By Uditha Devapriya –
If Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cohorts in the UNP thought they could subjugate the Sajith Premadasa faction by reducing its power in the Working Committee, they couldn’t be more wrong. Once again Ranil’s allies seem to have confused party hierarchy for popular support outside the party. For a monolithic establishment like the UNP, with just weeks more to go for the general election, this obviously does not bode well. Debates over party logos, slogans, and choice of leaders for alliances and constituent outfits ought to have been resolved now. If the UNP’s number one enemy the SLFP didn’t perform well at the last election, by throwing its weight behind the SLPP and by appointing its leader as the SLPP-led alliance’s secretary it has reduced its chances of a humiliating defeat. The Sajith-led UNP or the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, on the other hand, is still in its early days. A tactical and strategic plan for the new party, given its internal tussles, would account for the possibility of defeat in any recent encounter and electoral recovery in the years to follow.
Even that will be pre-empted if the Sajith-Ranil tug-of-war continues. The most painful part about the sad mess of an outfit that is the UNP is that one can’t take sides in this conflict. As I’ve mentioned before, both the Sajith and the Ranil factions have their pros and cons, their desirable and undesirable sides, and to privilege one group over the other would be to blind oneself to the privileged group’s underbelly. The irony here is that the main allegation thrown by one faction to the other is that they’ve reached an agreement with Mahinda Rajapaksa and his band of brothers. Weird as it may seem or sound, evidence marshalled by one side against the other seems to bear this out. The Sajith faction insidiously claims that Ranil has thus far done everything to retain his seat in the opposition, even to the extent of cohabiting in all but name with the Rajapaksas; the Ranil faction on the other hand claims, more insidiously as its most vociferous op-ed columnists make it clear, that Sajith is playing Gotabaya’s game and is trying to play it better than Gotabaya can. The latter allegation merits scrutiny.
When Sajith took up the leadership of the opposition in December he did so vowing that he would not play the role of the traditional opposition and that he would, if necessary, “support the government to implement its policies.” That was obviously in marked contrast to how the UNP conducted itself after its crushing defeat in 2010 when it continued a policy of opposing the government on crucial policy issues, and depending on how you view it Sajith’s statement seems to be not just a graceful admission of defeat by the UNP but also a concession to the fact that the SLPP won with a particular manifesto at its helm and the role of the opposition is to ensure that the SLPP implements it. Sajith wasn’t alone in saying or implying this, and in fact even those opposed to the Sajith faction – senior stalwarts like Lakshman Kiriella – went on record arguing that while they would not hand a 5/6 majority to Gotabaya Rajapaksa they would help the government implement certain urgent policy reforms.
So is it playing into Gotabaya’s hands to help Gotabaya’s government achieve its goals? It’s certainly not unprecedented: after all, the official opposition appointed by the government in power from 2015 to 2018, the TNA, in all but name supported the UNP and the SLFP and indeed distinguished itself or did itself a disfavour by barely speaking up on issues other than those that affected their community. Surprisingly those against parties representing one ethnic community over all others uttered not a hum when a party which not only had an ethnic slant was appointed to the opposition, and an establishment which, far more than either the TNA or the JVP, pointed out the holes in the government’s policies had to fight its battle outside the parliament. Had the then regime not cold-shouldered the Joint Opposition, it would have been absorbed into the mainstream. People were tired of establishment politics to such an extent that they abandoned the JVP – which, as Nalin de Silva once said, has been relegated not to the dustbin of history, but to the history of dustbins – and went for a party on the periphery that was populist and also rational. That unofficial opposition served its purpose by revealing the flaws of, rather than cooperating with, the government.
The UNP is not and will not be in a position comparable to where the SLPP was from 2015 to 2019. The memories that Mahinda Rajapaksa and his band of brothers evoked in the minds of the people were not enough to reject them when they resurged barely months into the Ranil-Maithripala regime. Nugegoda didn’t rise on its own: it was a rally meticulously organised and planned in response to a spontaneous populist uprising. Sajith Premadasa, no matter how far he hopes to emulate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resurgence by pitting himself against the elites of the UNP, does not enjoy Rajapaksa’s advantage. The Mahinda faction of the SLFP, which was a minority that made up with popular support what it lacked in parliamentary presence, could break people away from the mainstream Maithripala-ist SLFP because the latter had done the impossible and relegated itself to a party of upper class elites pandering to middle class professionals. That message was obviously going to hit the traditional SLFP supporter, whose objective wasn’t constitutional reforms but the next bowl of rice, and who withdrew their support for the mainstream eventually.
The situation Sajith Premadasa in is different, and I can’t emphasis this enough. The UNP is led by upper class elites pandering to middle class professionals and Sajith, by breaking ranks with the mainstream of that party, has signalled his desire to go beyond the Colombo-centred vision of the latter. Is it any wonder that most supporters of the party spewing intense vitriol against the man, while opposing the Rajapaksas, happen to subscribe to this Colombo-centred vision? Mahinda, by leaving the SLFP, cemented his position as the true leader of that party in much the same way that Sajith, by rejecting the mainstream of the UNP, has cemented his position as a renegade who may or may not lose the traditional base of his entire party. Is it hence any wonder that while he has gone canvassing for popular support in Sinhala Buddhist dominated areas where the victory margins for Gotabaya were at their unprecedented highest, he has stayed away from the areas where he won – Colombo and the ethnic minority areas in the north and east – and that when he gets an opportunity to speak up on issues like the US banning Shavindra Silva from travelling there, he echoes the government?
The UNP, after suffering a decade of defeat in silence, clinched victory in 1977 by playing to the gallery. It didn’t only speak to disgruntled sections of the petty bourgeoisie and the rural peasantry; it spoke to them in their language. Mahinda Rajapaksa didn’t face that problem because he and his strongmen were speaking to disgruntled pro-Mahinda supporters who had voted for Maithripala and Ranil, as well as his base. He didn’t need to wean this crowd away from the SLFP-MS or UNP because they were already his and they would return to him once it was clear that the government they’d voted for were letting them down. Sajith on the other hand faces an almost impossible task: reconfiguring the UNP and wooing the Mahinda crowd to his side, while alienating or doing away with the traditional base on which the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe has run since 1995.
In playing this role Sajith finds himself in a trickier position than his father. In the 1970s the fight over the UNP’s leadership was decided ultimately in favour of J. R. Jayewardene over both Gamini Jayasuriya and Ranasinghe Premadasa, the latter two of whom, it must be said, were firm favourites of the ailing Dudley Senanayake. In 1988 when Premadasa launched his campaign and threatened to form his own political alliance unless he was nominated, the J. R. regime had helped prop up and empower a consumerist and chauvinist petty bourgeoisie who would prove instrumental in handing victory over to a populist over an elitist or socialist. The petty bourgeoisie or middle class had gone too far for them to look back, and while they detested the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime they didn’t want to continue with Jayewardene either, though this may be and probably is a gross simplification. In other words, the political, economic, and social circumstances favoured a Premadasa at the top in 1988 in the same way that they could not favour him in the 1970s, no matter how hard he tried, like his son today, to pull off a putsch against the mainstream of the party.
Let me take the analogy further. If Gotabaya Rajapaksa found himself in 2018 in a position a little similar to Premadasa in 1988, Sajith finds himself today in a position not too dissimilar to Premadasa in 1970. In the one instance, the presidential hopeful could assure victory for himself by bringing together his traditional base, while in the other, the presidential hopeful tries to do so by defying the political configuration which favours his most immediate foe in the party itself. Whether or not Sajith will lose in the end remains to be seen, though I know and will say one thing: in terms of closeness to the people and in terms of popular support, he is the best bet the UNP can put a hat collection for. It’s as simple as that.