Colombo Telegraph

A Leader Like No Other, A Party Like No Other 

By Narada Senanayake – 

An obstinate man does not hold opinions. Opinions hold him” – Alexander Pope. 

UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe

The UNP is in crisis. 

The people know it. The party loyalists are tormented by it.  The party leader is not aware of it.  When Lenin wrote his famous tract- ‘what is to be done?’ he began by recognizing the problem. He wrote “Our party is in a state of formation. There is the danger of diversion from the correct path. Ranil is not Lenin. Ranil is a leader like no other leader, leading a party like no other party.  

For the UNP to decide on the way forward, it must first trace the path that brought it to this point, period and phase. This essay is intended to help that process. 

 Resolving the Riddle of Ranil  

Why does Ranil resist reforms in the party?  Because they are not needed stupid!   

Leaders lead. Followers follow. That is the effortless, painless world that Ranil Wickremesinghe the UNP leader inhabits.

 He accepts no other arrangement. As most psychologists would say, man is a creature of habit. His reactions are automatic reflexes from the stimuli of his environment. Which is why Warren Buffet remarked that “Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken”.

All his life, Ranil has lived in an environment of privilege. He has never knocked on doors. Doors have always remained open to him. 

Ranil is convinced that he is the destined successor of J.R. Jayewardene. JRJ made him a cabinet minister in his first term. And that was before he turned thirty. That was destiny. A destiny that he will not share today, with others in his party. 

 Since then his task has been a  battle to match his destiny to the  vagaries of politics. Quite early in his political journey, he wisely concluded that he does not possess that annoying attribute – the common touch, the ability to be ordinary among ordinary people. That was essential to retain his rural base in Biyagama his first constituency, won in the 1977 landslide. Why bother changing habits or renouncing birthrights when more convenient options are available?   

He deftly switched his base to metropolitan Colombo. That is what JR did when he moved from Kelaniya to Colombo South. Adequate funds and machine politics are efficient substitutes for public approval.  

Ranil is not the archetypical grassroots leader. He is the quintessential string puller leader. There is no way he will oblige the UNP backbenchers in their demand to reform the party. Reform means change. The very anatomy of change is determined not by one’s surroundings but by one’s inherent mind set. When change and reform are mooted, his instinct commands him to dig deep and stay put. That is what he has done now.   

The modern information age has no place for leaders such as Ranil Wickremesinghe. In this age, followers don’t follow leaders. Followers have the resources to make or break leaders.

 So, if Ranil thinks that he has won the first round, he is in for not one surprise but plenty.  

What is a political party?  

There was a time when the political party was the intermediary between the state and society. That was the time when political parties articulated policy and were propelled by a political elite who were generally agreed on the state of the world and what was needed to be done. 

That world is no more. The end of the civil war under an all -powerful executive presidency resulted in institutionalizing leader centric political parties. 

That has virtually ensured a lifetime political relevancy for Mahinda Rajapakse. 

He is the exception to the rule. Neither the SLFP nor the UNP can repeat, duplicate or clone the ‘Pohottuwa’ trick. That does not mean that there is no life after Pohottuwa’.

Sheep are a breed like any other breed. There is a limit to their numbers. The sheep are with Mahinda. The problem with both Ranil and Maitrhri is that they are prowling the countryside for non-existing sheep. Rest of the constituency think for themselves. They are not sheep. 

There was a time when political parties were regarded by the citizenry with some degree of esteem. The relative degree of such esteem decided the ranking of political parties.   Nowadays, ranking of political parties is decided by the antipathy and or apathy towards political parties.

Under the first past the post system of elections to parliament, political parties were compelled to nurse and retain members of parliament who were competent and loyal to the party. This has changed. There is no political existence without the party. The party is no longer an ideological repository. Charismatic leaders such as Mahinda can control a party more or less in the style of a ‘boss’ controlling a ‘gang’. That Mahinda has been supremely successful in his style of politics is beyond debate. 

What Ranil Wickemesinghe and Maithripala Sirisena should learn is that there can only be one Robin Hood at a time in the Sherwood Forest.   

In today’s context the raison d’être’ of a political party is not its manifesto or its ideology. What matters to a political party in today’s volatile frame is its ability to persist as an organization. 

Central to a party is its ability to retain a command structure that can retain its organizational strength. Now Ranil believes that Ravi is a better organizer no matter what Joseph Michael thinks. 

Conversely John thinks that ‘Viagra’ can make him as masculine as ‘Navariyan Ranjan’.  

Five types of followers     

Harvard professor Barbara Kellerman has identified five types of followers. These five types follow good, bad and ugly leaders. They instinctively tilt towards ethical, unethical or non-ethical leaders. Leaders after all are made by followers. Some leaders dispense with followers preferring to operate with cronies. Cronies too are a type of followers as you may gather from the following categorizations.  

The first category is called ‘Isolates’.  Example – Gamini Jayawickreme Perera, Ajith Mannaperuma 

They are the innocuous types. They just don’t give a damn as to who leads them. For some reason they have joined the party. They do what is assigned to them and go about quietly keeping their heads below the parapet. They will follow the leader acceptable to most others.

The second category are ‘Bystanders.’  Example – Thalatha Athukorale. They watch from the sidelines. They are professionals in the business. They are observers. They don’t take sides. In leadership battles, they don’t offer active support to anyone in the contest.   

The third category are the participants.  Examples – Ranjan Ramanayake, Range Bandara , Ajith Perera, Harsha de Silva, Sujeewa Senasinghe, They watch from the sidelines. They are professionals in the business. They are observers. They don’t take sides. In leadership battles, they don’t offer active support to anyone in the contest.  

The fourth type are the ‘Activists.’ Example – Eran Wikremeratne. They feel committed to the party and the leader in that order. To them organization is paramount. When they support the leader they can be energetic, eager and engaged. When they don’t support the leader, they go in to hibernation. When disenchanted with the leader they prefer to sulk in a corner. They don’t join rival parties in protest. They curse the leader and wait!  

Then there are the ‘Diehards.’ Example – John Amaratunge, Tilak Marapana, Daya Gamage, Malik Samarawickrama etc.

They are passionate about their leader. They are ready and willing to be dictated by the leader. These are the type that get in to the working committee of the party!  

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