- Justice, in the political sense, has been poetic
- it all depends on who blinks first: Ranil or Sajith, or Ranil or Maithripala
It has been said of women, largely by misogynists, that men can’t do with or without them. The same can be said of the Sajith factor: the United National Party can’t do with or without it. It has also been said of the US Republican Party, by those opposed to it but not its founding principles, that it began with Abraham Lincoln and ended with George Bush Junior. Perhaps, the same can be said of the Grand (Green?) Old Party: that it began with D.S. and ended with Ranil. If I’m being heretical there, I should say I am not the first to say it, nor will I be the last. The truth is that the UNP is facing the kind of crisis that the SLFP was accursed with around two years ago. Justice, in the political sense, has been poetic.
Sajith Premadasa will not be appointed as the presidential candidate of the UNP until and unless the man who Indi Samarajiva calls “the aristocratic dear leader” lets him run. It’s difficult to think of one reason why he shouldn’t let him run, but then it’s difficult to think why he will. The stakes are too high. A Sajith presidency can work both ways: if the 19th Amendment did, as certain writers argue, dilute the powers of the president, then Ranil Wickremesinghe will let Sajith contest, and do everything in his power to make him win, just so to become a fully functioning executive prime minister. But that’s a big IF. Should the 19th Amendment end up empowering Sajith, Ranil and his regency, who are unanimously against the possibility of a Sajith candidacy, will probably not fare well.
The question as to who will blink first will be decided, ironically, by the president. If the talks have indeed succeeded, and he has gone ahead with an SLFP-SLPP alliance, the populist forces in the UNP will jettison the Reid Avenue regency and install Sajith as their figurehead. This does not mean that the likes of Ravi Karunanayake and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam will be eternally relegated to the background, but then it’s reasonable to think that they might not like the idea of a Premadasa calling the shots in a party that has been their “dear leader’s” for over 25 years. It all depends on what face the party shows to us. Will it show that it is ready to compromise, or will it stick to the formulae that failed for over five years?
The Cultural Fund controversy, if you can call it that, and the allegations levelled by Akila Viraj against Ajith Perera and Sujeewa Serasinghe, indicate that the upper echelons of the party still want to try the failed formula. This is not to say Sajith Premadasa is the magic solution that will deliver the goods. But a lot of politicians whose fortunes have considerably diminished – Harin Fernando top among them all, as well as Mangala Samaraweera, Harsha de Silva, and even, I daresay, Eran Wickremaratne – are clinging on to him. To see Mangala Samaraweera canvassing for Sajith is to wonder why he’s doing it: he’s the only prominent member from the Ranil camp calling for Sajith’s candidature. Unfortunately, that is not going to be possible unless Ranil gives him the green light.
Which brings us to the question of their voters and supports. Who wants Sajith? Who wants Ranil? Based on conversations I’ve had it’s clear that a tiny minority of commentators prefer the latter. But even among those who want him out of the game, most of those from the English speaking UNP community want someone other than Sajith; in their opinion (and this is putting it mildly) the man doesn’t articulate policies that well. In other words their icon is someone like Karu; failing that, they want Ranil back in the game, as prime minister, with Sajith playing the part of a lame duck presidential figure spending his time making speeches and building houses and settlements. In other words, they want Ranil out, but they also want him in. They can’t do without him. They’re fixated on him.
"Sincerity is a virtue that can, when it comes to politicians, easily be paraded and then discarded"
Anyone who saw last week’s live streamed Q&A session with Sajith will admit, at once, that the man can talk and he can articulate. These were serious policy statements. They were not educated or half-baked guesses. He clearly indicated where his sympathies lay, and unlike 2014 when hard hitting issues like defence and security were not talked about (for fear of giving into the enemy), he went ahead and admitted straight away he’s for 13+ and maximum devolution within a unitary framework: the same stance Mahinda Rajapaksa stands for. He let the audience know when and where he agreed and disagreed with them. If he wasn’t being completely honest, at least he tried to show that he was. Sincerity is a virtue that can, when it comes to politicians, easily be paraded and then discarded; in that regard Sajith is being more sincere than anyone his party can come up with and back.
But that session also showed the problem with Sajith: he’s so entranced with policy issues that, as Indi put it in a review of the event, “what you could say in one sentence he says in ten.” Dayan Jayatilleka has written of how the father, having secured the nomination, flew to China and worked on eight drafts on his manifesto with Susil Siriwardena after studying Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. That sounds like a lot of work, and it probably was. In comparison, what do politicians from today have to show? The Yahapalana manifesto doesn’t come close (it represented a multitude of promises and a 100-day programme which not even a pre-19th Amendment presidential figure was able to deliver), while the Mahinda Chinthana, which admittedly did come a little close, was later changed, skewed, and distorted.
My point is that Ranasinghe Premadasa knew what he had to do and planned what he would do in the event of winning the election. This is not to belittle his faults and flaws: no one can talk or write of his achievements without talking about the deals struck with the LTTE and the goon squads, which were all but completely sanctioned by the State. But then his programme was clear, concise, and profound. If Sajith’s session is anything to go by, his articulation of those policies is not only sporadic, but also incoherent.
How can anyone square Frederick Hayek with John Maynard Keynes? Sajith has, or rather Sajith thinks he has. (In politics to think you can is to assume you have.) But the one is opposed to the other. EconomyNext may jubilantly say, with justification, that mentioning Hayek in itself is an achievement, and that the Central Bank has adhered to Keynesian policies which have centred on demand management, but without explication (as of now all Sajith has provided are textbook definitions of Keynesian and Hayekian policies and some reflections on export-led growth, which will not reach people), such remarks will pass off as fantasies of an aspiring presidential hopeful opposed by his own party hierarchy.
Yes, one can argue that Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies are also incoherently articulated, and worse, that they are aligned with the UNP’s neo-liberalism. But they revolve around a group of people (whom you can call intellectuals or populists, depending on your stances) who know the game and know how to play it. Sajith does not have the equivalent of a Viyath Maga because a) he came into the election race on his own, and b) party seniors are opposed to him. Ranil, Ravi, Malik, and moderate figures like Harsha had as their policy guru the formidable and convincing Razeen Sally, who is to Ranil’s camp what Howard Nicholas is to the Viyath Maga camp. Sally represents Hayekian, small government policies, and Nicholas represents Keynesian, State led policies. By repudiating both, Sajith is presenting a middle path. As of now, however, he has not convinced me that he is on that path.
In the end it all depends on who has the carrot and who has the stick, and who’s the horse and who’s on the cart. In other words, it all depends on who blinks first: Ranil or Sajith, or Ranil or Maithripala. As things stand now, no one has convinced me. Not Sajith, not Gotabaya, and certainly not Ranil. But then the night is still young.