Ranil Wicremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa are poles apart. If Ranil is cheese, Sajith is chalk. If Ranil is morn, Sajith is night. It has been so from their respective births. Their one common heritage is the UNP and, though they are both fiercely loyal to it, there is, certainly, no love lost between them.
A chasm of complexes separates the two and, like ‘east is east and west is west,’ it is possible that never the twain will meet in unison unless, of course, mutual defeat may prove wrong and act as a magnetic draw or as Kipling wrote “there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!”
Perhaps the present combat of mutually assured destruction they are presently engaged in to be the party’s presidential candidate and, if continued for long, which is guaranteed to end in catastrophic defeat for the UNP may well rub some common sense into both of how vital a unified party is to triumph the common foe; but then it will be too late and both will have to retire to their individual holes to lick their wounds and escape the wrath of the parties’ supporters for pursuing their own selfish ambitious ends and leading the party to an ignominious defeat.
Ranil Wickremesinghe was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth – and even now he seems to be sometimes stuck with it even when meeting his closest people, preventing him from extending a smile or saying a simple hello. He was born to a rich and influential family with a reputation for philanthropy and resurrecting dilapidated Buddhist temples of worship. Soon after obtaining his degree from the Colombo University he passed out as an Attorney-at-Law.
But his future lay not in its practice in court but in making it in the legislative chamber; and he was soon corralled into the UNP by his Uncle Dickie, J. R. Jayewardene and kraaled with a herd of similar elephants. No doubt he got a head start in the UNP which was aptly named Uncle-Nephew Party when he was appointed first as the deputy foreign minister and soon made Minister of Youth Affairs, which made him the youngest cabinet minister in Sri Lanka ever. In 1994, he became the leader of the UNP and, though there have been many attempts to dislodge him from his pedestal, he remained immovable and withstood the winds of fury like the Rock of Gibraltar.
Alas Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa was not fortunate enough to come from such a privileged and wealthy background. He came from humbler stock. But such was the greatness of the man that even lacking the perquisites to achieve the highest position in the land lacking as he did breeding, class and caste, he managed with sheer will and determination to transcend the odds stacked against him to become the second executive president of Lanka on January 2, 1989. When JR’ UNP won the general elections with a record five sixth majority in 1977, it was the old faithful Premadasa he chose as his Prime Minister.
And though Premadasa often described his prime ministerial role as that of a lowly peon, there were many programmes the self-proclaimed peon introduced to benefit the downtrodden class of Lanka, mainly the Gam Udawa scheme that benefitted thousands, not to forget the Janasaviya, now named Samurdhi. After he became president, he ordered that the garment factories, instead of being solely based in Colombo and the suburbs, should be established in the villages, thus bringing employment to the rural door. Though much decried at the time by factory bosses. It is now hailed as one of the most visionary concepts ever devised.
But first a snapshot of how and why these two major political parties were founded.
When the United National Party was founded on September 6, 1946, it was with the specific goal of having a well structured and organised political party to take over the reins of the nation when independence fell on Ceylon’s lap as it did less than two years later.
In his inaugural speech, D.S. Senanayake declared: “We should understand that we are a Sri Lankan nation. Communal and Religious differences are completely ruled out. Irrespective of our being Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay or Burgher or even Eurasian, we ought to think this is our motherland. Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians need to bless this island of their birth.”
In 1951 tragedy struck when D.S. Senanayake died after falling from his horse, and his son Dudley was appointed as Prime Minister ignoring the claims of its senior member S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. He had already left the party in a huff and a puff when it became clear to him that D.S. was grooming son Dudley as his successor, to form his own party the Sri Lanka Freedom Party not only to avenge the snub he had received from the D.S. faction but also to create a second force that would meet the aspirations of Sinhala nationalists whose frustrations had been brought to the boil. The party was also formed with the intention of being moderate balance between the right wing capitalists and the left wing Marxists who dreamed of setting up a communist state in Ceylon and make Colombo its Kremlin.
In his in inaugural speech at the forming of the SLFP on September 2, 1951 he stated: “I venture to think that this is an occasion of some importance in the political history of our country. It not only marks the birth of a new political party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, but it also ushers in, in many ways, a new political era. I am certain that it is consciousness of this fact that has drawn to this meeting such large numbers of citizens of all races, religions, and classes from all parts of the country.”
Thus was the vision of the founders of these two major political parties that have come to dominate Sri Lanka’s politics and lay their indelible footprints on the political landscape. Since then both have played politics like a game of cricket, the innings alternating between the two sides.
As the years rolled by, both these two major parties further strengthened their internal structures and devised a system of electing their party leader and their party’s presidential candidate. In the case of the UNP, it was the Working Committee which would decide by a majority who will occupy those positions while the SLFP, following suit, appointed a Central Committee to appoint its.
But the same cannot be said of the latest political party to come out of the burning cauldron of a nation’s troubles.
No such mechanism exists in the splinter group the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) better known as Pohottuwa. To a certain extent, it is understandable. It’s still hardly out of its bassinet though it’s undoubtedly precocious in its infancy. Its purpose is not anything so fanciful or of any noble note as the founders of the UNP and the SLFP 73 years and 69 years ago respectively adorned the birth of their parties with an ideology that reflected public aspirations.
Not to put too finer point on it, the Pohottuwa Party was created to be nothing more than a one-owner vehicle where its raison d’être is to transport the Rajapaksas back to the Camelot they were forced to leave in a rush after their shock defeat in January2015. It has been tried and tested and found to be roadworthy — though it sometimes emits black smoke from its exhaust pipes when driven by inexperienced hands — and in the regional races held last year managed to perform extensively well.
Now it’s well tuned and serviced and turbo charged and with a new able driver at the in the seat — though there still lurks a shadow of doubt over the validity of his licence to drive on Lankan roads — is considered as a serious challenger at the forthcoming Grand Prix scheduled to be held in December.
This December’s presidential election will be the most important one since the presidential system of government was first started. Up to now, apart from a few differences in economic and foreign policy, the main difference between the two opposing contenders, has been the candidate’s colour and, in one instance, the candidate’s gender.
But this time it’s not that simple. The nation is at its most decisive crossroad, a crossroad it has never stood at before. And the decision it will take which road to embark upon will be the most crucial decision it has ever faced. Upon the people’s decision whether to walk the route India, the only country in this region, apart from Sri Lanka, has taken; or whether to march on the road Cambodia and Myanmar had been forced to take, will hinge the nation’s future fate. It will be the nation’s turning point, with no going back.
The Indian route will assure us the carefree civilian life with guaranteed civil liberties that we have known for the last hundred years. The Cambodian route will take us to an unknown destination, from whose undiscovered, unexplored bourn no nation has ever returned to tell the tale of the horrors encountered there or of the nightmares its people endure endless.
This time the stark choice staring in the nation’s face is between democracy with all its warts and totalitarianism with the polished boot, buckle and medal.
Thus it is why that at this deciding junction, at this darkest hour, at this crucial moment, it is almost impossible to fathom, why the United National Party, instead of pulling out all the stops at its command to go for gold is needlessly dissipating its combined energies, squandering it instead in staging a duel to the death between its leader Ranil and its deputy Sajith simultaneously ensuring that the party is splintered into factions and its organisational structures turned eunuchs overnight when what is required above all else is to “bring into play every rank of pipes,” to trumpet from every turret the UNP’s expected resounding triumph.
But, instead of that and other morale boosters to whip up the rank and file spirit, what does the UNP supporter and the floating voter see and hear? The two leaders duelling to decide who the better one is to contest. And what does the UNP supporter hear? Not the moving music that wake men to action but the cacophonous din of UNP MPs, some praising Ranil and damning Sajith and vice versa.
Whilst the SLPP anointed its candidate three weeks ago in a no-expense-spared extravaganza, whilst the JVP named Anura Kumara Dissanayake as its presidential candidate at a mammoth meeting at the Galle Face Green the following week, the UNP is still unable to present its own. Whilst the other two parties have, rightly or wrongly, shown they have the courage to take a decision and stand by it, the UNP leadership has shown its vacillating nature. Unable to make up its mind, unable to resolve its internal conflicts whilst promising to the people it can solve the nation’s problems.
When a reporter asked Mahinda Rajapaksa this week what he thought of Ranil’s plea to the nation to grant him a further five years to solve Lanka’s many problems, Rajapaksa’s witty reply was, : “Well, he will, won’t he, since he did nothing these last four years?”
For the last 24 years, Ranil has played the mahout to the UNP elephant. And though he had taken it on many a parade, he had never brought it back with the supreme casket containing the presidency borne upon its back. The howdah had returned empty. With nothing to show but a second hand fiddle as a consolation prize. Twice he himself had contested and twice he had lost. Twice two common candidates had been put forward. The war hero had lost. Only the man from Polonnaruwa had won.
Two three years ago the speculation had been with Sirisena coming in from the SLFP cold and the Rajapaksas having no party to call home, the SLFP will split and Ranil’s divide and rule policy will ensure that for the ‘united’ United National Party, it will be a cake walk to the presidency come December 2019. Ironical, isn’t that whilst moves are being made for the SLFP and the SLPP to unite as one and talks are taking place at the highest level between Mahinda and Maithri, it is the ruling party, the UNP that finds itself in tatters, torn apart due to the internecine war between its leader and deputy both impervious as to the damage that is being caused to the party that now deserve the epithet the Disunited National Party (DUNP).
As the SUNDAY PUNCH commented on January 6 this year, ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe faces the ultimate challenge to his leadership. It comes from one who has already been anointed as the heir apparent to the Sirikotha throne. Former President’s son Sajith Premadasa. Though he stood by Ranil and spurned the presidential offer to be appointed in December as the prime minister, it is hard to see him not making his move this election year for his place in UNP history. As the maxim holds true for both nature and politics: The younger rises and the old must fall.’
On August 22, Sajith broke with party ranks for the second time when he held his second rally in Matara and declared that should the UNP Working Committee deny him his claim to be the party’s candidate he would usurp it with the help of the masses, saying ‘Do not have doubts about my candidacy as I will definitely contest the presidential elections in December this year, his motto seeming to be ‘power is something that is not given to you, real power is something you take.’
At the Jayasuriya grounds, addressing in melodramatic terms a crowd of over 5000 people who braved the inclement weather to hear him speak, he said: “the future of the nation would be decided within the next few months. I will be contesting the forthcoming presidential election. Do not have doubts about my candidacy as I will definitely contest the presidential elections in December this year. National security, a sound economy, unity, prosperity and a unified nation would be ensured”. And he pledged that each and every citizen would have a house to live in. Human Rights, Social Rights and Cultural Rights of the people would be safeguarded at all times.
And then he went on to say, ‘There is no point in boasting about achieving economic growth if the Appuhamys and Bandaramenikes cannot reap the benefits of such a growth,” Mr. Premadasa said. I am ready to break rest and starve on behalf of the people in this country. I will not be a leader who will occupy mansions but that he intended to dedicate my whole life for the people. I will spend my time in villages and grama sevaka divisions resolving people’s problems. The pharmacy in the rural areas and schools in villages will be more valuable for me than a bulletproof vehicle.
“I will walk among the people like my father as a person born among ordinary citizens of this country. If I have to die I will die on the roadside with the people the same way my father died,” he finally said.
It’s to Sajith’s credit that he did not make his father’s Colombo Central stronghold his political base but sought instead to build his political career in the Rajapaksa stronghold of Hambantota. During these past four years, as Housing and Construction Minister, he followed in his father’s footsteps and dedicated his political life to building houses for the people. At that time he thanked the Prime Minister for giving him that post.
The main drawback Ranil Wickremesinghe faces is his glaring lack of affinity with the grassroots. He has the air of aloofness which acts as a natural barrier in reaching for the common heart, having the common touch. And whenever he steps from cloud nine to open a village school or something or the other, he has that condescending manner about him when he tramples the native soil which Sajith, most probably, eats for breakfast.
No doubt Ranil is the most erudite politician, a walking encyclopedia with a wide range of knowledge and experience. But somehow the fate seems to have been unkind to him even as heaven’s malice may grant Sajith’s ambitious prayers.
But the question that faces the UNP is not to dilly dally any longer in its quest to finding the winnable candidate. That is for the people to decide. The UNP’s duty is to present one. If either party cannot come to an agreement, cannot come to a compromise for the sake of the party, but if they remain intransigent, then the party may be forced to decide the candidate on the toss of a coin with the adroit Ranil flipping one in the air, saying ‘heads I win, tails you lose.’
PS: The good news is that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had pledged to resolve the issues about the proposed National Democratic Front (NDF) and party’s candidature in a few days, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said on Wednesday. “We will support any candidate who is popular and is accepted by the people,” he said.
The bad news for Sajith is that he is supposed to have said that if he becomes the President he will not eat at the proper time, he will not drink water at the proper time or sleep at the proper time but will work for the people’s welfare 24/7. If he had indeed said it, a word of warning. As any doctor will tell you, not eating at the proper time may cause gastritis, not drinking water at the proper time may lead to dehydration and not sleeping at the proper time may confuse the brain and prevent him from taking correct decisions. The people will be better served if one follows the principle, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’: a healthy mind in a healthy body.