The manifesto was launched at a ceremony at Vihara Maha Devi Park on December 19th. That was my grandmother’s birthday, and I thought, when I went to the cemetery afterwards, that she would have been pleased that I was working together with Ranil. At the same time, though I realized that was essential, and UNP support was of the essence if Maithripala Sirisena were to win, it was also clear that the UNP itself was in shambles, and had little capacity for effective coordination.
I had sensed this in the decline of Mangala Samaraweera, whom I had thought of as one of the more sophisticated members of the UNP. He had been instrumental in getting Vasantha Senanayake to be the first member of the government to announce publicly that he would not support Mahinda Rajapaksa, though sadly for Vasantha he ignored the request that the Press Conference be held at an independent venue. Mangala instead dragooned Vasanth into making his announcement at Siri Kotha, which led to him being identified with the UNP, which had never been Vasantha’s intention. That was taken ruthless advantage of later to cut him down, tragically for both President Sirisena and also for the UPFA, which he could have contributed to immeasurably.
Twice after the common candidature was announced, Vasantha took me to see Mangala. But instead of the bright strategist I had assumed I would find, I had to deal with an amiable drunk, who wanted nothing better than to gossip over a drink, and then another. After the second such evening, in his delightful house in Ratmalana, I realized that this was yet another broken reed, his period out of power having deprived him of the capacity to focus which he had displayed earlier as a Minister.
The generality was worse. What were supposed to be coordination meetings at the office in Green Path of the Leader of the Opposition were chaotic, with no proper agenda, and no system for follow up. This became painfully clear a couple of days later when, the day before postal voting was to take place, it appeared that no arrangements had been made to monitor the process in Jaffna. This was upsetting, since it had been decided a couple of weeks back that dropping in on postal voting stations where military personnel were to cast their votes was essential.
When it was clear that there was no alternative, I volunteered to go up myself, and persuaded Vasantha Senanayake also to join me. The UNP promised to send some youngsters for support, and to arrange transport, but this turned up late and the youngsters had no idea about anything. We finally got to Vavuniya after midnight. Vasantha had made his own arrangements and turned up there before dawn, so we set off to Jaffna where the TNA had arranged for some of its lawyers to come, so they could assist us too.
But they were clueless about where the polling stations were, and in the end we had to rely on the assistance of the officials of the Election Commissioner’s Department, who were both professional and helpful. Also, given my regular visits to the peninsula on Reconciliation work over the last couple of years, I knew where many of the camps were, given that the military had been immensely cooperative with regard to my meetings and questions that arose.
Vasantha and I divided up the area between us, and I got to over a dozen polling stations that day, in army and navy camps and also at the Transport Board and the Education Department. There seemed to be no irregularities at all, and indeed I was heartened by the favour with which we were met at some stations, one naval rating who had to open a gate for us grinning from ear to ear when he heard we were there on behalf of Maithripala Sirisena. And I was also delighted to see some of my students in charge of polling. I had fond memories of the intakes I had taught at Diyatalawa, and was pleased to see those raw recruits now clearly seasoned and respected officers.
We had lunch at the restaurant attached to the Fort Hammenheil hotel, where I had spent a very pleasant night a couple of years previously. After our work with the polling stations, I went to the Jaffna Public Library, to which we had agreed to donate books from my father’s library. We had written to several institutions, including libraries at schools he had attended and universities, but it was the Jaffna Library that was most professional in its approach, telling us which books they wanted. I realized then that, while some libraries simply stockpiled books without thinking, it made sense, given that the reading habit was dying, for librarians to be selective about what should appear on their shelves.
I met up with Vasantha that evening at the Green Grass Hotel, and found that he was as heartened as I was at the enthusiasm that even the military, the navy it should be noted more than the army, evinced for the common opposition candidate. The next day I visited almost as many centres as on the previous day, working my way down through Kilinochchi, ending at the Iranamadu Camp where too I had stayed overnight during my Reconciliation work.
I also found time to drop in at the Vocational Training Centre I had set up in Dharmapuram through my decentralized budget, the last of the five centres I had established, prompting one District Secretary to tell me that I had spent more in the deprived Divisions of the North than any of the TNA Members of Parliament. The reason of course was that I was probably the only MP spending development funds for development, the others using them to win electoral favour. So even the more principled among them thought not of sustainable development, but of fatuous handouts, to funeral societies to buy chairs, to schools to buy musical instruments.
We got back to Colombo that night, Christmas Eve, and the next day we had the usual Christmas lunch at home, with Ranil more ebullient than for many years. He drank a great deal of the milk wine he loved, but avoided ham since he said he had pledged as part of the election campaign to abstain from pork. He left early, claiming that he had to go to see Rauff Hakeem, who wanted money to cross over to support Sirisena. My sister was horrified by this but Ranil said this was normal. Indeed, many years ago, at Christmas, his father had told us about the sums given to members of the SLFP to get them to cross over, so that Mrs Bandaranaike’s government was defeated in 1964 on the vote on the Throne Speech. That was what stopped Lake house being nationalized then, since an election was precipitated which led to a UNP dominated coalition government in 1965.
Within a week I had to go back to Jaffna, via Mannar where President Sirisena was meant to meet the Bishop. I was rather fond of the old man even though he had been vociferous in his criticism of the government and the forces. This was because, when we first met, he had also been bitterly critical of the LTTE, but as I was leaving he told me to keep quiet about that. It seemed clear that, though he was genuinely concerned about what he saw as ill treatment of Tamils, he had no love for the LTTE but only spoke on their behalf because of fear of what they might do, as much as because he felt no one else was so effective in pushing the cause of the Tamil people.
He greeted me like a long lost friend, and I had a good hour with his priests, many of whom I knew from my Reconciliation work. He told me that he had stipulated that Rishard Bathiudeen should not be brought to see him, but the man turned up, and was greeted politely. Needless to say, everyone was running late so, after Maithripala Sirisena finally arrived, some of us left immediately to address the meetings that had been arranged in Mannar and Vavuniya. In the absence of sufficient speakers, I was forced to speak, but though I was not happy, the enthusiasm of the crowds was certainly encouraging. The climax came in Jaffna, to which lots of speakers came, including Chandrika Kumaratunga.
I stayed over to meet some of my former Sabaragamuwa students next morning, and also university personnel including the idealistic Rajan Hoole, who had over the years published, as the leading light of the Jaffna University Teachers for Human Rights, evenhanded analyses of both military and LTTE excesses. After that I went to Chavakachcheri to have lunch with Mrs Navaratnam, widow of the former MP for the area who had been a great friend of my father. Recently I had been able to help her to get her house back, and the family was enormously grateful, though I should note that this happened also because of the efficiency of the Chavakachcheri Divisional Secretary, who deduced that the man occupying the place and claiming to run an orphanage was a fraud.
This was December 31st, and I spent the evening with my aunt Ena in Aluwihare, as I had spent so many New Year’s Eves in the past. I had no idea this would be the last such occasion, though there may have been a premonition in that she told me that she was now ready to go. My response was that she was only 92, and could not possibly die since our family had a tradition – I was referring to both my grandmother, her mother’s cousin, and my father – of living until 93.
‘So I have to go on for another year, do I?’ she said.
She died 10 months later, a week after her 93rd birthday, bringing to an end the longest friendship in my life if one considers the amount of time we spent together. We had many larger gatherings together, at Aluwihare and in the wilds and on other group excursions, including to China for a marvelous Christmas in 2007. But even more memorable were the many journeys round the country that she and I undertook together, with Kithsiri to drive us. We had Christmas in Mannar in 2003, just the three of us, and a couple of years later, when she was running a workshop in Ujjain, she and I went off together to Mandu for a magical visit.
Ceylon Today 3 Jan 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20161101CT20161231.php?id=12319