SB’s Karma

UNP national organizer S.B.Dissanayake celebrated his 57th birthday last week. The friends and well wishers who gathered at his residence at Battaramulla on Thursday night, included ministers Mahinda Wijesekera and Bandula Gunawardene from the earlier crop of UNP dissidents and parliamentarians Johnston Fernando, Talatha Atukorale, Jayalath Jayawardene and Ravi Samaraweera from the latest crop of dissidents. Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalists were also conspicuous by their presence to wish SBD a happy birthday. Wickremesinghe protégés Sagala Ratnayake and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam, and Tissa Attanayake were present as were middle of the road individuals like Joseph Michael Perera, Ravi Karunanayake, Gayantha Karunatilleke, and Champika Premadasa. The turnout at his birthday get together is indicative of some change in SB’s role within the UNP. He is in the process of becoming the bridge between the UNP dissidents past and present, and party leader Wickremesinghe.

Election or selection?

The recent comments made by the chief justice in the supreme court, concerning SB’s civic rights, has in a way revived his political fortunes. At one point, relegated to a seven year limbo of civic disability which would have made him a political cipher until well after the next parliamentary and presidential elections, hopes have now been revived that he may never have lost his civic rights at all. SB’s case is one of the most complicated legal questions of recent times. Now nobody really knows whether he has his civic rights or not. The International Human Rights Committee set up under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has issued a ruling in SB’s favour and even called on the government to award compensation to him for the term of imprisonment that he had to undergo.

While these events have revived SB’s political fortunes to some extent, the recent decision by the UNP working committee to appoint a deputy leader and assistant leader have given an added fillip to his hopes of being able to revive his stalled political career. Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera has been telling people openly, that these two posts were created with just two people in mind - S.B.Dissanayake and Sajith Premadasa. The two posts have still not been filled and even the method by which the appointments will be made is far from clear. Some within the UNP feel that the process will be an election rather than selection by the leader. However the question can be raised that if the party leader was going to allow an election to take place, he would have allowed the committee of party seniors appointed to look into the suggestion for party reforms to make recommendations to the working committee on who should be appointed.

The fact that Wickremesinghe thought it fit to whittle away the powers of the committee of party seniors indicates that he was determined to ensure that the process of appointing a deputy leader was not taken out of his hands. But if an election is allowed within the working committee, the appointment of a deputy leader and assistant leader would have in fact, been taken out of his hands – a situation Wickremesinghe will want to avoid. But it seems clear that what most members of the working committee want SB and Sajith appointed to these posts by either selection or election. If he is unable to resist the pressure from below to appoint SB and Sajith to these posts, Wickremesinghe may allow a ‘controlled election process’ whereby they are appointed to these posts at a working committee election with he himself throwing his weight behind SB and Sajith. Some may ask why Wickremesinghe does not appoint SB and Sajith to these posts and be done with it. That would have been possible if they were the only contenders for these posts.

But it appears that Vajira Abeywardene has been openly canvassing for the position of deputy leader and he has even approached Wickremesinghe to get him to agree to an election within the working committee instead of appointing anyone to these posts. Abeywardene has already started canvassing for the deputy leadership openly and he was one of the notable absentees at S.B.Dissanayake’s birthday get together last week. Abeywardene and SB have never seen eye to eye. Even though SB was the national organizer of the party, whenever he went to Galle for a public meeting, Abeywardene would take great care to place SB’s name way down in the list of speakers in his posters announcing the meeting. That way the precedence was taken out of SB’s post. Despite the fact that Abeywardene is against SB, nobody else in the party seems to be against SB’s appointment. In fact the signs are that if there is an election within the UNP working committee, the vast majority would endorse both SB and Sajith.

Yet Abeywardene has expressed complete confidence that he could win a contest within the working committee against SB. It should be noted here that Abeywardene is contesting SB and not Sajith, who will most probably be appointed the assistant leader without a contest. This is because Abeywardene’s intention is not to become deputy to SB, but to Wickremesinghe. However the chances of him being able to best SB in a contest within the working committee seem pretty slim. Many members of the public may not see Abeywardene as a potential deputy leader of the UNP. But in a contest within the working committee, one thing that may stand in Abeywardene’s favour would be the fear of some senior UNPers about the party being taken over by outsiders who have recently joined the party. The UNP’s seniors had to watch in silence when Mangala Samaraweera, who has not yet even left the SLFP, was appointed deputy prime minister in waiting of a future UNP government in a document which could be legally binding on the party.

The Abeywardene factor

SB has been in the UNP for much longer, but he too is ‘lately of the SLFP’. There may be a fear among party seniors that if SB is made deputy leader, he may have his own circle of cronies and that party seniors will be left out in the cold. It could be this fear that gives Abeywardene the confidence that he could prevail in a contest against SB. There could be three reasons why Abeywardene has decided to contest the deputy leader’s post.

Firstly, he may be confident that he can win and become the deputy leader. Secondly, he may be of the opinion that if he is not going to become deputy leader, then he might as well lose after a contest rather than not be in the running at all. In 1978 Gamini Dissanayake contested R. Premadasa for the position of prime minister. Even though he lost, the contest placed Dissanayake next to Premadasa in the pecking order. Similarly, Wickremesinghe contested Dissanayake for the opposition leader’s post in 1994 and that made him the natural successor to Dissanayake. Even tougher in this case, there will be an assistant leader next to the deputy leader. The fact that Abeywardane contested the deputy leadership will at least place him next to the assistant leader, whereas if he does not contest, he will just be one of the nameless multitude below the assistant leader.

If it is not these hierarchical ambitions that is driving Abeywardene, it could be the reason that he wants the deputy leadership and if he does not get it, he would rather decamp and join the government than play second fiddle to SB and Sajith for the rest of his life. As the prospects of the UNP seem dim, Abeywardene might as well commence immediate enjoyment of the fruits of power if he cannot build himself a future worth looking forward to in the UNP. Hence we need not be surprised if we see Abeywardene joining the government in the event that he contests the deputy leadership and loses to SB. He will have no future in a UNP led by SB and in any case, if he is going to simply be a minister and nothing else, he can commence being that under Rajapakse without waiting for a UNP government to come into power. So much for the sole contender against SB.

It has already become evident that Sajith Premadasa will not try to oppose SB being given the deputy leadership while he is made assistant leader. Despite Abeywardene’s absence, the presence of Wickremesinghe protégés like Sagala Ratnayake and Akila Kariyawasam at SB’s birthday bash is an indication of which way the cookie is crumbling. SB is, in fact, the only individual in the UNP who has the background to be deputy leader. It is only he who has the experience of having been one of the top two or three ministers in a government – having served as one of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s top two lieutenants for seven years. He was, in addition to this, the general secretary of the SLFP for a short while. Among the veteran UNPers still in the party, there is absolutely no one with comparable experience. In the ill-fated Ranil Wickremesinghe government of 2001-2004, one of the most powerful ministers was Tilak Marapone, who is nowhere in the leadership running.

One of the conspicuous things about that government was that a second tier leadership was never allowed to come up. Hence there is no point in looking for a second tier leadership from among those in the UNP. One has to depend on those who may have acquired some of that experience from outside. In the case of Sajith Premadasa, he was never given an opportunity to acquire any worthwhile experience in government, having been relegated to a third rate deputy ministership by Wickremesinghe when he should in fact have been made a non cabinet minister at least with a responsible portfolio. His claim to leadership is his father’s name and the fact that he has inherited his father’s penchant for micro level development activities. It is this lack of competition that gives SB a clear lead in the race. However, everything is not hunky dory. While it is true that SB has served in high positions in two governments, he served in two of the most wretched, unsuccessful governments that the people of this country had the misfortune to experience. When Victor Ivan says that the Chandrika Kumaratunga government was distinguished by the fact that it had done nothing of lasting value to the country in all its twelve years in power, that applies by association to all those who served there including SB. Unlike the super ministers of the UNP government of 1977-1994, SB, has no major development projects to his credit. The same can be said about his stint under Wickremesinghe’s premiership. This is the reason why SB was never able to attain the stature of a Gamini Dissanayake, a Lalith Athulathmudali or a Premadasa.

Even the stature that he had when he was in the SLFP, has been whittled down in the UNP. It was because of him and the eight ministers who crossed over that the PA government fell in 2001. It is of course true that the PA had been steadily losing ground at elections and at the 2000 election, they lost their majority in parliament. Thus the stage was set for their defeat, crossover or no crossover. However, it was SB’s crossover that sealed the fate of the PA. He should have been appointed the deputy prime minister in the UNP government, but he was not. He was given the Agriculture and Samurdhi portfolios, but there were problems from the beginning. It took seven years for problems to emerge between him and Chandrika Kumaratunga. But in the UNP, it took only as many months. Within months of the UNP having formed a government, SB was offering to resign. This is SB’s karma. Just as he served in a senior capacity in two of the most worthless governments in this country’s history, he also had the misfortune to team up with two of the least talented non-leaders we have seen in recent times.

The great Banyan tree

SB is an ambitious man. He sees himself as a latter day Premadasa – rising up from among the mass of the people to rule the country one day. But Premadasa had good leaders, Dudley Senanayake and J.R.Jayewardene, under whom he rose to be the highest in the land. Premadasa was able to implement his projects because of the cooperation he got from J.R.Jayewardene. When funding for Premadasa’s Gam Udawa projects became a problem, JRJ took a decision in cabinet allowing Premadasa to borrow money from the Colombo Municipal Council to tide over difficulties until the money is released to the Housing and Construction Ministry by the Treasury. Did SB ever get that kind of cooperation from Wickremesinghe? In the UNP, it has been an uphill struggle for SB. The UNP leader is like a great banyan tree under which not even a blade of grass can thrive. What SB has experienced up to now is discrimination and undercutting, not co-operation. He was grudgingly appointed national organizer, but he was never given an office at Sirikotha. However the deputy national organizer Sarath Ranawaka had his own office. When SB finally got his own office, he had to share it with three other people, one of whom was parliamentarian Ranjith Madduma Bandara who functioned as the head of the UNP’s teachers’ union from the desk next to SB’s!

It is things like this that give people like Vajira Abeywardene the impression that he would be able to defeat SB in a contest within the working committee. There has been a deliberate and concerted effort within the UNP, mainly by the Wickremesinghe camp, to undermine SB. Even though he is the national organizer, there is no such post in the constitution and it is simply an ad hoc post given by the leader. If the party leader wanted to give SB a secure footing, he would have at some point, brought it up at a party convention and regularized the appointment. Given this situation of hardly disguised enmity, the question arises whether Wickremesinghe is going to continue the same policy towards SB even if he is appointed deputy leader of the party. What then would be the point in appointing a deputy leader at all? In recent days, Wickremesinghe has been getting close to SB, having one to one talks, and all that. But this is with the aim of using him as a foil to counter the Johnston Fernando-Lakshman Seneviratne group of dissidents. Wickremesinghe has seen fit to use SB when it suits him. For example, SB was assigned to manage the Sabaragamuwa PC election.

What we have is a cat and mouse game being played between Wickremesinghe and SB, SB always being the mouse. Wickremesinghe’s desires are being fulfilled but not those of SB. When SB wanted to be appointed to parliament for just one week in order to clear up the legal wrangle concerning his civic rights, the cooperation that he got from the party leader was nil. Thus, he continues to languish in a limbo, not knowing whether he has his civic rights or not. Even if he is appointed deputy leader, he will be a lame duck deputy leader, holding no elected office, and of uncertain status with regard to his civic rights. But then perhaps, that is the way Wickremesinghe wants him to be. This too is SB’s karma - being led by the enemy!

Last week, the UNP’s provincial councilors in the WPC met Wickremesinghe. The purpose of the meeting was an undisguised attempt to score brownie points by informing the leader in person that they had met the UNP dissident parliamentarians and told them to settle the differences they have by means of discussion. The provincial councilors could not afford to assume that Wickremesinghe may have read of their meeting in the papers. Knowing that this was a receptive audience, Wickremesinghe played to the occasion, giving the assembled loyal provincial councilors a speech where he said that he had accepted the leadership of the party at a very difficult time in 1994 after the assassination of the party leaders. His aim was to develop the country, but he had not been given an opportunity to do so yet. The problem that most UNPers have with Wickremesinghe is also precisely this: 14 years after he assumed the party leadership, they are all still waiting for an opportunity to develop the country.

JHU-JNP tie up?

When the politburo of Wimal Weerawansa’s Jathika Nidahas Pereamuna met last week, the main topic of conversation was what action the party would take on the budget. It was decided that they would prepare a set of suggestions to be handed over to the government with a view to providing relief to the people. Parliamentarian Nandana Gunatilleke suggested that in preparing these representations to the government, the views of the JHU should also be sought. Kamal Deshapriya, the national organizer of the JNP, said that even though there were some policy differences between the JNP and the JHU, they were as one, when it came to providing relief to the people. Discussions will be held in the coming week between the JNP and the JHU, about making joint representations to the government on the budget. This seems to portend a future tie up between the JHU and the JNP. Such a tie up will create a political entity which is as large as the Tamil National Alliance in Parliament with the JHU’s nine MPs and the JNP’s 13. This would also make the joint JNP-JHU entity almost as large as the JVP, which now has 24 parliamentarians. Thus the three cornered fight among the JVP-JNP-JHU for the jathiwadi vote will now be between the JNP-JHU combine on the one hand and the JVP on the other.

Last week, the JHU held a meeting of its professionals’ organization to explain the stand of the party with regard to the 17th Amendment. Explaining matters, Minister Champika Ranawaka said that they realized that the 17th amendment will not be able to ensure the independence of the government service as far back as 2001. Ranawaka explained that he was in parliament at the time the 17th amendment was passed. With the crossover of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress in 2001, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government was faced with a crisis. When the JVP stepped in to save the Kumaratunga government from collapse, they wanted the 17th amendment passed as a condition to form the pariwasa government. It was passed in a mighty hurry without adequate discussion. At that time only the Sihala Urumaya voted against the 17th amendment, said Ranawaka. He pointed out that there were some serious flaws in this legislation and that moreover in making appointments to the Constitutional Council, the majority Sinhalese were being discriminated against.

Dr Nirmala Perera pointed out that executive powers are undermined by the powers of the Constitutional Council and that this is not what should happen at this particular moment. He urged that the head of state should be able to direct the government service as he saw fit. Ven Akmeemana Dayaratana said that the JVP and the UNP are trying to make an issue of the 17th amendment. The consensus within the JHU was that this was not the moment to be talking about the 17th amendment.

When the JVP politburo met last week, the main topic of discussion was the cost of living. K.D.Lal Kantha said that there was a good response to the petition demanding a reduction of the cost of living. Tilvin Silva said that the government had not yet reduced the cost of fuel even though the world prices had gone down drastically and that they were waiting until the budget to reduce the cost of fuel in order to derive the maximum political mileage out of it. Somawansa Amarasinghe said that on the one hand the government was making use of the advances made by the armed forces on the war front for its political advantage and on the other hand, when the prices of crude oil were tumbling in the world market, instead of giving the benefit of that price reduction to the people, they were trying to gain political capital out of things for which they could not claim credit. This exposed the complete bankruptcy of the government.

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