17 September, 2019

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Notes From An Election: Gotabaya Versus Sajith

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

I wonder how many people remember Always Breakdown. It was probably the first political satire TV series in Sri Lanka, long before Kathura, Ethuma, and And Company. The political figures were all puppets: no one was spared, though the series, broadcast on TNL, singled out Chandrika Kumaratunga. Whatever the politics, it was an overnight sensation. More than 10 years later, ITN, in the hands of the Rajapaksa regime, turned the tables on TNL with another series; Jabos Lane, in many ways an inferior show, primarily ridiculed Ranil, Chandrika, and Mangala – what Dr Dayan Jayatilleka describes today as the “federalist troika.”

Today, of course, there’s no need for satire of that sort. (The internet has since taken satire away from the confines of your TV screen.) As a character from a play I saw two years ago (Affair at Ward Place Hotel) put it, “Politics is theatre, theatre politics.” So long as this is true, there’s no need for parody; we see it every day, onstage, and onscreen. The battle lines between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Sajith Premadasa, if things continue the way they are until Election Day 2019, are at one level a reminder of that. If it’s hilarious or sobering to see so many come out in defence of one over another, though these same people vowed never to support one candidate or the other, or anyone for that matter, well then, too bad.

It was obvious, right from the start, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was going to be the SLPP’s candidate. There were three reasons. The first was the absence of a formidable contender. Dinesh Gunawardena and Vasudeva Nanayakkara are much better versed in the polemics of parliamentary procedure, and are older and more seasoned (if you want to take it that far), but neither of them has that strongman appeal. This is not to deny or put down their immense contribution: it is they, along with Wimal Weerawamsa, Udaya Gammanpila, and, yes, even Kumara Welgama, who made Gotabaya possible. The second reason was that if the SLPP was a Rajapaksa outfit, it didn’t make sense to put forward Mahinda, or Mahinda’s offspring, or someone from the sidelines like Basil. Gotabaya it had to be, and Gotabaya it was.

The third reason was more complex. Newspapers, journals, as well as websites hostile to the Rajapaksas repeatedly painted a picture of the Rajapaksa brothers squabbling with each other over the presidential candidacy. Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s hesitancy and Kumara Welgama’s open condemnations of Gotabaya merely stoked this fire, and the UNP had a field day: for them, it was not unlike the 80s when the SLFP was wading through one family struggle after another, thus making the UNP’s dominance all the more secure. It was thrilling, for instance, to see and hear Basil hinting it was a disappointment for him that he was not going to be the president. Further reports, that Gotabaya was talking with Ranil to secure the latter as his prime minister (over Mahinda) in December, thereby throwing a lifeline to the now defunct national government between the UNP and SLFP, strengthened that claim.

We know today that to have compared the Rajapaksas with the uncle-nephew, mother-daughter, and brother-sister squabbles within the UNP and SLFP was anachronistic. Contrary to what people think, the Rajapaksas are more unified than the Bandaranaikes were. If Basil’s offhand remarks denied this, last week’s rally confirmed it. As long as the bonds between the four brothers continue, and as long as the Rajapaksa phenomenon is not hindered by the antics of their sons, the SLPP is on a course to victory. But that victory course has now been questioned; those rooting for the Rajapaksas are making a miscalculation if they deny that Sajith Premadasa, by his proposed candidacy, has put up such a challenge. The JVP is of course an alternative to this, but even that needs to be reconsidered.

Mervyn de Silva, writing in 1988 to the Lanka Guardian, described Ranasinghe Premadasa’s political career as “a major sociological breakthrough for the Sri Lankan system.” In that essay he wrote of the president, that “he was not a militarist” but a “populist who believes in divine rather than armed intervention.” There were many others who described him as an Asokian, even a Gandhian. Indeed, there were so many things written on him, just as there will be so many things written on his son. But based on such generalisations and flattering remarks, are comparisons between him and Sajith, like those made between the Rajapaksa and Bandaranaike siblings, also anachronistic?

Let’s get down to the comparisons. Like his father, Sajith has had to fend off opposition from the higher ranks of his own party (though unlike him, the son has not yet threatened to go out on his own and start his breakaway party). Like his father, his vision for the country is more populist than militarist, more pluralist than monist, more unitary than federalist. And like his father, many commentators attacking him do so from the perspective of English speaking elites who have a problem with outsiders taking the baton from the Kolombian echelons of the UNP. The preferred icon of the latter remains Ranil Wickremesinghe, and their preferred successor would be someone like Karu Jayasuriya. Unfortunately for them, with the Easter attacks still fresh on our minds, the UNP of 2019, like the UNP of 1988, has no choice: it has had to project a Premadasa as its face.

How can we take these comparisons forward? Can we extrapolate and say, for instance, that Sajith Premadasa is to Ranasinghe Premadasa what Louis Napoleon was to Napoleon Bonaparte? Let’s not kid ourselves, least of all because Louis himself was never a replica of his uncle, even though his candidacy (if you can put it that way) won supporters on the basis that his regime was going to be a continuation of that uncle’s empire. This is not to say that the son should be the father’s replica (times are different, as are political circumstances), but then to argue that he is, or he must be, is to subscribe to a fallacy. Indeed, if criticism of the man by supporters of Ranil, the individual who will finally decide on Sajith’s political future, is anything to go by, he may be facing a bigger challenge than his father ever did.

In 1988, Premadasa had anti-Indian sentiment and anti-LTTE sentiment on his side; in 2019, all his son has is anger at the Royalist clique of Ranil Wickremesinghe for their mishandling of the Easter Sunday attacks. Though Ranil managed in the end to escape as an innocent (both State and private media outfits, barring those batting for the Rajapaksas, perpetuated the story that Maithripala, as the Defence Minister, was to blame, forgetting that the prime minister’s flimsy excuse that he was not allowed into national security meetings does not, and will never, absolve him), people have not forgotten, especially not Christians and Catholics from areas affected by the bombings. Whether this will be enough for Sajith to wade through easily is another matter. There is another key difference: in 1988, JR was all of 83. Ranil, his nephew, is now approaching 70. You can argue it’s time to retire, but if JR retired as an octogenarian, who’s to deny Ranil, or Karu, the opportunity to run, or run again?

Those who have called openly for a Sajith candidacy so far are those whose circumstances have been drastically reduced. Top among them, of course, is Harin Fernando, who organised the Badulla rally and earlier threatened that he would retire if Sajith’s candidature was not endorsed. Shyamon Jayasinghe, in a piece that reveals, word to word, his antipathy towards the possibility of Sajith’s candidature, lambasts Harin for this: one thing he can do, he writes, “is organise crowds for meetings”, adding that “as minister he has been a failure” who “has not been able to rescue our cricket reputation.” When one remembers how this same critic, in 2014 after the Uva elections, in a critique of a critique of the UNP’s performance authored by Dayan Jayatilleka, described this same failure of a minister as a “rising star” who “came out as a great hero after having shown a rare boldness and organising capability”, one wonders as to what extent political amnesia can go; for some, even those affected by his incompetence and mishandling of vital national affairs, Ranil Wickremesinghe remains an infallible icon, at whose altar everyone and, it seems, everything can be sacrificed.

We have as of now a firm battle line between (as Dr Jayatilleka puts it) a “statist nationalist” on the one hand and a “pluralist populist” on the other. I am not really sure whether such stark dichotomies operate in reality. Nor am I sure whether Gotabaya is the visionary that his brothers were not, or whether Sajith is the son of his father, or whether critiques of both by the likes of Shyamon are wholly invalid. Come what may, however, we shall know soon. All we know now is that Sajith represents a formidable challenge for Gotabaya, because Sajith, like Gotabaya and unlike Ranil’s regency, appeals to popular forces. As for what Gotabaya on his own and the third force, the JVP, represent, I’ll sketch out later.

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Latest comments

  • 8
    3

    A stupid nonalyis (non-analysis). So what is new?

    • 5
      1

      Walenda it seems the author is the poodle of Dayan…paid to do a job

      what ….Dr Dayan Jayatilleka …..describes today as the “federalist troika.”
      in a critique of a critique of the UNP’s performance authored by ….Dayan Jayatilleka,
      as ……Dr Jayatilleka puts it

      …are you Dr Jayatilleka’e poodle mouth piece…

  • 2
    1

    We have to LISTEN to Rohan Pallewatta. Its worth just considering what he says and then deciding.

    • 2
      1

      Pallewatta is more of the same in this system – as the system is a failure. So better bet is Nagananda with radical view to change the system itself.

      • 1
        0

        Pallewatte self made businessmen. Good relations with Japanese industrialists. Has a young following. Good potentials. Need to give young newcomers a hearing. Recycled Old bags must be dumped.
        Sajith is no Ranasinghe. No plan No Vision. Non starter to say the least. Loser.
        Builds houses with Public money and advertises himself with mug shots of Yahapalana Politburo. Fake like his leaders. Will be lap dog of the Greens up to the same old tricks.
        Herr Gottler ignoble reputation with Legal Baggage both in and out of country. Does not come clean regards his citizenships. Double Tongued pretender to the Raja throne.
        Racist inclinations. Surrounded by men of questionable reputations and wheeler dealers. Put up fake Renunciation Certificate in Social media. Questionable Dealings. Country will suffer enormously. God forbid.

  • 6
    2

    Sajith has had a sound education and experience in politics.
    He is vastly preferable to Gotabaya.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sajith_Premadasa

    • 5
      1

      justice,
      I heard Ranil putting up new condition for the UNP candidate: The candidate must follow an election manifesto prepared by the party! My guess is that this is another indication that the elite group who currently controls major decision making within UNP is not yet ready to budge from their determination to derail Sajith’s candidacy at any cost – even if it means losing the election to GoRa! It appears that the elites of the UNP is viewing the popular movement within the party as an “enemy within” and therefore ready to accept “enemy without” over the “enemy within” so that they can keep the power with them.

      So far, I did view Ranil as a political leader who put country first before personal and political interests. I still hope that my assessment on him is the correct one. But, his reluctance to listen to the popular grass-root appeal for change within the party authority is beginning to raise doubt in my mind. Of course, as Darwin once said of belief in creation,”Vox populi Vox dei (voice of the public is voice of the God) ……. cannot be trusted in science”, popularity does not imply correctness and may even be the worst of all of choices. However, when experienced & educated politicians like Harsha, Eran, Mangala, Thalatha insist on behalf Sajith, it is no longer possible to discount the demand as a product of mere populous immaturity.

      I think that nobody with some understanding on the current financial situation of the country would expect miracles from the new president, no matter which party wins. What country needs is not drastically new & bold programs; rather, a tightly disciplined management to push the bureaucracy from its current lethargy that frustrates both the public & the politicians. For that need, I believe that Sajith will fit more than anybody else, either from UNP or from any other party.

      • 1
        0

        Country needs a Financial Wizard with knowledge and capability to pull out of Debt Trap.
        A Raguraman Rajan -Ex Governor Reserve Bank Of India. We need to break away from the Strangling Clutches Of China. MR enslaved Sri Lanka to China. We need to be self sufficient in food and encourage farmers and agriculture. We are totally dependent on food imports. Shame shame!!!
        The Private Sector is on a ambitious path avoiding road blocks by short sighted, Ignorant Corrupt Politicians. The Private Sector our only hope.
        We need a President who recognizes them as the engine of growth.

    • 2
      0

      justice

      He spent two years at LSE.
      Are you sure he completed his education in the UK?

  • 7
    2

    Let me tell you that AKD and Sajiht are far better than any one else today.. First choice AKD and second is Sajith. Otherwise, cooks will roam SL..

    • 4
      1

      Lankan – “Otherwise, cooks will roam SL..” You mean CROOKS like Gotler, MaRa, BaRa, NaRa, GonSira, Ranilpaksha and the list goes on and on?

  • 6
    5

    CT your standards are going down with this kind of analysis !!

  • 2
    3

    The writer is explaining Sajith’s appeal. He will give his opinion on the JVP and Gota later. What is difficult to understand?

  • 1
    0

    Gota seems to be a candidate but Sajith?

    Make comparisons like Gota vs Ranil, Gota vs FM SF, Gota vs AKD, Gota vs Karu, Gota vs naga

    sajith vs AKD, etc , etc.

    Unless the comment is incomplete

  • 4
    0

    You forgot another reason why Ranil and Co. are unpopular: the Bond Scam!

  • 5
    1

    Man, Gota wouldn’t win for the minorities- Tamils and Muslim- would never vote for him. When Majority Sinhalese votes get divided, the one who gets the minorities votes, wins it all.

  • 0
    0

    This comment was removed by a moderator because it didn’t abide by our Comment policy.For more detail see our Comment policy https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/comments-policy-2

  • 1
    1

    Uditha Devapriya,
    I’ll accept Gotabaya over Dinesh Gunawardena or Vasudeva Nanayakkara, two men of no scruples, any time. Mahinda decided to skip Namal for 2020, out of shrewdness. They also serve who only stand and wait!
    .
    If Sajith runs against Gota, JVP will be in for a sweep!

  • 2
    0

    A lot of words but what is this really ? Trying to wear robes of intellect without intelligent substance.

    It is difficult to do a column which makes sense.

  • 3
    1

    One is racist and evil and the other also racist but to a lower extent and stupid , both are not going to do anything to the Tamils or Muslims but pander to the Sinhalese Buddhist Fascists , like all Sinhalese politicians do . Tamils and Muslims have only two choices vote for the very evil or lesser evil but still evil.

  • 1
    0

    Yes, people are divided along political lines.

    That’s democracy.

    Majority divided; approximately 50%-50%.

    Tamils divided too 50-50 generally & differently as native & estate as aspirations are different.

    Muslims as well divided; 60% want peaceful co-existence with Sinhalese so they’re in favor of Gota @ this time.

    If UNP make FM SF the candidate 40% of that 60% will back UNP.

    Muslims are divided (very silently) as men & women.

    75% are in favour of Gota but in case FM SF contests women may change minds.

  • 0
    0

    Gota comes with a heavy baggage like the school children bent in half to balance it. Sagith with a personal vote in Colombo and among the rural folk added to UNP’s concrete 30 percent propelled by a minimum of 80 percent of the minority vote will mount a formidable challenge to Ragapakse.

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