Midweek Review
The Importance of being Rajitha

by C. A. Chandraprema
The events leading up to the present Parliamentary election gives me the opportunity to regale the reading public with a bit of political history and biography. I thought of penning this note about Rajitha because he played a major role in the events that led up to the collapse of the PA government and also because he is one politician in the UNP with whom my own past is bound. About one year ago, my political history became a matter of national interest. I was really quite flattered by all the attention I received. So for the benefit of the curious public I thought of relating the story of my final days as a socialist.

The Year 1988

It was in 1988 after the formation of the United Socialist Alliance that I met Rajitha Senaratne who was then a leading light of the Mahajana Party. That was a time when all moderate leftists were thrown together by the JVP terror. My association at that time was with the left wing intellectuals and leaders contributing to "Christian Worker". After the United Socialist Alliance was formed in February 1988, my circle of acquaintances widened and Rajitha Senaratne was one of those whom I got to know in the process.

Rajitha was at that time one of the more radical and outspoken leaders in the Mahajana Party, which itself was by far the youngest and the most dynamic component of the USA. Despite the fact that he was in left wing politics, he was not one of the "poor socialist losers" who inhabit the interstices of the socialist movement. Rajitha had been a member of the SLFP student wing from his University days and later ended up in the SLMP when Vijaya broke away to form the Mahajana party in 1984. But in the meantime, he had made the best use of the free education system and was a well to do Dentist with a thriving private practice at the time I first met him.

Some of the leaders of the left movement were absolute reptiles. They never spoke out one word against the terror of the JVP even though they were killing our members by the droves all over the country. But the SLMP in general and people like Rajitha and Deva Bandara in particular, used to shout out their defiance for all to hear. Deva Bandara was gunned down at an SLMP meeting, but Rajitha survived. No one could help but admire the bravery they showed in the face of the terror.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that I have yet to meet a man more committed to politics than Rajitha. I have seen people like Gamini and Lalith who were themselves very committed politicians. But none of them would sacrifice basic creature comforts and even one’s very privacy for the sake of politics. Rajitha’s flat at No 25 Norris Canal Road was busier than a party office with Mahajana party people from all over the country calling on him at all times. This increased tremendously in the year 1989 when the Chandrika faction was taking shape inside the SLMP after Ossie Abeygoonesekera began to show signs of gravitating towards President Premadasa. Rajitha’s house was always crowded from early morning till late at night. At any given moment there were at least four or five totally unknown individuals sitting in Rajitha’s hall.

He seemed to know them all. But the unknown faces were unnerving to outsiders like us given the fact that we were all marked by the JVP and unknown people hovering around was always a cause for anxiety. In those days, it was suicide to maintain an open house but Rajitha was a risk taker almost to the point of foolhardiness. Despite the fact that he was one of the most vociferous critics of the JVP, anybody could walk in and out of the house he lived in with his wife and two children. It was not until the then Provincial Councillor Salinda Dissanayake gave his own official security personnel to Rajitha that a modicum of security was established at No 25 Norris Canal Road. If he was not working at the surgery, he was talking politics with the many callers who were always sitting around in his house.

Vijaya and Chandrika

Rajitha was a total political animal. He was in his element when he was doing something political. He had no privacy with his house being full of people all the while, but Rajitha did not seem to mind. His wife Dr Sujatha Senaratne did mind but she bore it stoically. Its not surprising that Rajitha is a good orator. In private conversation too, even when there was only one other person sitting in front of him, Rajitha would hold forth as if he was addressing a public meeting of several hundreds!

Rajitha was always willing to accept any political problem that came his way. When somebody comes to him with a problem, he will even burn midnight oil sitting up and calling all kinds of people to try and solve the matter. Vijaya and Chandrika also were like that when they were in opposition. Vijaya especially would never turn away anybody who came to their house with a problem. He would accept any problem at any time of the day or night and try to do something to solve it. In contrast to this if one went to a leader of the LSSP or CP with a problem, the aggrieved individual would go away even more depressed than he was earlier.

In the case of Vijaya and Chandrika even if a solution was nowhere in sight one went away with the feeling that somebody was with you. Rajitha had the same approach. And much like Vijaya, even when he was in the left wing opposition without even a Municipal Councillorship, he still had an incredible number of contacts in strategic places in various government departments, - university colleagues, professional buddies and acquaintances he had cultivated etc. In the health sector especially, he had enormous influence because he was a trade unionist. All these contacts helped him to offer solutions to those who came to see him even though he had no state power.

After Vijaya Kumaratunga was killed in February 1988, the United Socialist Alliance was formed under the leadership of Chandrika Kumaratunga. Shortly thereafter, Chandrika fled the country with her two children to escape the JVP death squads. She maintained a tight control over the SLMP even after she left but a faction led by Ossie Abeygoonesekera managed to get the upper hand after the 1988 December Presidential elections. The year 1989 saw the rapid crystallisation of two separate factions in the SLMP one led by Ossie and the other by Chandrika. Open infighting did not break out while the JVP terror lasted but after the JVP was destroyed at the end of 1989, the SLMP split and Chandrika was expelled and she suddenly found herself a leader without a party. Rajitha Senaratne took the initiative to form the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna along with other Chandrika loyalists so that she would have a party to come back to.

Anuruddha Tilakasiri

It was because of Rajitha Senaratne that I finally severed my connection with socialism by leaving the Bahujana Nidahas Peramuna. Towards the end of 1990, the SLFP firebrand Mahinda Rajapakse organised a "Mothers front" for the mothers of JVP caders who had been killed or had disappeared in the government crackdown during the JVP insurrection of 1987-89. The BNP decided to join the SLFP in organising this mother’s front. If I remember correctly, none of the other member parties of the United Socialist Alliance, the LSSP, the CP or the SLMP showed any interest in this mother’s front. I was dead against the BNP having anything to do with the SLFP’s plan to make political capital out of a tragedy. My argument was that we ourselves were victims of JVP terror and it was barely one year earlier that we were all hiding from the JVP death squads. It was only because the JVP was finally stamped out that we could be seen in public again and our leader to come back from exile in England. Therefore, my contention was that the SLFP should be left to their own devices - they were in alliance with the JVP during the insurgency anyway, and that the left forces should mind their own business. (That is what the LSSP, CP and SLMP did. They did not even participate in Mahinda Rajapakse’s "paada yathra" held in 1992 to protest against the killing of JVP caders.)

I had several arguments with the party secretary Rajitha Senaratne on this decision to support the so called mother’s front. I did not know it at that time, but this decision to support the SLFP mother’s front was the first indication that Chandrika was planning to go back into the fold of the SLFP after she was removed from the SLMP. It was also the first indication of Chandrika’s brand of political cynicism. She did not care a tuppence for all her followers who died while she lived in London and directed affairs over the telephone. Rajitha defended the decision to join the mother’s front by saying that it was a decision of the ‘party’. Rajitha is a man who is loyal to his leader to a fault. While I was thus in a state of constant argument with Rajitha Senaratne one Sunday, towards the end of 1990, there appeared a headline story in the Sunday Observer which screamed something about a "PRRA Doctor" who was now trying to organise mother’s fronts. I took the newspaper and rushed to see Rajitha.

Imagine my surprise when Rajitha accused me of having planted that article! It was true I was dead against the BNP participating in the mothers front. It was also true that I was on friendly terms with some of the UNP cabinet members like Ranil Wickremasinghe, Ranjan Wijeratne and Lalith Athulathmudali during this period. I had been catapulted from left wing obscurity to the national limelight because of my series of articles on the JVP insurrection in this newspaper in 1990. I had got to know some of the high and mighty as a result. But I would not have touched the UNP with a barge pole so long as Mr Premadasa was President. And now one of my party leaders was accusing me of the filthiest kind of underhand politicking imaginable in support of the very government I detested, and this despite the fact that I was risking my neck by openly parading my support for the BNP.

The misunderstanding

Rajitha’s accusation was an insult that I could not stomach. Somebody had got to Rajitha’s house before I did and told him that ‘Chandraprema’ had planted that article in the Sunday Observer. I asked him only one question, "What does Chandrika say?" "She says; lets face it as it comes." replied Rajitha. That was the last straw. In this short while, Rajitha had even told the party leader that it was I who had planted the article in the newspapers! At that I simply walked out of Rajitha’s house and out of the lives of all those in the BNP. That was my final break with the socialist movement. This is Rajitha’s biggest personal weakness. He has a "dadi bidi" style of doing things always in a mighty haste and he sometimes tends to jump to unwarranted conclusions. Because of his overly trusting nature Rajitha can at times be misled or even manipulated by shrewd operatives who knows the way his mind works. If not for this incident involving Rajitha I would most probably have remained with the BNP and the USA largely out of habit even though my ideas on socialism had undergone a radical transformation since I wrote my book on the rise of Southern Sinhalese entrepreneurship in 1989. I might even have joined the SLFP with the rest of the BNP and played a role in the shift of the SLFP from socialism to the free market economic policy.

Four years later, in 1994, Rajitha Senaratne fell out with Chandrika and joined the UNP. I thought it was time to clear up any misunderstandings and I phoned Rajitha. After congratulating him on his decision, I asked him whether he was of the same mind about that Sunday Observer article of 1990. What Rajitha told me was "Well, you did it against Chandrika, and not against me." Even four long years after the incident, he was still under the impression that it was I who had planted that article. I had to explain to him that I was not born in the gutter, and that I would not resort to that kind of low down gimmick against him or Chandrika or anybody else for that matter. That is just not my style of doing things. It was that reptile Anuruddha Tilakasiri who did it. That was Anuruddha Tilakasiri’s first operation at Lake House under the Premadasa dispensation. Its due to Rajitha’s wife Dr Sujatha Senaratne that this problem was finally cleared up. She told me that she had always suspected something was not quite right the way the ‘information’ about my having planted the article had arrived at their house. She arranged a confrontation between me and the man who had purveyed the information to them.

I was really surprised to see who Rajitha had believed - an activist of the LSSP a harmless man but a compulsive liar. All the leaders of the left movement know this individual and they all know that he is a compulsive conner who repeats everything he hears with embellishments. The man wept and admitted that he lied to Rajitha. I didn’t bother to ask him who had set him up to carry the ‘news’ to Rajitha because I already knew - Anuruddha Tilakasiri the Marxist King Cobra! I have never held it against this harmless tall story teller that he should have carried such a tale to Rajitha. My problem was how, or why Rajitha could have accepted the word of a commonly known concoctor of tall stories as against mine! Maybe this misunderstanding was providential. If not for this it, I might have remained in the BNP and ended up in the PA government in 1994.

Rajitha’s luck

That leads us to the question what would have happened if Rajitha himself had remained within the BNP instead of breaking with Chandrika. Well, then he would have been Chandrika’s right hand man playing the combined role played by S.B.Dissanayake and Mangala Samaraweera. Because of Rajitha’s habit of always leading from the front, he would have been one of the most vociferous defenders of Chandrika and of the government. Right or wrong, he defends his leader. If he had remained with the BNP, he would have become one of the most powerful ministers when the PA came into power. Even though very senior men like Rathnasiri Wickremanayake were also in the BNP, Rajitha was the BNP’s live wire. The fact that he would have been one of the most powerful ministers also means that by now, he would have also been one of the most discredited Ministers in the PA government.

Rajitha should thank his lucky stars that he fell out with Chandrika in 1994. That caused him to endure seven more years in the opposition. And he is now in his early fifties and has never been in power. At times, he must have felt that he missed the bus by falling out with Chandrika on the eve of her march to victory in 1994. His colleagues became Ministers while he remained just an opposition MP. When a few years ago, the government went all out to discredit Rajitha Senaratne over the Matara Uyanwatte ‘kunuharapa’ issue, Sirasa TV hosted a debate on the subject which featured, Rajitha, myself and WP Chief Minister Reginald Cooray. The young moderator did not know it but all three of us were former members the BNP now arrayed against one another. I could distinctly sense that Reginald Cooray did not want to get into a confrontation with Rajitha Senaratne. Perhaps he too felt bad that Rajitha who should have been his senior in Government was arrayed against him as an opposition MP.

Many of the ex-BNP and ex-USA politicians who had any conscience, never tried to take on Rajitha after they had become big shots. All of them knew the sacrifices that Rajitha had made and the risks he had taken during the USA and BNP days to make those parties what they were. They knew that even though Rajitha was not with them when they won in 1994, still, quite a large part of their victory, they owe to Rajitha. But Rajitha himself hardly need have any regrets that he was not with the PA when they came into power in 1994. A front-line operative like Rajitha deserves more than to end his political career as a wreck or a disaster. He should leave a worthwhile legacy behind him after he retires from politics.

Had he remained within the BNP, he would have ended his political career as a discredited politician. Look at Chandrika for instance. For years she seemed unassailable but suddenly, the results of accumulated failures of seven years began to tell on the PA. The SLMC, the CWC and many members of the PA proper deserted the government despite the fact that Chandrika is still the President and will continue to hold that position until the year 2005. Given the tendency of her partners and party colleagues to desert her, Chandrika can be declared to be the most discredited political leader we have ever had since independence. Even the awesome power of the Executive Presidency has failed to keep people on her side. Even lesser figures who were supposed to be her loyalists like Sanath Gunatilleke appears to have deserted the government. If Rajitha did not break away from the BNP in 1994, he would have found himself a top minister in one of the most unsuccessful and discredited governments in Sri Lankan history. And given his big mouth and his tendency to lead from the front, Rajitha would have found himself vehemently defending a failing government - a sure recipe to end up as a discredited politician himself.

The Future

Despite the delay in getting into power, his joining the UNP has ensured one thing - that he will end his career one day as a senior minister in a government that has done some work. He himself, if he plays his cards well, might be identified as one of the best workers in a future UNP government. Despite his socialist background, Rajitha was very competent in his chosen profession - that is the fundamental building block in the making of a successful UNP politician. Almost all the money he earned through his lucrative private practice, he spent not on acquiring the trappings of a posh lifestyle, but on Chandrika’s party. The telephone calls to London alone would have cost a small fortune over a period of time.

With the competence that he showed in his chosen profession and the energy he has displayed as a politician, there is every reason as to why he should make a very competent Minister. It seems to have been his destiny that he was saved from the incompetents he associated with earlier and were put into the company of a crowd that can do something. One of the best things that President D.B.Wijetunga did was to take Rajitha Senaratne into the UNP and to appoint him on the UNP national list. Rajitha proved an asset to the UNP not only as a crowd pulling platform speaker, but as a key political operative of the UNP. Without people like Rajitha and Ravi Karunanayake who came into the UNP from the other side, the UNP would have been hard put to deal with the PA on their own terms.

The UNP in opposition during the past seven years would not have been the same without him. His personal friendships within the PA ranks which had by and large survived the clashes of the past seven years helped in no small measure to win over certain individuals within the PA thus bringing the government down. He may have been prevented by fate from getting his due seven years ago. But He will have his opportunity in the near future and as a former political colleague of his, I can only wish him well. If I had been resident in the Kalutara District I would certainly have given him one of my preference votes - the man deserves it.