By Malinda Seneviratne –
Dayan Jayatilleka in an article titled ‘The Uva effect and the Presidency’ argues against the UNP fielding Ranil Wickremesinghe as its presidential candidate in a repeat of the 2005 face-off with Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has, with the use of a few important statistics, shot down the notion of a UNP resurgence that some commentators have seen in the Uva result. While offering that the UNP does not have anyone who could best Rajapaksa, Dayan offers that it is possible score moral-points even in a defeat if the gap is narrowed. In short, Dayan argues that Ranil will not deliver even this consolation prize.
No one needs to break a sweat to show that Ranil wouldn’t have much of a chance against Mahinda, but it’s a point that has to be made and Dayan makes it. He then proceeds to the more important question: ‘If not Ranil, then who?’ He proposes two names, Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya, but subtly drops the latter in a concluding question regarding the second preferential vote (which would come into the equation should the winner fail to secure 50% + 1 votes). He asks, ‘for example, who can secure the second preference vote of those who will vote for Anura Kumara – Mahinda, Ranil or Sajith?’
The arguments offered to support a Sajith Premadasa candidacy are rather spurious. ‘Youth!’ is one. The gains made by the JVP after the ‘young’ Anura Kumara became party leader and the impetus that Harin Fernando gave the UNP in Uva are cited as evidence. Those arrows are easy to draw but outcomes emerge from the operation of multiple factors not just age of particular individuals. What works for the JVP does not necessarily work for the UNP. Harin is young, but more importantly he showed courage, a sense of sacrifice for the larger good of the party, innovation and spirit, none of which are the preserve of the young.
It is, as Dayan says, about the man. To an extent. He employs the classic mislead – ‘what if?’: what if Maithripala Senanayake or Vijaya Kumaratunga had taken on J.R. Jayewardene in 1982 instead of Hector Kobbekaduwa? Well, Senanayake was 66 at the time (Ranil is 65) and Vijaya, although just 37, had lost Katana in the UNP landslide of 1977. In 1983 he was roughed up in Mahara and lost the by-election. This record doesn’t give reasons to get excited by the what-if proposition.
Dayan makes much of a single observation made by a reporter in Uva – ‘The crowd went wild when “Punchi Premadasa” arrived’. Well, tagging the young man’s dad might be construed as evidence of the writer’s outcome preferences, but even if that weren’t so, it is well known that Sajith moves with a cheering squad. It is also well known that it is two media houses (one radio/tv and the other newspapers) and not the rank and file of the UNP that has been inflating Sajith’s image. They have attacked Ranil Wickremesinghe mercilessly and shown absolute disregard of all ethics in attacking Karu Jayasuriya. Is the UNP so poor that it has to pick a man this beholden to people with absolutely no scruples when it comes to media machinations?
Sajith is not a party unifier. His methods are divisive. He has demonstrated this many times. He fought hard to oust Ranil with Dayasiri Jayasekera, but at the end of the day ensured that Dayasiri was humiliated without himself being harmed one bit. When he showed up in Passara without having lifted one finger to help Harin or the party, he snubbed Karu Jayasuriya, a man whom he, Sajith, once said should replace Ranil. He did this even after Karu, who has every reason to be peeved at Sajith’s underhand moves (with his media pals), showed much grace in his response to Sajith’s ‘return’.
If it is just about unity, then Karu Jayasuriya is the man. He is as much or more a nationalist than Sajith. He has national stature. He can, for many reasons, attract support from a wider political spectrum. He has a better chance of getting the second preference vote of those who pick Anura Kumara (let’s not forget that Sajith’s father presided over the decimation of the JVP in the late eighties).
Dayan is right when he says that Ranil has a lot of baggage. A Mahinda-Ranil face-off will beg for a ‘Hero vs Traitor’ poster (and we can trust such a line to be picked in the down-n-dirty of our political culture) in the way it was not possible in 2010. Neither Sajith nor Karu can be targeted in that manner, Dayan is right. But would Dayan say that Sajith has no skeletons in his cupboard? Would he say that Karu has secrets that might embarrass him?
The UNP is not exactly enjoying a pre-victory party right now. It is struggling to remain politically coherent. The last thing it needs is to be sidetracked by a political red herring. It is easy to pick one particular factor that makes one particular candidate look good and say ‘He’s the most handsome guy around,’ but that’s cheap politicking. Sajith has the age-edge but little else. Karu has other advantages, but perhaps he has different negatives. Selectivity doesn’t help. If that’s the name of the game, then a cogent argument can be made for Ranil too.
The UNP needs to be sober. The party as a whole has to be wary of the praise and blame dished out by backers of this or that person. That’s if it doesn’t want the next presidential election to be yet another cakewalk for Mahinda Rajapaksa.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com