By Vishwamithra –
“Brand is not a product, that’s for sure; it’s not one item. It’s an idea, it’s a theory, it’s a meaning, it’s how you carry yourself. It’s aspirational, it’s inspirational.” – Kevin Plank
What is the ‘brand’ of the United National Party (UNP)? How does the average villager identify the Party? With what does he associate the UNP? What comes to mind immediately upon the mention of these three letters, UNP? Have the decision-makers in the UNP paid any attention to these questions? For that matter has any political party in Sri Lanka addressed this issue at all? If a professional approach is adopted, not only in establishing a ‘brand’ for a political party but also in defining its basic parameters, its fundamental message and promise for the easy comprehension and digestion by the customer, the voter’s grappling with the unexpected and its orderly and successful management would be much less problematic and more rewarding.
As much as a product in the marketplace suffers a setback by customer-rejection, a political party also suffers rejection at the hands of the voter, literally. When the ‘brand’ of a product is damaged, it takes a long time to restore its original appeal to the consumer and unless timely and well-researched modus operandi is set in motion with professionals manning the operation, the brand’s ruin will be sure and might even be irretrievable. But however much a ‘brand’ goes through a tough time, when it comes to political parties, that quality of being able to be reborn as a new and fresh entity holds a special and unique place in the sequence of events. For example, when Indira Gandhi lost her elections in 1977, the Indian Congress Party’s brand had already taken a step back as Indira herself had formed her own Indira Congress (Congress I). Yet sometime later Indira managed to come back to power with swinging colors and the long term effects of sufferance for the brand of the Indian Congress did not hold.
Yet again, in the United States of America, the Republican Party’s ‘brand’ took a nosedive in the 2008 Presidential Elections, especially when the Party was led by George W Bush to an abysmal economic abyss at the end of his term by fighting two global wars, one against Afghanistan and the other against Iraq, virtually on a credit card. In order to maintain US’ belligerent ‘hawkish brand image’ as a ‘global policeman’, the Republican Party was engaged in an efficiently-executed affair in military terms but having disastrous consequences in civil sphere both in the US and Iraq. In fact amongst the many reasons Barak Obama was elected President after routing the Republicans in 2008, was this chaotic war whose primary aims and motives were as dim and faintish as the receding mirages on the Middle-Eastern deserts. The Republican ‘brand’ suffered yet again due to some cruel and insensitive statements made against immigrants, both legal and illegal, and also women as a separate and identifiable segment of voters and policy postures adopted by some leading contenders on the Republican ticket.
Now let us discuss the local scene and the ‘brand’ of the Grand Old Party, the United National Party (UNP) in particular. What was the UNP ‘brand’ at time of its formation? The UNP was essentially the next logical extension of the Ceylon National Congress and those who dominated the thought, philosophy and action plan. Socially those who occupied the upper echelons of the Ceylon National Congress were English/foreign-educated, wealthy Brown Sahibs who argued that the country in general and its governance in particular was their exclusive right and privilege. It was they who were engaged in negotiations and talks with the British Raj at all stages when the country was a colony under the British rule. And when the universal franchise was granted to the Colony, it was this class of people who dominated the socio-political scenario in Ceylon.
Nevertheless, it would be more pertinent to discuss the brad-crashes rather than its sustenance and improvements. The UNP, having evolved over its storied history of sixty eight (68) years, could be broadly divided into the following phases when one discusses its ‘brand’:
- 1946 – 1956, (1946 – 1953 and 1953 – 1956)
- 1956- 1973
- 1973- 1988
- 1988 – 1994
- 1994 to present day
1946 – 1956
From its birth up to the time of departure of Dudley Senanayake, the son of its founder in 1953, the UNP had a politically tolerant, socially elitist and on economic policies, capitalist ‘brand’. Religious intolerance and class jealousy were totally absent from the party’s ‘brand’, yet after Sir John took over the reins in 1953, its social ‘brand’ suffered so much that the debacle that befell its electoral performance nearly obliterated it from the political map of Sri Lanka. Transfer of power from the Senanayakes to the Kotelawalas gave the UNP’s brand a new name: Unge Nadayinge Pakshaya (Their Relatives’ Party, UNP). It took a long, long time to recover from this brand-crash and thanks mainly to the foresight of one person only, J R Jayewardene, the Party recovered fully to dominate the country’s political landscape from 1977 until 1988.
Though Dudley brought a firebrand of the caliber of R Premadasa to his fold, he still could not handle the infidelities and ingratitude of R Premadasa in the wake of the 1970 election defeat and Dudley took Premadasa’s pranks personally while J R took them as a challenge and identified in Premadasa an enormous ability in public speaking and his closeness to the average mass of people from amongst whom he really emerged from childhood. By bringing R Premadasa into the mainframe of the UNP, J R managed to paint a more charitable picture of the UNP as a more mass-friendly people’s party. With addition of Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali, Ronnie de Mel, Nissanka Wijeratne and Ranil Wickremesinghe, of whom both Gamini and Ranil were relatively very young, J R injected into the Party ranks, education and youth and the Party’s brand assumed totally a fresh and novel image and character and a new political dimension.
Yet in 1988, with R Premadasa assuming the office of Executive Presidency, the UNP brand took another near-irretrievable turn. The use and abuse of Executive Presidency took deep root; instead of running the country’s affairs via Cabinet and its inherent collective responsibility and consensual decision-making process, the country’s administration virtually became the personal domain of the President and his Secretariat run by personal loyalists of the holder of power. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunge and Mahinda Rajapaksa have taken many steps further by extending that Presidential Power to the Judiciary and other spheres of influence. Abolition of the Seventeenth (17th) Amendment and impeachment of the Ex-Chief Justice were direct manifestations of this deteriorating process.
In addition to the setback of the UNP ‘brand’ due to this method of governance, the failed impeachment process against President Premadasa brought forward by the then UNP stalwarts like Gamini, Lalith and Premachandra, proved a point to a devastating effect in that the impeachment motion brought against Premadasa was based on the alleged handing/selling of arms to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam, an allegation which has not been used by the present rulers yet but surely would be made maximum capital out of, if and when its appropriateness occurs. However, even that brand-crash did not last long purely due to the fact that all four politicians connected with the impeachment motion were not in the land of living and who were either gunned down or became victims of suicide bombings by that very party to whom Premadasa gave arms.
But the period between 1994 and present day is another story altogether. Taken in the context of a very polarized electorate charged with pseudo-patriotism and Mahawansa myths, the slightest political gaffe stated or committed by the UNP leader could be devastating to the Party as a whole and leader himself in particular. Ranil Wickremesinghe is caught up in this socio-political vortex. Additionally electoral defeats, one after another suffered by the Party since 1994 could be compared only to those suffered by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the period between 1977 and 1994. Mrs. Bandaranaike suffered no less than 14 electoral defeats among which were eight Provincial Council Elections in the provinces.
Your brand is your promise to your customer. The UNP brand may have suffered badly but it still looks retrievable. The actors and players who would play a more positive role in restoring that damaged brand would be the ultimate victors, not those who are trying to dig deeper and throw up dirtier mud; they belong only in the realm of the delusionary and deranged. If ever they succeed in destroying the soul of the party, then they too will be destroyed in the process.