By Kumar David –
Outside the Tamil areas there are just three alternatives to choose from – the government (SLPP), the JVP led NPP alliance and the UNP-twins which are the same in content but come in two toppings; traditional or youthful. The purpose of this relatively short piece today is not to canvass for the NPP (I am on the National List) nor to elaborate in any detail why the SLPP is dangerous – I have done that a few times on previous occasions – but to emphasise something that has gone under the radar. That is that intrinsically and essentially there is no substantial difference between the Ranil-UNP and the Sajith-UNP now mustering under the acronym SJB. The two ice creams are made of the same ingredients, just flavoured with different toppings, Maharaja Melt or Elephant Ecstasy.
For decades Ranil and Sajith were comrades in arms and fellow travellers in the UNP, even now they argue about who the real UNP is. For decades upon decades they shared the same ideology and the same political programmes, they endorsed the same economic policies, they loved the IMF and the global right with equal fervour. I cannot drive it in hard enough that they are programmatic and policy clones; the same breed sharing the same genes. In ideology, history and political ethos they are siblings. What has surfaced in the UNP in recent months is a dispute about who can pull more votes; that’s all, essentially that’s the bottom line. Zeitgeist is a German word that denotes the spirit of the times, trends of thought and feeling, the characteristics of an ethos. The Ranil-UNP and the Sajith-UNP mustering as SJB are manifestations of a shared Zeitgeist.
There is NO difference in ideology, economic outlook, political philosophy, tradition, evolution or historical role between these two wings of the UNP. Of course, as in any power struggle the abstract parallelism is marinated by personal ambitions – the ambitions of the young-pretender, the reluctance of the old-fart to bow out, and more spicy, the thanha of courtier Navin to foil the return of the young-pretender, and on the other side sly-prince Champika who knows full well that his IQ is way higher than Sajith’s and is sharpening a gritty blade in readiness for 2025.
To return to the big picture, the only, the sole, only and unique dispute between the two branches of the UNP before the divorce was who will be the better vote puller. Of all I have asked “Why are you for Sajith or why are you for Ranil” – I know dozens of UNPers – the conversation universally and without exception settles down to who will bring in more votes. I have never ever in these conversations heard any reference to policy, ideology, foreign affairs, debt, budget or programme except trivia like undergarments or cons about increasing allowances and wages by undoable amounts – election gundus! Usually even then, both sides fake up exactly the same gundus with a different number of zeroes at the end.
The hottest topic of disputation between UNP faction relates to issues such as: Ranil is old, tired, jaded and unfriendly, Sajith is young, energetic and bouncy. Or on the other side; Ranil is shrewd and knows to play the game, Sajith is an inexperienced bull in a China shop, or the Rajapsksas will use Sajith if needed and put him out in the cold and out of business. The sole dispute among UNPers is who can win more votes. “Policy! What’s that? Don’t muddy our waters with terms we care little about”, that’s the mentality that animates UNPers of both hues today.
What conclusively proves the shared nature of the genes of the twins is the question “Where are all the natural-Ranilists, the old Royalists and Thomians? Ranil’s natural and habitual retinue, Manik, Harsha, Eran, Fowzie and such like acolytes of neo-liberals, where are they today? All lined up in flank upon flank behind Sajith. Can you believe it, all the forces of right-wing social and economic reaction, all Lanka’s neoliberal baggage, has deserted the grandson of DRW and embraced the son of Pema-machang who the baggage much despised! They walked out of the habitual stables and lined up on the side of the “Lad born to be king” who hopefully will win them the steeplechase. Their Bonny Prince Charlie refrain “Oh boatman row like a bird on the wing” towards polling date.
I have used up more than half my permitted words driving home the ‘No real difference between the two outfits’ message because few people sit back and think about it. If the UNP is hopeless at this point in time, then both the Ranil version and the Sajith version are useless. If you do insist on voting UNP I don’t think it matters much which bunch you choose. My meaning is this; if you are voting against the government most likely it is because you believe that the authoritarian and militaristic trend of the Gotabaya Presidency is dangerous. Presumably you see a period ahead which will be hazardous for the democratic freedoms that we have become accustomed to. I am not going to argue this point because I have done so often in this column and if you don’t agree you are unlikely to change your mind at this last moment.
I am targeting those of you who do agree with me on this point but imagine that voting Ranil or voting Sajith could be a way of resisting the drift to an autocratic executive. My case is that this is an illusion because neither twin will take a firm stand and oppose these dangerous trends when, or if as surely will be more likely, the peril materialises in concrete form. Liberalism at home and abroad is facing its worst crisis in decades therefore it is necessary to mobilise a more determined leadership and inspire more forces than our UNP liberals of either flavour are capable of to meet of the threat.
If you abhor dictatorship your first priority is to defeat government attempts to grab 2/3rds on 5 August. The outcome anyway will probably be no-2/3. However, not only cynics but everyone I meet says the government will buy MPs to make up the shortfall. If it’s a small number a simple cash transaction is envisaged but if 20 or more are needed Sajith’s or Ranil’s cross-over proclivities will be deemed worthy of pursuit. If the shortfall is less than 10 the purchase can be transacted on the ever-popular MP free-trade market. With a larger shortfall a bulk purchase wholesale deal has to be struck and it will have to be an auction for either the Sajith/SJB or the Ranil/UNP livestock herds. There is not much difference between sellers on the supply side; it only depends on price and sinecure.
When it comes to crunch time there is little that will stand in in the way of Ranil or Sajith in fashioning a deal with Gota to repeal 19A and/or to enact an altogether new constitution? The Wickremesinghes and the Rajapksas have had a good working relationship, not prosecuting each other’s households and giving way to each other on vital issues. As for Sajith, his manifesto is as silent as the tomb on constitutional issues; it is fair game to surmise that his door is open to a Gota seduction bid. The Constitution is the hottest topic in the election arena so Sajith’s silence is deafening and is it more reasonable to conclude that he is open to a love-in with Gota than to give him benefit of any doubt. There is nothing in his life story, his temperament or his campaign utterances to make one think otherwise; being an invertebrate will go with the Sinhala-Buddhist populist flow.
Actually, today’s column is not intended to be an anti-Ranil or anti-Sajith diatribe but a genuine expression of anxiety. If you are a UNPer who longs to pension off jaded Ranil and date Sajith, that’s up to you and good luck if you have faith that he will stand tall against Gota. If on the other hand you imagine Ranil will mobilise to push back against authoritarianism good luck to your daydreams. Still, I would like to suggest that you should not stop half way, you should move all the way to link up with those who can be trusted to stand firm.