“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”
~Marilyn vos Savan
As far back as August 22, 2018, I wrote a column under the heading, ‘Open Letter to the UNP Hierarchy; if you want A Change, Change the Context’.
I believe that a reproduction of some salient sections of the same would be pertinent, especially in the current context:
Column dated August 22, 2018
“In my previous column I emphasised the need for any political party, if it were to be successful, to name its candidate well ahead of time. However, I do repeat my argument so that its appeal to the reader is surpassed by its urgency to the one leader who has shown some remarkable ability to keep ahead of his followers by avoiding doing just that. The need to retain the leadership of the United National Party (UNP) seems to play an integral part in the political calculus of Ranil Wickremesinghe. On last two occasions, 2009 and 2015, Ranil displayed that inner craving. In 2009 he opted for Sarath Fonseka, a total outsider not only to the UNP but to politics altogether, while in 2015 he chose Maithripala Sirisena a one-time UNP hater from Polonnaruwa, which was a UNP bastion during the golden era of the UNP-rule, when the lucrative benefits of the Mahaweli Programmes were flowing to that ancient land.
On both those occasions, if his judgment was not to nominate himself, Ranil could have effortlessly nominated a second-tier UNPer for the Presidential race. Either Karu Jayasuriya or a younger candidate such as Sajith Premadasa may have had a fighting chance to win the election. In 2009, Karu Jayasuriya was the assured choice the UNP would have fielded, but in 2015 the context was quite different. The trio of Ranil-Chandrika-Venerable Sobhitha came into the scene and selected Maithripala Sirisena, who by that time had realised that the horrendous rule of the Rajapaksas had to be defeated. In the aftermath of both these elections, the rank and file of the UNP did not have to say anything remotely close to complementary towards Ranil Wickremesinghe. The number of traditional UNP supporters who did not go to the polling booth was more than sufficient to defeat the opponent had they opted to vote! Yet the nett result of the strategy conceived and executed by Ranil Wickremesinghe was successful in that he managed to remain the leader of the UNP.
But today’s context is different. The UNP is in power. It is more than likely that the common candidate Maithripala Sirisena would not be a common candidate of any coalition that the UNP will be associated with. In such a positive scenario, the announcement of its candidate by the UNP leadership is seen as a usual routine. Unlike past leaders of the UNP, Ranil Wickremesinghe is being perceived by his own rank and file as a doubtful winner. His past performance is not very attractive. His lack of charisma and inability to be a sought-after national speaker in the vernacular is woefully noticeable. The leader of a nationally reputed political party such as the United National Party has had in its storied past some magnificent speakers of the calibre of Dudley Senanayake, JR Jayewardene, R Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. Among them R Premadasa can be classified as one of the best ever Sinhala Speakers in Sri Lanka…
…Ranil Wickremesinghe could still overcome this deficiency. If only he tries to portray an image of strength, decisiveness and allegiance to truth and facts, by delivering a calm and stern speech, he could avert this decisive disadvantage… All politics, is drama and theatre. Ranil Wickremesinghe has to adopt the positive aspect of that drama and theatre. Of the two elements of any oration, content and delivery, the average man is moved more by the delivery than the content. When one lacks in delivery, he or she has to make do with the content. Ranil has to be more consistent with the content of his speeches. Continuing on the same lane would eventually take him to a political cul-de-sac and he would have nowhere to turn.
If, on the contrary, he opts to adopt a more forward-looking and aggressive posture, I once again iterate, he has a fighting chance in the coming Presidential Elections. But in the absence of any evidence that he would make such adjustments, both the second tier and the rank and file of the party will keep hoping and praying for ‘anyone but Ranil Wickremesinghe’ choice…
…Ranil Wickremesinghe’s generation is waning; in the twenty first century, it’s spending its last lap in life. Two generations have come to the political stage since the 1977 J R-led UNP victory. Those two generations cannot remember JR, Premadasa, Gamini or Lalith. For those two generations, print media is an anachronism; the predominance of the social media has changed life and the direction in which average socio-political dynamic is taking them; it’s unpredictable as any other social transformation in human history.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is being perceived by his own rank and file as a doubtful winner
A generational thinking, that is as supple and susceptible to the vagaries of social and cultural spectacles such as fundamentalism in religious action and adherence to the fringes of the political spectrum, is waiting in the wings of sustainable change. That is the ultimate challenge facing the UNP leader. Prime Ministerial powers have not been able to allure an intellectually curious and politically probing generation. Waiting until the proverbial ‘eleventh hour’ would only exacerbate an utterly volatile situation. The popular belief that Ranil Wickremesinghe would be anyway contented even if the UNP loses, by being the Leader of the Opposition is a myth; a political party in Opposition is much more prone to divisions and inside fighting so as to challenge its leadership and come in the aftermath of a potential UNP loss in 2020, the UNP would be disseminated into pieces.
That is why Ranil Wickremesinghe should realise, once and for all, that delaying the announcement is a lose-lose option, firstly for Ranil Wickremesinghe and secondly for the United National Party and eventually for the country. He has to make that announcement as an official statement of the Party, not through intermediaries or unacceptable emissaries. If not himself, Sajith, Navin or Karu, let it be announced now. Then his successor has sufficient time to launch and execute a successful campaign…
…So, what is that content and what is the process by which the content is delivered to the people who ultimately decide in a democratic society? While the structure of a process is being built by the UNP, the ‘leader’ which is an essential and integral part of that content still remains a core issue in the UNP. That burning desire of the people to discover the next leader or deliverer is second only to the desire to come to power as one single unit which is the Party, UNP.
Today that content includes among others, Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake in the lead. The UNP grassroots may be having an inclination towards Sajith on the grounds that he has been more overtly active, especially among the Buddhist clergy in the country. Yet he has not been recognised as a great orator on the one hand, and on the other, his inability to criticise the Rajapaksas and the blatant absence of his rhetoric on nationally urgent issues has contributed to him being considered as ‘not-yet-tested’ category…”
Now I add the following:
Nevertheless, Ranil Wickremesinghe is not the sole cause for the defeat of Sajith Premadasa. Some (not all) of other salient failures are listed below:
- Distressing lack of organisation (there was hardly any Sinhalese-Buddhist-electorate or district, except perhaps Nuwara Eliya district, had a running party machinery for a successful election campaign)
- UNP losing its brand with the majority of Sinhalese Buddhists
- Nationalism being still an ingrained part of our voter-psyche, the UNP is far too divorced from the average voter-likes and dislikes
- Not delivering on pursuit of alleged corruption thereby justifying the opponents’ claims of purity
- Bond-scam disgrace
- Sajith Premadasa being surrounded by a set of western-clad politicians (Mangala Samaraweera and Malik Samarawickrama)
- Although Sajith made a valiant effort to ‘relate’ to the average voter, the average voter apparently did not ‘relate’ to him.
- Over-dependence on the part of Sajith on his 150 mass meetings instead of exercising a close watch on the decentralised campaign in the districts and electorates (had the attendance at mass rallies been a reliable indication, Sarath Fonseka would have won the 2009 Election)
Those who are in Parliament today are suffering from a destructive belief that just because they managed to qualify to get an X number votes from his ‘Party’s voter-bank’, they are winners. But almost all of them except a very few in Colombo, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla districts, have lost their own electorates to the opponents. All those who vehemently backed Sajith Premadasa (Mangala Samaraweera, Buddika Pathirana, Harin Fernando, Ranjith Madduma Bandara, Ajith Perera, Eran Wickramaratna, Harsha de Silva, Sujeewa Senasinghe etc.), except Kabir Hashim in Mawanella, lost their seats. They must realise that, in order to gain power, the voter must first vote for the Party and then decide who would be the best among them that should be sent to Parliament. When that day would dawn, I know not.
If things remain as they are, all indications point to a clobbering of the UNP in the Parliamentary Elections in 2020.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org