“There is no act of treachery or meanness of which a political party is not capable; for in politics there is no honour.”
The real and potential fractures that erupted within the United National Party (UNP) are of a totally different texture and character from those of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The real breakup of the UNP occurred when Bandaranaike left the party in 1951 and formed the SLFP. It engendered drastic national consequences. In a historical context, this breakup was construed as a logical necessity. The UNP was being led by the mercurial Sir John Kotalawela and as far as the UNP was concerned, whatever Kotalawela touched turned into dust. He had lost the trust and confidence of the electorate. The social and political capital that D S Senanayake built, Sir John managed to squander in a couple of years. His excessive subservience to matters that were British and the Colombo-elite helped further darken the image of the Party and the masses fled it in flocks. The 1956-transformation owed its electoral results to Sir John’s mismanagement of politics as much as to the congregation of the five-fold forces -- Sanga, Veda, Guru, Govi and Kamkaru. The 1951-fracture within the UNP fundamentally changed the socio-political profile of Sri Lanka. A great majority of the rural sector left the UNP -- some, never to return.
Even though the country’s economy was on a stable footing, a profound lack of empathy on the part of the UNP’s leadership towards the commoner was skillfully exploited by Bandaranaike and his Sinhalese-Buddhist coalition. The ‘Swabhasha’ cry could not have had a more fertile ground to take root in than the time when the UNP was being led by Sir John. It was totally divorced from the general masses. Not a very encouraging prospect for a party that governed the country for nine unbroken years. Despite the electoral collapse of the UNP in ’56, the party retained its unity thanks to the foresight and strategic approach JR adopted during these years.
While being outside parliament after his humiliating defeat at Kelaniya, JR managed to keep the UNP together and later invited Dudley Senanayake, who had already retired from politics, to lead it.
Voted back into power in 1965, the UNP showed some minor crevices in its unity but held on as one single political party. In the early ‘70s, after the electoral debacle in 1970, the rift between Dudley Senanayake and J R Jayewardene did not burst into a breakup of the party though the left leaders and the SLFP at the time wished it did. With the death of Dudley, the UNP became a different party. Under JR, the succession of the party leadership was decided on a brand new process and JR ensured that the membership and its hierarchical echelons had a decisive say in the process. When, in late 1976, he summoned all party electoral organizers to Sirikotha and asked them to nominate a committee of 10 in their preferential order, they knew what JR had in mind.
No other political party or its leader would have had either the guts or the foresight to promote a man of Premadasa’s social credentials as its leader. But the UNP and its leader paved the way for it and the way in which Premadasa conducted the affairs of government and party politics is another matter. Yet the mantle of leadership falling on the shoulders of a real ‘commoner’ such as R Premadasa was unparalleled in Sri Lanka’s caste-ridden political history.
The next grave crack in the UNP appeared in 1991 when an unsuccessful impeachment motion was brought against President Premadasa by a powerful group of ministers in the then Cabinet.
But the ouster of Gamini, Lalith, Premachandra and other stalwarts who led the impeachment process, signalled a serious splintering in the UNP. It aggravated the instability of the Party further when the breakaways formed the Democratic United National Front (DUNF). Some of the UNP supporters who left the Party and joined the DUNF never came back. One main reason for the UNP to have been rotting in the Opposition benches was this crack in the UNP. Yet in the wake of the assassination of President Premadasa, Gamini came back to the UNP and assumed its de facto leadership in the most unconventional way. And after Gamini’s assassination by the LTTE, the UNP suffered further. Yet, Ranil Wickremesinghe kept the Party intact even under the most trying circumstances.
The pronouncement made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe regarding the leadership of his Party on the need for a second level leadership is significant. Unlike the SLFP, the UNP has had a very decent and democratic way of electing its recent leaders. Both Premadasa and then Gamini assumed de facto leadership of the party via an election held among the parliamentarians or would-be parliamentarians. Even Ranil Wickremesinghe was confirmed as Leader of the UNP after a bitterly fought-out election in 2011.
Such steadfast adherence to democratic principles may have gone unnoticed by many but its validity and legitimacy in the current political climate is substantial. Its significance against a backdrop of good governance, transparency, accountability and law and order or lack thereof should be noted by all those who profess to safeguard these democratic values.
Nevertheless, family-centred rule should be unequivocally condemned because the inherent dangers of such rule were amply illustrated during the past twenty years. Democracy is not only an amazing method of governance, but it also provides the players and spectators, in equal measure, with a sense of balance. Those who are mindful of history, who are willing to forgive the wrongs done unto them by their rivals but not forget the damages such wrongs had caused to them, are invariably more successful in the long run. Both leading parties are now led by two gentlemen who do not have any family members to pass the baton to.
In this regard, what Plantation Industries Minister Navin Dissanayake aired out a couple of weeks ago is noteworthy.
His resolute stand not to release the funds, specifically allocated to the Sri Lanka Tea Board by courtesy of Gazette Extraordinary 1677/14 of October 27, 2010, to the Treasury apparently has prevailed. His posture to resign from the Ministry should not be taken frivolously. Whatever Navin’s plusses and minuses are, he is blessed with that rare attribute of ‘strategic recklessness’ of his father, Gamini Dissanayake. In political annals, those who dare display ‘strategic recklessness’, ‘sustained rashness’ or ‘controlled aggression’, whatever one calls it, against ‘political correctness’, a posture assumed by run-of-the-mill politicians of today, survive to triumph. Chances are, when one takes such a stance against personal odds would always become triumphant if such recklessness is not a misplaced expression of anger or hatred.
Jawaharlal Nehru once said that ‘the policy of being too cautious is the greatest risk of all’.
However, there is one cardinal precept that the three young men, Sajith, Navin and Ruwan need to observe: They have to deliver. No delivery, no gain, period. The UNP is in an enviable position with its second level-leadership. Apart from the aforementioned three, any political party would like to boast about the likes of Harrison, Akila Viraj, Ravi Karunanayake, Kabir Hashim and Sagala Ratnayake in its midst. Given the above circumstances and in terms of the analysis per my previous column, the chances of a UNP breakup are close to 0% and those of the SLFP are more than 50%.
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