By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The challenging task that the SJB will face if elected into office is how to revive economic growth and foreign direct investment inflows while simultaneously reviving the living standards of the people which have plummeted due to the government’s ruinous economic policies in the context of the Covid-19 downturn.
Why the latter?
When Premadasa took over the UNP leadership and ran as UNP candidate, the party had mismanaged the country’s affairs so badly, it was on the verge of physical extinction. Murdered UNP organizers could not have conventional funeral rites. The party hardly functioned. And yet, with Ranasinghe Premadasa at the helm, the party won the election beating that most formidable of political opponents at a time of heightened nationalism, namely Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Premadasa obtained that victory while—and by—dropping almost all UNP symbolism, and campaigning as himself, standing on his own distinctive program.
Premadasa not only snatched victory from the jaws of defeat for the UNP, once he died and his programs were abandoned, the UNP never won a presidential election and led the country again.
Thus, there was the near-extinction from which Premadasa saved the UNP, and the black hole of electoral failure after his death. Before Premadasa (1988) and after Premadasa (1993), there was no viable path for the UNP. Only the Premadasa path succeeded and could succeed.
Because it was only Premadasa who solved the three equations that neither the non-Premadasa UNP (most notably but not only Ranil Wickremesinghe) nor the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administrations could solve:
1. Restoring and defending the country’s sovereignty and independence while winning the human rights battles in Geneva and elsewhere. When Opposition MPs Mahinda Rajapaksa and Vasudeva Nanayakkara petitioned the UN Human Rights Commission (the Council’s predecessor) in Geneva, and with the figures of the largest number of recorded disappearances on the UN’s books (after the crackdown on the Southern insurrection), the Premadasa administration neither appeased and capitulated in Geneva as in 1987 and 2015 nor lost the battle as the Rajapaksas did in their second term 2012-2014. The Premadasa administration was defended at the Geneva session and also at the Peace Research Institute conference (PRIO) in Oslo, by two of Sri Lanka’s top minds (and iconic products of the old Civil Service), Neville Jayaweera and Godfrey Gunatilleke.
2. Defending the idea and identity of a Sri Lankan nation while recognizing and celebrating its diversity. Premadasa’s pluralist policy always recognized and inscribed in public policy texts and practices, the multi-ethnic, multireligious, multicultural, and multilingual character of Sri Lanka. Indeed, “Towards a Multiethnic Democracy” was the title and theme of a long interview he gave Neville Jayaweera.
3. President Premadasa did the impossible, reviving economic growth, foreign investment and stock market activity while simultaneously reducing absolute poverty and inequality (relative poverty) and evening out the unevenness of growth patterns as between town and country.
No paradigm or practice before or after Premadasa was able to achieve this, which is why the UNP was in deep crisis before he took over the leadership and after he was assassinated.
It is precisely these three achievements that the democratic alternative will have to convene voters of its ability to fulfil if it wishes to win a Presidential election and lead the country.
It is also these three achievements that a winning party will have to replicate if it wishes to enjoy social stability and keep the Sinhala Buddhist masses from opting for a Myanmar outcome or its electoral Egyptian variant.
The closest, most credible legatee of the Premadasa paradigm is Sajith Premadasa. That is the primary reason that he is the automatic choice as the Presidential candidate in 2024.
He is also the only political figure who has fought the Rajapaksas at the local-parliamentary and national-presidential levels, at their most formidable, at times and on terrain that was most favorable to them. He lost more times than he won, but as Che Guevara said, what is important are “battle won or lost– but fought—against the enemy…”
Sajith Premadasa started losing in the patriotic Deep South only after the UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Chamberlainesque Ceasefire Agreement of appeasement with Prabhakaran.
The reason that President Sirisena reached out repeatedly to Sajith Premadasa during the 52 days is because Premadasa was the most prominent UNP personality who was not an enthusiast in the Cabinet, of the dreadful policies that lost the UNP and the SLFP its vote-base at the February 2018 Local Government election. He was the only chance of electorally sustainably bipartisanship. Sajith Premadasa didn’t accept because he was not an opportunist and also because he was instinctively intending to follow in his father’s footsteps.
It is ridiculous for commentators to speculate that any other personality, remembered by the minorities as an originator of every movement and campaign against them –from the from the aftermath of Ven Soma’s death, through the anti-Conversion Bill to the anti-Halal campaign and the opening BBS rally– could be a credible alternative as Presidential candidate to someone who has the Premadasa legacy; has been personally influenced and mentored by Ranasinghe Premadasa, while also having enjoyed the benefit of a first-rate overseas education and experience of work on Capitol hill.
The Premadasa heritage is not a family heirloom, it is a paradigmatic heritage. The Premadasa legacy is a policy legacy. It is impossible to believe that any political personality who was a vicious enemy of President Premadasa when he was implementing his breakthrough pro-people policies, could be the candidate of the SJB, whose best-selling point and irreplaceable advantage is founder-leader Sajith Premadasa.
President Premadasa’s only real weakness was that after he saved democracy from Southern Pol Pot-ism and retrieved national sovereignty by sending off a foreign armed force whose protracted peace-keeping effort was feeding the Southern violence, he baulked from personally leaning-in to the war effort to defeat the LTTE. This historic task was completed by three personalities: President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Secretary/Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
Logically therefore the ‘slate’ led by Sajith Premadasa should be completed and balanced by Sarath Fonseka.
There is only one political personality in Sri Lanka who combines a Populist heritage and political practice with a cosmopolitan-internationalist exposure and education, and that is the present leader of the SJB and the Leader of the Opposition. That is what makes him far and away the most logical candidate for the Presidency in 2024—which will be the Birth Centenary Year of Ranasinghe Premadasa.