By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
“If we are to advance as a united and prosperous Sri Lanka, political parties based on race and religion should be banned.” This was the rallying cry of the very pragmatic religious leader Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. However, we should remind ourselves that this ideal was achieved, not by law but by consensus, 74 years ago when the United National Party was formed under the leadership of Don Stephen Senanayake on 6th September 1946. The original partnership of the Ceylon National Congress, Sinhala Maha Sabha and All Ceylon Muslim League was joined later by the All Ceylon Tamil Congress. Unfortunately, that ideal was disregarded over time and the great institution that offered shelter to all Sri Lankans, irrespective of the differing identities imparted by an accident of birth, has hit rock-bottom shortly before it reached its 75th year of existence.
Should the UNP be resurrected, could it be done and, if so, who could lead that revival” These are the questions people ask themselves. Although some commentators are already writing the UNP off, mostly because of the pathetic way in which the present leadership responded to the unexpectedly humiliating defeat, I would argue that the UNP should be resurrected and it could be done with proper leadership.
The UNP has risen from the ashes not once but twice before thans to its former leaders. On the two previous occasions the UNP faced the voter as a united party, but last month it had to compete with its off-shoot and the die-hard UNP voters were confused. They responded in different ways; some abstained from voting, some others spoilt their votes in sheer frustration while most others voted for the SJB. Will they stand by the UNP clone? Or, will they revert to the UNP? That will depend on the performance of the two parties, both not doing too well at present.
Although there was a battle for ‘Sirikotha’ during the election campaign, as both factions knew they could not form a government, after the polls the SJB does not seem keen to take over the UNP headquarters. Perhaps, this is because it did unexpectedly better than the UNP. It looks as if they wished to continue as an independent entity in the hope that dissatisfied UNPers would rally round it.
The SJB has plenty of tainted characters. To me, someone who attempted to mislead the voters deliberately by staging a press conference to hurl unfounded allegations against a presidential candidate, committed a criminal offence. There are others awaiting trial for attempting to influence the judiciary, etc. If a few of them go to jail, the SJB’s reputation is bound to take a beating.
The SJB’s biggest problem is the competency of the leader who has had many a grease-pole moment. Thus, there is no guarantee that the SJB can replace the UNP.
Rather than capitalising on the situation, the UNP seems to have gone into hibernation. Had it elected a dynamic new leader and nominated him to the ‘bonus’ seat, the voice of the UNP would not have been stilled in Parliament for the first time in history. An added bonus would have been the celebration of the 74th anniversary, which could have been the beginning of a new era. Instead, speculation is rife that Ranil will remain the party leader and may even be nominated for the national list seat!
Of the many vying for the leadership, perhaps, only three are worthy of serious consideration. Karu Jayasuriya has been toying with the idea of leadership for a long time and offered to step in during many a crisis. Although the initial impression was that he was being promoted as an interim leader, now he seems to be offering himself as an alternative to Ranil.
True, Karu has weathered 80 years well, but would he be able to stand the ardour of a presidential election campaign in five years? I raise this question because there is no point in having a leader who does not aspire to the top job. Leaving this aside, Karu’s tenure as the speaker was also not without blemishes. His biggest blunder was appointing a foreign policy advisor paid for by a US government agency, unbeknownst to his colleagues.
Navin Dissanayake’s father Gamini was one of our brightest politicians. His mother Srima attempted to fill the gap created by her husband’s assassination without success. Navin would have been a good contender but he seems to lack discipline; he talked inappropriately about party leadership during the election campaign! Prior to that he was speaking of the need for an ‘upcountry PM’. His brother is with the SJB and there does not seem to be much family unity either!
Perhaps, no one can claim a better pedigree as regards the UNP than Ruwan Wijewardene. His maternal great grandfather was DS and Dudley was his grand uncle. JR was his uncle and Ranil his cousin. His paternal grandfather, D. R. Wijewardene established the Lake House group of newspapers, which his father, Ranjith took over and managed very effectively until the government take over. Undeterred, Ranjith founded Wijaya Newspapers and continues to be its Chairman. Their clout, no doubt, would be to Ruwan’s as well as UNP’s advantage. Therefore, it is no surprise Ruwan is emerging as a front-runner. Perhaps, he deserves a chance to resurrect his ancestors’ creation.