By Vishwamithra –
Today is August 15, 2018. The date for Presidential Elections will be called by the Commissioner General of Elections in between November and December, 2019. That leaves us with approximately Seventeen (17) months. The two main protagonists will be a nominee from the United National Party (UNP) and another representing the ‘Pohottuwa’ in combination with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) or someone from the ‘Pohottuwa’ gang by itself. The SLFP without the Pohottuwa support, if the recently held local government elections are of any reliable measure, would end up in the category of ‘also-ran’. Yet one simply cannot ignore the progressive erosion of the UNP voter bloc. It’s been in evidence during the last twenty years. Ever since the assassinations of Lalith Athulathmudali, R Premadasa, and Gamini Dissanayake, in that order, the UNP has been suffering from a great amount of buyer’s remorse and no changes of any fundamental nature or creative and forward-looking transformation with the galloping technological advancement of society has been introduced into the Party.
Against the backdrop of the maddening rush on the part of the ‘Pohottuwa’ bigwigs to ensure a plausible approach to the forthcoming Presidential Elections in 2020, the UNP seems to be in a lethargic and slipshod ramble towards a coming disaster. The obvious has been neglected. The demand for punishment of the Rajapaksa, the rest of the First Family and their henchmen for their atrocities when they were in power, is still vocal and real. But those who wield power now, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the rest of the Cabinet seem lost and forlorn. Indecision is one characteristic the people hate to see in a leader. On the other hand, risk-takers and those who dare to go to the edge of the possible are perceived as heroes. As Otto von Bismarck, the Prussian and German statesman of the 19th century, succinctly vocalized, ‘Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best’.
So the question is, can the UNP find such a daring man or woman in their midst who will go to the edge of the abyss and challenge it without turning back? The United National Party had such leaders and that was in the past. D S Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, Gamini Dissanayake, R Premadasa and Lalith Athulathmudali were such outstanding ones. They made politics the art of the possible. Against great odds they were unrelenting; they challenged the status quo and they dared to go further; they made their followers do the same-go thus far and further. The people recognized that unequal quality in them and reposed their trust and faith in them. And they were successful. It may be an unattainable dream to expect leaders of such caliber from amongst the current crop of leadership in the UNP.
However, before jumping into this complex mosaic of the UNP leadership, one must examine the real and looming needs of the people. The country is meandering along without any definitive goal. A rudderless boat has no shore to reach. In the midst of such uncertainty, against the valor of storms and contradictory forces of political nature, if the UNP is showing any signs of hesitancy or indecision, the people will interpret such indecision and hesitancy, and quite rightly so, as an abysmal weakness. If there is any characteristic of the UNP and its leadership has been very consistent in displaying is that extremely negative indecision. Waiting until the nominations are called to start an election campaign is another element of naiveté the UNP has shown during this period, 1994 to 2015.
This foolhardy approach to elections is a direct byproduct of that quality which has shaped and defined the United National Party and its current leadership. Conceding certain valid and legitimate issues that could be embraced and owned by the UNP has betrayed the very essence of faith and trust in which the grassroots hold the Party. Lack of charismatic leadership at the top has cost the Party its usual capability of attracting new votes, especially the fairer sex and youth. It is not rocket science to decipher the common and simple formula of message + process = campaign. Therefore, good message + good process = good campaign.
The UNP as one single political entity won a majority as against a plurality of votes and seats in Parliament only on three occasions. One was in 1952 after the demise D S Senanayake and the second was in 1977 under the leadership of JR Jayewardene and third when R Premadasa succeeded J R. Dudley, J R and Premadasa were leaders of a bygone era. That era will never come back, nor will the values and cultural ethos would never revisit our body politic in the future. In politics everything is context as well as relative. The current societal makeup is such, in an ever-evolving technological life, changes are measured in seconds, not days, months and years. What would have taken weeks to see in print about a scandalous story on a politician are now outed in seconds on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or any scurrilous websites on the internet. Unless and until today’s politicians are ready and adequately equipped to handle this fast-developing aspect of communication, they should leave the field of politics as a livelihood.
In internet warfare, the United National Party is far behind its rivals. That lack of awareness on the part of the UNP as an organism engaged in politics is not acceptable in the context of politics that is engulfing all and any human condition and exploiting that human condition to the advantage of the exploiter. Being involved in the day-to-da activities of running a government is no excuse. Managing their incumbency is part and parcel of government-management. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tragic lack of awareness of this aspect of political life is a great encumbrance to the advancement of his Party’s ‘younger guns’. Delegation of powers to the younger guns, unleashing their potential to the four corners of the country, exposing them to the vagaries of changing climates of hard and gruesome political life of a nation should be treated as a welcoming burden a leader has to bear. Successful leaders of any field have shown the enormous advantage of such delegation.
Whichever way one turns, it is certainly not a kindly scenario one beholds. Progressive erosion of a voter base cannot and should not be disregarded as an outlier. For more than twenty years the UNP has been experiencing this negative voter-response at successive elections. Past election results show that each time the UNP fielded a candidate other than the one who had appeared on the earlier occasion, the new one has won. Dudley Senanayake after DS Senanayake in 1952, JR Jayewardene after Dudley Senanayake in 1977, R Premadasa after JR Jayewardene in 1989. Since then it’s been total disaster. How the current leader Ranil Wickremesinghe takes this, the writer simply does not know. Also, this writer would not speculate as to how Gamini Dissanayake would have fared in 1994 after R Premadasa’s death as it is utterly futile to indulge in such conjecture. Yet one cannot ignore the results of the 2001 elections which in the estimation of the writer is a definitive outlier in terms of statistics.
Why the 2001 election results remains an outlier is proven by the results that followed in every election that was held thereafter, whether it was Presidential, Parliamentary, Provincial Council or other local government elections. The leader of the UNP who happens to the current Prime Minister seems to have burnet all his chances. Yet Ranil still can muster enough support to win the next Presidential Elections and that chance is slim but still a fighting chance. What does he have to do in order to galvanize his Party and attain and incredible victory? He has seventeen months. He has his new Party Secretary in place, he has his Party organizational structure in gear and above all, he has a very credible and a daring National Organizer who is, to quote Star Trek TV series, willing and able to go ‘where no National Organizer has gone before’. That is Navin Dissanayake. With Sajith Premadasa undertaking to look after the South and Navin to go to all corners of Sri Lanka, the way his father Gamini Dissanayake did during the Presidential Elections in 1988 in support of Sajith’s father R Premadasa, Ranil still can pull a rabbit out of the box. But it is a Herculean task.
Therefore, it is beyond doubt that announcement of the next Presidential Candidate now, not next week or month but now is a sine qua non. To build a structure of a sophisticated election campaign takes time. Branding of the campaign, rebranding of the Candidate, fund-raising, recruiting the right personnel, preparation of a colorful and attractive manifesto, planning and manning the campaign in the districts, micro targeting the particular electorates and districts, construction of the core message, constant feeding of material to the media, running an unmatchable social media campaign take time. So Ranil Wickremesinghe, waste no more time. Name your candidate now or perish.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org