By Malinda Seneviratne –
Two major factors wreck unity. Ambition is one and the other is ideological differences. The latte could include disagreements over strategy. In Sri Lanka, today, ideology is clearly a non-factor when it comes to the integrity of the major political parties. People break ranks for other reasons, even though they often justify crossover with rhetoric over ideas and strategy.
Splits are not the exception but the norm in political organizations and even religious orders. The history of the Christian Church, one might argue, is a history of schisms. The same goes for the Trotskyite Movement, the Fourth International having dozens of claimants.
The major political parties in Sri Lanka, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) are not immune to this either. Where there are personalities, there are personality clashes. Politics is about power and this often contains a thing called ‘power lust’.
It is a simple enough formula: do whatever it takes to move up, if there’s an obstacle, remove it or else go around it. It is tough when you are in the ruling party. The best chance for a breakaway from a regime was when Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake quit in the early nineties, but weak as the main opposition (SLFP) was, the duo had to play adjunct. Typically, regimes attract dissidents from other parties, especially after Sarath N Silva made crossing party lines a one-way process. Small parties do this all the time and individuals who don’t fancy spending years in the political wilderness crossover to recover their investment and more.
It is different when you are in the opposition. All you have to do is to tell yourself that one day things will change and until then all that matters is to move up the succession ladder and at the right time kick the leader out. It’s been tried before. There was an attempt to grab party office, name and symbol by a faction of the LSSP in the early eighties. A similar attempt was evident in the SLFP too at the same time. The old guard prevailed. It’s the same with the UNP.
How many times have various groups led by various leader-aspirants tried to oust Ranil Wickremesinghe over the past decade or so? The Party Constitution has been his biggest ally. The wiser among his younger detractors have played for the No 2. Others have gone for the top spot and fallen.
But what’s the situation right now? We have Karu Jayasuriya who joined the government during a time when national unity was more important than anything else. He rejoined the party when that need no longer existed. Karu wanted to be the leader, challenged Ranil, lost, accepted defeat gracefully and as part of party reforms took up the position of Chairman, Leadership Council. We have Sajith who also wanted Ranil ‘kicked out’ and replaced by Karu, spending months pouting, showering invective on party colleagues and all of a sudden wanting to mend fences.
Sajith wants the No 2 spot and Ranil appears to like the idea. The plot is pretty transparent. Ranil supported by Sajith will get more votes in a presidential election than Ranil in the fray with Sajith in pouting mode. It won’t be enough though. What next? Why, Sajith and his backers will resurrect the call for the leader to be sent home, except from a position of strength. As a precautionary measure, other ‘pretenders’ would have to be sidelined and Sajith is doing just that as evident from the crude snub directed at Karu in Passara.
These machinations are par for the course in politics and Ranil Wickremesinghe is too seasoned a politician not to put two and two together. This is why he didn’t openly say ‘Sajith is my No 2’. He merely said something that amounted to ‘I will see what I can do’. It is easy to lead a bunch of people who are on the same page. A great leader will keep together people who have different views, don’t get along with each other and who are ‘endowed’ with different levels of ambition and arrogance. Has Ranil succeeded? The track record is not very impressive but that can be dismissed on account of a constitution designed to wreck the opposition, a regime enjoying unprecedented approval for defeating terrorism and gratitude that abates slowly.
Passara was a sign, though. A bad sign. This was the UNP’s 68th Anniversary celebration. It was held in a province with elections just days away. Sajith had made his move. Ranil showed his hand. Ranil named names. He mentioned three: Sajith, Wijedasa Rajapaksa and Daya Gamage. There are, he said, his ‘three hands’ and he needed 7 more. In other words the likes of Karu, John Amaratunga, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella, Thalatha Athukorale, Mangala Samaraweera and Tissa Attanayake among many longstanding party stalwarts were roundly snubbed.
Sajith had, for the first time in this campaign, stepped foot in Uva. It was a unity-moment. To his credit, Karu did not say anything to detract from it. Sajith showed political immaturity by indulging in barbs. Ranil showed why he is not a political leader who can deliver victory by a) appearing to submit to the concerted Sajith-inflating campaign by two media houses largely discredited by the general public, and b) encouraging seasoned campaigners to abandon ship.
A different leader, say someone of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s caliber, would have put it in ways that bring together instead of dispersing the membership: ‘My hand was strengthened by Sajith, but more than that he has strengthened the party and all of us; I cannot do this alone and neither can Sajith, but most importantly even the two of us together cannot deliver victory – we need each and every member of the party to work tirelessly and as one.’
What happened next showed how ‘united’ the United (sic) National Party is. The same television station that is in overdrive trying to boost Sajith’s image continues to lambast Ranil. For what purpose? To secure further benefits for Sajith? Can’t Sajith stop this? Or is Sajith just a pawn of media moguls spurred by their own agendas? Whatever it is, it is clear that there are miles to go for some semblance of unity to be wrought. Holding hands on stage makes a good photo opportunity but the day to day grind of on-the-ground politics requires something more. That’s lacking. Indeed, going purely by the sophomoric performance put up by the Leader and the Would-Be, the unity-deficit seems to be widening further. This is why the UNP appears to be an Opposition Made in Heaven. For the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, that is.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com