By Rasika Jayakody –
If Sajith Premadasa is to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe as the leader of the main opposition party of Sri Lanka, the ‘what’ of Sajith should constitute the leadership material for the United National Party. It is clear that Sajith relies heavily on the Premadasa factor embedded in his name as he is the only son of the late President Ranasinghe Ranasinghe, the man who successfully spearheaded one of the most important individual revolutions in Sri Lankan politics, rising to presidency from the lowest rung of the society as far as the hierarchy of castes is concerned.
As a result of the revolution he spearheaded, the Premadasa factor became something that could make a huge impact on the mindset of the grassroots level of the society which constitutes a sizable proportion of the vote-base of Sri Lanka. Some of the rural empowerment programmes carried out by him benefited the poorest sections of the society to a great extent and that – despite the state sponsored violence unleashed by him during the dark era of 1989 – elevates him in the history as a leader who had a genuine intention towards serving the poor.
It is important to realize that the Premadasa factor alone is not enough for Sajith to rise to the leadership of the party. Apart from what he inherited from his father, it is interesting to see what he has cultivated over the past 20 years in his own capacity as a politician who represented the opposition for the most part of his political career.
Apart from his lackluster performance as a Deputy Minister of the United National Front government from 2001-2004, Sajith has not held national level responsibilities of any government since 1994. National level responsibilities, one might argue, would not play a decisive role in determining one’s rise to the leadership of a political body as the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike and her daughter Chandrika Bandaranaike made inroads into power without holding any national level responsibility in any government.
The biggest obstacle to Sajith’s emergence as a national level leader is the parochialism he adopted as a politician, confining his activism mainly to the district he represented. He hardly raised his voice in an emphatic manner when it came to issues of national importance and maintained a stolid silence over the Tamil problem. Although he attempted to project himself as a ‘patriot’ vis-à-vis obtuse remarks by Ravi Karunanayake and Lakshman Kiriella over the achievements of the Army, Premadasa failed to impress the patriotic camp and his bona fides was always a question.
Sajith was lost in the differentiation between social welfare and national level politics. He was more focused on welfare work and donations at the ground level rather than strengthening the macro level operations of the party. A successful politician should always align his individual plan with the national plan of the political body he or she represents; but in Sajith’s case his individual plan always took precedence over the national plan of the party and that provided enough arms and ammunition to the party leadership who anyway had an axe to grind with him.
In 2011, Sajith and his allies propelled Karu Jayasuriya into the leadership election of the party and the latter failed to win the support of the Working Committee to get elected to the party leadership. After the election however, Jayasuriya was edged out of all the decision making bodies of the party and was made a mere back-bencher who had no say over party matters. Apart from occasional squeaks, it is questionable as to whether Premadasa launched a genuine struggle to reinstate Jayasuriya. One of the close allies of Sajith Premadasa told this writer on a personal note that Karu Jayasuriya, at that point, was the biggest obstacle standing in Premadasa’s way to the party leadership! What he indicated was that backing Jayasuriya’s candidacy at the leadership election was a tactical move to get rid of Jayasuriya. Although that remark represented his personal viewpoint, it spoke volumes of the line of thinking which existed among some of the Premadasa allies during the leadership election of the party.
Premadasa’s political career, over the past 20 years, has been marked with populism and marred with a sense of parochialism. He should come to terms with the fact that he is popular among the grassroots level supporters of the party not because he is distributing sewing machines or milk powder, but because he is the son of Ranasinghe Premadasa. If he is to make any progress as a national scale leader of the United National Party he should step out of the parochial dungeon and engage in politics in a serious manner, aligning his individual plan with the national plan of the party.
The What of Sajith is made of his individual aspirations. Therefore, it is clear that the ‘What’ of Sajith is not what the UNP needs at the helm, at this juncture. The ideal option for Sajith is to come out of his cocoon and grow under someone like Karu Jayasuriya who is a fatherly figure and a broad minded politician. What Sajith has to understand is that the ‘What’ should always prelude the ‘Who’.
*Rasika Jayakody is a Sri Lankan journalist who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org