By Vishwamithra –
The no-confidence motion is now a thing in the past. Everyone, especially Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Leader of the United National Party, would like to think so. However, in the wake of its defeat on April 4, a very significant development took place in the United National Party (UNP). Election of a so-called ‘Politburo’ cannot be regarded as an inconsequential development. Politburo is a term usually associated with Communist Parties. Yet after the collapse of Red Power in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Politburo term has been in use even in democratic political parties, meaning the highest decision-making body in the Party in question. In such a context of an evolving political vernacular, the Politburo of the UNP could be construed as the new decision making body at the highest level. However, unlike in the Communist parties of yesteryear, the Leader of such democratic parties usually is not invested with unlimited powers to hire and fire or send his adversaries to the Gulag. The modern-day UNP and its Leader would well be advised, especially after a steady decline of the Party’s voter-bank over the last two and half decades under the present leadership, to share that power with this new Politburo to which a most deserving and qualified group of politicians, and elected parliamentarians as against those who come from the ‘National List’, were elected.
I implore you to have a glance at the new Politburo. It is as astonishing about who is in it as who is not in it. There’s no Gamini Jayawickrama Perera or John Amaratunga, the two most senior parliamentarians as Ranil Wickremesinghe; no Thalatha Athukorale (no women at all, no good) or outgoing Chairman and Secretary General, Malik Samarawickrama and Kabir Hashim (both are a timely rejection); there’s no Sujeewa Senasinghe, the most vociferous UNPer in the last two years, nor is Harsha de Silva. Neither Vajira Abeywardena nor the other ‘Kayiwarukaraya’, Daya Gamage was elected. The voters in the Working Committee have rejected the ‘pavement style’ cheap cantankerous politics. The new Politburo consists of members representing almost all prominent caste and geographical-derivatives in Sri Lanka. There is a mixture of Upcountry and Low-country men (no women), of all social denominations. Except Ranjit Madduma Bandara and Mangala Samaraweera, all others came to Parliament in or after year 2000- a direct contrast to the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition (JO) or Maithripala Sirisena-led Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). It is indeed a collection of ‘young guns’, so to speak.
From amongst the field of Mangala Samaraweera, Ranjit Madduma Bandara, Eran Wickremaratne, Harin Fernando, Nalin Bandara, Navin Dissanayake, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, J.C. Alawatuluwala, Ruwan Wijewardene and Ajith Perera, the recently elected Politburo members, only two, Eran Wickremaratne and Ruwan Wijewardene represent Colombo albeit the main criticism hurled at the UNP that it is primarily a Colombo-based political party. Whereas the current Ranil-led UNP is exclusively based in Colombo; whereas his chief adviser is Malik Samarawickrama whose political exposé and grassroots level experience is next to nothing, the new politburo is a fresh wind swirling around the political circles of today. This is a mirror image of the ten (10) who were elected to assist J R Jayewardene in 1976.
This unconventional process of electing a successor was introduced into the United National Party by J R Jayewardene in 1976. Its legitimacy, validity and the elementary character of being ‘democratic and fair’ has held true to this day. No other political party in Sri Lanka has adopted this method as they are too deeply immersed in their own familial and prejudice-based anachronisms. The present leadership crisis in the UNP and its original causes, its substantive evolution and its final resolution could all be revealed if an unmitigated effort is made by those who were elected to the politburo to introduce some meaningful changes to the Party structure and possibly a ‘winner-candidate’ in the forthcoming Presidential Elections.
That notion of a ‘winner-candidate’ was truly, fairly and solidly established. The election of Navin Dissanayake, Gamini Dissanayake’s son and Minister of Plantation Industries and Member of Parliament from Nuwara Eliya district to number one position is remarkable. Navin performed as well as his father did in 1994, or even better. Gamini had to face this situation twice in his remarkable political life. When in 1976 J R Jayewardene asked all electorate organizers to elect a team to be in charge of the election set for 1977, he trailed behind R Premadasa only by 6 votes- Premadasa received 118 and Gamini 112, an awesome performance for a newcomer in 1970. Then in 1994, after election-loss on the election of Leader of the Opposition, Gamini beat Ranil Wickremesinghe who was the outgoing Prime Minister by 2 votes (44 to 42).
Whether the voter is a farmer in the arid zones in the NCP or a tea plucker in the hill country, or an ordinary laborer from Colombo or a junior executive in Kurunegala, or even a Board Member of a lucrative business or an ordinary housewife, they all want and demand a winner and a ‘young gun’. Navin Dissanayake fitted into that description like a well-fitting glove into a workman’s hand. ‘Winner’ is an infectious dynamic. In the recently held local government elections, when the whole country was lost to the UNP, specifically the Sinhalese-Buddhist hinterland was swept by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), Navin managed to win both Nuwara Eliya Municipal Council as well as Nuwara Eliya Pradesheeya Saba. In addition, he won the Ambagamuwa Pradesheeya Saba, Norwood Pradesheeya Saba and Hatton-Dickoya Urban Council. In Kotmale and Agrapatana Pradesheeya Saba elections, he was second to Ceylon Workers’ Congress, and the SLPP was a negligible distant third in them. In the context of a distressing island-wide debacle for the UNP, those victories are quite extraordinary and deserve instant acknowledgement. Navin being elected as the leader among the next-to-the leader tier in the Party structure is an unequivocal acknowledgement of that performance. Period. Navin, the ‘Young Gun’ is being launched, not by some conspiratorial gossiping in the Colombo social circles, not by some anachronistic elite group of the Party, Navin was elected as number one in a group within a group by the Working Committee of the United National Party. However, one cannot ignore the other UNPer, Sajith Premadasa who was placed ex-officio in the Politburo by virtue of his office as a Deputy Leader, In fact Sajith must be extremely happy that he did not have to be ‘elected’ when the election of the Politburo was called. The clamor of the UNP backbenchers asking for Navin Dissanayake to take over the post of Secretary General of the UNP buttresses his position as a commanding personality in the Party.
Where Navin goes from here on is entirely up to him. He must decide whether he should take this opportunity to the next level or remain placid and allow the rot to continue. Whatever he decides, he must acknowledge one unmistakable truth and reality. The United National Party as it is today, led by the present leader is going only in one way- towards self-destruction if radical changes are not implemented.
When in 1976 J R introduced his second (2nd) tier in the Party, his own position as Leader was never disputed. He was the King of the Party. A towering personality, astute leadership, a strong sense of history and an uncanny sense of political acumen were some of his traits. On the contrary, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current leader of the Party, with all his experience and devotion to the principles and policies of the UNP and with his so-called knowledge of the economy of the country, is being discussed in utter negative terms, not only in Colombo-based social clubs but almost in every street corner in the country. A drastic decline in the voter base is not a good index for a performing-leader.
Can the ‘pendulum’ swing the UNP-way? That is the sixty four million-question today. J R in the mid-seventies not only knew that the pendulum could swing his way, he made it so by the action he launched with the unwavering backing of his Party. The results were unprecedented; a sweeping five-sixth victory in 1977 General Elections. Ranil Wickremasinghe’s position is much more delicate and brittle. Ever since the 2009 Presidential Elections, when the UNP could not find its own candidate for Presidential Elections, his suitability as a viable candidate has been questioned.
In such a depressing context, Ranil at least this time in the 2020-Presidntial Elections has to find a ‘winning’ candidate whose base, source and beginning is in the United National Party. Who is considered by his own Party and then by the general voting population. Both Navin Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa belong in that category of the few. Their fathers laid their lives on the road while campaigning for the Party. Both entered Parliament after their fathers’ demise on their own strengths. When one studies the composition of the new Politburo of the Party, it is not so big a challenge to see who is ahead and who is behind. Ranil’s woes are not over, they are just beginning.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org