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The Charm Offensive

| by Victor Cherubim

( November 21, 2014, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) It has been a turbulent year in more ways than one, around the globe and in Sri Lanka. Technology and innovation too have blurred boundaries between industries in individual nations. In governance too, we in Sri Lanka, trusted in matters what we wanted to do, rather than what we thought we ought to do and have paid a price for it. However, a strong sense of both tradition and our way of life were, perhaps, the drivers for our actions.

What do parties do to get elected?

Politicians everywhere have resorted to two well known strategies, when faced with challenges and when they fall into trouble. First, they highlight the attributes of their married partners; some have even wheeled out their wife into the public domain. The basis for this action is that if the public see an attractive, a sensible and a social woman, the problem gets easily forgotten. This strategy is called “the secret weapon”. We witnessed such a situation in France earlier on this year. It may not exactly work everywhere, but it has often been tried and tested. In simple language, it is referred to as,” the charm offensive”.

The other strategy which has been tried in many awkward situations when a politician is in trouble is to “blame his image” problem. We saw the Labour Leader, Ed Milliband admit in public that he could not eat a bacon sandwich “elegantly”. He went on to state: “if you think you want a politician who thinks that a good photo image is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.” This was a high risk move, but it appears to have “worked”. His ratings were poor, but his policies have strong popular support. “Building one million homes, raising the minimum wage, letting the State run the railways once again, freezing energy prices”, were some of “his popular policies”. The Tories hit out, that he would “bash the rich.” And of course, put up taxes, they claimed?

Style over Substance

There is undoubted a grey area between “image” and “substance”, in any political election. This is obvious in UK and equally obvious to the voter in Sri Lanka. Let us for a moment consider what parties and personalities (candidates) actually do to get elected. There is hardly time for substance or discussion on issues. This is due to the part played by mass media today which has masked ideas and discussion of issues. Election coverage today in Sri Lanka has an obsession with individual candidates, whether they come from one family, one dynasty. What is important is not whether it is a family, but whether that family can deliver what the public want?

As the saying goes, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Politics is a hot potato today. The test of a successful politician is whether he has the constructive engagement of its citizens, foster their interests and secure their confidence. This is put to the test at an election.

For far too long, Sri Lanka was an island “where the tea came from”. We were hardly known to many an American President; we were only a dot on the map. Countries in the continent of Africa and South America never heard about us, until our President put us on the world stage. Credit is due to a new vision of engagement not only with the Commonwealth, but also the world.

Another salient fact that is easily forgotten, without the aura of quiet authority irresistible after the 30 odd year war and the devastation after the tsunami, nothing would have been achieved by way of rebuilding our broken down ports, harbours, roads and railway infrastructure. We were fortunate to get the necessary funding for these projects through our resourcefulness.

Geopolitics in governance

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Cold War, there was a noticeable change in the style of governance worldwide and in Sri Lanka. Resourcefulness was a mandatory requirement for its recognition by the world, as a stable government. In the context of geopolitics, stability was a paramount consideration.

However, our worry was whether “governance” was an elaborate camouflage, for the wealthy to get wealthier and for the poor to decline even further. We now need to give credence to a different governance model in our society to adapt with the times.

But everything in governance also comes at a price. These anomalies will we hope be addressed and corrected, here again we need the experience over time, in order to deliver.

There is a strong opinion, according to some observers that no advantage will be served, at this stage of our progress if were for the sake of change “throw the baby with the bathwater”, as the price of change is too costly. Our charm offensive has served us well in terms of our identity and may pay rich dividends in the future.

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