Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara, in an interview with Daily Mirror, speaks about the strategy to take control of the UNP and defends his leader Sajith Premadasa’s promise to give Rs.20,000 to people after the elections. He explains as to why SJB was formed. Excerpts:
Q How is your campaigning for the parliamentary elections?
We carry out a vigorous, organized election campaign. We contest in all 22 electoral districts. Separate campaigning is done at the village and urban levels. Our leader Sajith Premadasa addresses rallies at every electorate. The other leaders of our party also address meetings at local levels. Our candidates in the fray are conducting 25,000 meetings. Our trade union movement and woman wing conduct meetings separately.
Q When your leaders address rallies, they talk about capturing the power of the UNP headquarters ‘Sirikotha’ instead of taking on the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Does it mean that you have accepted defeat and reconciled with it?
No. We campaign on a strong footing. We are stronger today than we started. Whenever we refer Sirikotha, it is played up in the media. The government is scared of us. Therefore, they have embarked on a witch-hunt against our members. They are incarcerated. Legal action is being instituted against them. Our candidates Patali Champika Ranawaka was taken into custody over an accident involving a motorbike, Rajitha Senaratne over remarks he made at a press conference and Ranjan Ramanayake for the distribution of rice. I have also been summoned before the presidential commission. We are victimized one by one. It is done as a media stunt. The government is so scary to face Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) at the elections.
Q When you took over power in 2015, we saw the leaders of the past government being held up before the court. Today, you also face the same fiasco. Isn’t this the repetition of the same drama then?
At that time, there were allegations about corruption and frauds. We took action against them over such thefts. Today, it is nothing but political victimization against us. At that time, we conducted investigations and arrested people responsible for wrongdoings. Today, there is just a presidential commission. They do it to give wide media publicity.
Q You served in office for five years. But, you could not dispense with any court case by proving allegations against those involved in such thefts or frauds. Why is it?
Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, who was in our government is now in the present government. You can see the reason.
Q He served in your government for a short period. You replaced him with a new one. Still, you could not prove any allegation in a court of law. What is your response?
He was with us for three years. According to the judicial procedure in our country, it takes a long time for a case to be proven and the accused concerned convicted in a court of law. It takes a few years to penalize even a person accused of rustling two coconuts from a nearby garden.
"We have not decided to part ways with the UNP. As I said earlier, we formed SJB as per the decision taken by the UNP working committee. The UNP had contested under different symbols in the past"
Q You talk about taking control of Sirikotha once again. You have already broken ranks with the United National Party (UNP) and formed SJB. Then, how can you take the country of another party in legal terms?
We formed SJB according to a decision taken by the Working Committee of the UNP when we were in it. We say we take over Sirikotha. It means the majority of the UNP is with us. Eighty members who served in the Yahapalana government contest the upcoming parliamentary election with us today on SJB ticket. The UNP has only 15. They are only in possession of the Sirikotha building and the name board. They have the shell, but the crux is with us. We are thoroughbred UNPers. We worked for the party at the cost of our lives.
Q The UNP is a party synonymous with its elephant symbol. The symbol has appeared on the ballot paper at every general election. Today, we find both the elephant symbol and SJB’s telephone symbol. You have abandoned the UNP. How can you call yourself an UNPer now?
We have not decided to part ways with the UNP. As I said earlier, we formed SJB as per the decision taken by the UNP working committee. The UNP had contested under different symbols at presidential elections in the past. It contested under the swan symbol on two occasions. Only a small group of the party has gone against the working committee decision.
Q The UNP claims otherwise. Legally, the minutes of the relevant party meetings matter. If the minutes say such a decision has not been taken, how can you challenge it legally?
The UNP General Secretary has declared such a decision to people at a press conference. The majority members of the UNP working committee are with us. I don’t know whether the minutes were faked later. We are familiar with the way the minutes are prepared by the UNP. They would have worked out minutes in our absence to suit their interests.
Q In a legal case, the minutes submitted by the party will matter. How do you challenge it in a legal context then?
The public verdict is more important than a legal verdict. We are bound by the public verdict. People will spell it out at the elections. There may be a different judicial ruling. But, people’s verdict will matter most for us.
Q After the 2015 electoral defeat, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa adopted a political strategy. He broke ranks with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and formed SLPP. Finally, he prevailed upon the SLFP to be a junior ally of the SLPP. Are you emulating the political strategy adopted by him?
There is no need for us to emulate Mr Mahinda Rajapaksa. When the UNP lurches from defeat to defeat at every successive election, we gave mind to an alternate strategy. We wanted to bring about a leadership change for years but in vain. As a last resort, we took this step.
"The UNP vote base would have eroded further had we not formed SJB"
Q How will the split impact the outcome?
The UNP vote base would have eroded further had we not formed SJB. Party people were of the opinion that they would boycott elections if Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe remained the leader.
Q What do you think are the reasons for your electoral defeat at the presidential elections?
There was a lack of consensus in that government- the President in one position and the Prime Minister in another. Half of the Cabinet ministers were from the SLFP. It was the most distorted government I ever saw in the world. Sajith Premadasa had to pay for all finally.
Q You served as a Cabinet minister in that government. Do you also take responsibility for all such wrongdoings?
A lot of things stood in our way in the discharge of work. The SLFP members who served in our government secured key Cabinet posts. Later, they left our government. I regret that I am also responsible for electing Mr Maithripala Sirisena the President of this country.
Q Can you name the wrongful decisions your government took?
The most wrongful was the decision to elect Mr Sirisena the President. Next, those who were rejected by people were accommodated and given Cabinet portfolios. Our failure to pre-empt the Easter Sunday attack despite prior warnings was another major reason for our defeat. That happens because of then-President Sirisena. He should be held responsible for it. Likewise, we faced allegations about the Central Bank bond fraud.
Q Do you mean to say that those who are more responsible for the case are with that side and less responsible ones are with yours?
There is nothing like that. When we are in the same government, all have to take up a common position. That is why we talked about it at that time.
Q At the presidential elections, you lost a lot of Sinhala Buddhist votes. What do you think is the reason for such erosion of votes?
As far as nationalism is concerned, some remarks made by some of our leaders affected us politically. Our government did the most for Buddhism, though.
Q When it comes to nationalism, how does the SJB differ from the UNP?
We accept all as Sri Lankans. While giving the foremost status to Buddhism as the main religion, we ensure the rights of other religions. The UNP was formed on such founding principles in the past. The SJB is a party for the accommodation of all today. Ours is not a communal minded party.
Q Mr. Premadasa always pledges to give Rs.20, 000 to each family upon election to office. Is it realistic in
When we promised to give Rs.10, 000 allowances to public servants, it was looked at with cynicism. The Rajapaksas promised only Rs.2500. Late President R. Premadasa gave Rs.2500 way back 1980s. In today’s terms, it is like Rs.20, 000.
Similar financial assistance is needed today to empower the poorest of the poor today.
Pic by Nisal Baduge