19 May, 2022


The Halo Slips: What The UNP Lost

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

“Maithripala Sirisena is a decision I don’t regret.” – Ranil Wickremesinghe

“I believe that Mr Wickremesinghe and his group of closest friends, who belonged to a privileged class and did not understand the pulse of the people, conducted themselves as if shaping the future of the country was a fun game.” – Mathripala Sirisena

Political alliances are marriages of convenience. When nothing warrants them, they become a convenient front against a common enemy. But when that common enemy forms an outfit far more popular (that is, outside the parliament) than the coalition and its allies, rifts are bound to materialise. It’s not easy to hide those rifts. Sooner or later, they are bound to lead to a collapse. And the more the collapse of these alliances gets delayed, the worse it gets for everyone.

In other words, the UNP and UPFA, by carrying on a premature dalliance for a more than three years, screwed the people. There was nothing that called for the coming together of these two traditional foes. It was merely a front against one man. Mahinda Rajapaksa. You can argue that, yes, he was getting it into his head that he was a king (and not the “temporary custodian” he said he was in 2005) of this country, but even accounting for this, the coalition was a convenient way of battling an inconvenient political future. Inconvenient, that is, to Ranil Wickremesinghe.

When the likes of Ajith Perera and Mangala Samaraweera claim that the people are on their side and that they will somehow prevail, I get amused. “The people” gave up this government a long time ago. “The people” voted for an outfit the UNP and UPFA had excluded from the legislature for more than three years. “The people” roundly rejected the IMF-driven measures the government was imposing on those who had no access to the car permits or privileges those they had helped bring to power were indulging in. “The people” were getting tired of the small victories that were being scored and the larger victories that were being evaded.

In other words, “the people” were showing signs of disenchantment. The government, by trivialising those signs, was being very stupid. And the result of that stupidity was the most unconstitutional coup an opposition could bring about, with the collaboration of the President, in the history of this country.

The Mahinda-Maithripala alliance was promoted by two ideologically different camps driven by one goal: a front against the enemy. Nalin de Silva was in one camp, Dayan Jayatilleka in the other. But given that most of Rajapaksa’s supporters wanted the man to go alone, such an alliance seemed inconceivable. To put it into perspective, it was much easier to imagine Mahinda and Chandrika in the same room.

And yet, here we are.

Whether it was the best combination, whether it will go up or come down, time will tell. In the meantime, we can confidently say this: that the alliance represents, outside the parameters of constitutional legality and legitimacy, a political expression of the people’s fury against the UNP government. One would have to be a kepuwath kola type or an Old Left apologist to claim otherwise.

How did it come about, though?

The UNP-UPFA coalition moved ahead with a program that was “social democratic”. It was hard to find out which side of the political spectrum it belonged to, because it belonged to a mishmash of conflicting ideologies, from the Jathika Hela Urumaya’s sustainability drive to the UNP’s pro-business program. As long as the coalition stuck to its reformist manifesto, however, this didn’t matter.

It mattered when the parties tried to translate that manifesto to a meaningful economic program. To put it briefly, one party had its roots in a populist platform, while the other, despite its championing of a vaguely defined social market economy, had its roots in a compradore, pro-privatisation agenda. It was easy to square the reformist thrust of the political program with the populist roots of the UPFA. It was harder, though, to square it with the austerity measures the UNP was imposing on the people, ironically in their own name.

The ultimate snub came, for me, when Mangala Samaraweera held a placard bearing an equation that was supposed to be the fuel price formula. No, it was not the equation that infuriated the people. It was the image of Samaraweera and Eran Wickramaratne laughing. With themselves. At a press conference. The symbolism was hard to put off: the political elite, in an air-conditioned room, trivialising a formula that was crushing the people, most of whom had voted for them in 2015. The joke was on those same people. How could you not expect a backlash from them?

There’s more.

For decades, the UNP was associated with an anti-rural, anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist face. This was known. What was also known, though more recently, was the crass elitism that the UNP kowtowed to, after the 2015 election.

In March 2015 the New York Times ran an article (“A Cricket Match with Politics in the Spotlight”) that dwelt on the Big Match and its place in a regime dominated by the Prime Minister’s Old Boys. The implication was clear: the members of the Club came from more inclusive backgrounds, while the Rajapaksas, who had lost power, came from a background that rejected such inclusiveness. It was a triumph of elitism over ethnicity, underscored by the decision of the Prime Minister to appoint many of the members of the Club to the government. As Gayantha Karunathilaka and Harsha de Silva, quoted in the article, put it, they were bringing the “values” they had picked up from their school to the country. Rajpal Abeynayake, who criticised the UNP, put this into perspective rather cynically, “They are back in charge now.” Harsha added, not a little jubilantly, “And everyone here [at the Match] is celebrating that.”

The UNP “came to power” in 2015 with a set of beliefs which led them to impose external, ethnic, and security policies that, as Dayan Jayatilleka implied in an article written hours after Sirisena appointed Rajapaksa, “affronted the national identity of a majority.” It was a set of beliefs cut off from the people. A set of beliefs more at home in Reid Avenue than in Ruwanwella. A set of beliefs rooted in a crass form of elitism, as shown when, for instance, Ranil was praised by his Reid Avenue worshippers for “making use” of Maithripala (an act that was seen for what it was: a member of the elite enriching himself through an outsider who could never join his ranks). It was, from a sociological perspective at least, fascinating. But also repelling.

I distinctly remember the kind of sentiments harboured by those who affirmed this outlook. It was based on certain crude political differentiations. The Rajapaksas stood for the past, our heritage, the UNP stood for the future, our destiny. The Rajapaksas stood for the old, the UNP stood for the young. The Rajapaksas would take us to the nagula, the UNP would take us to an industrial hub. The Rajapaksas were bumpkins, the UNP were of a more refined order. The Rajapaksas were savages from Beliatta, the UNP were gentlemen from Kurunduwatte.

There was one post in particular that made the rounds on social media. It carried a photo of Ranil and it bore the following caption: “I may not carry your baby, but I care more for your child’s future than those who can.” An entire generation who had grown to admire the man on the basis on his school tie, and elitist credentials, voted for the UNP believing in that message. It was simply too hard to resist.

Where are we now, though? Closer to Reid Avenue, yet far, far away from Sri Lanka.

For three years, the UNP spread the myth that only those who came from their class (and schools) could do and deliver. Well, it turned out that they could neither do nor deliver. The beliefs they bandied have, clearly, gone to the dogs. While I do not claim this is the reason behind the indifference of the people towards the perceived illegality of Maithripala Sirisena’s appointment of his old foe, I would say that the politics of Reid Avenue, which estranged us all from this government, added fuel to the fury of the common citizen. It has undressed itself, and failed. “The people”, whom Mangala Samaraweera claims are on “their side”, have given up on them. And why? Because the UNP and those “Old Boys” have done them all in.

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Latest comments

  • 21

    A good article.

    In this country what you see is not the reality. Ranil is trying to hide behind the concepts of a parliament and a political party to continue his ego trip ( 40 year old) and the domination by a tiny clique.

    More than half the UNP MPs are from Royal College ! Do our people vote for Royalists when ever they contest ? Or is Ranil having a stranglehold on the UNP, forcing Royalists down the throat of the people ?

    In this reality, what good is a parliament which is a top down arrangement ? A collection of old Royalists ! It is best to destroy at least one hypocrisy by chasing Ranil and his boys out. The West should await the next elections which will show how unpopular Ranil and UNP are.

    • 4


      This is hypocrisy at best from Ranil and his clique. They are crying about democracy and the constitution. None of this came to play when Ranil was appointed PM in 2015. Ranil accepted the position of PM with his usual sense of entitlement and was glowing like a peacock. The constitution was an inconvenient truth the.

      The past 3+ years, what the people saw was Sirisena doing everything to keep the Rajapakshas at bay and Ranil trying to solidify his claim to the throne that has eluded him so far. All the while, robbing the people blind and gifting themselves with every conceivable luxury they felt they were entitled to. It wasn’t lost on the people that while doing all this, they were selling national assets for cents on the Rupee to enrich themselves and asking everyone to tighten their belts.

      Ranil is a pariah. Unfortunately, he will be a Member of Parliament for life as long as we have the preferential voting system and the backdoor entry known as the National List.

  • 17

    Yes, UNP screwed it big time, but I think is still a better option than Rajapakse, Maithree combination . Are you so bankrupt to quote that humbug Dayan J who is advising from Russia Mahinda on how to
    seize power illegally. Uditha grow up. The country is going to be handed over to Rajapakse for an infinite number of bites of the cherry! Jumbo

  • 3

    Latin perhaps may not have been a subject taught at Royal College since early 60s.Yet every student including RW and his Royal corterie surely must be knowing at least the meaning of their school Motto ?

    ” Disce Aut Discede”

  • 3

    The bitter truth , at last .

  • 10

    Uditha Devapriya
    This is a pathetic lament typical of a parvenu suffering from a lack of self-esteem, and from feelings of inadequacy. In a country like Sri Lanka where the class system is still dominant, it can be quite tough for social climbers. What is your problem, young man? You seem to have a good education and your command of the ‘Kaduwa’ is excellent. Your writings reflect you’re intelligent, well-read, and can think critically. Accordingly, your articles on art, film, and literature, and on social issues in general reflect an open, liberal mind. But when it comes to Sri Lankan politics, you turn away from that liberal inclusiveness and openness and fall back on obligatory concepts like ‘rural,’ ‘Sinhala,’ and ‘Buddhist,’ etc. The danger is you can go down to the level of people like Nalin De Silva – the dinosaur who rejects science as something ‘foreign and western.’ These ambivalent ideas smack of authoritarianism and intolerance. That is why you seem to endorse Dayan’s racist comment, “affronted the national identity of a majority.” What the hell is that? So I ask you again. What is your problem? Is it the fact that you couldn’t go to Royal College, and came up through some glorified tutory run by Suddhas AKA international school?

  • 5

    Uditha, you are writing like a baby. The issue at stake is – do you hand over the country to Rajapakse clan and allow them to rob the country for another 50 years! Nothing else!

  • 3

    Unlike you he understands politics. The liberals need to get down from their high horse and should take a walk across the less fortunate areas of Colombo. The problem we “the majority of people have” is that the government did nothing to help the starving and the poor while they having a marvelous time in Colombo 7. The government was given the mandate by the people in 2015 to get the house in order and root out corruption. They did neither and now Mangala is asking the people to come and protest for them? As an observant Sri Lankan said “Kela unahama witharada api enne one?”.

  • 0

    Great analysis! Somebody needs to take out a paintbrush and paint the concepts Uditha speaks about- abstract or realism, so we never sin again! One large mural should do it.
    Ranil was never elected nationally. His cabinet was of a “quinary” sort, far removed from the democratic process due to the Masses. His idea was to implement the Western system and whip the masses to fulfill it.
    Rajapaksa has won – that is very obvious. The Masses can rest more easily. But we beg him to stop relying on excess Chinese loans and grants to fulfill his governorship. Enough of the infrastructure developments! What has been built so far, we hope he will revolve the polity around utilizing these systems and incorporate the people into participation. Value of the rupee has to be involved within that paradigm. Then we don’t need to go to the riche in the world and be at their mercy.

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