UNP committing collective Hara-kiri

The United National Party (UNP) used to be a disciplined party. When party members, stalwarts or others, went off course from the strict code of discipline which it imposed upon itself, they were punished, without exception. That was the code of conduct under which J R Jayewardene built up the party from 1973 onwards. In fact, it was R Premadasa -- one of the first offenders at the time -- who went astray during the Dudley Senanayake era and was disciplined by the astute and stern leadership of J R Jayewardene, the leader who succeeded Dudley. Premadasa’s ‘Purawesi Peramuna’ (Citizens’ Front) was dissolved; Premadasa started playing a team-game again - which is party-politics - and the UNP was in power in no time, with a historic and unprecedented majority in Parliament.   

If there was one lesson the JR-era taught the UNP, it was discipline. Yet it’s discipline that seems to have fled this Grand Old Party. In the context of the current dilemma the UNP is stifled in, if all those who are ambitious about leading the Party, they must show some decorum and patience and discipline. J R Jayewardene played second fiddle from 1951 all the way up to 1973, until the physical demise of its leader, to reach the helm as the undisputed leader of the UNP. By doing what he did, JR also showed a remarkable sense of patience which today’s youngsters in Parliament don’t seem to possess. In fact, it was R Premadasa as President and leader of the UNP who showed the door to Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali, the two stalwarts in the Party who helped Premadasa to a very large extent in the ’88 presidential election campaign so that he could climb to the top of the greasy pole in politics.   

Presidential elections may be approaching fast; nominating a candidate might be of paramount significance, yet neither can Ranil Wickremasinghe select a suitable candidate nor can he conduct a successful election campaign if he fails to establish discipline among his Cabinet members simply because some undisciplined members are making a mockery of the succession process within the Party.   

Politics is a dangerous livelihood; its fruits and bearings are irresistibly tempting but the one element which is manifestly present in politics is its unpredictability and denial of any ‘trophy’ for the second place. President Richard Nixon of the USA wrote on the Maggie board in his campaign headquarters in Yoba Linda thus: “In politics, winning is not everything, winning is the only thing’’. No ‘trophy’ for the loser and that element of politics bothers so many newcomers to politics and those who are elected representatives of the People have no right nor any justification for rushing to the winning post trampling all those who have put in years of hard work and sweat into the people’s service.   

Yet, Nixon’s motto is universally accepted as the ultimate test of a politician. J R Jayewardene, R Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali were all practitioners of the trade. Except J R, all others rushed to the winning post and ultimately ended up literally dead on the street. Politics has such cruel ways of displaying its equalizing capability!   

The UNP has an issue today. Everyone realizes that Ranil Wickremesinghe, its leader, cannot win. Two names are in the open. Both Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa are in the race, so to speak. But they must realize that it is not the UNP as a solitary party that has a chance to win the next presidential election. It is a coalition of diverse political entities that brought an insignificant politician like Maithripala Sirisena to power. It is that coalition, if at all, which has a fighting chance, not the UNP by itself, at the next presidential election. Within that coalition, the UNP may be the key group; the UNP may have a commanding majority within that group, but given the current political dynamic, both the United National Party and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) have seen a considerable erosion in their vote banks.   

The erosion of their respective voter-base is not mainly due to their own weaknesses -- notwithstanding the fact that both have lost the elementary trust an independent voter might have had in them. Also, the natural evolution of socio-political-economic conditions have produced a culture of public mistrust in politicians in general. The fatigue that has set in caused by the passage of time is also a main cause for the people’s loss in faith and confidence in the existing structures of both parties -- the UNP and the SLFP. As a direct result of this fatigue factor, people have chosen to rally around coalitions of parties. The expansion of ‘independents’ as against card carrying party members has triggered the birth of a manifestly robust group of voters whose prime motive and condition is to work and vote for those who are allegedly committed to ‘service of man’ as against ‘service of self’. That Independent group has caused the formation of a voter-bloc who is uncommitted and unaffiliated to one particular political entity or the other.   

Against such an unpredictable political climate, the formal party base has suffered a setback in that the traditionalists in both wings have given way to a floating voter-bloc whose primary mentors are civil societies which are usually headed by educated men and women in the country. Loss of faith in the traditional politicians has been substituted by a trust and confidence in educated men and women who do not seek public office. This absence of a vested interest has immensely contributed to that faith for want of anything else.   

Sajith Premadasa and his supporters in the UNP second tier must realize this fundamental fact. Resorting to intimidation and political bullying will only drive that independent group away from the coalition and settle for another candidate or party. If Sajith cannot retain the coalition that brought Maithripala Sirisena to power, then it’s ‘game, set and match’ for the Pohottuwa candidate. It is not only Sajith Premadasa who should realize this, his UNP supporters who claim to be in Parliament and the party hierarchy too must come to the same unpalatable conclusion. Please remember, if Sajith loses the election, it’s over for the UNP and Sajith too.   

It is not too late for the UNP, Sajith Premadasa, Karu Jayasuriya and Ranil Wickremasinghe to sit down together and sort this out. In the event one party does not get the said nomination it should not be interpreted as a huge deal, for, of the two or three prospects who will not get the nomination, none of them, Sajith, Karu and Ranil, can join the Pohottuwa group. Period. Each one has to call the other’s bluff!   

Stern headship does not consist in being rigid and uncompromising; stern leadership is not clinging on to inflexible position and not letting room at the top. Those leaders who had been successful in history have always tended to accommodate the other. Complex situations had arisen in history’s long journey and while those who did not have creativity and boldness submitted to the angry mobs of marauding forces of history itself, those who dared and defied always managed to master the flow and overcome it with a great amount of patience and discipline.   

Unlike in the olden days when broadcasting of information depended on, in what today’s context could be described as ‘ancient’, methods and means. Today such systems and procedures are discarded and trashed without a chance of being revisited. Political power is not, they say, given unto you; you got to pursue it and get it. But that pursuit, more than the real goal, needs to be unreservedly honorable. People on the sideline will judge the pursuit more than the results; the pursuit in other words is the context within which one follows his or her instincts and goals. One can get totally entrenched in dirt and muck in the pursuit and those who would ultimately be declared winners might end up being dishonorable and dishonored. And those who are declared losers might never forget the process which was used and abused by the winner. That is quite a bad image and baggage to carry in the aftermath of the battle.   

That is exactly why Sajith Premadasa must be careful. He must learn one fundamental element in warfare. One must never challenge the leader unless he thinks that he could be the ultimate winner. In order to challenge the one on top of you, you must totally destroy him. You must not ‘take any prisoners’, as the cliché goes. If you challenge the leadership and if the leadership prevails, consequences of defeat for the challenger could be conclusive and fatal. In other plain and simple words, one must have a plan, a goal, a set of supporters who will execute the plan and one must be always, without exception, on top of everything, everything from beginning to end. If Sajith is ready for this ‘challenge’, he could go ahead, otherwise it’s not too late to withdraw his forces and let the chips fall where they may.   

The writer can be contacted at [email protected]

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