Colombo, Politics and Governance, Post-War


What prevents the ruling coalition from unveiling a new ‘first past the post’ electoral system and going for a mid–term parliamentary election?  Judging by current trends and data of a decade, the UNP, if it remains under Ranil Wickremesinghe, would be overrun and crushed to a pulp, not even reaching double digits in terms of seats.

How can a UNP which is unable to ditch an ineffectual and effete Ranil Wickremesinghe, convince the majority of voters that it can dislodge an infinitely more popular and stronger leader, Mahinda Rajapakse or what it decries as ‘Rajapakse rule’ and the ‘Rajapakse dynasty’?

How can a UNP which cannot dislodge Ranil from Sirikotha, convince the citizenry that it can dislodge an administration which dislodged Prabhakaran and his army from the North and East?

For the present the country is in the best available hands. Mahinda Rajapakse won a thirty years long war and has been justly rewarded by the electorate, which had earlier awarded second terms to those who had not achieved half as much. An electorate which rightly chose Mahinda over Gen Fonseka, was nonetheless disheartened, again rightly, by the treatment of the man who was most responsible, next to Mahinda and Gotabhaya, for the historic military win. This disenchantment manifested itself in the comparatively low poll at the parliamentary election. At that election too, the voters made the right choice of the coalition and party which had won the war over one which, under its present leadership, had sat on the fence, if not worse.  Within the UPFA, the voters chose well: mainly for the SLFP and strictly marginally for the sectarian-fundamentalist element of the coalition. Doubtless the UPFA’s margin of victory at both elections and certainly the second one, would have been far less conspicuous had the UNP been led by a personality not quite so remote from the popular mood, i.e. an electoral asset rather than a liability.  Given that Sri Lanka is still under pressure from actively secessionist Tamil formations based overseas, and a new, overtly pro-Tiger political manifestation in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, it is best to have President Rajapakse and his party at the helm of affairs. As Mao is reported to have said to Hu Yao Bang, “with you in charge I am at ease”. With Mahinda in charge, we the people can be far more at ease than if Ranil were. The new Foreign Minister and his deputy are the best for the job, while on the whole the Cabinet is moderate and fairly good.

What, however, of the future? The struggle against the siege that offshore Tamil secessionism hopes to put us under cannot be won either by caving in or turning Sri Lanka into a ‘garrison state’.  We can continue to rightly accuse the West of hypocrisy on human rights when its own Special Forces engage in massacring civilians in Afghanistan and had done so in Iraq, but we fail to recognise our own hypocrisy, because these revelations are made precisely in the Western media and are possible only because of media freedom in the West. In politics and foreign policy as in economics, neither free market and neoliberal globalisation nor closed economy protectionism work. To beat the secessionist Tamil Diaspora, Sri Lanka has to return to what it used to be at various times in the past: a model. We were once a model of social welfare, two-party democracy and non alignment; at another time a model of the early opening up of the economy in the South Asian region; and in the early ‘90s a model of poverty alleviation, housing programmes, high HDI rating and growth with equity. Today in some quarters of the world we are a model of counterinsurgency warfare. That’s good but not good enough. We must once again be a model in soft power terms, which, simply put, means we must be a model which not only deters (the enemy) but also attracts (friends, former foes and fence sitters).

One of the ways in which this can be done is by distinguishing between a ‘trade unionist’ Tamil nationalism, which is what the ITAK/TNA is, and Tamil ultra-nationalism. The ITAK is the equivalent of the SLFP. It must be negotiated with and accommodated, just as Douglas Devananda and the EPDP which is even more moderate, progressive and constructive, must be politically rewarded and strengthened. The ITAK without the LTTE is not, or is no longer, the enemy or a component of it.

The Global Tamil Forum and the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam are our enemies. Sri Lanka has no enemies within our shores; no enemies among our citizens. If we do not understand and believe that, we will become paranoid and our country will become a garrison state.

The bald fact is that in order to beat back the threat of globalised Tamil separatism, as well as to capitalise on peace and plug into the Asian economic miracle, Sri Lanka will have to reverse some of the policies of discrimination and levelling down, that successive SLFP administrations adopted, especially in the fields of public administration and education/higher education.

This means that while Sri Lanka’s present is best served by a Rajapakse administration, Sri Lanka’s future prospects are best served by a certain sort of UNP leadership. I emphasise ‘a certain sort’ for two reasons. Firstly and most plainly, Ranil Wickremesinghe or a Ranil clone cannot get a UNP government elected. Barring one parliamentary election he has lost every single election, held at every level, since 1997 and ensured a second term for the second successive SLFP leader (Mahinda, after CBK). With the margin of this last defeat, he has now opened the road for an open ended Constitutional change which can remove the two term limit and open-endedly entrench the incumbent.

Secondly the UNP needs a leader who would balance off the necessary modernising reforms with those that immediately ensure greater equity in the distribution of the fruits of that growth (what President Premadasa called, “not trickle-down but cascading down”). As Ranil Wickremesinghe demonstrated during his two years as Prime Minister, he is manifestly not such a leader. True, he was evicted by President Kumaratunga, but she followed it up with an election and Ranil was soundly defeated by a SLFP-JVP coalition created by the social backlash to his security policies in the Northeast and socioeconomic policies in the South. (Respected researchers Sunil Bastian and Mutukrishna Sarvananthan wrote devastating critiques of the economics of the CFA phase; critiques confirmed by the study headed up by Jonathan Goodhand of SOAS).

The view that the UNP in opposition cannot afford an inner party  struggle and that such debate would debilitate it further appears true at first glance, but flies in the face of the UNP’s own history as well as the record of the recovery of mainstream democratic parties the world over, from prolonged stints in opposition. The titanic victory of the UNP in 1977 and the near miracle of its retention of power after a traumatic decade, through reinventing and rebranding with the Premadasa presidential candidacy, were only possible and were the result of bitter yet clarificatory inner-party struggles which convulsed the party in 1970-5. The UNP that was so wracked by inner party struggle was not, on the face of it, a party that could have afforded it. It was a party that was down to a mere handful of seats, for the second time since 1956. This didn’t prevent an earlier generation of UNP personalities from engaging in a sharp struggle within the party. However in comparison with today’s UNP politicians, those men were giants.

The struggle within the UNP featured three, not just two groupings: a pro JR Jayewardene tendency which turned out to be dominant, a Senanayaka-ist tendency headed by Rukman and supported by J.R.P. Suriyapperuma, Jinadasa Niyathapala and Ossie Abeygoonesekara and Mr Premadasa heading the Puravesi Peramuna, supported by Sirisena Cooray, Gamini Fonseka and Rev Meetiyagoda Gunarathana thero.  It is the open clash of ideas between these factions that resulted in the winning policy synthesis that went into the manifesto of 1977 and the second victorious manifesto, that of candidate Premadasa in 1989. As important, it resulted in the change in party leadership from the Senanayake to JR Jayewardene and more correctly the superb JR-Premadasa combination, and the radical transformation of the UNP into a truly national mass party, almost a mass opposition movement, without which the overturning of the powerful United Front coalition government would have been impossible.

Does the UNP have a personality who can fit the bill? Someone who is educated enough to lead the country into an Asia that is led by an educated elite; has sufficient experience of the West to understand it and mend fences but trusted by  Sri Lankans never to sell out the nation? Is there someone who is solidly Sinhala Buddhist but not narrowly chauvinist or communal minded and can therefore win the minorities without repelling the majority as Ranil does? Is there someone who is so knowledgeable in economics that he can plan and pilot our sustainable take-off, while simultaneously alleviating poverty and thereby pre-empting a social backlash?

The answer is obvious and it is yes, there is.  Sajith Premadasa, educated at a British public school and the LSE, (specialising in economics) is certainly far better educated that Ranil Wickremesinghe or any of his supporters. He is almost certainly far more popular, both among the party members and voters and in the country.  He has at least two drawbacks though. He lacks his father’s self-propelled drive and autonomy. As a teenager, Ranasinghe Premadasa organised the Sucharitha movement and as a junior politician he took on Dr NM Perera in Ruanwella at the 1956 elections (with the UNP on the way out) and lost by only a few thousand votes. As a politician in defeat he formed the Puravesi Peramuna and publicly demanded change in the party. He never awaited conferment of responsibility from the leadership but created space for himself, ‘seizing the time’.  He liked the title of Jerry Rubin’s autobiography because it matched his innermost slogan: “DO IT!”

So, Sajith Premadasa can do it but will Sajith Premadasa DO IT? Does he have the drive to save his party and his country, which can match Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenacity to stay on as leader of his party?  Does his motivation match and overcome that of Ranil? Sajith must also know that he cannot do it alone. At all stages, Ranasinghe Premadasa had a core of loyalists and lieutenants with him, and that was because he had given them enough reason to believe in him, and his drive to get to the top. “Every hurdle turned into a stepping stone as I reached it” he once mused to me.

In 1988, when Mr Premadasa was unsure that he would get UNP nomination, he was fully prepared to leave the party and contest at the head of a new formation, between the discredited elitist UNP and the Bandaranaikes’ SLFP. Is Sajith prepared to do the same? In the event, out of sheer need for survival, the UNP in 1988 reluctantly handed over the leadership to Ranasinghe Premadasa. Will it be ready today, and for the same reason, to hand over the reins to his son?