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Sunday, February 2, 2014

Actresso-phrenia

Upali Tennakoon
The presence of actors and actresses in politics is in fact a hackneyed topic. Although they haven't received nominations yet, their presence itself has sent "shock waves" across the Sri Lankan political sphere.
Actors and actresses are no aliens to politics. Even in the US, where I live in, the likes of Ronald Reagan have entered into politics and held highest positions in the country's political hierarchy. One cannot be barred from entering politics simply on the grounds that he or she is an actor or actress. On the one hand that would be an undemocratic discrimination that would tilt the playing field against one selected group. On the other hand, 'popularity' is part and parcel of the political game and one cannot turn a blind eye to the 'popular factor' where elections are concerned. 
But the problem in Sri Lanka is not the popular factor! It is the way Sri Lankan political parties, candidates (including actors & actresses), citizenry and the other elements of the society perceive the process called 'elections'. 
Elections are no longer platforms where key issues faced by the people are discussed at length. Possible solutions to the socio-economic problems are rarely marketed at elections. Candidates contesting elections have little or no understanding of the dynamics of the Sri Lankan society and its political culture. 
Let me give you two examples. At nomination board interviews of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, one female candidate had been asked a simple question i.e., the name of the SLFP founder – the party she was going to represent at the election. Her answer was D.S. Senanayake! It was reported that one minister, who was conducting interviews, nearly fell off his chair, laughing, after hearing that answer. Another incident was reported in the Sinhala website of ‘Asian Mirror’- where Ruwanthi Mangala, an actress who sought nomination from the ruling party had said, she was not aware of the “Elections Commissioner’s decision” to pull her out of the electoral race. She did not even know that it was a decision that could only be made by the party she was going to represent. This speaks volumes of the danger lying ahead of us. 
What should be the main criteria under which the applicants for nominations need to be assessed? In my view, it should be the way they perceive the dynamics of the socio-economic and political spheres of the country. It is hard to select politicians based on paper qualifications as they need to represent people from all walks of life. In the same way, it is hard to handpick them based on their professions because that would be a blatant discrimination contravening the basic tenets of democracy. 
If a politician does not understand the national psyche of the country, if a politician does not know where he comes from and where his roots lie, if a politician does not have a strong opinion of the hardships faced by the people of Sri Lanka and the manners in which they can resolve their problems, that person is not suitable to represent the people of the country at any level of governance, be it pradeshiya sabha or Parliament. 
It is a widely held perception that provincial councils have turned out to be a white elephant burdening the country’s economy by siphoning off a sizable proportion of money from the Treasury, on a yearly basis. Since we are so engrossed in this criticism, we have failed to see the positive aspects of provincial councils. In a country like Sri Lanka, provincial councils can play a major role in resource management and empowering bottom layers of the society. Without trespassing on the territories of the central government, provincial council can actually facilitate sectors such as research, innovation and technology. But none of these sectors has been benefitted in Sri Lanka through provincial council as the provincial councils and councilors have turned a Nelsonean eye to sectors they can empower through their existing powers. This has been a major setback for Sri Lanka over the past 25 years. 
Talking about the popular factor and ‘past track records’, I’d like to present the example of Tony Blair who was one of the most popular British prime ministers in the recent past. In his run up to the Prime Minister’s office he did not have a sound ‘track record’ to market on electoral platforms. He had only his charm, charisma and a little bit of glamour. In the end, he turned out to be a successful prime minister who held the office for 10 years. Although the political culture in the UK is diametrically opposite to that of Sri Lanka, this is a classic example as to how the popular factor in politics can be translated into success in the long run. But, that requires a modicum of intelligence. 
Presently, Sri Lankan politics is blindly moving in the direction of popular factor without attaching any sort of importance to ‘intelligence’. None of the stakeholders - including the political parties, policy makers, voters and the citizenry – seems to understand the pitfalls of this disastrous trend. As much as the political parties should be held responsible for promoting this trend overtly and covertly, the voters too cannot distance themselves from any of these developments as they are the ones who ultimately elevate such candidates to power. In the end, the people of Sri Lanka receive what they deserve the most. 
And that surely makes our country the wonder of Asia!

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