By Vishwamithra1984 –
“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” ~Edmund Burke
With Sajith Premadasa getting on board the platform of the United National Party at the Uva PC election campaign, there were huge a sighs of relief, some from the diehard party supporters and others from those who wish that there were more united opposition to this seemingly autocratic Government and its merciless attacks on freedom of the press, right to information, good governance and accountability. While this sudden patching up of differences between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa may appear as an auspicious harbinger of events yet to happen, when one looks at it more objectively and with sobriety, one wonders as to why this ever had to happen at all.
Disunity in political parties, especially when they are in opposition and not in power, is a natural progression of events. They say that when in power there is unity and when out of power, all hell breaks loose. And for that matter, when out of power for two long decades, it must be utterly cumbersome for parliamentarians of the same party even to say hello to each other with any sense of cordiality and sincerity. Such is the nature of power; such is the nature of greed and lust. When out of power, all sorts of finger-pointing, accusations, one-upmanship, power struggles, scandal-seeking, digging out dirt on fellow parliamentarians and mean back-stabbing occur to the great disadvantage of the party and in the absence of iron-clad leadership at the top of the party, minions who had come to Parliament recently but are backed by unscrupulous vested interests, could sometimes assume uncommon significance. Leadership struggles of yesteryear were different. Contemporary politicians have willy nilly become victims of a culture that is being dominated by television and instant news that usually leads to instant stardom.
Some even go to the extent of comparing the Ranil/Sajith combination to that between J R Jayewardene and R Premadasa that existed in the Seventies and eighties. It is not only futile to do such a comparison; it is grossly unfair bordering on insult to the JR/Premadasa combo. Yet the circumstances that shaped the JR/Premadasa alliance and the players who were involved intensively in the making of that combination possible and who worked towards a final outcome of which J R Jayewardene was acutely committed to, were totally different in character, style of operation, the social backgrounds from which they emerged and even in the degree of commitment and promise to the cause of political victory at the hustings. Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Felix Dias Bandaranaike, her late husband’s relative were a very formidable duo. The arrogance of power wrapped in both Kandyan and low-country aristocracy, instead of concealing, burst asunder through the seams; fellow parliamentarians hovered around the ruling cabal like vultures waiting for crumbs; intimidation of rival political party supporters, harassing of their businesses and extracting vengeance for exercising the fundamental right of free thought and speech were determined as legitimate and rightful work of and for the common man. In a sense, the current President was schooled in these same grand corridors of power and its wielders seem to have done a good job of it.
Against such a powerful power-aristocracy, the United National Party (UNP) under Dudley Senanayake, though accepted by the country at large as a charismatic and just leader, lacked the foresight and raw courage to carve out a fresh path. Into this uncertain set of circumstances jumped R Premadasa, as a ‘man with the common man’s pulse’ and Premadasa organized, with the help of his Colombo ‘clan of courtiers’ led by Sirisena Cooray and the rest, the Citizens’ Front. Dudley Senanayake, the leader of the UNP, was terribly upset and felt betrayed by a man whom he had nurtured and nursed from the ‘Sucharitha’ days to be a Cabinet Minister in the ’65 – ’70 Government, but did not possess the stomach to call Premadasa and straighten him out. The result was the infamous Citizens’ Front gaining currency in the political marketplace in Sri Lanka. While Dudley was already at loggerheads with J R, Premadasa took advantage of this chaotic situation in the Party and went about the country advocating a more forceful and vibrant opposition to the Sirimavo/Felix combo. But in fairness to Premadasa, one would have observed that he, Premadasa, never ever challenged the leadership of Dudley nor did he demand that he should be awarded a more lucrative position in the Party hierarchy. Even J R who had by this time launched his own campaign on a matter of policy, neither did challenge the leadership of the Party.
J R Jayewardene remained the perennial second-in-command of the UNP. It was beyond any question that of all the second-tier leaders of the UNP since its inception up to 1973, the year in which he took over the party reins, J R possessed the highest amount of skills, ability, foresight and courage to be the leader of the UNP. But being the quintessential team-man he was, J R never tried to challenge the leadership of the party nor did he try to undermine it by means of boycotting or disregarding party policies and principles. A supreme example of J R’s willingness to subordinate his own personal ambitions to those of his Party was when Sir John Kotelawala became its leader after the resignation of Dudley. Whom did Sir John appoint as the Leader the House? It was J R who had been the prime mover behind the wheels that turned to make Dudley succeed his father a few years earlier when it should have been Sir John who was the most senior member of the Party at the time. In fact Sir John was the Leader of the House when D S Senanayake was the Prime Minister. How can anyone compare Ranil Wickremesinghe’s qualifications with such credentials of J R?
R Premadasa’s tea was brewed from a totally different kettle. While J R was a team man, Premadasa was a consummate loner. He was utterly uncomfortable in the presence of English-educated, sophisticated thinkers. The fate that befell Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali is the finest example of this particular trait of Premadasa. Yet Premadasa, to his credit, gave birth to the concept of ‘Premadasa exceptionalism’. His work ethics- second to none- and his oratorical skills in Sinhala which in the writer’s assessment was second only to that of Rohana Wijeweera, particularly as a platform speaker, his commitment to the déclassé and his burning ambition to be a vital player in the efforts of national development contributed to this exceptionalism that Premadasa could have been proud of being associated with.
Against such a healthy and vibrant backdrop of the dual-association of JR/Premadasa, Ranil/Sajith combo fades into mere insignificance. Both Ranil and Sajith have proven to be loners. Both of them seem to be extremely uncomfortable in ‘team’ environments. Both are closed personalities and yet they possess abilities and skills that are essential for leadership, but whether those skills and abilities could stand up to the grueling tests of hard and more lofty leadership positions is yet to be seen. While this alliance that has been brought about by circumstances and social needs, would deliver the desired results sooner than later, one must advise both of them, if they have not already done so, to sit down with the two volumes of J R-biography –‘J R Jayewardene of Sri Lanka’ by Professor K M de Silva. It is a must-read for any person interested in engaging in Sri Lankan politics.