Why does Sajith Premadasa have that uncanny feeling this Sunday morning of finding butterflies fluttering in his abdomen? Or feel his ire rising to find fish shakin’ a fin to the baila beat of his agitated heart? Why does he fear the shadow that falls before him making him constantly look over his shoulder to assure himself that it is truly his?
Like the Muslims await Friday to say their jumma prayers at the mosque and the Christians rush to get to the church on time on Sundays to hear the morning mass, for the last eleven weeks since the loss of the Presidential election, the UNP citadel of Sirikotha has been the temple of call every Thursday evening for the distraught, for the downtrodden and the dejected to pray for succour in hope of receiving answer.
But answer never came and the distraught, the downtrodden and the dejected trudged slowly home week after week without succour hoping as faith commanded them that the presiding deities who had in their hands the power to exile them East of Eden, would nevertheless see the light of reality and accept as inevitable the younger rising and the older gracefully stepping down.
It has taken the UNP 77 vital days to come up grudgingly with a compromise solution to the leadership crisis which has embroiled the UNP in a self-consuming internecine war for too long; and which now threatens to split the party in the middle. It has been 77 vital days lost with party members fritting away this valuable period wrangling, bickering, squabbling, quarrelling and backbiting over the party leadership, each faction holding steadfast to their intransigent position and refusing to budge from it when they should be spending this invaluable time unitedly gearing to meet the awesome challenge of the forthcoming general election, just two or three months away.
The UNP is Lanka’s major opposition party. Except for a brief spell in power between 2000 and 2003 as well as 2015 and 2019 as the government of the day, it has stayed rooted to the opposition benches under the lacklustre 25-year leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Not to forget, of course, that during this period no UNP candidate ever won a presidential election but had to play second fiddle as an also ran to the winner.
So the question is this: What does this major political party of Lanka consider to be its reason of existence? Is it to complacently continue to sit on the opposition benches and, in that comfort zone to which perhaps they have grown accustomed, find satiation being a mere pressure group, a loud but ineffective alternate voice full of hot air, to be nothing more than a wannabe JVP?
Or is its aim, its grand aspiration, its undiluted determination and sworn resolve to break free from the trappings of the insignificant past, to turn the ebb tide of defeat to one unstoppable tidal wave of triumph with only one burning desire in mind: Victory, victory at all cost, victory to gain political power and rule the land, for to be in power, and in perpetuity if possible, is the only honourable reason of existence for any major party of note. For without victory, there is nought. Or did the UNP’s forefathers found the party for its members to remain seated idly by, impotent to dawn a better tomorrow for the nation?
Today the UNP is in a crisis because of two men: Septuagenarian Ranil, keeper of the Castle keys, and middle aged Turk Sajith, the challenger to the UNP throne.
If you think that raison d’être of the UNP should be victory at all costs, consider who the better man for the job will be.
Sajith Premadasa is a man in a hurry. Furthermore, he’s a hungry man and with every morsel thrown to him from the UNP high table by Ranil to sate his appetite for power, so has his hunger grown to topple Ranil from his pedestal and instal himself thereon.
With his popularity in the rank and file of the party growing, his incessant knocking on the Sirikotha door has grown louder. To ensure a UNP victory and give effect to his vision, he firmly believes he must be the leader of the party or else, he claims, he will be done for by the old guard of the party if they remain ensconced in their present positions of power.His suspicions, he says, were confirmed when shortly after the Presidential election Ranil Wickremesinghe was quoted as saying, ‘I always knew that Sajith was going to lose.’
Spurned at every turn in what seemed to be his elusive quest to win the Party leadership, Sajith threatened to breakaway and go it alone. Ranil dangled the carrot of Leader of the Opposition before Sajith to contain his all or nothing ambitions. It didn’t work. For Sajith may not only bite the bate but also still demand the top most job.
But Ranil Wickremesinghe’s grip on the party leadership has been tenacious. Being the UNP leader is his raison d’être.
He had been the leader of his party for 25 years. And captain of the ship. And he has done a tremendous job. He has sailed the UNP ship safely through many a turbulent storm, steered clear of many a hidden rock whose victims lie as shivering wrecks on the ocean floor, kept the crew fed and safe and when the winds sometimes took the ship off course he brought it faithfully back to the old shipping route but if he had one drawback as skipper it was that he could never bring his ship to port of victory and drop anchor there at.
Stayer, he is. Never a winner. And it appears that he is determined to stay that way, reminiscing and retelling his Lichchavi political philosophy to anyone willing to give ear.
A frustrated Sajith launched his own comeback fight. Last month he successfully garnered the support of the UNF alliance members who pledged their support to him. An unofficial vote taken showed that 52 out of 65 members of the UNP Parliamentary Group present on that occasion voted for him.
Last Saturday, Premadasa speaking at a meeting consisting of parliamentarians, local council members, provincial council members and supporters, at the Lanka Exhibition and Convention Centre, Colombo, promised a party where everybody would have a say and its leader could be expelled if he or she was at fault.
There would be no instructions from Sirikotha to raise hands or to hoot according to the whims and fancies of someone to humiliate him, Premadasa said, adding that he had personally experienced such situations. “We won’t have deals with the government and there will be room for professionals, the youth, women who account for 52 percent of the population and those at the grassroots level.”
Presented with the threat of Sajith daring to go it alone, also taking away a sliceable chunk of UNF MPs plus commanding the support of the alliance members of the UNF, Ranil Wickremesinghe may have sensed a certain isolation creeping on his own party. It was time to make Sajith an offer he couldn’t refuse.
The answer the old guard came up with was to offer Sajith Premadasa the leadership of the UNF which is the UNP-led grouping that will contest the forthcoming general election. They also offered to name Sajith as the UNP’s prime ministerial candidate.
As part of this offer, it was also to be agreed that Ranil Wickremesinghe will remain as the UNP leader. Sajith Premadasa was given a week to consider the offer. On the face of it, though it falls far short of Sajith’s expectations to be the UNP leader, it looks a fair compromise solution. But given the prevailing situation in the political electorate, isn’t the dice loaded in Ranil’s favour?
Consider this. True that Sajith Premadasa has been named as the leader of the United National Front, a political party brought out from the closet for a specific and temporary purpose. It is the party under which the UNP members and the members of allied parties will contest elections. If by chance against all odds, should the UNF win a majority of the seats in parliament it will form the next government with Sajith Premadasa as its Prime Minister. In this case, it is likely that Sajith will push his demand to be the leader of the UNP to its natural conclusion. The die will then be cast for Ranil and Sajith as the winner will take all.
But will the UNF win 113 seats to get an outright majority in parliament and thus be able to call the shots?
The Pohottuwa momentum generated by SLPP candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s massive presidential win still exists, and can be depended upon to return a victory for the party at the general elections. In fact the Pohottuwa has already taken a simple majority win for granted and is now busy seeking a two-thirds majority to gain absolute power.
Thus in the likely event of the UNF failing to gain a majority, where would its leader Sajith Premadasa go thereafter? Firstly, he would not be Prime Minister. Secondly, leadership of a failed UNF would mean nothing and Sajith Premadasa would find, having failed in his mission to bring home the golden fleece, he is branded a twice loser. And as far as his demand for UNP leadership is concerned, if he can summon the courage to make it without blushing crimson, it will be construed as the utterings of a tortured mind.
And out of the expected UNP defeat at the polls, Ranil Wickremesinghe will be celebrating at his Fifth Lane residence, Colombo 3 his own personal victory: Another long undisputed lease of life as the unchallenged leader of the UNP. The game and set may go to Sajith but the match will certainly be his.
And as Sajith Premadasa considers the offer on the table this Sunday morn, no wonder he gets that uncanny feeling of a kaleidoscope of butterflies dancing in his stomach.