14 September 2014

At last, Ranil moves in the right direction


H. L. D. Mahindapala


A leading Tamil business magnate told me the following story which gives a foresight into  the shape of things to come. The business magnate happened to be seated next to President J. R. Jayewardene at a function. In the  course of conversation he asked him: “Sir, is a good leader born or is he made?” “JR” said that good leaders are born and  circumstances and experiences make them better.


Then pointing his finger to a fresh-faced figure seated in the middle distance he said: “One day he will be a very good leader.”


“JR’s” finger was pointing at Sajith Premadasa.”He has all the makings of a good leader,” he added.


Time will test the veracity of this story.. Until then we can only read the signs coming up which seem to be heading  in the forecast direction. The move to appoint Sajith as the Deputy Leader of the UNP by Ranil Wickremesinghe is one such sign. It is bound to be beneficial for both  leaders and also to the party as a whole that was virtually split down the middle. Ranil can now face the electorate and his party with rejuvenated strength and confidence with Sajith beside him. Now that the delayed inevitability has happened it seems to augur well for the nation as well. Strengthening  the opposition is a sine qua non for the strengthening of democracy.


Sajith, after many set-backs in his brief career, has at last arrived at the first base necessary for  him to forge ahead. Ranil Wickremesinghe too, after many missteps, has arrived finally at the point where he ought to have been in  the first place. This is a political marriage that has all the hall marks of a formidable union for both to succeed. It is a repetition of Dudley-JR love-hate relationship that threatened to break up the UNP. But the calculated patience of both leaders paid dividends to each other and the party..  

Ranil has yet to confirm the appointment of Sajith as his deputy. There are still grey areas that are awaiting clearance. If, at the end of the day, the union is confirmed then it would open a new chapter in the UNP. It will certainly inject a new optimism that  is vitally needed for the Party to come together and advance.

However, for the two leaders to work constructively and cohesively Ranil will have to go through an agonizing reappraisal of his  past, particularly his links with the International Democratic Union (IDU) and the previous marriages of convenience to Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake. Neither of the UNPers has the capacity or the makings of a good leader with a mass appeal. Both have a remarkable capacity for bickering but not for leading. The future of these two inflated heads will be in following the new leaders and not in trying to upset the apple cart.

As for Karu Jayasuriya he has done his part of holding the fort well. Now that a new leadership is ready to take over  – and it seems promising -- he can easily bow out having done his job for the party. The new trend does not require an additional Leadership Council.. The pragmatic option available for the UNPers is follow the leaders. That is, if their aim is to defeat the most formidable opponent in power. at some opportune moment. 

Divided UNPers cannot pull the UNP cart in one single direction. In politics, as in any other field, there is only one road to victory and the Ranil-Sajith combination is the best that the UNP has produced since Ranil was kicked  out by Chandrika Kumaratunga. Tissa Attananayke deserves a pat on the back for forging this marriage. More than all the reports produced to  reform  the Party Tissa’s move is the one that has the potential to produce results.  

However, it must be conceded that all is not going to be all lovey-dovey for the new duo at the beginning.  The two leaders have some  distance to go to resolve their  ideological differences which can easily flare into covert and  overt conflicts. As stated earlier, the new situation is reminiscent of the time Dudley – JR duo ran  the UNP. Beneath the façade of unity and  camaraderie there were simmering undercurrents of rivalry with No.2 impatient to be No.1. But most of all there were the entrenched ideological differences. Like his  uncle, “JR”, Ranil has been leaning too much to the West. Sajith is cast, more  or less, in the Dudley’s nationalistic mould. But, like Dudley, he comes to the new job with two of the most  desirable assets :  a clean image with a nationalistic bent – undoubtedly two vote-winning factors.

The critical factor is Ranil’s membership in the IDU, which, according to one of its websites, is aworking association of over 80 Conservative, Christian Democrat and like-minded political parties of the centre and centre right.” Its leading  figures have been Margaret Thatcher, Bush. John Howard and the likes whose political ideologies are  not likely to make the voters  dance the baila on the new  highways constructed by the Rajapakses.

Ranil, as the Chairman of the Asia-Pacific chapter of IDU,  has acted so far as if IDU matters to him more than the local electorate. Sajith, on the contrary, is more oriented towards the national base without unwanted external influences interfering in local issues.  Any realistic assessment of the ground realities will confirm that UNP is more in need of winning the grass root forces than parading in the corridors  of the IDU.  

And this is where Sajith’s role will be more useful to the UNP than the others,. The most telling impact of Ranil’s move to appoint Sajith as his deputy will be felt at the grassroot level. UNP has won in the past when it was closest to the people  in the villages. Sajith has proved that he can relate to them more effectively than any other UNP leader. Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake can  pull a string  or two to tinker at the top but not at the bottom where the voters decide the fate of political parties. Sajith has focused  on rural bases and  his successes in the  heartland of the Rajapakses , against all odds, confirm that he  has the common touch. In this field he has proved to be his father’s son.

 Besides, the post-Nandikadal politics has been defined and dominated by the Rajapakses. Their winning formula has been in constructing the new national identity. One of the main features of this new identity is in resisting external and  divisive forces and not in surrendering to them. The UNP lost its way in the post-Nandikadal period by trying to go against the grass root forces captured by the Rajapakses..  

UNP’s failure under Ranil was his alienation from the Sinhala-Buddhist electorate. He lost credibility with his adventures to win peace by pacifying Velupillai Prabhakaran – a mission impossible under the  prevailing circumstances. Rightly or wrongly, he was seen as a tool of the West doing his level best to appease Prabhakaran which could have been achieved only by sacrificing the national heritage. His failure was inevitable because his futile attempts were similar to that of an insomniac trying to sleep with porcupines. 


There is also another factor that can come into play. The fact that both Ranil and Sajith have agreed to work as a team does not mean that either one  of them will give up their identities or ideologies. They are two distinct personalities with fixed beliefs and commitments. From time to time one  can expect the differences to surface reopening memories of the old wounds. The critical issue that will keep them apart will be the north-south conflict : will Ranil return to the foundational stones laid down  by the Senanayakes or will Sajith agree to go along with Ranil’s suicidal policy of appeasement? Neither of them can avoid this issue which is at the core of the national agenda. This central issue  is yet to be resolved conclusively at the national level and the eyes of the  electorate will be focused sharply on this.


Another factor that will nag the UNP from now will be the  roles of  the has-beens trying to be the wannabes. No one can deny that the rise of Sajith to No.2 position means the diminishing of the role of Mangala, Ravi, Lakshman Kiriella and others with horoscopes in their pockets saying  that they have the raja yoga to be the next head of the state.


Crossing over is an option but  where will the high-jumpers land, now that the Cabinet is overcrowded with ex-UNPers? Sajith is one UNPers who steadfastly argued that  he will never leave the UNP but will wait  for his  time  to come. Ravi is  now making sounds of a loser hoping to bargain with threats of crossing over. The only ministry left over is the one to make lunu-miris and pol sambol. How  will he fit in as the kussi amma in the Rajapaksa government, if he creeps in through the backdoor?


Mangala is a different kettle of fish. After he returned from London he  is pretending that he is still friendly with Sajith the way he is  friendly with Mahinda Rajapakse. In this tongue-in-cheek response he is saying:  “I will talk if I meet them face-to-face but keep my options open until the time comes to stab them in the back.”

After leaving the UPFA his ambition was to carve out a career  in the UNP. But he has labored in vain. His attempt to undo Sajith will be no better than his attempt to undo Mahinda Rajapakse. As a Johnny-come-lately he doesn’t have the same clout as  Sajith in the UNP.  Mangala, is  an outsider pretending to be an insider better than Sajith. He  excessive belief  in his power to be king or king-maker has taken him nowhere. He lost his head  when as Foreign Minister he tried to be bigger than what he is. He is trying to do the same thing in the UNP now. He is acting as if he is bigger than Rani and Sajith put together with power to make wonders for the UNP to capture power. Clearly, he is in the wrong place at the wrong time. He failed to teach Mahinda Rajapakse the lesson he hoped to teach him by crossing over to Ranil. Where can he go now to teach Ranil a  lesson?


What is heartening in all this hullabaloo is that, after many failed twists and turns, the UNP has arrived a promising new start. Ranil-Sajith combo stands out as the  best winning ticket available for the UNP. If this fails then the next option  is to auction the land on which Sri Kotha stands and go home. So the two leaders and the UNPers will have to make it work whether they like each other or not. Hanging in there together is  the only way of saving themselves and their party that has wandered too long in the wilderness.



In the last analysis, politics is the art of living with  personal and issue-based  differences. Working to smoothen out differences with viable and pragmatic partners is the secret  of success at any level in politics.