This article was first published in the Sunday Leader and Colombo Telegraph on December 25, 2011. It is reproduced here given the political context of the no-confidence motion and internal strife within the United National Party in the call for Ranil Wickremesinghe to step down as party leader. The arguments are very similar to the ones made at the time. This article considered the objections raised then to Wickremesinghe and therefore is still relevant.
The UNP has over the years been reduced to a Colombo-centric pressure group, run by an elitist cabal whose members usually catch a cold if the Queen happens to sneeze in London. The UNP of yore used to be a vibrant political movement backed by the elite and the masses alike. It will have to regain its lost image and vigour if it is to gain enough political traction let alone, win elections. Ranil has his work cut out because President Rajapaksa is well versed in grassroots politics like the late President Premadasa.” – Last Thursday The Island editorial
However, there is another side to the story that might be hard to swallow. So, Let us start from London!
Margaret Thatcher came to the Conservative party leadership on February 11, 1975. Thatcher was the longest serving prime minister in more than 150 years securing three election victories in 1979, 1983 and 1987. In 1990, John Major became the party leader and served as the Prime Minister between 1990 and 1997. So, Conservatives, the UNPs UK counterpart, managed to stay in power for 18 years.
In 1973, JR Jayewardene became the UNP leader and was successful at the 1977 elections. He promptly changed the Constitution and became the first Executive President of Sri Lanka. Thereafter, Premadasa and D. B. Wijetunge served as successive presidents until 1994. So, the UNP managed to stay in power for 17 years like the Tories did in the UK.
Both the UNP and the Conservatives shared and practised the same political thinking, that of an open economy. Famed for their tough uncompromising style they privatised state controlled industries and curbed union power.
The UNP lost the 1994 election and the Conservatives lost the 1997 election. What happened next? Leftists came to power in
both countries, but with a new political philosophy. Tony Blair came to power preaching “responsible capitalism” and Chandrika Bandaranaike came to power preaching “a human face to an open economy” (vivurththa arthikayata maanusheeya muhunuwarak deema). This was simply to satisfy the left wingers in continuing with an open economy. The collapse of the so-called socialist/Soviet style economic order was complete .
This new phenomenon had brought the left closer to the centre. One cannot see much difference between the opposition and the ruling party on the economic front. Let us see what Basil Rajapaksa said to the US. Rajapaksa said that the government has done all that the IMF has asked. (see colombotelegraph.com for the full US diplomatic cable). What did the Central Bank Governor Cabraal say to the US? He said, “GSL has done all that the IMF has asked, including, for example, introducing new tax measures and altering its monetary policy.”
Once the Conservatives lost in 1997, intra-party leadership struggles emerged as is common the world over. They changed five party leaders ; William Hague 1997 to 2001, Iain Duncan Smith 2001 to 2003, Michael Howard 2003 to 2005 and David Cameron 2005. All of them lost the general elections and were unable to form a government except David Cameron. In 2010 the election ended in a ‘hung’ parliament with the Conservatives having the most seats but being 19 seats short of an overall majority. The Conservatives managed to form a government with the Liberal Democratic Party in a coalition, in a trade off giving them high profile ministries including the deputy premiership.
But, in Sri Lanka it is Ranil Wickremesinghe who stays as the party leader regardless of defeats. I would like to raise a couple of points regarding this issue. Firstly, the Conservative Party changed five leaders since their defeat. Did they manage to win because of leadership changes? Secondly, it is a Sri Lankan tradition that party leaders remain regardless of elections defeats. Look at Sri Lanka’s oldest and perhaps the most democratic party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party; Dr N. M. Perera served as its leader from the inception until he died. Take the Sri Lanka Freedom Party; Sirima Bandaranaike served as the leader until she died. What about the JVP? Wijeweera was the leader until he was killed. If someone proposes to change this tradition, that is another matter. Then one has to admit that losing, is a factor not confined to Ranil.
My point is Ranil is not the losing factor. Ranil is unlucky to be remembered as the author of the peace process which in fact weakened the LTTE (though I am not endorsing his peace strategy, those who are opposed to him in his party as well as other critics, who have the blessings of the Maha Sangha and pretending to be patriots – have to accept it) His achievements in areas such as media freedom and reforms and the economic policy laid part of the foundations for the steady recovery in the economy during the early part of 2000 and like all the better leaders he resisted the temptation to panic in the face of cries from the opposition, the press, and the backbenchers.
When Ranil won the election to be Prime Minister, he was good. Just after the UNP lost the 2004 April election he was subjected to smear campaigns. In May 2004 the US Ambassador to Colombo Jeffrey J. Lunstead wrote to Washington, “after the recent election defeat, UNP leader Wickremesinghe is under fire from within his party.” He wrote “Long-standing UNP members have also criticised Wickremesinghe’s election strategy, though mostly in private.
In a May 10 meeting with the DCM, for example, former Interior and Christian Affairs Minister John Amaratunga said the UNP had lost the election due in part to a lack of charisma on Wickremesinghe’s part.” “ Amaratunga related that one party member had complained to Wickremesinghe’s face that his constituents were unhappy that the former PM never smiles and they wonder why they should vote for the UNP” ( see colombotelegraph.com) If these allegations are correct how did he win the 2001 general election and became prime minister? Did the UNP win because of John’s charisma or John’s smile ?
There will always be discontent, there will always be people who seek to stir trouble in every political party. Even before he faced his first presidential election in 1999, some sections of the UNP, such powerful party figures as Wijepala Mendis and Susil Moonasinhe, started to criticise Ranil publicly. It was in 1997 that I asked Ranil; “what is this all about? Why does this kind of criticism take place in public?” Ranil replied; “I’m not a Premadasa, let them criticise, President Premadasa never let others criticise him, and always suppressed critics, at the end he faced the consequences”. In another occasion I asked Ranil, why don’t you support Chandrika’s political proposals (Package)? He replied; “the issue is the parliamentary group and the working committee. They were nominated and appointed by Gamini Disanayake.” The answer was clear, though he was the leader of the party, the decision making body wasn’t under his control. It was his opponent the late Gamini Dissanayake who appointed them. Any leader likes to make some changes at some time, and if Ranil chooses to do that, that is entirely his prerogative as the leader of the party. The party leader has to have authority to make decisions. That is the UNP tradition.( The bad version is Sri Lanka’s oldest democratic party’s leader Minister Tissa Vitarana. He has manipulated the party annual general meeting and membership lists in order to get favourable decisions.) If the UNP dissidents need to change this tradition, there must be another way. But it should not be on the basis of Ranil being a loser, so-called sexual orientation allegations, or his smile.
What was President Rajapaksa’s motive behind introducing the18th amendment before taking oaths into his second term? He knew in the second term even though he is the president, struggles to be the next leader will start from within the party and he will not be able to control it. JR Jayewardena and Chandrika Kumaratunga both faced leadership struggles in their second terms.
Ironically, London has had struggles for leadership from grass root levels in political parties. Iain Duncan Smith was the first Conservative leader to be elected by grassroot level members rather than MPs. It was not a happy experience, however, and the self-confessed “quiet man” fell to a vote of no confidence from MPs never getting to fight an election as party leader.
Some argue that the UNP need a leader like Mahinda or Premadasa. Ranil of course is not like them. On the one hand, I don’t think the country needs another Rajapaksa or Premadasa or even a son like Premadasa. People who preach this, forget how undemocratic leaders they are and were. On the other hand if the UNP found a leader like Rajapaksa, voters will say, oh, we already have a Rajapaksa in power, so why do we need another ? He can do this better than the UNP one, because he has already served two terms and he is better than an amateur. If one needs to change the UNP leader, they should find someone who is different to both Ranil and Mahinda!
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!
To read a Sinhala translation click here