“Operation Sajaba”; Blueprint for Re-unification of the Green Party

President Ranil Wickremesinghe welcomed to the Ceylon Workers’ Congress May Day rally at Kotagala


In the 2015 elections, Wickremesinghe topped the list of Colombo  district  candidates with over 500,000 preference votes. Yet Ranil too  was buried in the 2020 avalanche of defeat. Ranil whose detractors used  to ridicule him in the past as “Mr.Bean” and ‘serial loser” was  virtually written off. It was said that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political  career had ended
The Aragalaya had been launched with the demand “Gota go home” or “Go Home Gota”. This objective was realised in July 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned from abroad as President. Ranil took over as acting president on  July 14, 2022

Sri Lanka’s  United National Party (UNP) suffered a humiliating electoral defeat in the 2020 Parliamentary elections. Electoral debacles were nothing new to the UNP which is  referred to by some as the grand old party.
In 1956 the UNP got only eight seats in a Parliament of 101 MPs. In 1970 the party won 17 seats in a Parliament of 157 MPs. The year 2020 was distinctly  different.  For the first time in its history, the UNP  failed to get even a single MP elected to Parliament. Mercifully the UNP polling 249,435 (2.15%) votes was entitled to a national list MP. Thus the UNP had a single MP in a Parliament of 225 MPs. 

UNP leader and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has been a MP continuously for 43 years since 1977. In the 2015 elections, Wickremesinghe topped the list of Colombo district  candidates with over 500,000 preference votes. Yet Ranil too was buried in the 2020 avalanche of defeat. Ranil whose detractors used to ridicule him in the past as “Mr.Bean” and ‘serial loser” was virtually written off. It was said that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political career had ended. 

Yet, Ranil like the mythological phoenix rose from the ashes. After being absent from the House for 10 months, Ranil Wickremesinghe re-entered Parliament on June 23, 2021 as UNP national list MP. The advent of the “Aragalaya” protest resulted in the then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigning. Former President Gotabaya  Rajapaksa appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister on  May 12, 2022. Earlier Gota had offered the post to Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa  and Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka. Both were reluctant to take up the challenge. 

The Aragalaya had been launched with the demand “Gota go home” or “Go Home Gota”. This objective was realised in July 2022. Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled the country and resigned from abroad as President. Ranil took over as acting president on  July 14, 2022. On  July 20, 2022, Wickremesinghe was elected by Parliament as executive president. 134 out of 225 MPs voted for him. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as  Sri Lanka’s eighth executive president on  July 21, 2022.

In the early days after he assumed office Ranil Wickremesinghe engaged in efforts to entice MPs from the parties in opposition to the side of the treasury benches. His intention was two-fold. Firstly he wanted the Government to be  broadly representative as possible. Secondly, he wanted to reduce his dependence on the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) as much as possible. 

Talks with a Trio 

The Opposition parties got jittery over this. A trio of Tamil and Muslim MP’s comprising two  party leaders and a senior party stalwart met Wickremesinghe. They wanted Wickremesinghe to stop  attempts to poach their MPs. They promised to support all progressive measures initiated by his Government. Ranil agreed and assured them that he would not encourage minority party MPs to join Government ranks. He was true to his word. When some Tamil and Muslim MPs wanted to cross over from the Opposition, Ranil deterred them. 

During discussions with the trio, one Opposition MP regarded as being close to the Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa made a suggestion. He requested Ranil not to encourage defections from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) just as he had agreed not to entice Tamil and Muslim party MPs.  
Ranil Wickremesinghe refused to do so. He pointed out that most of the SJB parliamentarians were originally from the UNP. They had deserted the mother party and contested on the break-away SJB ticket in 2020. As such all former UNP members could return to the mother party if they desired so. He would accept them all as part of a UNP re-unifying process. 

Dr. Rajitha  Senaratne 

Thereafter  efforts were made  to entice MPs from the SJB into the Government. Instead of bringing over MPs on an individual basis, the UNP wanted a group or groups of MPs from the SJB to cross over.  Demands were made for minister and state minister posts. There was agreement on some. Ultimately a bloc of MPs led by Kalutara district MP Dr.Rajitha Senaratne was expected to cross over in mid 2023. 

A news report in the Daily Mirror of  April  6, 2023 quoting Dr. Rajitha Senaratne indicates this. Here is an excerpt - “Several Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MPs are willing to support President Ranil Wickremesinghe and will do so as a group if the party fails to take a decision, SJB MP Rajitha Senaratne said today.

“MPs like Harsha de Silva are willing to support President Wickremesinghe no matter what anyone says. We will support the President as a group if the party fails to make a decision,” the MP said responding to a question raised by journalists at a media briefing. “Also, he said the notion that the President has put the country to a better position is a reality”. 
This mass defection from the SJB did not take place as expected in 2023.   Initially there was a delay due to the Health Ministry portfolio. Dr. Rajitha Senaratne was eyeing that but the then Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella refused to let go of it. Subsequently Senaratne was ready to accept another ministry. But there was another hitch.  

Basil  Rajapaksa 

SLPP MP from Kalutara district  “Raththaran” Rohitha Abeygunawardena objected. He said if fellow Kalutara MP Senaratne was made Cabinet minister that would place him (Rohitha) at a disadvantage when Parliament elections  were held. Therefore he too should be made Cabinet minister alongside Rajitha demanded Rohitha/ SLPP supremo Basil Rajapaksa too backed Rohitha in this. 

Earlier Basil Rajapaksa had wanted President Wickremesinghe to appoint several SLPP parliamentarians as state ministers and Cabinet ministers, Ranil had reluctantly accommodated some but refused to appoint others. Now Basil who was then  SLPP national organizer wanted “equal treatment”  for his party. If Wickremesinghe wanted to appoint an SJB “crosser” then he should appoint an SLPP member also to a similar post. This  impossible demand dampened Wickremesinghe’s  spirits. The SJB crossover project was put on hold. 

Sajith  Premadasa 

Meanwhile, SJB leader Sajith Premadasa also fought back against the attempts to get his party MPs to break away. When speculative reports about an imminent split in the SJB began appearing in the media, Sajith Premadasa denied that his party MPs were going to defect. He lashed out at the Government and said such misleading reports were  being planted in the media by the Government. 

Sajith  also accused the Government of conspiring to entice MPs from his party by offering Rs. 200 million to each MP. Premadasa  asserted that none of his party MPs could  be tempted by such offers. 
“We have gotten to know that the Government’s estimate for an MP is Rs.200 million, the Government thinks that when they show Rs.200 million to our MPs they will beg to join the Government,” said  Premadasa  according to a newspaper report published last year.“I would like to say that the MPs of the SJB are not ready to take part in the Government’s auction of MPs,” he said.

Sajith Premadasa taking umbrage over the  attempt by the Wickremesinghe Government to take away his MPs was  quite understandable. After all, no party leader would like his MPs to split and join another party or form a new one. 
The irony was that Premadasa himself took away the majority of MPs from the United National Party (UNP) of which he was a member and formed the SJB anew. When that happened the UNP or its leader Wickremesinghe did not accuse him of offering financial “incentives” to woo the green elephants away.
Notwithstanding Sajith’s denial and assertion that his MPs would not split, it did  appear that the SJB Leader was  aware of a potential mass defection and was engaging in pre-emptive measures to prevent it.

Premadasa’s allegation that MPs are being offered Rs. 200 million was perceived  as an attempt to deter potential defectors. He was  indirectly warning his party MPs that if the MPs break away, it would be insinuated that they did so for cash and that each MP’s reputation would be tarnished. Given the fact that a powerful media organisation was solidly backing Sajith, there was an indirect veiled threat that the renegade MPs could be targeted viciously by the pro-Premadasa media. Furthermore Sajith Premadasa began interacting and socialising with his MPs more  and tried to bond with them. 

Past UNP Members

Premadasa’s anxiety and insecurity over the possibility of his MPs joining the Government of President Ranil Wickremesinghe stemmed  from his mistrust of his fellow SJB MPs. It may be recalled that almost all the current  SJB Parliamentarians were UNP members in the past. 
Most of them had no problems with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and were not favourably disposed towards Sajith Premadasa’s leadership ambition. Yet, they deserted Wickremesinghe and the UNP en masse and together with Premadasa formed the SJB.  

This was not due to any ill will towards Ranil or any goodwill towards Sajith. They had gauged the mood of the electorate through various means including opinion polls and had assessed that Ranil’s stock was low while Sajith’s was high. They realised their electoral prospects were dismal if they remained with Ranil and the UNP. 
So, they hitched their wagon to the Sajith star and transformed from UNP into SJB. Politically what they did then seemed correct when the UNP was wiped out at the 2020 Parliamentary poll. However, the return of Ranil to Parliament and becoming executive president altered the situation. Ranil’s stock was now rising high. Crossing over to the Government or returning to the UNP now seemed an alluring prospect to many of the SJB. 

With the 2024 Presidential election drawing near, a re-alignment of  political parties and MPs became a possibility. Although the political climate was conducive to potential SJB crossovers, there has  been very little forward movement on that front in the past months. This is mainly due to President Wickremesinghe  who does not  seem to want “pre-mature” crossovers from the SJB Now. Ranil seems to be biding his time for an opportune moment in the future. Hence there have been no cross-overs despite  speculative reports to the contrary appearing occasionally in the media. 

No  May Day  crossovers 

A case in point was what happened on May Day this year. Some UNP stalwarts acting independently had  made arrangements for  fourteen MPs  from the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) to cross over to the Government side by appearing on the UNP stage on May Day. Some of them  had been Cabinet,  state and Deputy ministers in the  Government headed by President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe from 2015 to 2019. The SJB hierarchy had suspicions about this. Some SJB Bigwigs were engaged in “sweet and sour” talks with the potential dissidents to prevent them from pole vaulting. 

In an unexpected turn of events the crossover did not take place. This was not because of pressure from the SJB high command. It was due to the intervention of President Wickremesinghe himself. When Ranil got to know about the crossover plan hatched by his UNP colleagues, he vetoed it. The UNP leader had communicated with his party deputies involved in the exercise and told them to call it off. He had also got in touch with some of the SJB parliamentarians concerned and asked them to delay their defection plans. 

Wickremesinghe had explained the reasons as to why he did not want a SJB crossover at this point in time to  party leaders as well as potential SJB defectors. Ranil said that he was planning to contest the Presidential election as an independent non-party candidate backed by an assorted alliance of parties, groups and individuals. He would declare his candidacy in June or early July. When that happened  Ranil wanted  everyone including SJB MPs to support him by joining  the alliance backing him. As such he did not want crossovers at this juncture.  

Return to the UNP 

This columnist has been speaking to some UNP  members including former MPs about this matter. Some of them have enlightened me on the basics of the plan to get SJB MPs to return to the UNP. The idea is for a sizeable group of SJB guys to break away  first at the correct time. This will be followed by more MPs crossing over rapidly. In their wake will follow ethnic minority parties or groups of minority community MPs  presently  aligned with the SJB. 

“It will be like a series of short waves following one after another and then forming into a large wave” explained a senior ex-MP from the UNP. This  huge  wave will be the  “Ranil Ralla” or Wickremesinghe Wave, he said. Elaborating further, the former MP said the primary objective is winning back our “Prodigal sons and daughters” who went over to the SJB and re-unifying the UNP/ “We have devised a blueprint to rejuvenate the green party. It is codenamed “Operation Sajaba” quipped the UNP stalwart. 

When asked whether all the “targeted” SJB  and aligned minority party MPs will  cross over as expected, the Ex-MP  replied “we are fully confident they will come but one cannot rule out a few having second thoughts”. Speaking further he said “ Sajith won’t let them leave without a fight but there is one thing in our favour. All of these MPs know that Sajith will treat them as “black sheep” in the future. They will be fearful that they may not get nominated again in a Parliamentary election. So they will have to join the UNP. No choice”.

Often Plans go Awry  

This then is the blueprint to re-unify and rejuvenate the green party. The plan is to entice the bulk of SJB Parliamentarians into the UNP in 2024  just as the SJB did to the UNP in 2020.  The plan described as “Operation Sajaba” by the UNP’s former MP appears foolproof. Notwithstanding this, the famous words of Scottish poet Robert Burns  come to mind – “The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry

 D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected] 

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