UNP: Legitimate ferment

By C.A.Chandraprema

At last there’s ferment! People are wide awake again. Adrenaline is flowing! Maybe the ferment has come not in the ideal manner. But it has come at last! Enthusiasm is the life-blood of politics.

What is now happening within the UNP is different to similar situations that have cropped up earlier. This is hardly the first time that certain sections of the party have expressed dissatisfaction with the leadership. At times, the dissent has been from disgruntled seniors like Wijepala Mendis and Nanda Matthew who were being sidelined because new faces had to be introduced. The Nanda Matthew saga is particularly interesting. Originally, it was Gamini Dissanayake who asked Nanda Matthew to take a back seat in Colonne and to yield to a newcomer.

This led Nanda Matthew to support Ranil Wickremasighe against Gamini D. But when Ranil became leader, he too had to ask Nanda Matthew to take a back seat. This was in the interests of the party and the country and not be cause Ranil would have had anything against Nanda Matthew. On the contrary, Ranil had every reason to be beholden to Nanda Matthew for supporting him. But at times in politics, one has to make painful decisions leaving aside personal likes and dislikes. This is why I pointed out in yesterday’s article that some of the discontent against Ranil is due to circumstances that would have confronted any leader. But he too has to share the blame for what has taken place.

Now the question that arises is how justified is the move that has been made against him by certain party stalwarts who appear to want Karu Jayasuriya to succeed to the leadership. I would not see this as a ‘coup’ or a ‘conspiracy’. I would see it as a fully legitimate airing of certain concerns. The party’s vote bank has stagnated over the past six years and something has to be done about it. Some are now speculating that a change of face at the top might be able to address the UNP’s malady. But as I pointed out earlier, Ranil’s lack of PR skills and his indecisiveness is only one aspect of the UNP’s problems and that it would be better to put the party on a proper footing before coming to Ranil.

The whole purpose in trying to remove Ranil is to bring the UNP into power. But I pointed out that with the UNP organisation being what it is, even Ranil’s successor is going to sink like a stone. So the first priority is to get the organisation into shape and then to consider the question of leadership. Now Karu J has emerged officially or unofficially as the alternate leader being proposed. Some may think it is not very nice of Karu to have come forward as a possible replacement for the very man who brought him into politics. I remember in 1997, when Karu J was proposed By Ranil as the Mayoral candidate for Colombo, almost everybody opposed it thinking it was insane to put an unknown individual as the mayoral candidate. But Karu J won the elections with an unprecedented number of votes and soon made a mark in politics.

I was at one time Karu J’s secretary in the Colombo Rubber trader’s Association, and I am quite amazed at the manner in which he has managed to fit into the world of electoral politics. He is not a good platform speaker, but he moves well with the ordinary people and has a kind of natural empathy with them. Much more than what Ranil has after over 25 years in politics. And during the recent ‘paada yathra’ he walked all the 72 miles from Kandy to Colombo in solidarity with the ordinary marchers. He started his political career very late in life, but he has taken to it like a veteran.

Now coming back to the question whether he has been ‘ungrateful’ to the person who brought him into politics even in the face of opposition, what can be said is that Karu J is a victim of circumstance. Karu J is an absolute gentleman and would never conspire against anybody. He was one of those perfect gentlemen that I got to know at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce. In fact those days we used to ask ourselves how people like Ally Weerasinghe and Karu J ever managed to get to the top - they were such nice and unassuming people, whereas business magnates are usually thought of as aggressive and domineering.

What has happened here is that Karu J has emerged as a very popular personality within the UNP. He is the Deputy Leader of the party. So naturally he is seen as a possible successor. I do not think he likes being in the present position. He is probably going through the worst trauma he has ever had to go through in his entire life. He is compelled to play a role in much the same way that Ranil Wicremasinghe was compelled to ask Nanda Matthew to take a back seat.

Then again, I regard the present ferment very differently from seemingly similar situations that arose in the past. In the past, people like Mr Sirisena Cooray and Sarath Kongahage rebelled against Ranil with the help of the PA. Then yesterday I mentioned the instance of an ambitious young UNP heir from the South who openly used his contacts with the PA to destabilise Ranil. Those attempts on Ranil’s authority are largely responsible for weakening him and damaging his image in the country. The present ferment however has no truck with the PA. It is purely an internal matter of the UNP with no contribution from the PA. What the protagonists of the present ferment want is a head on confrontation with the PA.

That attitude makes the present ferment a very positive thing. I am of the opinion that despite the enthusiasm of a few people at the top, the UNP is in no position to go for an immediate head on confrontation with the PA. This is why I suggested that it is wrong to think of Ranil as the only problem or even the main problem faced by the UNP. So long as Ranil is around to take the PA flak and shield the others, it wont be apparent. But remove him and the UNP will be overwhelmed by their own organisational weakness and the PA’s well seasoned propaganda machine. Ranil may not be leading the UNP to triumph, but by simply being there he fulfils the role of being the punching bag for the PA.

But because he fulfils this role, the rest of the UNP has been lulled into a sense of complacency. If they remove him, they are going to face the full fury of the PA. And they little know what they are going to be in for. But then again, audacity in politics is a good thing. Maybe it is a good thing for the UNP to get into the deep end and see what will happen. Nothing risked nothing gained they say. Which is why I see the present ferment in the UNP to be a positive sign. Let the free for all start. In fact, those days, whenever, there were problems within the UNP, the PA used to enjoy the side-show.

But this time, they are not laughing. They know that what the protagonists of ferment within the UNP are after is not really Ranil, but the PA. The UNP is displaying a fury the PA never thought they possessed. The protagonists of the present ferment within the UNP are not a traitorous group of conspirators who are seeking to undermine Ranil with the help of the PA, They are not interested in power within the UNP. They are after governmental power. They are a 100% oppositional force that wants to see and end to the PA. And that factor gives them the moral upper ground over all such attempts of the past.

These are respectable people who wish to see an end to the PA. The only problem is that they appear to have started at the wrong end. They have fixated on Ranil whereas the problem lies more in the organisation rather than in Ranil. And Ranil too if he is an entrepreneur should see the present ferment as a God-given opportunity. All this while he was not able to make much headway because he was thwarted by his own party people as I explained yesterday at great length. But here now is a furious mob, assembled and raring to go.

This is the environment in which matters that have stagnated for seven years can be achieved in just seven weeks. This may look like a rebellion against Ranil, but this is also his God-given opportunity. It should be channeled in the right direction. This situation should not be allowed to balloon into a split in the party. Neither side should leave. Both should remain within the party. Let this be a baptism of fire for both sides. The whole objective of the current ferment is not to get rid of Ranil but to get rid of the PA quick. They are not going to get rid of the PA unless they get the organisation into shape first. A compromise should be worked out to ensure that both sides get down to the task of gearing up the organisation to confront the PA.

A reconciliation is not a difficult task. Most of the protagonists of ferment are in fact people who like Ranil personally. They are his personal friends and nothing has been done out of personal malice. I have been covering the political field for 19 years. I have read about a lot of political upheavals and conflicts. And I know that Ranil himself is well informed on these matters. This ferment is what he has been waiting for. I hope he realises it. This is the beginning of an avalanche. This is why the PA is no longer smiling. They feel it in their bones. He should join the ferment, cultivate it, throw caution to the winds and go for it. Ride the wave.