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On Milinda Moragoda and his ‘strange’ campaign

(March 02, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Milinda Moragoda does strange things. I think that’s his edge over a lot of fellow politicians. He obviously has a lot of wealth or a lot of rich backers, but these are times when wealth alone is not enough to get nominated and if nominated get elected. Samson Silva (or was it Fernando?) for example is a perennial also-ran who spends lavishly but never wins.

Milinda is not about posters, cut-outs, loudspeakers, firecrackers and mobs. He is probably one of the few politicians who do not violate election laws. Neither does he abuse grey areas in the law.

For example, politicians know very well that they are not supposed to put up posters and yet they desecrate all walls they can lay their hands on. Some are cute. They do it before nominations close. This way they make sure the elector knows they are running. There are all kinds of loopholes and they creep through them all. Milinda does things differently.

In 2004, Milinda ran a series of newspaper ads. Well, he advertised in a number of websites too, in addition to writing directly to Colombo District voters.

The print ads were remarkable and quite refreshing. Unlike other candidates who purchased advertising space to tell people how great they are and how the people would be screwed several times over if they didn’t vote for these candidates, Milinda ran some neat lines that clearly sought to get people thinking.

He had one ad where he saluted the kind of clean campaigning that Dulles Alahapperuma chose to engage in. Milinda was then in the UNP. Dulles, contesting from the People’s Alliance, managed to reach agreement with political rivals to desist from mudslinging and to keep thing civilized in the Matara District.

He didn’t contest in 2001. The culture had changed and one of the UNP candidates put up a poster with the following line: ‘Aney Dulles, oba hitiya nam’ (Of Dulles, if only you were here now!). Milinda piggy-backed on the idea; he called for a different kind of political culture.

His ads decried the vandalizing of city space that had by the time become part and parcel of an election campaign. He had other messages that slip my mind, but which, I do remember were positive and most importantly things that anyone could identify with and salute across party lines. He won.

A lot of things happened after that. In 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Presidential Election. Milinda, along with more than a dozen UNPers (the better ones, let me add), joined the Government.

He was appointed Tourism Minister. He brought in some professionalism, enterprise and for an ex-UNPer a surprising intent to preserve cultural artifact and way of life. He operated on the basis that the industry can be developed without compromising our cultural ethos, the sensibilities of our people and our wonderful heritage.

Political upheavals saw Milinda being moved out of Tourism and given the Justice portfolio, clearly a less ‘visibling’ ministry and one where it is hard to score brownie points with potential voters. He worked, that much is clear.

He set things rolling in the direction of expediting judicial process and thereby bringing relief to tens of thousands of ordinary people. Now it is election time again and Milinda is not in a happy situation.

He is not in the UNP and therefore it is unlikely that he will get the kind of swing he got in 2004 from the Colombans, that breed of kepuwath kola individuals who would have I am sure voted for Prabhakaran if he had contested under the elephant symbol.

The electorates that fall within the city limits of Colombo are not chockfull of UPFA supporters and recent elections amply demonstrates this fact. It will take some convincing for Colombans to consider voting for him for a) he is no longer a UNPer and b) he will be seen as a traitor.

Equally troubling is the fact that he is not an SLFPer. He has his own party now, the Sri Lanka National Congress. It’s new. Unknown. The voter would remember Milinda, but not his party. They will remember him more as a person who crossed party line than someone who backed the President and did his bit without complaining.

Milinda Moragoda had to find a new way of reaching the masses and he has. He is moved to the next logical step from his 2004 campaign.

He has developed the call for a different kind of politics to a comprehensive document, which has taken the form of an ‘agenda to influence the government’. I would call it another election gimmick if not for one thing: Milinda need not have done this.

There are many ways of getting into Parliament and he is endowed with more than the required complement of attributes to have an easy time of it. Milinda has taken the tougher road.

Even if Milinda loses, this document (which I am sure all voters in the Colombo District will receive) is something all of us should read, re-read, remember and quote from. It is something we can use for years and years. It covers all the major areas, gives interesting insights, is succinct and very well written.

This election as I have written elsewhere is a boring affair. It’s an issue-less election and the only thing that interests me is whether or not the UPFA gets a two-thirds majority and if any decent people get elected.

Milinda is trying to make it interesting. Who knows, if people take his ‘manifesto’ seriously, they might end up ignoring the rich, strong-armed, crooks and vote for some good men and women. And if this happens, even if he doesn’t win, Milinda can be proud. He tainted himself when he left the UNP. I think with this document, he has made amends. Whether it is enough to get him elected, I am not sure. He’s certainly doing something different. True to form.

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