Why Karu Jayasuriya Should Lead the UNP

Today, after successive defeats, the UNP is in dire need of rehabilitation. The party is certain to lose almost all the gains they made in 2002 at the local government level at the forthcoming local government elections to be held early his year. A destroyed party will have to be rebuilt from grass roots level upwards. When the UNP was defeated in 1994, they had 94 MPs. Now they have just 67 two of whom they have lost, bringing down the number to 65. The UNP’s base among the Sinhala public – its main base since its inception under D.S.Senanyake, has been badly eroded and needs to be rebuilt. The UNP needs to win over the minorities alienated by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s mishandling of the LTTE.

Today, because he fell foul of the LTTE, Ranil has lost the support of not just the northern Tamils, but the Up Country Tamil groups as well, which now tend to follow the line set by the LTTE. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s disastrous policy of ignoring the Sinhala voter while doing everything to woo the minority votes has to be reversed. The policy should be to woo the Sinhala voter and the minority voter together. Even Anton Balasingham has stressed the need for the Sinhala leader they negotiate with, to have the capacity to carry the Sinhala vote with him, otherwise they would be negotiating with someone who does not have the backing of the public to implement whatever solution is arrived at.

Communication with LTTE

The UNP also needs to re-establish their lines of communication with the LTTE in order to take the tortuous but necessary peace process forward. Some may argue that there is no point in talking peace with the LTTE because they are a military organization. But some day, there will be peace. Whether that peace will be achieved through war or through negotiation is still to be seen. But ten years from now, Prabhakaran will be old. Twenty years from now, Prabhakaran could well be dead, senile or bed-ridden. So with time, there will definitely be changes. The Sinhalese and Tamils are not going to be at each other’s throats for ever. Hence, it is necessary for the UNP to establish those lines of communication with the LTTE which Ranil Wickremesinghe disrupted through his arrogance. Quite apart from all this, the UNP needs to start fulfilling the role of an opposition party – a role which Ranil Wickremesinghe neglected. The JVP and the JHU benefited enormously from the UNP’s inactivity. To salvage the UNP, we need a man of immense proportions. So daunting is the task ahead that people look at the UNP and think, is there a man among them who is up to the task?

While there is a battle royal churning within the UNP at present, some feel that Ranil will be able to overcome this crisis as well the same way he did the others. For example, he managed to stave off the crisis in April 2004 by giving the main reformists posts in the party and other goodies. The name being most often mentioned in this regard being that of Tissa Attanayake, who had led the reformists in 2004 and then accepted the post of Deputy General Secretary and quietened down. Ranil will no doubt make efforts in this direction this time around too, but he’s not going to succeed.


In 2004, he was able to give some people seenibola and save his skin because the next Presidential elections were due in 2005 and there was the reasonable hope that Ranil might be able to prevail against Chandrika’s successor. Because of this hope, Ranil could overcome opposition to his leadership by distributing a few goodies. But now, Ranil has not only been defeated by Chandrika’s successor, he has also lost the minority vote which he cultivated in preference to the Sinhala vote. The LTTE’s operation in this regard was so clean and surgical that many in the UNP have not yet realized that they will be going into future elections without the support of the northern Tamils and almost certainly the up-country Tamils as well. Even if the up country Tamil votes stay with the UNP for the forthcoming local government elections, it will be a different story at decisive elections at the Parliamentary and Presidential levels in the future.

Some still think that the UNP is going to get the same minority vote they got at the November Presidential elections. They have not yet realized that the minority vote belongs to other organizations and is therefore not a "UNP" vote and is unreliable because they work to a different agenda. The LTTE cannot threaten the UNP not to vote for Ranil. Nor can the LTTE threaten the Muslim Congress not to vote for Ranil. But they can threaten Thondaman and Chandrasekeran the same way they threatened the TNA. One cannot and should not build one’s hopes on such an uncertain vote base. The foundations of the UNP has always been among the Sinhalese. The support they get from alliances with outside organizations is just a bonus. There is no way that the UNP can lose among the Sinhalese and hope to run a successful government by winning among the minorities.

Talented People

Man for man, the people in the UNP are superior to those in the PA. The problem is with the leader. The UNP consists of some very talented people with terrible horoscopes resulting in their being led by the most incompetent man amongst them – not by the most capable. This situation needs to be remedied. The reformist MP’s have fixated on Karu Jayasuriya and I think that this is the best option the UNP has. Karu came into politics, after completing a very distinguished career in the private sector. When he relinquished his duties in the private sector to take up a position under President Premadasa, he was the Chariman of the C. W. Mackies Group of Companies and had held the position of Chairman, Director and Chief Executive of no less than 52 companies. He is not just a man who has been seeing visions, he has been actually turning them into reality.

If under the J.R.Jayewardene reforms, the private sector became the engine of economic growth, Karu Jayasuriya was one of the drivers of that engine –– as a captain of industry. He was Chairman of the Colombo Rubber Traders’ Association and had he not left the private sector early, he would almost certainly have become Chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce the country’s premier trade Chamber. For a while he was Chairman of the National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. When in the private sector Karu Jayasuriya had a reputation for being a troubleshooter. One story that was doing the rounds in the private sector in the 1990s was how he managed to turn around the fortunes of the ailing Korea-Ceylon Footwear Company.

This was a joint venture between the Ceylon Leather products Corporation and a leading Korean company. In the 1980’s J. R. Jayewardene had approached Karu through N .G. P. Panditharatne and wanted him to take over the ailing joint venture. At that time, the 10/= par value share was selling at Rs 2/=. (Much like today’s UNP!) Karu turned around the fortunes of the company and soon the share was selling at Rs 280/=. Because of the reputation that he had in the private sector after triumphs like that, the then Prime Minister Premadasa also befriended Karu Jayasuriya. When Premadasa became President, he used Karu J as an unofficial advisor on matters related to trade and commerce. It was through President Premadasa that Karu Jayasuriya had his first offer of getting into politics. When Ranjan Wijertane was assassinated in 1991, Premadasa invited him to take Ranjan’s post. Like Karu, Ranjan too was a top business community figure who had relinquished his duties in the private sector to take up government service under J. R.J ayawardene. But at that time, Karu J did not evince any interest in politics and had declined the offer. After he left the private sector in 1992, President Premadasa appointed Karu as the Chairman of the co-coordinating committee for the EXPO 92 Trade exhibition. President Premadasa had wanted 1001 foreign visitors but something like 5,600 had attended. Hotels from Kandy to Bentota had been booked out to accommodate the inflow of potential buyers. Later, President Premadasa appointed Karu Jayasuriya as the Ambassador to Germany, a post he held until the change of government in 1994.

At this stage, someone may interrupt me and say, alright, alright, Karu was undoubtedly a success in the private sector but does that mean that he will be a success as the leader of the political party?

Managerial experience

If private sector skills are what it takes to succeed in politics, then why don’t we fill the UNP working committee and national list with private sector Deshabandus and run a successful operation just on that? There is a point here. The mere fact that someone succeeded in the private sector does not mean that he will succeed in politics. Having had some private sector experience would not doubt be useful in governance, but to succeed as a politician, one needs some skills over and above managerial experience. One thing that can be said about Karu Jayasuriya in this regard is that he took to politics like a duck to water. He contested the local government elections in March 1997, and from day one, he went electioneering like a man who had been in politics all his life. He got the highest number of preferences in Colombo and became Mayor. Karu has consistently got very high numbers of preferential votes at Municipal, Provincial and Parliamentary levels.

From the moment Karu came into politics, it became plain that he was more attuned to the needs of the electorate than Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil, who has done nothing but politics all his life was always sorely out of step with electoral politics. In 1977, he got into only because the UNP swept everything before it. He was never a popular man. At the 1993 Provincial Council elections and the 1994 Parliamentary elections he lost his Biyagama seat while being the incumbent Prime Minister. The people of his electorate did not give a toss that they had produced a Prime Minister! In fact, the reason why Ranil shifted Karu Jayasuriya to Gampaha and went to Colombo is because he feared getting less preferential votes than some of the local UNP politicians in Gampaha. Just moving to Colombo was not enough, he had to remove Karu Jayasuriya before going there because there was the danger of him getting less votes than Karu Jayasuriya in Colombo!

Cultivating minority votes

Ranil, has always been seriously out of step with the electorate, which is probably why he fixated on cultivating the minority vote because the minority vote can be negotiated from inside an air-conditioned room and is delivered en bloc without Ranil having to exert himself. All the ground level work is done by the minority leaders. This is a form of political ‘subcontracting’ or ‘outsourcing’ where power brokers deliver in exchange for a share of the spoils of power. Subcontracting and outsourcing are useful things in business, but I wouldn’t recommend it in politics because over-reliance on the subcontractors can cause grievous problems. Ranil was defeated by his northern subcontractor the LTTE, refusing to deliver.

Neglecting his own party and trying to outsource his votes is a strategy that Ranil had to resort to because of his fatal inability to interact with the electorate and to trust his subordinates – a problem which Karu Jayasuriya does not have. The UNP now needs Karu’s rapport with the electorate and his political skills to rebuild the electoral standing of the party. There is a school of thought prevalent in the country that had Karu Jayasuriya contested the last Presidential elections, the result would have been different because he could have competed with Mahinda for the Southern vote.

One might argue that even though Karu does have that personal, human touch with the electorate, he is not a political animal in the way that most people who have done politics from their youth are. That certainly is true. Karu is no political animal. So, how is he to compete against a political animal like Mahinda? What we mean by political animal here is that political killer instinct and single minded drive to obtain power. Karu in this respect, is not a Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake, Lalith Athulathmidali or even a Chandrika Kumaratunga. But Karu can easily compensate for his lack of political animal instinct by making proper use of those who do.

As I have been saying all along, the UNP has a better team man for man than the PA-JVP-JHU combine. The "outstanding component" of the party comprises highly qualified men who have succeeded in their chosen fields of endeavour. All these men are political animals, to a much greater extent than Karu Jayasuriya. But Ranil kept all his political animals caged and sedated in fear that they would out run him. All Karu J has to do is to take the UNP’s political animals off the tranquilisers and release them from their cages. Ranil kept his best men locked up because of his feeling of insecurity. But Karu Jayasuriya earned profits for his company for over three decades by promoting the best and most competent men. He is used to a culture where the best rises to the top and he knows that his own survival depends on allowing the best to rise to the top. He is used to sitting among competent men and getting them to do things without feeling that his own position would be endangered because of them.

‘Outstanding component’

That is what the UNP should expect of Karu Jayasuriya – to MANAGE the "outstanding component" of the party into victory. Karu should be the first among equals in a powerful shadow cabinet appointed by him from among the UNP’s outstanding leaders. Those who support Ranil may say at this stage, "What a brilliant idea! Lets get Ranil to be the first among equals in a powerful shadow cabinet!" I wish to categorically state that only Karu will be able to implement something like that successfully. Ranil has an ingrained inability to make decisions or to allow anyone else to make them.

Whether in Opposition or in government, he never allows anyone to do anything. Even if Ranil changes his ways and gives the "outstanding component" of the party a free hand to win power, they may find that they have fought long and hard to topple the PA under Ranil but when it comes to ruling the country after victory, those given precedence over them are either smilingly incompetent rosy cheeked youths or doddering old gentlemen whom Ranil had picked off the pension queue. This happened in December 2001 and would have happened on a much grander scale, had Ranil won the last Presidential election. There is absolutely no point in anyone exerting himself to bring Ranil Wickremesinghe into power because he cannot run a government even if power is handed to him on a platter. In contrast to this, Karu Jayasuriya has produced results all his life by entrusting a job to be done to the best man available. And the leaders of the UNP can trust him where they cannot trust Ranil. If you do well under Ranil you are doomed. Milinda Moragoda would have got into cabinet in the first round if he had come last in the Colombo district. He was made a non-cabinet minister because he came in at second place after Ranil.


There is also the need to restore the dignity of the position of eader of the UNP after the drama being enacted at this very moment. The tradition in any democratic country, is for a leader to resign if his political party has suffered a string of defeats. The tradition would be that the leader resigns after at the most, two defeats, but Ranil Wickremesinghe is now well into his second dozen and still refusing to leave.

I just don’t see Karu hanging on to power like that. He has no reason to do so. As Victor Ivan points out, the position of party leader of the SLFP or the UNP is like a gold mine with what he calls the aswenna (harvest) of black money flowing in during election time none of which is accounted for. One can steal without being seen to steal in such a position.) However, it is highly unlikely that a man like Karu Jaysuriya would sacrifice his dignity even for that. Karu is a man of few wants, who has never made use of his vehicle import permits as Mayor of Colombo, Provincial Council Opposition Leader, and a Member of Parliament in the Parliaments of October 2000, December 2001 and April 2004. He never drew his salary as Colombo Mayor or Cabinet Minister, the Mayoral salary being used to set up a scholarship fund and the ministerial salary being diverted to a medical charity.

He never travelled on state expense as Mayor of Colombo or as a Cabinet Minister, except for one trip to China where he represented the Prime Minister. If he is unable to produce results within a reasonable period of time, Karu Jayasuriya is the type of man who will step aside like a gentlemen without waiting to be booted out. When Karu Jayasuriya became Minister for Power and Energy, the country was undergoing eight hour power cuts. Karu promised to resign if he was not able to restore power within 180 days and he would have done it too, had he not been able meet that target.

There is a story being spread around by the Ranil faction that both Thondaman and Hakeem are against Karu becoming the leader of the UNP because he is "too Sinhala Buddhist". That seems to be a canard being used to bolster the case for Ranil to stay on. Why would Thondaman, Hakeem and Chandrasekeran who are seasoned politicians, wish to interfere in the internal problems of the UNP which is a separate organization? The Ranil faction will end up damaging the images of Thondaman, Hakeem and Chandrasekeran by spreading these rumours. When people hear that Thondaman and Hakeem don’t want Karu to become the leader of the UNP, the suspicion will be that they prefer Ranil because he is disliked by the Sinhalese voter and heavily dependent on the minority vote and therefore more pliable and subject to manipulation. It would be a very regrettable thing indeed if such an impression of the minority leaders is created among the majority community. When the elder Thondaman was alive, he was trusted by the Sinhalese. In the late 1980’s when the JVP wanted to open up negotiations with the government the man they approached was not a Sinhala politician but Thondaman!

Besides, Thonadaman and Hakeem should not be looking for the weakest Sinhala leader to support. By now they should have learn’t their lesson in this regard. They should instead be looking for a Sinhala leader who can like Premadasa and Chandrika, carry the Sinhala vote with him while being friendly towards the minorities and even the LTTE. Karu is one man who can do it. He is a man who can inspire trust even in the most unlikely situations. In 1989, when he took over United Motors the first privatized state enterprise, the trade union leader declared at the lamp lighting ceremony that he had no faith in privatization but that he had faith in Karu Jayasuriya! It stands to reason that if Karu was able to sell privatization to trade unionists, he should be able to sell a solution to the ethnic problem, to the Sinhala public. At United Motors, the workers did in fact benefit by reposing their trust in Karu Jayasuriya. Among other things, they ended up owning no less than 15% of the shares.

Also, in a situation where the LTTE has rejected Ranil, how can Thondaman and Chandrasekeran persist in supporting Ranil? Thondaman and Chandrasekeran may be risking the wrath of the LTTE by being seen to continue to support a man who has been categorically rejected by the LTTE. Moreover, if Thondaman, Chandrasekeran and Hakeem are seen by the Sinhala electorate as supporting the weakest and most pliable Sinhala leader available for their advantage, we might see a situation where the Sinhala electorate will vote en bloc against any Sinhala candidate being supported by minority leaders! The minority leaders should avoid any Sinhala leader who has been rejected by the Sinhala electorate. At the moment, they are shouldering an absolute liability.

There is a compromise formula on the cards where Ranil retains the title of leader while some of his powers pertaining to decision making, appointments and implementation will be handled by a political bureau headed by Karu Jayasuriya who in addition to his Deputy Leader’s post will also hold the position of Executive President and Chairman of the Political Bureau of the Party. All these compromise formulas have been made necessary because Ranil is unwilling to do the right thing and step down. To me, this compromise formula seems to be a plan to get all the work done by Karu and turn him into a subject clerk while Ranil remains the leader. If Karu and the political bureau is vested with some of the powers of the leader, it may perhaps bring about a slight change in the things are done within the party, but that will just be eyewash. It is highly unlikely that Ranil is going to cede any significant powers to the political bureau or to Karu Jayasuriya. All this is just a case of marking time for astrological reasons. The face the UNP shows to the public has to change and that cannot be effected if Ranil retains the title of leader. If I were in the reformist group, I would recommend that Ranil keeps all the powers he is prepared to cede to Karu J while Karu Jayasuriya just takes over the title of "leader" and becomes the public face of the UNP.

The internal battle that one is now seeing within the UNP now is just the tip of the iceberg. Rather than being able to suppress it, Ranil will find that it gains in momentum which each passing week and month, as the realization of their actual position sinks into the UNP rank and file. There will be a lull before the local government elections, but immediately afterwards, the reform movement will take center stage again like the second wave of the tsunami.



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