( November 17, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Dayan Jayatilleka, diplomat, political scientist and author was also the Planning & Youth Affairs Minister in the North-East Provincial Council in 1988–89, and also served as the permanent mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations at Geneva from 2007 to 2009. Thereafter was the Consul General of Sri Lanka in Switzerland. Dr Jayatilleka in an interview with The Nation aired his views on the current crisis in the UNP leadership.
Q: Many attribute the UNP’s ‘Leadership Crisis’ to Ranil Wickremesinghe, in particular lack of leadership qualities, absence of charisma etc. (compared to, say, Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga and slain leaders such as Premadasa, Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayaka). But has this state of affairs got something to do with the country’s constitution itself, which some might say is ‘Made for the ruling party to become stronger and the opposition to become weaker’?
I do not think that the UNP’s crisis has anything to do with charisma or the lack of it. In the first place I do not think any of the leaders mentioned in your question were charismatic, though several of them were and when one includes the current President, are-strong personalities with considerable charm and mass appeal. The only charismatic political personality I have known in Sri Lanka was Vijaya Kumaratunga. The UNP’s crisis stems from four factors: The role of its leader as an anti-national figure and a rank appeaser of the fascist-separatist Tigers, his elitist neo-liberal economic policies and social profile, his absolute lack of personal appeal and the persistence of what we may call certain character issues including those associated with Batalanda. These have combined to cause an unprecedented erosion of the UNP’s vote base. The country’s constitution has nothing to do with it. Under the present constitution which dates back to 1978 we have witnessed the defeat of the UNP and the victory of the SLFP under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and much more recently the stratospheric electoral figures achieved by the Tamil National Alliance. The Constitution is no insuperable obstacle to an Opposition victory.
Q: What is the relationship between the UNP’s leadership crisis and the Party Constitution?
The current UNP Constitution was put in place by Ranil Wickremesinghe. It gives disproportionate power to the Working Committee, most of which he nominates. The despotic character of the UNP constitution, under which he was made party leader for another six year term, makes a mockery of the UNP’s claim to oppose the authoritarianism of the incumbent regime. There is no regime more authoritarian on Sri Lankan soil today than the mini-regime that dominates the UNP.
Q. You have stated that the UNP has to find ways of developing nationalist appeal and I believe you said that Karu could facilitate this. Karu is heading the Leadership Council now. Given the powers vested in the LC (empowering or limiting), how does the current dynamics play into your thesis?
The Leadership Council is merely a mask for the leadership of Ranil, who, as the party Secretary Tissa Attanayaka has clarified on the record, remains the party leader (re-titled the national leader), the Opposition leader and the leader of the UNP’s parliamentary group. Tissa Attanayaka reiterated that there has been no change in the party leadership. Karu could have played a historic role if Ranil had been replaced by him as party leader or if the Leadership Council were a collective leadership that replaced Ranil. Neither happens to be the case. This new decorative arrangement in the UNP is a mere rearrangement of furniture and reminds me of what Ayatollah Khomeini said at the height of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 when there was a mere reshuffle of the Prime Minister. The Ayatollah said with scorn “they have retained the donkey while replacing the saddle”!
Q: Since the UNP lost its two-thirds majority in the eighties, it appears that only coalitions have a chance of unseating ruling coalitions. What kind of coalitions might help deliver victory?
The kind of de-facto coalition that the UNP under JRJ had built with Ronnie De Mel’s facilitation in 1976-’77 and which Ranasinghe Premadasa was to repeat in 1988: a bloc with the JVP (and hopefully the FSP as well).
Q: Is it enough to get a ‘winning combination’ as opposed to a combination that is qualitatively different from the regime in terms of ideological orientation?
It all depends on what you mean by the term qualitatively. Given both the tectonic shift in social consciousness and the existential threat of the Cold War waged by the global Pan-Tamil Eelamist movement, any chance of a winning coalition will have to be patriotic , or if you prefer the term, nationalistic. It will have to preserve and consolidate the historic national and state achievements of the Rajapaksa presidency while completing them by superseding them.
In order to really reunify the country and its peoples, build a sustainable peace and fulfil Sri Lanka’s potential, that the New Patriotism or New Nationalism will have to be authentically different from that of the regime in that it will have to be smart instead of smug or surly; meritocratic instead of clan-centric; more liberal-democratic and open rather than quasi-authoritarian, hyper-securitized and militaristic; economically social democratic rather than oligarchic and crony capitalistic; modern, forward looking and youth oriented rather than culturally traditionalist, conventional and archaic; realist in outlook and attitude rather than paranoid and delusional; open and internationalist rather than narcissistic and xenophobic; progressive centrist in ideology rather than the regime’s neoconservative populist; and above all pluralist and inclusive in ethno-religious terms rather than exclusionary, assimilationist or majoritarian-hegemonistic.
Q: Some might say that Karu was suckered in. Let’s go with that. Even if Ranil has prevailed, is it possible for Karu to win people back to the party, infuse some enthusiasm into the rank and file?
Karu had a choice to make. He could have allied with Sajith, with the latter as his Deputy, in arrangement akin to JRJ and Premadasa in 1973 onwards. Instead he has chosen to ally with Ranil. By doing so he has embraced the discredited past instead of the future.
No improvement is possible so long as Ranil is not visibly thrown overboard in a gesture of long–overdue placation of nationalist sentiment and as atonement for his treachery to the armed forces (e.g. Athurugirya) and his humiliation of national pride. Today, after the Leadership Council farce, there is less rather than more energy and enthusiasm in the UNP! At the most recent anti-casino demonstration near the Fort railway station, the Ranil-Karu crew could muster only a little over a thousand demonstrators! No re-branding and re-launching as ‘nationalist’ or ‘patriotic’ is possible with Ranil remaining as the leader and key decision maker in the party.
Karu has only succeeded in damaging his own patriotic credentials by consenting to serve as a human shield for Ranil. He can still rectify his errors by resuming the struggle for fulfilling the wishes of the party’s rank and file, its voters and the country as a whole, namely an authentic change of the party’s profile and trajectory by means of the replacement of the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the unpatriotic, NGO and Diaspora driven ideology of ‘Ranilism’.
Q: What are the options for Sajith Premadasa at this point?
It must be squarely acknowledged that Sajith is the sole UNP front ranker with grassroots appeal especially in the provinces where the bulk of the national electorate is. He combines a nation-wide name recognition factor or ‘brand’ and the advantage of youth.
He is a good public speaker and is bilingual. He has also faced the Rajapaksa machine on its home turf and survived electorally. Sajith can either duck and sit it out in the hope that the leadership and candidacy will fall into his lap someday in the fullness of time and with the organic exhaustion of the public’s romance with the Rajapaksas – whenever that may be and whatever disaster may have befallen the country by that time- or he can step forward decisively after the next round of provincial council polls and intervene, provide leadership, take up the challenge of saving his party, the democratic opposition and the country.
He can either buy time or seize the time. It is an existential choice. Choice is determined by character – it reveals character-and choice shapes destiny. In the history of politics there is a distinction between those who are made by events and those who are ‘event-making’ men and women. Clearly Ranasinghe Premadasa, Mahinda Rajapaksa (and in the field of military history, Sarath Fonseka) belong in the latter category.
courtesy: The Nation, Colombo