By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Karu Jayasuriya would make an excellent leader of the UNP. He would also make an excellent leader of the opposition. He might even make an excellent leader of Sri Lanka. The point is he isn’t any of these. He has just been made chairman of a Leadership Council. That council is not a collective leadership body of the UNP.
The UNP’s leader, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe has just been made National Leader of the party. He remains the Leader of the Opposition and of the UNP parliamentary group. What the adjective ‘National’ does to detract from ‘Leader’ one fails to understand. That’s apart from the irony of naming a man who has shown not the slightest commitment to the nation or anything national, as the ‘national’ leader.
Thus the UNP’s Leadership Council is but a large Wesak lantern (a mere decoration) or as the brilliant cartoon by Gehan de Chickera depicts it in the Daily Mirror, a Trojan Elephant.
In his decision to front for the continued leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe, Mr Jayasuriya seems to have to have forgotten his experience of 1997, which Milinda Moragoda witnessed up close. When Karu ran for the Mayoralty of Colombo, a battle in which I supported him publicly, with cover stories in the Lanka Guardian and its Sinhala counterpart Vikalpa, both of which I edited at the time. Karu’s campaign manager Milinda Moragoda had planned a final wave of ‘killer advertisements’ in the media. This planned surge which would have enhanced Mr Jayasuriya’s and the UNP’s margin of victory had to be called off because Ranil Wickremesinghe gave stern instructions to that effect, much to the consternation and disgust of those of us in the Karu campaign. What is significant was that Karu was not challenging Ranil’s leadership in the least, during that campaign.
When Karu won, he hosted a victory celebration at the residence of the Mayor of Colombo which had chosen not to occupy and which the Deputy Mayor had therefore moved into. When Mr Jayasuriya graciously sat next to me at the main table in order to thank me, I predicted that Ranil would not let him consolidate as Mayor and would pitchfork him into a place where he would be expected to lose. Karu’s instant reply was that he didn’t hope to shift from the Mayoralty and wished to build it up. I responded that this was logical but neither good sense nor his wish would matter to Ranil. As it turned out, he was in fact prematurely shifted to Gampaha, the stronghold of the Bandaranaikes, by the UNP leader. He surprised everyone by doing exceedingly well.
My public political criticisms of and rupture with Ranil Wickremesinghe commenced in that year, 1997, and was occasioned by four moves that he made. One was the last minute sabotage of the Karu campaign. The second was the attempted sabotage of the Premadasa Centre’s Commemoration that year (the morning after the unfair incarceration – later dismissed with costs by the Supreme Court presided over by Justice Mark Fernando–of the Center’s Chairman Sirisena Cooray by Chandrika Kumaratunga). The third was Ranil’s affiliation of the UNP with the International democratic Union, the global coalition of the right, headed by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. Fourth and most important was the Liam Fox agreement and the shift in the UNP’s position on the LTTE and the war despite the Tigers’ murder of half a dozen top UNP personalities including president Premadasa. The ‘minoritarian’ turn of the UNP under Ranil – the inverted mirror image of the no less disastrous ‘majoritarian’ turn of the DB Wijetunga presidency–began in that year and has continued to date.
The UNP’s top rankers criticise the Reformist tendency as playing into the hands of the Rajapaksa regime. That’s a laugh. I was around when Ranil phoned CBK to secure patronage when he had been jeered and his convoy besieged by Gamini Dissanaike’s supporters at Sirikotha earlier that day. More to the point, when a patriotic rebellion arose in the UNP against Ranil after the defeat at the Presidential election of 1999 in which he had taken a pro-Tiger stance – a rebellion which rallied round Karu Jayasuriya and none other—I was told on separate occasions by Mangala Samaraweera and SB Dissanaike, that President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga sternly cautioned them at the airport (while emplaning for the UK for treatment of her eye having the survived a suicide Tiger blast), that they should do absolutely nothing against Ranil or in support of the UNP rebels. Thus it is clear that both President Rajapaksa and his predecessor CBK, strongly felt that they had a vested interest in retaining Ranil as an easy to defeat electoral rival, despite the private mistrust and even disgust they may have felt for him. If anyone is propping up the status quo, it is not the anti-Ranil rebels of 1999, 2011 or 2013, but precisely Ranil and those who retain him as leader. Thereby, logically, if Karu Jayasuriya is propping up Ranil who is propping up the regime, then Mr Jayasuriya is unwittingly a prop of the incumbent regime; hardly its opponent or challenger.
As for the so-called Leadership Council, the proof of the political pudding is in the electoral eating. Will the new make-up or camouflage persuade the voters to push the UNP above the 40% mark which was the UNP’s baseline even when it lost governmental office after 17 years in 1994? Or will be unable to surpass a measly 30% at the upcoming Provincial council elections? Or will the UNP remain stuck at a pathetic 25%-30%?
The real hope for the UNP and the Opposition, and the authentic challenge to the status quo comes from the UNP Reformists. By refusing to go along with the sham and scam of the puppet Leadership Council, young Sajith Premadasa may have done something to what his father did when the latter sidestepped the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord, refusing to be identified with it. As the party plummeted down the chute, that conspicuous breaking of ranks positioned Ranasinghe Premadasa for the candidacy, the party leadership and the country’s top spot. It is a good sign that his son has stopped singing ‘Master Sir’ on public occasions.