By Uditha Devapriya –
With the SLPP as its main adversary, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya has seemingly dismissed the UNP as a serious contender. On the other hand, the SJB is only too eager to point at the UNP’s internal rifts and factional struggles, or at least statements which can be interpreted as symptomatic of such. Hence when Navin Dissanayake hints at a leadership change in the parent party, his brother in the breakaway faction says he made such a statement because he is frustrated. Indeed, it has become a habit of the SJB to consider almost any statement by the UNP as a sign that the party is imploding. On the other hand, when it makes a jab at former party members in the SJB, the latter contend that it is not concerned about a party it dismisses with contempt; “our main rival,” says Ajith Perera, “is the SLPP.”
The UNP, for its part, has not let things off the hook. It is as focused on the government’s shortfalls as it is on the SJB’s skirmishes. Interviews with Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, Palitha Range Bandara, Navin Dissanayake, Ravi Karunanayake, and Ruwan Wijewardene, the most vociferous anti-SJB voices in the UNP, depict the Premadasa rebels as a thankless lot. The point they return to, again and again, emphatically, is that those in the SJB had been groomed to rise to where they are, in the political scene in the country, by the parent party. There is some merit in this argument, but then the knife cuts both ways: it is because of the UNP that the Premadasa rebels, including Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Nalin Bandara, Harin Fernando, Harsha de Silva, and Eran Wickremeratne entered politics, yet it is also because of the UNP, and its disastrous trajectory after 2015 and particularly after Easter 2019, that they had to rebel against it, flout its line, and leave it.
The Premadasa-Wickremesinghe face-off in the UNP did not begin yesterday, nor will it end tomorrow. The roots of that conflict didn’t begin with Premadasa either. In 2000, when UNP MPs realised early on that a Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP would probably never pose a decent enough challenge to the People’s Alliance, they left it. Those MPs, at least a majority of them, never returned home; today some of them are with the SLPP.
In 2007 Karu Jayasuriya left the party, ostensibly to support Mahinda Rajapaksa but also because he disagreed with the UNP’s stance on the war. His return to his parent party at a time when its fortunes were reaching their worst nadir says a lot about the strength of his convictions and his belief in country over party, and also a lot about those in the UNP who abandoned Ranil for Mahinda Rakapaksa later. Sajith Premadasa, to his credit, didn’t choose to abandon ship at this juncture. He tried a different tactic, from within.
Even as early as 2009, a section of the UNP had come to realise that, as Daya Gamage of the Asian Tribune so eloquently puts it, under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership the party was “on the road to perdition.” Their smear campaign against the war had cost them dearly; that the party had to rely on the Army Commander who’d led the military to victory in that war’s final stage reveals just how desperate it was to hedge its bets on anything.
I remember how the factional split between those who’d wanted a friendlier line on the war and those who’d gone all “Alimankada-Pamankada” on it came out in the government’s response to them. At a reception held at Temple Trees to celebrate the military victory right after it ended, and before Sarath Fonseka’s defection, Mahinda Rajapaksa was all smiles, warm, and embracive in his handshakes with Sajith Premadasa and his allies, but unsmiling, cold, and dismissive with the MPs who had jeered the military offensive.
The man chosen to head this “opposition within the opposition” – against the leadership of the party and against the government – continues to emphasise the point that while they oppose the incumbent, they are ready to help him enact his manifesto. No opposition in any part of the world now, to my mind, has made such a statement; certainly not in India, where a beleaguered Indian National Congress under a weak leadership is busy resolving internal disputes while issuing communiqués against the Bharathiya Janatha Party’s ultra-Hindutwa ideology. Implicit in the SJB’s despatches on Buddhism and the National Question is, I think, the recognition of a need for expedience and flexibility when trying to make electoral gains against a popular regime. At a conclave on July 2 Champika Ranakawa himself admitted this; when a participant asked him why his party was shying away from taking up matters like minority rights and press freedom in public, he replied that one had to feel the pulse of the people, and focus only on issues which matter to them the most.
Back in 2010 and 2011, when the conflict between the reactionary and reformist wings of the UNP came to the fore, and television news outlets siding with either of the two played up the dispute, the focus was to get those opposed to reform out. The strategy envisaged by the rebels was risky, to say the least: to alienate the Ranil wing, they had to promote Sajith Premadasa as its replacement while making up for Sajith’s lack of visibility among the rural electorate. Despite his seat being Tissamaharama, his base was hardly rural, a point proved only too clearly by the results of the presidential election last year; his decision to contest Colombo, rather than his “home turf”, at the upcoming polls can thus be viewed either as an admission of defeat or a return to roots, given that his father’s base was also in Colombo. In any case, the main challenge for Sajith’s supporters in 2011 and 2013 was to overcome this twin hurdle. It was simply not enough to promote him INSIDE the party; to take on the anti-reformist wing within, he had to mobilise popular support from outside.
We know now that the strategy failed, or more correctly, that it was prematurely aborted. By the end of 2013 it seemed to everyone except the most fervent supporters of Ranil that the Maithri Gunaratne Shiral Laktilake rebellion was going to get Ranil out. Comparisons, no matter how anachronistic they seemed, were made to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rise in the SLFP in the face of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s opposition, not too dissimilar to comparisons made by the Sajith wing today between their formation and Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Joint Opposition in 2015. As now, then also analysts identified the reactionary elements with the neoliberal wing of the UNP and the reformist elements with its populist wing, a dichotomy borne out in October 2013 when an anti-Ranil demonstration in Matara was attacked by members of a pro-Ranil march organised by Mangala Samaraweera.
And yet, Ranil Wickremesinghe survived. He survived because of the UNP’s Constitution and because of its Working Committee. He survived on account of his wit and on account of his political acumen. You can look at it from both angles. Either way, he survived. By accepting this inescapable fact, the Sajith Premadasa wing let go of its earlier strategy to realign and readjust. By letting it go, they prematurely aborted it. Premadasa had signalled to his allies that he was even ready to walk out on the Constitution, the Working Committee, Ranil’s wit and his political acumen. He did not do so. By refusing to follow such a course of action, he not only let down those who had campaigned for him, but also signalled that, given the right carrots, he could even acknowledge Ranil as his party leader.
The tragedy of this volte-face was that at the time of the 2015 election no one had tried to resolve the conflict satisfactorily. Relegated as an elephant in the room, it was inadvertently allowed to grow. The dispute, an essentially intra-party matter, paled in comparison before the dispute between the two yahapalana coalition partners: a larger inter-party matter that we know peaked in late 2017, never to be resolved, ever. And yet when the cracks in the government opened up, it was inevitable that a hitherto inconsequential intra-party dispute would peak as well. Finally, after the Easter attacks, it peaked.
The discrediting of the Ranil wing, to a degree unparalleled even by their discrediting in the post-war period, soon led to the enrichment of the Sajith wing, to a point where, as with the 2011 leadership rebellion in the UNP, the Sajith wing identified itself more with the populist roots of the Mahinda Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition than with the compradore roots of the party elders. The conflict, in other words, had come back full circle.
What we’re seeing now are the consequences of the UNP’s inability to resolve its leadership imbroglio in 2011 and 2013. The blame must be laid at the doorstep of not only those who opposed reforms, no matter how cosmetic they were, but also of those who let off calling for those reforms when granted equally cosmetic carrots.
Today, the task of the SJB must be to modernise and reform the UNP. It must approach this task before it approaches the task of deconstructing and revealing the flaws of the SLPP. The task of political analysts hell-bent against the SLPP and the government, on the other hand, must be to constructively critique the two halves of the Opposition.
Unfortunately, in a context where too many analysts are denouncing the regime over every trivial matter, and too few analysts are pointing at the flaws of the Opposition, we seem to be on the verge of repeating what transpired in 2011 and 2013: the shelving of an urgently needed reformist project in the Opposition. Paraphrasing what Dr Dayan Jayatilleka pointed out in 2013 after the attack on the anti-Ranil Matara rally, if democracy dies here, it will not be because the government murdered it, but because the UNP chose to commit suicide on its present leadership’s watch. Obviously, we can’t afford to be complacent.