“The heights by great men reached and kept,
Were not obtained by sudden flight.
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
When one looks at the messy situation the United National Party (UNP) finds itself in today, some political pundits ponder as to whether there is a way out for the ‘official’ UNP and if so, what courses of action are available to it.
On the other hand, the dilemma in the case of the ‘reformists’ group is even more intriguing; if they are not willing to reach a compromise on the leadership issue; all avenues seem to be closed.
Not so. In the context of the current political quagmire that the UNP is embroiled in, most pundits contend that the ‘official’ machinery of the Party always holds the advantage and unfortunately for the ‘reformists,’ it is true.
There does not seem to be any way in which the current leader can be replaced. The Working Committee that has all the powers is saturated with Ranil loyalists. Of course, one cannot find fault with Ranil Wickremesinghe for this.
In the sixties and early seventies, the UNP was led by Dudley Senanayake and the Working Committee at that time, consisted almost entirely of Dudley loyalists.
This was evident when the now-famous showdown took place in a Party Working Committee meeting in 1971, between J. R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake on the issue of the findings of a Disciplinary Committee that inquired into the allegations that JR’s actions and statements were not in conformity with the accepted party policies.
The composition of the Working Committee was such that JR could muster the support of only one single individual and that was the late A.C.S. Hameed. When the injunction order, obtained by JR’s lawyers and issued by courts, was delivered to the Working Committee, only Hameed walked out with JR.
Although the Working Committee consisted of some very prominent members of that society – well-reputed professionals, academics, businessmen and the cream of the then social elite – a greater majority of them were Dudley loyalists, simply because all of them were placed in the Working Committee by Dudley Senanayake and hence they owed their allegiance to their appointing master. One cannot find fault with that stance. However, there was never a challenge to Dudley’s leadership at that time, or for that matter, at any time.
Rukman Senanayake episode
After Dudley Senanayake’s death, when J.R. Jayewardene took over the leadership of the party, neither was he (JR) ever challenged for leadership nor did anybody have the audacity or the absurdity in senses to question his way of conducting the affairs of the party, except in the instance of Rukman Senanayake.
He, at the insistence of Niyathapala and Sooriyapperuma, made a mess of his promising political career by criticizing the leader and allegedly offering an affidavit to the then de-facto leader of the State machinery, Felix Dias Bandaranaike. JR moved swiftly and had Rukman removed from the party at a properly-convened Executive Committee meeting held at the Ramakrishna Mission Hall, Wellawatte in the mid-seventies.
After the Rukman Senanayake episode, the most talked-about and legendary occurrence that took place in the UNP was the failed Impeachment Motion against the then President R. Premadasa. The Impeachment Motion was the collective brainchild of Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali (some say that it was in fact, the creature of M.H. Mohamed, the then Speaker of the House).
At the time the Impeachment Motion was drafted and its potential was discussed, President Premadasa was at the pinnacle of power. Not only did he govern the country with an iron fist, he was greatly popular among the common masses. The country’s economy was booming and did not experience any dearth of foreign investments despite a full-scale war being fought in the North.
With the eventual failure of the Impeachment Motion, the then ‘reformists’ led by Gamini and Lalith were sacked by the party. What option did Gamini and Lalith have at the time? Both of them had proven their mettle by that time; they undertook some massive development programmes and delivered on time.
Both enjoyed immense public acceptance wherever they appeared. While Gamini appealed to the rural masses as a potential nation-builder, Lalith was immensely popular among the intelligentsia and the Colombo elite.
They were smart, intellectually sound and politically savvy gentlemen, who according to some critics, were in too much of a rush. By bringing in the Impeachment Motion against one of the most popular leaders of the country at the time, they foreclosed their chances with President Premadasa.
Although Gamini and Lalith were very popular second-rung leaders of the UNP, there was no call for a formation of a third force from the people.
The Democratic United National Front (DUNF) was born not out of a necessity of the people, but as the next logical step taken by a group of politicians, for their own political survival, whose only other option would have been fading into political oblivion.
Try to remember the state of affairs in the early nineties. The main opposition party, Sri Lanka Freedom Party, led by the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike and pivoted by her son Anura, was in a very much similar situation as the current UNP, and was languishing in the opposition without any alternative vision for the country. The DUNF took off solely due to the immense popularity and mass-acceptance of this duo – Gamini-Lalith.
When they went to the polls in the Provincial Council Elections in 1993, the maximum they could muster ranged from 18% to 23% of the total polled. Of that 18%-23%, a majority came from the UNP ranks, for the SLFP supporters, despite their lackadaisical leadership, did not see why they should vote for a third party.
Here is the scenario: a week opposition, a strong and popular President and a steady and stable government. Yet the DUNF led by Gamini, Lalith and G.M. Premachandra secured a segment of the vote that was more than sufficient to upset the eventual winners and this showing led the SLFP to form a coalition with the DUNF in order to form a governing majority in the respective provinces.
Now take a leap to the present time. The ‘reformists’ group led by Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa has been checkmated by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Party leadership issue, at least for the time being, is being stalled by the election that was held for this specific purpose in December last year. The only option open to them seems to be in litigation.
More than three different cases are pending, with two allowing enjoining orders against the Ranil Wickremesinghe group. But quite contrary to the positive environment that Premadasa was enmeshed in the early nineties, Ranil does not have that degree of acceptance among the rank and file of his party.
The cry for reform is even greater at the ground level than among the Colombo elites. But to their great dismay, the election season declared by the Rajapaksa regime has thrust a spoke in the wheel, so to say. Both Sajith and Karu must realize that the Provincial Council Elections are a losing scenario for them. Ranil may not gain, but he could and would hold onto his status quo, for rebelling at an election time is serious no-no for the party members.
The cry for reform
In Gamini, Lalith and Premachandra, not only did the DUNF possess some smart politicians, they also displayed an enormous amount of courage and steadfastness. The objective conditions that exist today are, in fact, much more favourable to the reformists of today than they were to the Gamini Lalith group in the early nineties.
Yet, except for the legal cases, they seem to be lost in the wilderness. They must not forget that there is a wildcard out there by the name of Sarath Fonseka, around whom an enormous sense of public sympathy and acceptance is being built.
General Fonseka is in search of an organization through which he can enter the political scene and carry out his programme, and the reformists are in search of a strong leadership, capable of inventive thinking and political gravitas. Karu-Sajith-Sarath will be an instant hit with the voter, not only for the UNP dissidents, but for those who are thinking twice after supporting the Rajapaksa-led coalition. The forces are present and only a catalyst is needed.
Whether that catalyst would appear in the form of Karu Jayasuriya, Sajith Premadasa or General Sarath Fonseka will be known, hopefully sooner than later. Election results in the three provinces scheduled for 8 September will be a fair barometer of the changes to come. courtesy: Ceylon Today