general election under the SLFP banner led by President Sirisena and performed miserably. This time, if Mahinda Rajapaksa is leading an election effort, it has to be from a party he heads — and of which is he the star.

“I can’t speak for the SLFP,” said Basil Rajapaksa, wearing a shirt in the SLPP’s trademark maroon. “The SLFP has to decide its future.” Blunt words from a man who had joined the SLFP ten years before Mahinda, while still in school, and even served as its Assistant Secretary and the Youth League General Secretary in the early days.

The SLPP’s economic policy will be based on the Mahinda Chinthana, Mr Rajapaksa said, but modified to adjust to the new realities. They were looking for a fresh tagline because “sound bites are very important for politics”.

“I know marketing is an issue,” he reflected “You can make toothpaste in the lab. But to market it, you have to add colouring and other things. Now we have our own policies and, for marketing purposes, we have to come up with something.”

The SLFP’s old tagline– sangha (clergy), veda (physicians), guru (teachers), govi (farmers), kamkaru(workers)–has now served its purpose, he continued. There were new players now, like academics, scientists and civil society.

“If the SLFP was the paddy seed and it grew into a rice plant, it is no longer the same rice plant today,” Mr Rajapaksa said. “We want to create a hybrid rice plant.”

“We have to consider the son of the son of that farmer’s son now,” he said. “There is no use teaching him about farming and giving him a fertiliser or production subsidy.” And yet, the policy will also be heavy on local production, on the rural economy–because “even Narendra Modi’s India had embraced ‘Make in India’”.

There was the usual talk of a globalised, knowledge-centred economy heavy on technology education. “Instead of making garments, we can progress to manufacturing microchips,” he said. “Back then, the garment industry was started to provide jobs to uneducated housewives. It was a good solution at the time. Today we can’t provide the same answer.”

The SLPP considers Israel to be a good example of how to take an economy forward, Mr Rajapaksa said. There were also “a few European countries”….and China.

And what of the SLFP? There aren’t many left today to speak for it or to voice its policies. Its seniors have gone in a steady stream to the SLPP. National Organiser Duminda Dissanayake said he was down with a throat ailment and referred this newspaper back to Prof Piyadasa, whose faith in the SLFP’s power to attract voters remained intact.

The SLFP, he said, represented the voiceless and underprivileged. If any of them had gravitated away from the party, it was because they were angry over the alliance of its leaders with the UNP. And that could be the same reason they were moving toward the SLPP.

Now, with the SLFP and the SLPP forging a front, the former’s block vote was likely to remain intact, Prof Piyadasa hazarded. “I don’t think it’s the end of the SLFP,” he asserted. “We think we can start a new dialogue. The common people’s aspirations are with us.”

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