The defeat of the United National Front at the April 2004 Parliamentary Election can be attributed to the fact that the then President, Chandrika Kumaratunga pulled the political rug from under its feet by taking over three key ministries. Supporters of that Government have lamented this fact. Indeed, Ranil Wickremesinghe inherited in 2001 an economy that was in shambles and a nightmare security situation. Few would have expected him to perform miracles in just three years. His supporters bemoan the fact that the Government was not allowed to serve its full term and claim that had Kumaratunga acted differently the party would not have faired as poorly as it did.
All that is conjecture, though. While the UNF may have suffered because it didn’t have the time to implement its election pledges and then be subject to fair(er) assessment, there was also the vexed issue of its approach to the issue of national security. The chosen path was the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA), a flawed document if ever there was one, and one which demonstrated a sophomoric understanding of the key protagonist, the LTTE.
The UNF alienated the Sinhala polity by signing the CFA and worse by offering puerile justifications. The LTTE was the LTTE, as always viewing ceasefires, peace talks and such through a military lens (as acknowledged Lawrence Thilakar, one time international spokesperson of the LTTE). The Government was naïve (to be generous in description) and paid for its naiveté. In short, the arrogant, arbitrary and anti-democratic move of Kumaratunga appeared legitimate simply because the UNF had played into the President’s hands.
The Government simply could not sell the CFA to the electorate. At the time, they had the state media as well as most of the private media on their side. Even the President, although she was the leader of a party in the Parliamentary Opposition, was ideologically on the same page as the architects of the CFA. Apart from her aforementioned move to subvert the Government, Kumaratunga did not throw any sand in the wheels of the UNF’s ‘peace process’. The UNF’s communication strategy as far as the CFA was concerned was a joke, one can conclude in retrospect.
However, was it just incompetence that wrecked the party? No. The issue is that even the best advertising campaign cannot sustain loyalty to an obviously flawed product or brand.
All of the above is but a preamble to a consideration of the current Government’s woes with respect to communications. When a long-time critic of the previous regime who was also an ardent supporter of the CFA urges this Government to ‘talk to the people’, just 15 months after MR was defeated, one can safely conclude that things are bad in the communications department. Paikiasothy Saravanamutu discerns ‘a lack of focus’ the symptoms of which he lists in an article titled ‘Let’s talk in the new Year; the Government to the People’ thus: ‘a
President more concerned about the leadership of his party, a prime minister who seems to be fire-fighting on a number of fronts with ministers in between of varying degrees of competence and a loquacity approaching the biblical Tower of Babel’.
Saravanamuttu wants the Government to dialogue with the people on two broad areas: the ills of the previous regime and the rationale for change and reform. He correctly points out that ranting and raving about the past without a single major conviction only feeds cynicism. He has not said a word about this Government being comfortable with nepotism, being OK with partying with by and large the unsavoury folk who benefited from their friendships with the Rajapaksas and nothing about the financial scandals and shady practices of this Government (Central Bank Bond Issue Scandal and the self-serving acts of the SLT Chairman). Nothing about the 180 degree turn on the Port City Project. That is another aspect of the communication problem. These things are too large to hide and this Government has not (perhaps for lack of time and for inheriting ills, to be generous) been able to create a blanket such as ‘victory over terrorism’ that the previous regime used to great effect.
With respect to ‘change and reform’, Saravanamuttu focuses on his bread and butter issues: constitutional reform, transitional justice ad reconciliation. He does not flesh these out and he need not, for he has expended enough energy already.
In this regard he is only advocating the repetition of a failed methodology of imposing upon the majority the will of a bunch of federalists who cannot get over the fact that separatism and its strongest advocate, the LTTE, lost out. He wants the report of the Public Representations Commission on Constitutional Reform’ to be the basis for ‘change’. If the LLRC was flawed due to its composition, this body is worse. If the Government wants to market such a report, it will be as difficult or worse than marketing the CFA. It’s about flawed producers and flawed products. They rarely if at all secure loyalty among consumers.
These are not the only communication problems that the Government has. The major issue is coherence or rather a massive coherence deficit. The Prime Minister and the President have on occasion made contradicting statements. Rajapaksa vilification has supplanted policy statement as the thrust of the Government’s communications strategy. More than all things it seems that this government is hell bent on mimicking the previous regime in all the wrongs it was guilty of. We are not seeing nepotism and cronyism declining. We are seeing these openly affirmed. Politicians and their near and dear are making bucks and ironically some of the buck-makers used to be quite cosy with the previous regime as well!
There are and always have been multiple tools and media to communicate, Saravanamuttu is correct. The problem is, you cannot communicate if you don’t know what to communicate. To put it bluntly, you can’t communicate ‘Yahapalanaya’ if there’s very little that is ‘yaha’ (good) in your ‘paalanaya’ (governance). You can’t sell rhetoric when you are in Government, you are required to market delivery. The Government can talk, as Saravanamuttu urges it to do, until the cows come home, but if you lack coherence, you are not going to be doing much by way of communication.
The bottom line, which by the way Saravanamuttu’s alarming ‘call for communication’ is but a symptom, is that the Government has rendered itself speechless on a number of counts and this just 15 months after MR was defeated. The loquacity that he speaks of, ironically, is an indication of this condition. That is the communications problem in a nutshell.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer whose work can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: malindasene