By Lankamithra –
“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson
When one looks at the immediate future of leadership of the United National Party (UNP) with a keen eye, one comes to the inevitable conclusion that Sajith Premadasa is the natural successor to Ranil Wickremesinghe. But with the rumored entry of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka into the UNP as an Assistant Leader, another new and tumultuous chapter will begin in the storied Grand Old Party (GOP) of Sri Lanka. Sarath Fonseka is a natural and real hero of the Sinhalese Buddhists. He is a person who has shown immense stamina to withstand the humiliation brought on by the Rajapaksas, resist their political witch-hunt, endure two and half years of jail time, and who had the guts and resilience to contest the Rajapaksas at their peak. With the entry of the former Commander of the Army who delivered the victory against the Tamil militants, the leadership-conundrum of the UNP will get muddier, to say the least.
Unlike the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), whose leaders have arisen from one single family until, almost after fifty years of the emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, the election of leaders In the UNP has been relatively transparent. A sensible observer would not fail to note that at each stage of leadership change, except when Dudley Senanayake succeeded his father D S Senanayake in 1952 after latter’s death, there has been relative calm and peace in the wake of each succession. And each succeeding leader had had the full collaboration and unstinted support of the entire party. Despite the grave difference between Dudley and J R in the late sixties up to early-seventies, when the latter assumed the leadership of the UNP, he managed to take full and complete control of the party and secure an unprecedented victory in the 1977 elections.
No political party has obtained such a resounding mandate from the voters thereto and since. Nevertheless, entry of a total outsider, not an SLFPer, but an apolitical national leader in the caliber of Sarath Fonseka might upset many an applecart. The traditional UNPers would find it extremely uncomfortable in the presence of Fonseka. When leadership in political parties is in play in the main arena, all lofty ideals and inspirational rhetoric are thrown out the door. The lowest levels are stooped to and character assassination comes out as the principal tool in the hands of opposing contenders. Such loathsome political machinations manifested themselves in 1952 in the form of a short booklet, ‘Premier Stakes’ whose authorship was attributed to Sir John Kotalawela. However, it is most unlikely that such drastic and radical means would be adopted by any of the contenders in the field for leadership of the UNP today.
Sarath Fonseka is no unremarkable politician. His resume is rich with unparalleled achievements. He joined the Sri Lankan Army as a second lieutenant and rose to its zenith as Commander. His rank at the time was Lieutenant General. The rigid discipline of the army became part and parcel of him and he never hesitated to display that. Amidst an utterly undisciplined gallery of politicians, such a disciplinarian would unvaryingly stand out. In addition to his professional prowess, one outstanding quality that is associated with him is ‘strong-man’ image. In the narrow context of strong man, amongst the past UNP leadership, D S Senanayake, J R Jayewardene and Sir John Kotelawela stand out. The ‘Strong-man’ image is associated with two diametrically contrasting qualities. One is respect and the other is fear. Some leaders are respected by their followers as well as their adversaries while others are feared by their followers but loathed and disrespected by their adversaries. . All three aforementioned leaders, Sir John with his numerous weaknesses, were respected by their followers. Fear was never an emotion that was connected with that sentiment. R Premadasa belongs to the category of leaders who were feared but very seldom respected. In political leadership, both sentiments, respect and fear, do play a very significant and crucial role. But those leaders who were feared by their own followers represent a very mean and base weakness of humanity- feared by the followers because these leaders hold power over them.
In the writer’s opinion, strong men in UNP were D S Senanayake and J R Jayewardene. They were respected by their followers and feared by their adversaries. Whereas Sir John, although the public perception of him was that of a strong man, his erratic conduct in matters of the State and politics came into question and criticism. Dudley Senanayake commanded the respect of his followers more than any of the UNP leaders, including this writer but he failed the ultimate test of being calm and collected in a crisis. Both the 1953 Hartal and when he reneged on the DC (District Council) Pact in 1968 cost him much respect from his friends and foe alike. Dudley was loved by the people but he was never reckoned as a strong man. Of all the UNP leaders, J R not only radiated an image of strong man, he also acted as a strong man. He commanded colossal amount of respect and awe from his followers and was awfully feared by his adversaries.
On the other hand, R Premadasa was a totally different leader. He was indeed feared. But that fear dwelled in the minds of his own followers more than in his political enemies. While acknowledging that Premadasa did command some respect, especially from his closest supporters in his Cabinet of Ministers, one cannot disregard the fact that he was the only political leader against whom an impeachment motion was contemplated and planned by some very senior Ministers in his own Cabinet. The trio of Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmudali and G M Premachandra represented the very core of the UNP; their opposition to Premadasa is in direct contrast to what went on in the Rajapaksa government.
When Mahinda Rajapaksas was acting in the most undemocratic fashion, impeaching the then Chief Justice and allowing one of his brothers in Defense Secretary to run riot and the other to hold the country’s economy hostage to his alleged corrupt and dishonest practices and yet allowing his eldest son to hold car races in front of the Temple of the Tooth, there were no dissenters from amongst his Cabinet members until the Presidential Elections in January 2015.
So leadership matters in times of crisis. Therefore, when reckoning as to who should succeed Ranil Wickremesinghe in the UNP, it is crucial to judge the present contenders in light of these arguments. Inserting Sarath Fonseka into the leadership tiers in the UNP certainly changes the picture. It is naïve to assume that insertion of Fonseka would be taken quietly by all other contenders, for Fonseka possesses some vital characteristics a strong leader should possess. Specifically in the sphere of ‘strong-man’– notion Fonseka is miles ahead of any other UNP leader at present. But does he command respect from his followers or his adversaries. The writer’s opinion is: he does.
But Sajith Premadasa’s claim for leadership in the Party has very significant pluses and his position as Minister for Housing and Construction and Deputy Leader of the UNP has already buttressed his status, if not as the natural successor to Ranil, at least to be amongst the leading contenders to succeed Ranil. Except in the instance when Gamini Dissanayake defeated the present leader Ranil Wickremasinghe for the position of Opposition Leader, the UNP has always adhered to the principle of party loyalty and seniority. So in the context of seniority and loyalty, in addition to his being the son of R Premadasa, Sajith is a way ahead of any other contender, in the leadership of the UNP. But one must not forget the fact that Grand Old Party in Sri Lanka is an organism that came about as a political entity that embraced all communities in the country. It is true that the country’s priorities and political landscape may have encompassed other different contours, yet the fundamentals have not changed and the most glaring example of those fundamentals was the results of the last Presidential Elections. And what is that fundamental? It is that if any candidate obtains an overwhelming majority of the two main minority voting blocs, for him or her to secure victory at the elections, only 35% of the Sinhala voting base is sufficient.
For the last few years Sajith Premadasa has been actively engaged in securing the confidence and trust among the Buddhist Temples in the country. His father too had almost the same program of helping the Buddhist Monks in the country. In fact his father’s program was much more intense in that he could do that as Prime Minister of the country. He is the one who introduced the Poya Day Buddhist Talk (Dharma Desanaa) at the Temple Trees. Sajith is a way behind his father in that category but he has shown that he has the potential to get there. But if Ranil Wickremasinghe introduces Fonseka into the equation, Sajith has a lot more to do.
The writer is available at firstname.lastname@example.org