Ranil with Secular Liberal Values Best Suits United National Ideology

By Thomas Johnpulle

(April 27, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) United National Party is not the Janata Vimukti Peramuna. Voters of these two parties have two distinct ideologies. One is highly secular, free-thinking and economically liberal while the other is mostly mono ethnic, restrictive and socialist. Other national parties fit in between them. Recently there has been much upheaval about replacing Ranil as the UNP leader. But all those who blame Ranil for UNP’s ills either due to ignorance or deliberate need to do so, fail to realise the ground realities themselves. The United National ideology as championed by the UNP has suffered a temporary setback owing to resurgent ‘patriotism’. It is not Ranil’s fault and any other leader would be as powerless as Ranil. Having said that, Ranil’s docility has also played a role in restricting the UNP. But a more ‘patriotic’ UNP leader will be even more docile towards the rulers than Ranil! A more patriotic UNP leader would have lost both majority and minority support far worse than Ranil did. Certainly a more patriotic leader would have totally ruined the UNP minority vote base. Such a leader would not have gained much from the patriotic crowd either because they have better patriots to vote for. In a way Ranil managed the damage.

Jingoism Verses Practical Patriotism

Biggest allegation against Ranil is that he is not a ‘patriot’. True, Ranil is not a firebrand patriot as some others are but he has been more practical in matters that can be handled with intelligence than jingoism. For instance although Ranil followed a lenient approach towards the LTTE during the ceasefire period, he took long term steps to ensure national security without harming political prospects of the UNP. During his tenor, Sri Lanka successfully negotiated to purchase warships that proved immensely valuable to the war outcome. Army numbers were raised silently much to the surprise of peace activists. They thought more young men joined the army due to the absence of grave risks during the ceasefire. The air force was strengthened with existing equipment and better training. Even the Karuna defection occurred during Ranil’s term. These factors went a long way in securing a positive outcome in the battle theatre. But Ranil’s efforts went unnoticed and unappreciated. Unlike other leaders, he did this while retaining both international and minority voters’ support. He didn’t restrict media freedom to do that and maintained a better human rights record. Aren’t these victories everyone irrespective of race and political differences can enjoy? Obviously these valuable achievements get scoffed at in an environment of patriotic passion.

But most importantly aren’t these the UNP values which the UNP should protect? There is no sense in turning the UNP into another JHU or a JVP. UNP cannot sustain support from areas where JHU or JVP dominates.

After the war victory, anything that seemed patriotic grabbed the attention of most floating voters. Had the war gone the other way, election outcome would have been the exact opposite. Any other leader other than Ranil would have performed even badly. What matter now is to get ready for the 2016 election. It is anybody’s knowledge patriotism will not be as fervent as it is now in 2016. When peace prospers, people expect more liberalism and that’s when Ranil’s proven skills come into play. To make matters easier for him, the present administration seems to continue as if the war is still there. While Ranil has always maintained very strong international relations at various levels, the present administration has not and is not likely to do better in the next six years. There is no leader in the UNP who can handle this vital aspect better than Ranil.

Downfall Due to Over Ambitious Persons Not Heeding Ranil’s Advice

The legendary UNP leader who ruled the country for 11 years and shaped it like no other – JR Jayawardena – assumed the high office at the late age of 71. He was in no hurry to grab power. He withstood various internal and external pressures at the height of the Cold War and managed to introduce and retain a proper economic system. Whatever his opponents said then, they have come to advance JR’s economic miracle. That’s not all; JR ensured the continuity of his party in power. Ranil too was in no hurry to grab power. He always respected people’s verdict. Unlike some disgruntled leaders, he didn’t blame the people for not voting for him.

UNP could have easily assumed the office of President and secured a majority stake in parliament in 2005 had his fellow party members followed Ranil’s plan. Instead these highly ambitious MPs of the UNP agitated an untimely government change in 2001. Ranil disagreed but eventually he had to give in to these very influential people. What happened? Although the UNP managed to come to power for 26 months, it lost all prospects of winning the 2005 Presidential Election and 2006 General Election. UNP would have won both these elections very easily had there not been a government change in 2001. Not surprisingly all those who agitated Ranil to grab power in 2001 have left the UNP by now! UNP MPs with similar impractical ambitions now agitate for the same disaster. Best chance for the UNP is to keep Ranil at the helm and follow his plan.

Traditional UNP Voters and Perception

UNP is still the largest party in the country. Drastic reduction in voters’ turnout in 2010 blocked UNP getting its full potential. UNP is traditionally seen as liberal, West leaning and business-friendly. This perception must be maintained as it is valued by UNPers although it is ridiculed by opponents. With the spread of technology, global awareness and economic development, more and more people will seek liberalism than anything else. UNP while having suffered when liberalism had a setback should be able to fully grasp the opportunity when it comes to a surge in liberalism which is around the corner.

UNP is also known for its aggressive economic development programs. Despite war’s end and with a very high Human Development Index that ranks Lanka well above India, the Sri Lankan economy is not forecasted to grow to its full potential. A mere 5.5%-6.5% growth rate for 2010 is not at all commensurate with the potential. Voters will prioritise economic development ahead of wartime concerns in years to come. Then the UNP will become the preferred choice.

Traditional UNP voters remained with the UNP but their loyalty should not be taken for granted. They are the bulk of the UNP and command financial clout and societal status. UNP must strive to keep them, not lose them, and try to uplift as many people to this level. It is obvious grassroots level interests clash with the interests of these traditional UNPers. There is no political party that can sustainably represent both workers and businessmen. Trying to be everything to everyone is a sure recipe for disaster. UNP can never represent workers as the JVP does or represent cultural values as strongly as the SLFP does. Trying to take them on in their own turf will defeat the UNP and destroy traditional UNP support bases as well.

President Premadasa was an exceptional UNPer in many ways. Unfortunately he didn’t see the traditional UNP support base crumbling when he tried and failed to reach out to the grassroots level. Finally his actions lost both the grassroots level and the traditional UNP block for the party. Even before three and a half years had passed, his party suffered a series of defeats despite using various violent means to secure power. Even sympathy that was pouring in following his assassination was not sufficient to stop the collapse of the UNP. UNP’s collapse started from traditional UNP support bases and very quickly spread to other areas. In May 1993, UNP lost the Western Provincial Council, then a couple of months later the North-Western Provincial Council and the Southern Provincial Council. Defection of a number of high ranking UNPers was not the real reason for UNP’s collapse. Their hold on traditional UNP support bases was the real reason. Lalith and Gamini grabbed dissatisfied traditional UNP support bases that were distanced during Premadasa’s rule. Why didn’t this happen during Ranil’s leadership? That’s because Ranil managed to keep the traditional, most powerful, most influential and richest UNP powerbases intact.

Premadasa’s gamble went horribly wrong for the UNP. It didn’t take long for villages to follow the trend as UNP was badly beaten by opposing PA in PA’s own turf. PA’s ability, experience and skill to better champion interests of village level voters couldn’t be matched by the UNP. Had the UNP tried to compete with the PA on workers’ rights, restrictions on open economic policies, corruption, state terror, etc., it would have further ruined itself. These were very appealing slogans in rural areas. But these areas also had a growing UNP presence due to overall development work. At the same time PA leadership found valuable inroads into traditional UNP support bases. These contacts proved immensely important for both parties. Had President Premadasa not abandoned traditional UNP support bases, this would not have happened. Not surprisingly most places where ‘Gam Udawa’ was held performed very badly during subsequent elections. These didn’t act as barriers during the UNP collapse.

Spin doctors of the opposing camp prescribe UNP leadership to take a bath in a village brook. They know this mechanism very well. They want to destroy Western influence on Sri Lanka and make them lose the only vehicle they have in the island. They also want the UNP to abandon liberalist views on media freedom, human rights and most importantly, on sovereignty. In doing so, they want to isolate traditional UNPers, make them powerless and force them to leave the country. If this happens, not only UNPers but also liberals in general will have no permanent support bases. In fact these elements are the only enemies of the present ruling coalition. They also know well that an overly ‘patriotic’ and exceedingly internally focused UNP is as weak as a fish out of water. This is a proven battlefield tactic where the enemy is dragged to unfamiliar territory, unfamiliar to the enemy but very familiar to own army.

But this doesn’t mean UNP should not reach out to the grassroots level. On the contrary, it should but keeping its core in tact; including core values.

Accepting Defeat in Defeat is the First Step to Victory

Fighting the voters’ verdict is unwise. Instead the verdict should be accepted and actions should be planned based on future challenges. UNP doesn’t need a wartime leader anymore. It needs a peacetime leader. None other is qualified to be a peacetime leader than Ranil. However, he has to be effective and his team should support his plan than fight over various plans. Unfortunately, UNP sacrificed its future for its present wellbeing at the 2010 General Election. It was clear UNP was going to do pretty badly. Its plan should have been to mould leaders for 2016. Instead of that UNP leadership focused on short term popularity.

Instead of young, successful, ambitious and upcoming political leaders, actors, popular media figures and tuition masters were promoted. Sadly almost all newcomers into the UNP fall into this category. They have very limited or no political potential. They cannot provide leadership to a growing political force. Their popularity will certainly fade away within six months, let alone six years. Then there will be newer stars in the limelight. Had the UNP not gone after fading stars and invested in able and aspiring politicians, they would have grown to become experienced leaders by 2016. Unlike actors, they possess real leadership skills that can amass more voters as they go along. UNP’s unwise decision will certainly cost it dearly in 2016. UNP Provincial politicians too lost their way due to this short-sighted decision. Lack of career progression means they will be stagnant and further fresh blood injection to the provincial level will be impossible.

Although there are more than 50 registered parties, only four parties could face an election. Many minute parties went into insignificance. Before the Presidential Election, UNF had 16 parties but all went underground giving into the UNP. This is a good start. The UPFA with a historical victory can only move in one direction now – downward. It is also made up of many small parties that still retain their unique identity unlike the UNP parliamentary group. This means possible splits. Instead of merging with parties splitting from the UPFA, UNP should absorb those MPs who split under the UNP banner. They have no option but to join the UNP on UNP terms, not on their terms. This is where leadership and firmness come in. Ranil needs support from everyone in the party to impose UNP values on newcomers. Without imposing these values, there is no point having growth as it can collapse at the first challenge resulting in infighting.

A primary task of the UPFA will be to create a pro-UPFA Constitution. In 1972 and 1978 ruling parties had their way in constitution making. UNP should do everything in its power to negotiate a fair deal. Failure means electoral disadvantages that may last a few decades. UNP has a stranglehold on the media, especially Ranil. Using this to promote liberal political, social and economic views will go a long way in achieving lasting support for the UNP ideology. Reaching out to small yet influential and powerful religious sects works well with UNP values and UNP’s international relations. UNP should welcome positive changes and reward its ardent activists and followers whenever it can. It should also defend business interests of its voters at all times within and outside the parliament. UNP’s slogan for the next six years should be “we can do better”. And it should prove it by having a stable party leadership and a set of plans that show no hurry to grab power. It was this confidence that brought the UNP a resounding success in 1977.