TamilWeek, Nov 6 - 12, 2005
Presidency 2005 and the healing touch of Victor Hettigoda

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Each  Presidential election in Sri Lanka has produced "also ran"  candidates in
addition to the two  frontrunners. While the media spotlight is almost always on the two
chief contenders at least a few  of the others also attract  some attention. These
candidates fighting a lost battle provide spice, , sizzle, sparkle  and colour to the
campaign. They prevent monotony and add variety to what  may have been drearily
dull otherwise.

In 1982 we had "rathu sahodaraya" Wijeweera of the JVP along with   "Northern colt"  
Kumar Ponnambalam of the Tamil Congress running the race with " Roman" Junius
and "Trojan"  Hector. There was also the Trotskyite  sideshow   between  "old" left  
warhorse Colvin and the "New" left mustang Vasudeva.

The 1988 elections had the irrepressible Ossie Abeygoonesekera challenging
Ranasinghe Premadasa and Sirima Bandaranaike as the third alternative. In 1994  the
Presidential stakes was reduced to a virtual one horse race after Gamini Dissanayake
was assassinated . Luckily we had the buffoonery of  "Serappu Soup" AJ Ranasinghe
to  provide comic relief .

The 1999 elections had the "too serious" Comrade Nandana Gunatilleke tilting
quixotically at the Kumaratunga and Wickremasinghe windmills. With the LTTE attempt
on Chandrikas life the campaign took a very nasty  turn. Ultimately Kumaratunga lost
an eye but won the election.

This election was to have had fourteen but ended up with thirteen candidates. As is
typical of the fourth estate  it has already decided that the winner is going to be either
tweedledum Rajapakse or tweedledee Wickremasinghe. All others are by the wayside.
That is all except one. Victor Hettigoda of Siddhalepa fame is  universal choice of the
media as "primus inter pares" of the eleven "also ran" s. The self- made business
tycoon is tipped widely to be third in the race. The suspense is only about his vote
quantum.

The personality ,  philosophy  and political pronouncements of 68 year old Victor
Hettigoda  makes him an ideal dream come true for a media starved of light , colourful
copy regarding  the presidential hustings. Here is a man with an Ayurvedic physician
background who produced an authentic, indigenous balm and marketed it successfully
to build a business empire. Victor Hettigoda is  identified with his "siddhalepa" balm
bringing healthy relief to innumerable users.

Having helped reduce the  ill - health  suffered by the people of this Country to some
extent the man is now turning to the  political ill - health of the nation. Hettigoda
aspires to the Presidency with a broad political vision of unity, harmony, peace and
prosperity. He claims to have a remedy for the  malady. Just as his balm cured aches
and headaches on a personal level his political prescription will cure heartaches at the
national level.

Projecting such an image attracts the media like thirsty animals to a waterhole. The
fact that a native physician cum entrepreneur is contesting for President is good copy
indeed. Referring  to "Siddhalepa" and "Vedamahathaya" becomes inevitable and
irresistible.Moreover the political prescriptions articulated by Hettigoda add further
controversy. Mahinda's "chinthana" or Ranil's manifesto seem insipid compared to
Vedamahathaya Victor's "thailaya".

Besides Hettigoda is the only contender in this race who has engaged in some out of
the box thinking rather than plodding along beaten tracks. Instead of re- cycling  old
arrack in new bottles like most of the other candidates , Hettigoda has indulged in
constructive, original thought about  resolving the national question.Unlike Rajapakse
or Wickremasinghe the man has been bold enought to state those  views clearly.

This typical "Dakunu Palatha" frankness has upset conventions and conventional
thinkers. Essentially Utopian , Hettigodas comments and proposals ,  prove
unacceptable and indigestible to many. They  seem  whimsical and fanciful. To many
they appear to be  totally impractical and devoid of reality. But then, there is a problem
in such  perception too.

If it had been some ivory - tower academic or bleeding heart liberal who came up with
Hettigoda's vision and proposals such a person would have been dismissed easily as
a denizen of cuckooland. A cabinet of thirty with representatives of all parties including
Pirapa and Karunas nominees? pissu! Meeting the tigers directly without any foreign
third parties? paithiyam! Hettigoda would be pilloried as a living example of idealism
gone awry.

Hettigoda however defies such  a description. The "ruhunuputhra" born in Kanake,
Matara is a Sinhala / Sri Lankan success story in the hard world of commercial
realism. The man worked hard travelling  - very often on foot- across the length and
breadth of the Country selling his balm, soap and mosquito coils. Today it is a
flourishing multi - crore enterprise exporting to 19 countries.

Besides the Ayurvedic products he has also established ayurvedic hospitals cum  
health resort - hotels. There is the modern hospital in Anuradhapura and compost
factory collecting elephant dung in Talawa.  This is no  failed dreamer with head in the
clouds. This is a practical man who succeeded in the business world through his hard
- headed acumen and ability. Look at his campaign! No money guzzling mass meeting
thamashas. It is  economically  conducted on a spartan budget.

If Hettigoda is a realist with feet firmly implanted on ground then why on earth is he
contesting  an election he  definitely will not win ? Enter the art of cynical appraisal!  
Our society in the words of Oscar Wilde knows " the price of everything and the value
of nothing". So people  measure Hettigoda against this yardstick. Being a shrewd
businessman he must be having an ulterior profit - oriented motive is the  suspicion.

The election campaign has given Hettigoda a lot of worldwide publicity. This publicity is
worth much more than the money he is likely to spend on the campaign. This then is
the  motive says one school of thought. Another school of thought feels that he is
propped up to eat into the votes of Rajapakse. Victor like Mahinda is from the South.
He is a  living embodiment of the values upheld by the JVP and JHU. Hettigoda is  a
successful symbol of  a  Sinhala local making it big through hard work. Also he is a
deeply religious Buddhist with a knowledge of the true tenets of his religion unlike
many of the politicised saffron brigade.

Such a man then is likely to wean away Sinhala - Buddhist and Southern votes from
Rajapakse. This helps Wickremasinghe. Also Hettigoda's tolerant and inclusive
approach towards the LTTE helps to reduce the hawkishness of the JVP - JHU
combine. It is easy to undermine Wickremasinghe as an agent of Western imperialism
and instrument of tiger designs. But  it is  not so easy to tarnish Hettigoda with the
same brush as his Sinhala - Buddhist credentials are better than most crimson
comrades or saffron clad politicos.

In such a situation Hettigoda is seen as helping Wickremasinghe. It is made out that  
some family members wishing to curry favour with Wickremasinghe in the future have
put him up to this. Then there is a third viewpoint that Hettigoda is being idiosyncratic.
Senility is creeping in. The family is turning a blind eye to the whole escapade as a
harmless pastime of a man who proved his worth as a self - made success.

Few would accept the  man's own claim that he is contesting to help the country
recover from its economic decline and ethnic crisis. He would retire after a specific
period during which the Country would recover. Of course the claim is illustrative of
the man's vanity. Yet it is based on an underlying spirit of idealistic zeal. That however
is not accepted by society at large. This is the age of cynicism.

Whatever the reason for Hettigoda's foray into electoral politics the Vedamahathaya
and his Eksath Lanka Podujana party have certainly made a big splash. Sadly there is
a tendency particularly on the part of the English media to focus on his extra- ordinary
attributes and unusual announcements . Shadow is substituted for substance.There is
a subtle and then again a not so subtle attempt to depict the man as a joker and make
a laughing stock out of him.

His out of the box ideas of resolving the ethnic problem , eliminating party politics and
establishing good governance etc add grist to this  belittling mill. Then there are other
acts like providing journalists attending his press conference with foil wrapped roast
chicken instead of the usual stuff. There is also his pledge about providing a cow to
each household. If Ranil promises milk and Mahinda money to buy milk Victor now
promises a cow to be milked at home.

Tempting as it is to treat this  man promising a cow as a "madcow"   let us note that
Hettigoda is saying what economic experts have been saying all along. Be producers
instead of being consumers only for that is the key to economic emancipation. If you
provide fish to a hungry man you satisfy his immediate need. But if you teach him how
to fish and provide a net or rod you have set him up for life. Likewise Hettigoda wants
households to have fresh milk daily instead of buying bottled or packeted milk with
handouts to purchase them.

The idea of a cow in each house is not impractical either if we remind ourselves of
what another practical go - getter achieved in the plantations some years ago. When
Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman became Rural Industrial Development minister under JR
Jayewardene in 1978 two of the departments under him were the National Milk Board
and National Livestock  Development Board. Using these  boards and the conducive
plantation environment to his advantage  Thondaman set about providing households
with a cow each. He was ridiculed by the upper classes and his opponents as "Maattu
Manthiri" (Bovine Minister). Yet he improved the household economy of plantation
workers immensely through that measure.

In the case of Hettigoda it would be myopic to decry his cow proposal as a " cow
jumping over the moon "idea. It is not as if the "Kurunduwatte/ Karuvakkaadu  "  
mansions  or "Hettiawatte/ chettithottam "  tenement garden dwellings are going to get
cows. But it is certainly feasible in the rural and plantation areas. It is nothing but
natural for a self - made man like Hettigoda to advocate milk production on a cottage
scale instead of letting people  line  up as consumers for ones daily milk from Ranil on
a dole provided by Mahinda.

Victor Hettigoda is to some extent the Ross Perot of Sri Lanka. The  Texan billionaire
was the third candidate polling 19% and 8% in the US Presidential elections of 1992
and 1996. Hettigoda like Perot is a  self made success. He  would not  be getting the
percentage of votes obtained by Perot but like the American  Hettigoda too  brings  
methodology acquired in the sphere of commerce to the political sphere.

What  endears Victor Hettigoda  to this writer even more  than his homespun
economic wisdom is the  approach and attitude towards resolving the ethnic crisis and
achieving true national unity. Before referring  further to Hettigoda in glowing , positive
terms let me make it clear that I do not know the man personally. I have read and
heard about him but never met him in person.The only Hettigoda I know is Winnie
Hettigoda the artist who worked on "Divaiana" when I was on "The Island". Also I must
say that I have used "Siddhalepa" and preferred it to Vicks or tiger balm when I was
living in Sri Lanka.

My respect and regard for Hettigoda stems mainly due to the policies and proposals
envisaged by him to resolve the national question. It is his viewpoint articulated to the
media as part of the  on going Presidential election campaign that strikes a responsive
chord in me. These  are not gems of erudite and sophisticated knowledge  but
nuggets of solid  wisdom steeped in practical pragmatism. Compared to the "katey
pittu" or "vaayiley Puttu" wishy - washy standpoints of Mahinda and Ranil on the same
theme Victor' s position has more authenticity. His is a blend of " heart and head".
Above all is his mouth or tongue. His forthrightness in articulating his thoughts boldly
without hemming and hawing is admirable.

It is true that  Hettigoda  can speak out like this due to two reasons. One is  his past,  
unfettered of direct involvement in politics. So he does not have any baggage that
inhibits or circumscribes him. The other is his future. Bitter though it may be the truth
is that he is not going to win. It is doubtful whether he would even retain his deposit. It
would be a  miracle if he his vote tally reachers six figures. Knowing that responsibility
of office will not burden him Hettigoda is able to think freely and speak what he feels
and thinks .. Without any prospect of power or responsibility the present is all that he
has. So he   sings  freely like a "malkoha"  or "poonkuyil"..

Yet in this uninhibited , unfettered state of blessedness the man does not fire off
inanities but makes many points that would bring  a blush to the cheeks of majoritarian
moderates  and  a rush of blood to the hearts of extremists. If Sinhala politicians
masquerading as leaders and statespersons had thought and acted on these lines
decades ago much of the destruction and bloodshed that plagued this blessed Island
could have been averted. It is a sad case of the too little too late syndrome . What is
sad even now is that none of the main candidates speak like Hettigoda.

Though he has been giving interviews and holding press conferences the best
interview so far is what appeared in the "Asian Tribune" Website. The AT bureau chief
in Germany - Lalith Ganhewa - elicited a bonanza of  responsive insight  from
Hettigoda through his penetrative questions. The interview is long but what impressed
me most was the tolerant understanding and inclusive approach displayed by
Hettigoda towards the ethnic problem  in his replies. Instead of my selecting some
points I would like to reproduce the reaction of an expatriate Sinhala Gentleman
Shyamon Jayasinghe to the Hettigoda interview. The following are excerpts from what
Jayasinghe wrote in  the "Lankaweb" website.

“*The governments which came in to power until now, abandoned North and North-
East gradually and behaved as if these parts did not belong to Sri Lanka.

.*The basic roots of this war has been prejudice such as "Tamils are better", "Tamils
can learn better", "They have better jobs", we Singhalese don't have anything etc. So I
am telling this without fear. It is a known fact that such narrow opinions were planted in
the minds of the innocent people to gain political advantage

*If we stamp LTTE as terrorists, then I am asking how the JVP can join a government
to rule this country. Were they not a terrorist's organisation one time? They too killed
people and ordered to carry the corpses below the knee; they too shot fathers in front
of their children etc

*So if they were given a chance to join a democratic process, then why are we not
willing to do it with the LTTE? Why can't we treat these children with true dignity,
honestly and correctly and give them the trust to join the democratic path. If we do it,
they will abandon war and contribute their wisdom to re-build this country.

*Political leaders in the past have tried to fool them for their own advantages and
destroyed trust between these two communities to the utmost.

*I request the decision-makers of the international community to join me to bring these
children back to the right path. Not to support egoistic party politicians views and push
them to be terrorists further. Support me to take away the disappointment and unrest
of these children. Let's bring a new fresh vision for this whole issue.

*The leaders of this great nation (India) are minorities. The President is a Moslem; the
prime minister is a Sikh where the majority are Hindus. India has swept away hatred
among the ethnic groups. India has put a stop to jealousy and prejudice. India has
produced leaders with great wisdom and courage, setting examples to the whole world
how democracy can function.

*Its leader Prabhakaran has war knowledge of 20 years and a well disciplined brilliant
leader. Reality has proved this to the world.

*we have not given any place to Tamil language in our schools. We don't have Tamil
teachers. So how are we to do it?

*For the past 75 years the leaders of the two major parties were educated in English,
therefore they thought in English, spoke in English and tried to rule in English. That
was a major set back for a nation where only about 10% masters this English
language. That is where the crisis lies.Say clearly it is only a handful who speaks
English, rule this nation of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Moslems.

*Federalism is nothing new to us, we had federalism in this country, long before
western countries. They dont have to teach us but they can help us to modify it
according to our needs. But we decide

These are but a few selected quotes from Jayasinghes observations commending
Hettigoda.. The interview encapsuling the Vedamahathayas political wisdom is worth
reading. It is a moot point as to whether some of these are attainable or
implementable. This is not due to a deficiency in Hettigodas thinking but more
because of entrenched attitudes on either side of the ethnic divide. What is important
is however the healing touch extended by Hettigoda and the thought process behind
these proposals.

The admission that the Sinhala ruling class is primarily responsible for the current
mess and the imperative need for that class to make amends by reaching out to the
Tamil people in a spirit of inclusion and accommodation is the underlying thread  of
the interview. The continuous reference to the LTTE as Children (or lamai)  is
indicative of basic  compassion. It is understanding and compassion not antagonism
and confrontation that is needed today.

The only major Sinhala politician who has spoken out like this in recent times was
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. But then she unleashed a brutal war for
peace. Fortunately for Hettigoda he will not be placed in the unenviable position of
unleashing a war because he will not win the election. His signal contribution to this
campaign however is the  bold articulation of  self - evident home truths. Most people  
would not speak out. Hettigoda is like  the boy who shouted that the emperor had no
clothes.

Hettigoda' s views are not given much prominence in the English and Sinhala media.
He is portrayed as an eccentric idealist at best and a publicity seeking buffoon at
worst. The Tamil media publicises  the criticism of Sinhala politicians but do  not
encourage ethnic rapprochement. Meeting Pirapakaran is dismissed as out of the
question.  It is too late to think on the lines espoused by Hettigoda it is pointed out.

In this political environment the defeat of Hettigoda is a foregone conclusion. Apart
from personal considerations people disillusioned with the two main candidates may
vote for him. As for the minorities many may have voted for him in a different situation.
The present time where the fundamental rights of self - determination and homeland
are being challenged requires  all minorities to vote firmly and clearly. Every vote  
counts and none can be "wasted" on a non - winner.  Yet there may be some who do
not want to vote at all because of perceived futility in the entire exercise. Such people
could vote for the Vedamahathaya instead of keeping away from the polling booth.

Regardless of defeat or victory , Victor Hettigoda has succeeded in impacting on the
routine electoral discourse. What is important is for him to continue with his vision and
mission after the elections too. Instead of retiring from politics Hettigoda should keep
himself active pushing for greater inter - ethnic amity and dialogue. His  out of the box
ideas and unorthodox approach should permeate the body politic. Whether it is
Rajapakse or Wickremasinghe either one  could be influenced to some extent by
Hettigoda.

Let me conclude by saying to Victor Hettigoda - " Bohoma Isthuthi" and "Mikka Nandri"
for saying all that you are saying openly and fearlessly. You may not be the winner but
your viewpoint is not a lost cause.  Please keep on speaking out  even after the
election. If I had a vote in the Presidential election my vote it would  certainly have
been yours."
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