Colombo Telegraph

UNP Changes – Band-Aids Or A Surgery?

By Vishwamithra

We rise by lifting others” ~Robert Ingersoll

The United National Party (UNP) needed surgery. A creative experienced surgeon would have used his scalpel with precision and cut and sutured the fragments that have been malignant, creating a dangerous disease that shrouded the whole body, paralyzing the limbs, penetrating into the marrow and benumbing the critical chunks. Yet it looks like the changes that entailed a dismal performance at the recently concluded local government elections were not a result caused by the scalpel of such an experienced surgeon. It looks more like a procedure in between surgery and Band-Aids, performed by an amateur, still learning the fine art (or in this case science) of prescribing a sure remedy for a protracted malady.

The UNP’s woes are many. And they are varied. There is no one-off solution. Ungraspable concepts of 21st century-politics remain as it is for most of the decision makers of the Party, ungraspable. With the advent of the social media, the alacrity at which information travels from its source to the Smartphones or laptops has transformed not only the volume of information; it’s affected the initial quality of data and substance of matters. Gossip soon became gospel and before the real truth comes out another string of gossip and rumors has followed with the same intensity and latent power such gossips and rumors contain within themselves. Authenticity and veracity has been the unintended casualty in this process.

A very few amongst the present crop of UNP-parliamentarians have grasped that and those who understood that power, were elected to the new Politburo of the Party. Yet in the context of these unique innovations in technology, there are some fundamentals of politics that have remained relevant and crucial to the present day dynamic of power politics. Specialization, distribution of labor and delegation of responsibility with corresponding authority as superior management principles have not been replaced by any of this modern-day gadgetry. If one wants to succeed in politics of any era, such fundamental principles need close attention from those who try to exploit the varying vagaries of the profession.

The UNP, stuck in a morass of an abysmal performance at the LG elections, with a devastating effect on its leader who has managed to overcome a no-confidence motion, once again has made an unambiguous attempt, more on the sustenance of its leader than itself. It is almost beyond dispute that the general feeling among a vast majority of UNPers that a change at the helm is part of the package of changes they were expecting. But it is quite inane of them to expect that. Ranil Wickremasinghe is going nowhere. His maneuvering and navigational skills have reached their zenith. Ousting him from the Party leadership is not going to happen. They had better resign themselves to that reality now, not later. However, whether Ranil Wickremasinghe is going to be the next Presidential candidate from the UNP is altogether a different subject. That is the hub these Party rebels need to concentrate on now.

As much as the ordinary voters in the country vote to elect a President or a Member of Parliament, the elementary mindset of the Working Committee of the UNP is not different from any other voter in the country- they are all just voters who want a ‘winner’ as against a ‘loser’. Electing a nominee for the forthcoming Presidential Elections in 2020 is another matter altogether. In a real sense this proposition of electing a nominee is a making of Ranil Wickremasinghe himself. Having failed to place confidence in himself as a plausible and ‘winning’ candidate- Sarath Fonseka in 2010 and Maithripala Sirisena in 2015- Ranil has given enough and more reasons to UNP members, at grassroots level as well as District, Provisional and national level leaders that the slot of nomination is an open, not a closed decision. 

This is where the focus of Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake, the only two second-tier leaders in the Party in whom much of confidence and surety by the Party membership has placed, should be. A battle to dethrone Ranil Wickremesinghe from Party leadership is not a realistic proposition. It will tear the Party apart. But a fight for nomination to contest the Presidential Elections would appear to be a more legitimate contest. Ever since Ranil Wickremesinghe took over the Party after Gamini Dissanayake’s untimely death in 1994, he, as the Leader of Party declined to contest on his own Party’s ticket on two decisive occasions, 2009 and 2015. That is an extremely adverse precedent to set for a Party leader. Most of the criticism aimed at Ranil Wickremesinghe is centering on that precedent set by him. For a Party leader to forego an opportunity of such significance and magnitude could be construed as a betrayal of the Party’s principles and core values.

Against such a convoluted backdrop, development of other personalities, specifically those of Navin Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa whose fathers, Gamini Dissanayake and R Premadasa respectively who literally gave their lives for the Party, is a natural progression of political dynamics. But one must remember when evaluating Navin and Sajith, albeit it’s provocative component to compare the personalities of the two fathers and their respective contributions to the Party and the country, they must be evaluated completely independent of their fathers’ achievements. What R Premadasa and Gamini Dissanayake did for the UNP and Sri Lanka’s socio-econo-political development is unmatchable.

Yet it’s inescapable that those who would like or hate Navin and Sajith, would factor in their respective likes and dislikes for their fathers and the tremendous work of their fathers will have an unequivocal effect on their final choice. But there remains one singular factor which would not change. Especially in the context of what was mentioned earlier in this column about voters electing a ‘winner’ as against a ‘loser’, the performance of Navin Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa at the LG elections concluded in February, 2018, does matter.         

Let’s do an analysis of the LG Elections results for Navin and Sajith:

The UNP has been clearly swept in the Hambantota district! Despite the UNP winning the Hambantota MC, it failed to form the council which again reflects badly on Sajith’s organizational skills. . 

A close scrutiny of the above statistical table reveals that the unconfirmed yet widely rumored stories by media and other interested parties that Sajith Premadasa has a better and firmer hold on the electorate, especially the Sinhalese Buddhist faction, is shattered. Sajith Premadasa has found a very credible and a better results-producing competitor in Navin Dissanayake. The irony, however, is that until about two months ago Sajith had a free field as far as successors to Ranil Wickremesinghe were concerned. The LG Elections coupled with Navin being the UNPer to receive the highest number of votes at the election of the UNP Politburo among its the Working Committee Members cum Parliamentarians has catapulted Navin Dissanayake to be a force to be reckoned with. It was also reported that at this meeting when some Member suggested another name for Deputy Leader position in the Party, Sajith immediately got up and stated that he would resign from his Deputy Leadership position if that happens. This selfish rush to protect his turf is not a sign of a good, self-confident and secure leader.

Sajith is known to be a loner. Yet his dedication to his Ministry work and Buddhist temples has cut quite a unique figure among some of the neoliberal Ministers in the UNP-led government. His tireless work in the Hambantota district and adjacent districts, especially among poorer class of people reminds the work done by his late father, R Premadasa.    

On the other end of the spectrum, Navin Dissanayake too seems to be fairly conversant with, among others, parliamentary procedures, political strategizing and tactics and above all ‘winning’ votes. A ‘winning’ politician, apart from substantiating the confidence people have in the competitors, has some other remarkable side to it. That is its unique character of standing out as an enabler of optimism among the supporters which generates enthusiasm to work harder and go to the polls. That unique character in a ‘winner’ cannot be transformed into a contagious trait among many unless and until a unique and remarkable campaign based on modern and scientific political campaign principles is launched and executed to its finality. Beginning from branding, choosing its unique selling proposition (USP), multi-tiered delegation, precise scheduling, more than adequate transport facilities, more than significant amount of money and manpower and ability to change course midway without causing damage to the original plan and objectives etc. are all parts of a good plan.

But execution remains the most critical and game-changing element of the whole campaign. Whoever has the edge on these crucial parts of the equation wins the game. Both Navin and Sajith have a fight to fight. 

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