After the 1994 elections, the UNP began to disintegrate. It was the end of an era and a shock to so many people who had been in power for such a long time. It was inevitable, since after a while the public just gets sick of a party, and after 1991 there was a sense of inevitability about the end of the Premadasa era. Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali formed another party and the UNP’s grassroots started dying, people began leaving and the party was falling apart.
As I mentioned last week, people who consider Ranil as the losing factor should not forget the fact that the party’s entire senior leadership was either killed or assassinated and Ranil became the party leader with a parliamentary group and a working committee which were loyal to his opponent Gamini Dissanayake. So, it is not a simple challenge to build the party as well as develop a new political philosophy. People who believe that the UNP needs a Premadasa type leadership must not forget the fact that; in Sri Lanka there were only two instances when people took to the streets to rejoice over a death; one was when Prabhakaran was killed and the other was when Premadasa was assassinated.
I heard that the UNP dissidents were bemoaning the UNP’s loss of the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank and that they need to win it back. I think that is why their leader Sajith Premadasa is going around donating large sums of money to Monks in Buddhist temples (if he is a transparent leader he must declare where that money comes from!)
Of course Ranil is not like that. I remember when we were discussing Lasantha Wickrematunge’s funeral arrangements in the funeral organising committee where Karu Jayasuriya and Ranil participated. Someone suggested giving a speaking opportunity to someone like Ven. Sobhita. Ranil said we will do it as a layman’s (gihiyange) event. He did not want mix politics with religion. Sure it is against his party’s history and its leaders’ philosophies. D. S. Senanayake said, “We are one blood and one nation. We are a chosen people. The Buddha said that his religion would last 5500 years. That means that we, as the custodians of that religion, shall last as long” (Ceylon Daily News 17.4.1939). It was the political philosophy of the nationalist Right. Ranil also shared the same philosophy in his early days. If you read his parliamentary speeches in the early 1980s especially after 1983 riots, one can find it there. We all now know what the country paid for that nationalist Nazism. Do the UNP dissidents want to go back to that again to start a fifth Eelam war?
As Rajan Hoole cleverly analyses in his book “The Arrogance of Power”; these developments also affected the image and content of Buddhism as a partner in this millennial ideology. By becoming linked to an ethnic group and the power ambitions of its ruling class patrons, this brand of Buddhism lost its universal appeal and moral content. It became a one-issue religion – that one being the Tamil issue. Buddhist clergy speaking on almost any other issue are frequently heard with indifference and bemusement. But when it comes to the Tamil question, a ritual hard-line is expected from them and is duly given wide publicity in the media. The political leaders are then quick to point out that the Sinhalese are totally opposed to federalism. This is a unique role played in any country by the religious establishment.
When a political leader prostrates himself before a Buddhist-prelate, it is a public transaction viewed with cynicism by both. It is also a ritual that they both find useful. The prelate enjoys symbolic power at the sufferance of the political leadership. At the same time intransigence on the Tamil issue, which the practical politician is loath to own up to, is voiced for him by the Buddhist establishment. This ritual hypocrisy that has become part of the political culture has made the Tamil question more difficult to resolve.
If Ranil wanted to go back to that nationalist Nazism which the Rajapaksa led coalition preaches he has whole package with him. “The Revolt in the Temple” (1953) was an important piece of ideological writing by Helena Wjewardene’s son Don Charles Wijewardene (Ranil’s grandfather), which appropriated for the Kelaniya Temple and the ‘Sinhalese Race’ a 2500 year history, and likewise by allusion for the Wijewardene family, the temple’s recent patrons. The destinies of the country and the patrons of the temple were linked together by the writer in his eloquent slogan, “When Kelaniya fell, Lanka fell, when Kelaniya rose, Lanka rose.” (Ironically now Kelaniya has fallen Lanka has fallen – now it is Mervin de Silva and not Ruwan Wijewardene!) According to Jonathan Walters, “constitutes a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to that historic mission and lays out Wjewardene’s blue-print for a post independence Sinhala Buddhist state which has gradually become a reality.” Ranil only needs to upgrade his grandfather’s theory a bit and lay the foundation for another war with Tamils. Is that what those UNP dissidents want? Are they suggesting going beyond the Rajapaksa Sinhala-Buddhist racism? I do not think the country needs that.
I think as the leader of the UNP he clearly understands that and he changed the party philosophy. But he does not have an energetic group to take that ideology to the grassroots level. He has an energetic bunch of no-good men and women who are thinking of jumping over to the other side. Though I am not a UNP fan, this is how I understand the UNP; Rajapaksa is about state and UNP is about society. The UNP needs to establish a good energetic team which is armed with all those arguments on protectionism versus free trade, privatisation versus nationalisation, trade union power versus consumer power and nationalism versus liberalism. You do not just go jumping over fences because your party has nowhere to go. You want to make an impression; here is a fabulously sexy, modernised United National Party.
Some people’s public image is so different from their private lives. Ranil Wickremesinghe is one of the nicest and kindest people you will ever meet as a political leader. I know Mahinda Rajapaksa well; he is only good for gossiping. But Ranil has an incredibly clever mind, one of the sharpest. One day in 1997 Michael Roberts presented me with his newly edited book, “Collective Identities Revisited” and since I was having a meeting with Ranil after that, the book was in my hand and Ranil remarkably gave me an introduction to the book. He is widely read and according to one of his closest friends, often he will win an argument even when he is wrong, which is just the most frustrating thing when you are a politician. But the difficulty is that in politics you have to be what you are. I think that is something he has to think about. I wonder why the Sri Lankan electronic media does not arrange a debate between Colombo educated Ranil and London educated Sajith Premadasa. Then the UNP membership as well as the country can decide who is better.
Former US Ambassador to Colombo E. Ashley Wills wrote in a leaked US diplomatic cable; “Wickremesinghe is also surprisingly knowledgeable about U.S. history and politics; he is an avid reader about the American Civil War, U.S. military history, and U.S. legislation.” So, now Ranil must be thinking about American President Lyndon Johnson’s explanation for not sacking his powerful FBI chief, J. Edgar Hoover, on the grounds that it was “better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside pissing in”.Before concluding this Sunday essay, I would like to ask a question: What is missing in the entire UNP leadership battle? For me it is the gender perspective. There was not a single woman nominated by either camp. There are seventy people in the UNP Working Committee (Members of Parliament 37 plus Non-MPs 33) only seven female members in it. Why do they not think about that? On the one hand they should think about women voters instead of the so-called Sinhala-Buddhist voters, since women comprise 52 percent of the population. On the other hand they need to give chance for their voices to be heard, that is what democracy is all about.
Why do they not think about Rosy Senanayake? Ranil should think about making her the party’s deputy leader. She is even a good choice for the UNP leadership someday. I cannot think of anyone in the present group of UNP men who is better than her. One has to analyse how she became the leader of the opposition in the western province and how she faced the Sinhala-Buddhist Wimal Weeravansa type smear campaigns. Anyone who has followed her morning talk-show knows how intelligent she is; she is not just a beauty queen!