By Vishwamithra –
“History never really says goodbye. History says, ‘See you later.” ~Eduardo Galeano
From the time he entered the chambers of State Council of Ceylon in 1943, JR Jayewardene had been branded as a reactionary Capitalist. He had to withstand a vituperative onslaught of political attacks from the then ‘Left-wing’ political leadership that mainly consisted of Philip Gunawardena, Dr. N M Perera, Dr. Colvin R de Silva and Pieter Keuneman. JR’s political and economic viewpoint that promulgated a philosophical allegiance to the then Western-based and fundamentally anti- Marxist/Leninist political economy, made him ‘enemy of the proletariat. But what was not highlighted at the time was that while JR was a 100% product of the local education and upbringing (JR had his education up to the Ceylon University and Law Collage), all of his political rivals, S W R D Bandaranaike, Dr. NM, Dr. Colvin, Keuneman and Philip Gunawardena were educated abroad, belonging to the Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) culture.
J R did not vacillate. In the face of this scathing and sarcastic scorn, he confronted them with analytical and logical calmness that the present-day politicians are completely widowed from. His brilliant wit and cutting repertoire had no match in either State Council or Parliament thereafter. Yet his position in the political party he belonged to, United National Party (UNP), was another matter altogether. When the Party’s founder-leader, D S Senanayake died in 1952, given the evident unwillingness and lack of self-confidence on the part of Dudley Senanayake, D S’s chosen successor, J R Jayewardene, the Minister of Finance of the first Cabinet of Independent Ceylon, albeit his young age and being a newcomer to politics in the context of experienced and well-entrenched and overseas-educated Cabinet of Ministers, was being mentioned for the UNP’s leadership. JR, in spite of his cold and calculated approach towards politics, which is rare in an environment of emotional and subjective appeal by his rivals to the voting population in the land, was mentioned as a qualified and credentialed successor to D S Senanayake.
Professor K M de Silva’s biography of JR Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, Volume One, pages from 250 to 261, chronicles the intricate planning, careful execution and eventual success of the conspiratorial saga behind Dudley Senanayake’s ascension to the posts of Prime Minister and Leader of the country’s Grand Old Party (GOP), UNP. Thus, both the first two leaders of the UNP and the first two Prime Ministers of Ceylon were father and son. But to their eternal credit, neither of them practiced nepotism the way the Bandaranaikes and Rajapaksa of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the ‘common man’s party of the country indulged to an extravagant extent. The UNP not only refrained from practicing nepotism, it also elected the first ever non-Govigama candidate as President in the country. And it was J R Jayewardene who paved the way for R Premadasa to be the leader of his Party.
Being a man ahead of his time, JR always saw ways ahead of his peers and knew that handing the reins of the UNP to Premadasa was not only politically wise, it was also the right thing to do. What Premadasa did with the party’s reins was another matter altogether. But the clear signal of a deviation from the traditional path that national political parties trekked alone is a daring and novel move. A very few leaders have such vision and daring to attain the goals spelt out in the vision. It is his party that is in crisis today and it revolves around the leadership of that party. Ironically the man in the middle is his own nephew, Ranil Wickremasinghe. Ranil’s mother was the daughter of D R Wijewardene, the media mogul, who was JR’s maternal uncle. Ranil’s pedigree is quite impressive in a traditional sense. But this is 2017. Tradition is as relevant as superstitions of an era gone by. Social media has revolutionized the mode of communication among social groups. It has taken quantum leaps in the raw alacrity in which news reaches its customers. While some items of what is broadcast and telecast is dead wrong and completely inaccurate. Social media has become the playground of those who habitually engage in conspiracy theories. Against such a fast-changing backdrop, a political leader needs to be acutely alert and extremely quick on what he can and should do.
In such an exciting scenario, today’s UNP leadership is facing a tremendous challenge. The youth of the country is glued to the social media and what is emanating from that technological evolution is the gospel for them. Equipped with the smartphone, this generation is pursuing news and news stories with alertness that they are usually expected to apply to their studies. Whether the UNP leadership likes it or not, that is the harsh reality they have to face. If they are to come out as winners in this domain, no pun intended, they need to structure the party in such a way that those who make decisions are either equipped with a fair knowledge of the application and execution of the social media themselves or have the right kind of staff who could do that.
Today’s voter is much more sophisticated than the politicians credit him with. His alertness and quick response to the issues and their ultimate resolution play a decisive role in the way they eventually decide to vote for. At the same time, an extremely aggressive approach to the current crises with self-confidence- the way in which both Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake dealt with the media personnel during their dark days in the UNP, 1991 to 1994- and a media management manned with professionals is an indispensible part of the reform that the UNP needs to undertake. In fact, the whole structure of the party needs to be staffed by fulltime professionals, especially the posts of Secretary and Chairman. Ranil and his friends need not look anywhere else. They need to look at the example set by the greatest reformer of the modern UNP, J R Jayewardene and the extremely aggressive and forward-looking changes that he made within the UNP.
To paraphrase George Santayana, ‘if one does not learn from history, one will be condemned to relive it’ is an understatement in the context of the crisis faced by the party stalwarts. Ranil Wickremasinghe and his friends in the United National Party are indeed heading towards a cliff. It is not necessarily deemed for a turn back. On the contrary, it is not only advisable but seems more indispensible to go to the cliff, look at the abyss and challenge it by crossing over to the other side. That is precisely what J R did after the demise of his predecessor in 1973. For that kind of an adventurous step, one needs guts and self-confidence. People look up to strong men. They know how to differentiate strong men from the weak ones.
Crises challenge the character of men and women. Those who keep their heads strong and stern will certainly triumph and those who do not will wither away like a fragile leaf under the hot sun in the summer. A victory in a narrow sense of who prevails in the very short run is no victory. Winston Churchill did not weaken against a brutal onslaught by Hitler and his mighty military. It is the responsibility and duty of the UNP and its leadership to tell the people in no uncertain terms that what the people rejected in 2015 Presidential Elections should not be allowed to come back. That’s a no-no.
However, the odds seem to be overwhelmingly against the UNP. Its gradual decline in its own voter-bank does not tell about a forward-looking political entity. Hence the transformation of the party is a must and any person or organization that advocates against such a transformation is in effect acting against the current and future interest of the party and its history. However, what the leaders of the UNP are facing today is not a binary choice. There is a wide range in between what is black and white. The shades in the middle cannot be disregarded as unnecessary and redundant. Politics is essentially living in the ’shades’. Those shades shadow over a wide range of options that are not visible to the incurious mind. But the voter is alert to such shades. It’s only cynical politicians who opt to ignore such intelligent voters. It is absolutely ridiculous to say that today’s voter is wrong. In marketing terms, ‘customer is always right’ and branding the customer as wrong is done at great peril to those who solicit their vote at each election cycle.
Crises come and crises go. Yet man has learnt not only how to survive them, he has also learnt how to make a crisis a friendly challenge rather than an all-consuming personal disaster. The UNP’s time of crisis has come. At the end of the road, it must find itself bloodied and exhausted, but still standing.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org