“Operation Sajaba” Intends to Deplete SJB Through Large Scale Crossover of MPs to Ranil Wickremesingh’s Side..



Sri Lanka’s United National Party (UNP) suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. Electoral debacles were nothing new to the UNP which is referred to by some as the grand old party. In 1956 the UNP got only eight seats in a Parliament of 101 MPs. In 1970 the party won 17 seats in a Parliament of 157 MPs.2020 was distinctly different. For the first time in its history ,the UNP failed to get even a single MP elected to Parliament. Mercifully the UNP polling 249,435 (2.15%) votes was entitled to a national list MP. Thus the UNP had a single MP in a Parliament of 225 MPs.

UNP leader and former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been a MP continuously for 43 years since 1977. In the 2015 elections, Wickremesinghe topped the list of Colombo district candidates with over 500,000 preference votes. Yet Ranil too was buried in the 2020 avalanche of defeat. Ranil whose detractors used to ridicule him in the past as “Mr.Bean” and ‘serial loser” was virtually written off. It was said that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political career had ended.

Yet, Ranil like the mythological phoenix rose from the ashes. After being absent from the House for 10 months,Ranil Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament on 23 June 2021 as UNP national list MP. The advent of the “Aragalaya” protest resulted in the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigning. Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on 12 May 2022. Earlier Gota had offered the post to Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa and Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka. Both were reluctant to take up the challenge.

The Aragalaya had been launched with the demand “Gota go home” or “Go Home Gota”. This objective was realised in July 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned from abroad as President.Ranil took over as acting president on 14 July 2022. On 20 July 2022, Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament as executive president. 134 out of 225 MPs voted for him. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s eighth executive president on 21 July 2022.

In the early days after he assumed office Ranil Wickremesinghe engaged in efforts to entice MPs from the parties in opposition to the side of the treasury benches. His intention was two-fold. Firstly he wanted the Government to be broadly representative as possible. Secondly he wanted to reduce his dependence on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) as much as possible.

Talks with a Trio

The opposition parties got jittery over this. A trio of Tamil and Muslim MP’s comprising two party leaders and a senior party stalwart met Wickremesinghe. They wanted Wickremesinghe to stop attempts to poach their MPs. They promised to support all progressive measures initiated by his Govt. Ranil agreed and assured them that he would not encourage minority party MPs to join Govt ranks. He was true to his word. When some Tamil and Muslim MPs wanted to cross over from the opposition, Ranil deterred them

During discussions with the trio, one opposition MP regarded as being close to leader of the opposition Sajith Premadasa made a suggestion. He requested Ranil not to encourage defections from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya(SJB) just as he had agreed not to entice Tamil and Muslim party MPs.

Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to do so. He pointed out that most of the SJB parliamentarians were originally from the UNP. They had deserted the mother party and contested on the break-away SJB ticket in 2020. As such all former UNP members could return to the mother party if they desired so. He would accept them all as part of a UNP re-unifying process.

Dr.Rajitha Senaratne

Thereafter efforts were made to entice MPs from the SJB into the Government. Instead of bringing over MPs on an individual basis, the UNP wanted a group or groups of MPs from the SJB to cross over. Demands were made for minister and state minister posts. There was agreement on some. Ultimately a bloc of MPs led by Kalutara district MP Dr.Rajitha Senaratne was expected to cross over in mid 2023.

A news report in the Daily Mirror of 6 April 2023 quoting Dr Rajitha Senaratne indicates this. Here is an excerpt – “Several Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs are willing to support President Ranil Wickremesinghe and will do so as a group if the party fails to take a decision, SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne said today.

“MPs like Harsha de Silva are willing to support President Wickremesinghe no matter what anyone says. We will support the President as a group if the party fails to make a decision,” the MP said responding to a question raised by journalists at a media briefing.“Also, he said the notion that the President has put the country to a better position is a reality”

This mass defection from the SJB did not take place as expected in 2023. Initially there was a delay due to the Health ministry portfolio. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne was eyeing that but the then Health minister Keheliya Rambukwella refused to let go of it. Subsequently Senaratne was ready to accept another ministry. But there was another hitch.

Basil Rajapaksa

SlPP MP from Kalutara district “Ratharan” Rohitha Abeygunawardena objected. He said if fellow Kalutara MP Senaratne was made cabinet minister that would place him (Rohitha) at a disadvantage when Parliament elections were held. Therefore he too should be made cabinet minister alongside Rajitha demanded Rohitha/ SLPP supremo Basil Rajapaksa too backed Rohitha in this.

Earlier Basil Rajapaksa had wanted President Wickremesinghe to appoint several SLPP parliamentarians as state ministers and cabinet ministers, Ranil had reluctantly accommodated some but refused to appoint others. Now Basil who was then SLPP national organizer wanted “equal treatment” for his party.If Wickremesinghe wanted to appoint a SJB “crosser”then he should appoint an SLPP member also to a similar post. This impossible demand dampened Wickremesinghe’s spirits. The SJB Crossover project was put on hold.

Sajith Premadasa

Meanwhile SJB leader Sajith Premadasa also fought back against the attempts to get his party MPs break away. When speculative reports about an imminent split in the SJB began appearing in the media, Sajith Premadasa denied that his party MPs were going to defect. He lashed out at the Govt and said such misleading reports were being planted in the media by the Govt.

Sajith also accused the Govt of conspiring to entice MPs from his party by offering Rs 200 Million to each MP. Premadasa asserted that none of his party MPs could be tempted by such offers.

“We have gotten to know that the Government’s estimate for an MP is Rs.200 million, the Government thinks that when they show Rs.200 million to our MPs they will beg to join the Government,” said Mr Premadasa according to a newspaper report published last year.“I would like to say that the MPs of the SJB are not ready to take part in the Government’s auction of MPs,” he said.

Sajith Premadasa taking umbrage over the attempt by the Wickremesinghe Govt to take away his MPs was quite understandable. After all, no party leader would like his MPs to split and join another party or form a new one.

The irony was that Premadasa himself took away the majority of MPs from the United National Party (UNP) of which he was a member and formed the SJB anew. When that happened the UNP or its leader Wickremesinghe did not accuse him of offering financial “incentives” to woo the green elephants away.

Notwithstanding Sajith’s denial and assertion that his MPs would not split, it did appear that the SJB Leader was aware of a potential mass defection and was engaging in pre-emptive measures to prevent it.

Premadasa’s allegation that MPs are being offered Rs 200 million was perceived as an attempt to deter potential defectors. He was indirectly warning his party MPs that if the MPs break away, it would be insinuated that they did so for cash and that each MP’s reputation would be tarnished. Given the fact that a powerful media organization was solidly backing Sajith, there was an indirect veiled threat that the renegade MPs could be targeted viciously by the pro-Premadasa media. Furthermore Sajith Premadasa began interacting and socialising with his MPs more and tried to bond with them.

Past UNP Members

Premadasa’s anxiety and insecurity over the possibility of his MPs joining the Govt of President Ranil Wickremesinghe stemmed from his mistrust of his fellow SJB MPs. It may be recalled that almost all the current SJB Parliamentarians were UNP members in the past.

Most of them had had no problems with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and were not favourably disposed towards Sajith Premadasa’s leadership ambition.Yet, they deserted Wickremesinghe and the UNP en masse and together with Premadasa formed the SJB.

This was not due to any ill will towards Ranil or any goodwill towards Sajith. They had gauged the mood of the electorate through various means including opinion polls and had assessed that Ranil’s stock was low while Sajith’s was high. They realised their electoral prospects were dismal if they remained with Ranil and the UNP.

So, they hitched their wagon to the Sajith star and transformed from UNP into SJB. Politically what they did then seemed correct when the UNP was wiped out at the 2020 Parliamentary poll. However the return of Ranil to Parliament and becoming executive president altered the situation. Ranil’s stock was now rising high. Crossing over to the Govt or returning to the UNP now seemed an alluring prospect to many of the SJB.

With the 2024 Presidential election drawing near, a re-alignment of political parties and MPs became a possibility. Although the political climate was conducive to potential SJB Crossovers, there has been very little forward movement on that front in the past months. This is mainly due to President Wickremesinghe who does not seem to want “pre-mature”Crossovers from the SJB Now. Ranil seems to be biding his time for an opportune moment in the future. Hence there have been no cross overs despite speculative reports to the contrary appearing occasionally in the media.

No May Day Crossovers

A case in point was what happened on May Day this year. Some UNP stalwarts acting independently had made arrangements for fourteen MPs from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to cross over to the Government side by appearing on the UNP stage on May Day. Some of them had been Cabinet, state and deputy ministers in the Government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from 2015 to 2019. The SJB hierarchy had suspicions about this. Some SJB Bigwigs were engaged in “sweet and sour” talks with the potential dissidents to prevent them from pole vaulting.

In an unexpected turn of events the crossover did not take place. This was not because of pressure by the SJB high command. It was due to the intervention of President Ranil Wickremesinghe himself. When Ranil got to know about the crossover plan hatched by his UNP colleagues, he had vetoed it. The UNP leader had communicated with his party deputies involved in the exercise and told them to call it off. He had also got in touch with some of the SJB parliamentarians concerned and asked them to delay their defection plans.

Wickremesinghe had explained the reasons as to why he did not want a SJB crossover at this point of time to party leaders as well as potential SJB defectors. Ranil said that he was planning to contest the Presidential election as an independent non -party candidate backed by an assorted alliance of parties, groups and individuals. He would declare his candidacy in June or early July. When that happened Ranil wanted everyone including SJB MPs to support him by joining the alliance backing him. As such he did not want crossovers at this juncture.

Return to the UNP

This columnist has been speaking to some UNP members including former MPs about this matter.. Some of them have enlightened me on the basics of the plan to get SJB MPs to return to the UNP.The idea is for a sizeable group of SJB guys to break away first at the correct time. This will be followed by more MPs crossing over rapidly. In their wake will follow ethnic minority parties or groups of minority community MPs presently aligned with the SJB.

“It will be like a series of short waves following one after another and then forming into a large wave”explained a senior ex-MP from the UNP. This huge wave will be the “Ranil Ralla” or Wickremesinghe Wave, he said. Elaborating further , the former MP said the primary objective is winning back our “Prodigal sons and daughters”who went over to the SJB and re-unifying the UNP/ “We have devised a blueprint to rejuvenate the green party. It is codenamed “Operation Sajaba” quipped the UNP stalwart.

However confident the UNP may be it remains to be seen as to how Sajith Premadasa would respond to this attempt to deplete his party of its MPs. He will definitely fight back and prevent his MPs from deserting him.When asked whether all the “targeted”SJB and aligned minority party MPs will cross over as expected, the Ex-MP replied “we are fully confident they will come but one cannot rule out a few having second thoughts”. Speaking further he said “ Sajith wont let them leave without a fight but there is one thing in our favour. All of these MPs know that Sajith will treat them as “black sheep” in the future. They will be fearful that they may not get nominated again in a Parliamentary election. So they will have to join the UNP. No choice”.

Often Plans go Awry

This then is the blueprint to re-unify and rejuvenate the green party. The plan is to entice the bulk of SJB Parliamentarians into the UNP in 2024 just as the SJB did to the UNP in 2020. The plan described as “Operation Sajaba” by the UNP’s former MP appears foolproof. Notwithstanding this, the famous words of Scottish poet Robert Burns come to mind – “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry”

D..B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This Article appears in the “”DBS Jeyaraj Column”Of the “Daily Mirror”dated 27 May 2024.It can be accessed here –