When the UNP’s seniors committee appointed to look into party reforms met last week, they at last finalized the criteria for appointing a deputy leader and an assistant leader. The criteria have not been put to the working committee yet for approval. But broadly speaking the four main criteria agreed on are as follows:
1. He should be a sitting member of parliament, and he should have been in parliament for at least six years.
2. He should be a sitting member of the working committee and he should have been in the working committee for at least 3 to 5 years.
3. The person appointed would assist the leader in his work and not try to supercede the party leader.
4. The appointee should, in and out of parliament, spearhead the campaign against the government; and he cannot be someone who hunts with the hound and runs with the hare.
If one looks at these criteria, they seems to be clearly designed to keep S.B.Dissanayake out as he is not a sitting member of parliament. A few weeks back, this seniors committee met and decided that ‘seniority’ would be a major criteria in appointing the deputy leader. This made many people believe that what was meant by ‘seniority’ was something like having been in parliament for 15 or more years. This gave everyone the impression that Wickremesinghe was preparing to appoint one of the doddering old seniors in the UNP as deputy leader. But now, the seniors committee seems to have dispensed with the requirement of seniority. Having been six years in parliament and around three to five years in the working committee cannot be deemed to be ‘seniority’. One wonders why the threshold was brought so low. Given the position that Wickremesinghe is in, this cannot be to appoint one of his favourites as deputy leader.
The distinct possibility is that Sajith Premadasa could be appointed as deputy leader. The criteria fits him more than anyone else. Even criteria number three fits him because he has never tried to oust the leader and has never been associated with any of the numerous rebellions that have racked the UNP in the past decade, even though there may have been some sparring between Wickremesinghe and Premadasa in the past. As far as groups go, Premadasa has been somewhat of a loner, not being associated with any of the cliques in the UNP. It could be that the UNP leader is trying to use Premadasa’s popularity among the rank and file of the party for his own benefit.
Premadasa has managed to maintain a private welfare programme for the past several years whether he was in power or out, and his father’s name evokes memories of better days in the minds of most UNPers. Even though this lowering of the seniority criteria has in fact brought Premadasa into the picture, there’s nothing to prevent Wickremesinghe from appointing someone else if he gets cold feet. It was party chairman Rukman Senanayake’s name that was most often mentioned in relation to the deputy leader’s post, but last week, he gave an interview to the Daily Island where he said that he was prepared to work under anybody and that SB and Sajith were undoubtedly the two most popular individuals in the party.
When the UNP working committee met last week, Kurunegala district parliamentarian Dayasiri Jayasekera raised a question regarding statements made by Rukman Senanayake and Lakshman Seneviratne to the press and declared that either UNP should join the government straightaway or confront them head on. Jayasekera had raised the same issue earlier at the UNP parliamentary group meeting as well. Jayawickreme Perera said that it was important for the party leader, general secretary and the others to discuss the stands to be taken on various issues and to make the party stand known.
Speaking at the working committee, Jayasekera said that if some people were trying to make ‘balanced statements’ then he too will make balanced statements in the future. Jayasekera, said that while it is the LTTE that killed Janaka Perera, the government paved the way for the assassination by not providing security. He said that the roads in Colombo were being closed for Karuna Amman to travel in safety but Janaka Perera had no protection . He had also questioned why members of the UNP were talking about ‘Indian invasions’ and he accused Lakshman Seneviratne and Rukman Senanayake of having washed the dirt off the government.
Senanayake had replied to the matters raised by Jayasekera and said that while it is unforgivable that the government consistently refused to provide security to Janaka Perera, the party should not gloss over the fact that the LTTE assassinated him. Senanayake reminded all those present that it was the LTTE that had wiped out the entire leadership of the UNP, including Ranjan Wijeratne, Premadasa, Lalith Athulatmudali, Gamini Dissanayake and many others.
When Athulathmudali was done away with, everyone put the blame on Premadasa and the real culprits then killed Premadasa as well. Senanayake warned that this misguided rush to put all the blame on the government for assassinations done by the LTTE will endanger Wickremesinghe’s life as well, because the LTTE may do away with him in order to have the blame foisted on the government. Everyone in the working committee listened to Senanayake in silence.
Last week, Senanayake was not the first to warn Wickremsinghe to be careful. The chief incumbent of the Sarananda Pirivena also warned Wickremesinghe to be careful.
Last week, Rukman Senanayake in an interview to the Island said it was the LTTE that killed Janaka Perera, and that had anyone cared to ask him, as the chairman of the party, he would have said so point blank. He stressed that terrorism must be met militarily and that the UNP should support the government in this. It was plain speak by the party chairman for which Senanayake must be commended. Of course nothing has yet come from the investigation of the murder. It must be remembered that the Anuradhapura police, among those investigating, watched Dr. Johnpulle’s house being burned down without lifting a finger. They may be off the hook because both Dr. Johnpulle and his wife died with Maj. Gen. Janaka Perera.
The UNP, rightly or wrongly, has been suspected of following a policy of appeasement towards the LTTE. This is why even the high cost of living made no dent in the government’s popularity. The public saw no acceptable alternative in a situation where the UNP was seen to be incapable of dealing with the problem of terrorism. But statements like that of Senanayake will make the public look at the UNP in a new light. The UNP leader himself, realized the disadvantage that the UNP was in, which is why at last year’s J.R.Jayewardene commemoration, he mooted the need to drop the UNP’s federalist stance and the need to renegotiate the ceasefire in terms of current realities.
But these points never became an explicit part of UNP policy and to this date the UNP remains in the minds of many members of the public the party of appeasement and the party of capitulation to the west. Hitherto, all attempts made to change the UNP’s image has failed. But Senanayake’s statement may help turn the tide if the UNP acquiesces in it. What Rukman said was obviously not meant to change UNP policy , but were prompted by the need to give a clear answer to a pointed question.
Last week the UNP held a one day workshop for electoral organizers of the Uva, Southern, Western and Eastern Provinces who are not MPs. Tissa Attanayake spoke on the future course of action of the party, Kabir Hashim spoke on the collapse of the economy, Palitha Range Bandara spoke on the present state of the war, and Lakshman Kiriella spoke on the corruption and waste in government under the Rajapakse regime. For any UNP audience to be really happy, it has to hear that the economy is on the verge of collapse, that the government is losing the war, and that corruption is at its height. Every opposition party, even in the less desperate West, needs to hear that the government is not doing well, in order to be really happy.
In the US, it was to the advantage of the Democratic Party that the USA did not fare too well in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Similarly, in Britain, it was vital for the Conservatives that the Labour governments led by Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown should emerge with egg on their faces from Iraq and Afghanistan. Every democratic opposition party has to hope for the worst for the country under their opponents, but without making this too obvious to the general public. This essential manoeuvre, which most political parties the world over manage to do without much trouble, is an almost in-surmountable obstacle for the UNP. Therein lies its problem.
The ‘koti’ label
A sideshow that took place at last week’s working committee meeting was a clash between John Amaratunga and Jayalath Jayawardene. Amaratunga had brought a copy of the Dinamina to the working committee and he had read out an article which said that Jayalath Jayewardene had stayed at the house of a well known member of the LTTE while on a visit to Switzerland. Amaratunga said that this is the kind of thing that gives people the impression that the UNP has some sort of a deal with the Tigers. Amaratunga and Jayewardene are competitors for the Catholic vote in the Gampaha district and bringing this problem up in the working committee was an extension of the preference vote battle there. However, Amaratunga did have a point because quite a lot of LTTE related accusations that the UNP faces are wittingly or unwittingly generated by Dr Jayawardene.
The latter had answered the charges made by Amaratunga saying that this Tamil individual concerned is not an LTTE member and that it was not out of love for the UNP that the Dinamina has published such things. Jayawardene had then accused Amaratunga of dancing to the government’s tune. Dayasiri Jayasekera, when he took up cudgels with Rukman Senanyake, made reference to Jayawardene’s visit to Switzerland and said that even Media Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa had stayed at the house of this Tamil individual in Switzerland. When we asked Yapa whether this was correct, he answered in the negative. He said that this Tamil individual had been introduced to him by Dr Jayawardene some years ago when they had all gone together to Switzerland to attend a workshop. The moment Dr Jayewardene had got down at the airport, he had asked the Sri Lankan protocol officer for this man by name, and while Yapa and the others had left the airport in the Embassy vehicle, Jayewardene had left in this Tamil individual’s car.
This person who is supposed to be a shop owner in Switzerland, had been introduced even to TNA leader Sampanthan by Dr Jayawardene. Minister Yapa says that he has never visited the house of this individual and that he has met him only in the company of Dr Jayawardene. Thus the attempt to sanitize the contact by mentioning the media minister’s name has fallen through and Jayawardene is still left holding the baby. One might say that Jayawardene has a tendency to generate more such controversies than all the other UNP parliamentarians put together and these are not doing anything to improve the estimation of the UNP in the eyes of the public.
When the UNP political affairs committee met last week, under the chairmanship of the party leader and with the participation of Rukman Senanayake , Ravi Karunanayake, S.B.Dissanayake, John Amaratunga, Renuka Herath and others, the main topic discussed was the investigation into the assassination of Janaka Perera. Wickremesinghe said that they had now completely lost confidence in the police investigation and that he would be making a statement in parliament with regard to this. S.B.Dissanayake then stood up and said that despite what anybody may say, it is the government that got Janaka killed. Parliamentarians Sarath Ranawaka and Ravi Samaraweera had concurred. The killing of Janaka Perera was a topic of discussion in various fora in the UNP last week. This was discussed even in the working committee with party general secretary Tissa Attanayake saying that the government pays Rs 10,000 as compensation even to road accident victims but that they have not given anything to the victims of the Anuradhapura suicide attack. He stated that even the payment of compensation was now polticized.
S.B.Dissanayake is one of those who have been plugging the line that the government is responsible for the Janaka Perera assassination if not by commission then at least by omission in not providing security. SB has always been acutely aware of the need to be seen by the average UNPer as a person who takes on the government. In this sense he, even more than Sajith Premadasa, has fulfilled the fourth criteria for the appointment of a deputy leader. The very reason why the fourth criteria was formulated by Wickremesinghe was to keep the deputy leader busy attacking the government and not him. But this could backfire on Wickremesinghe, because this very act of taking on the government would enhance the image of the deputy leader in the eyes of the average UNPer and this may lead to the creating of a new power centre in the party as it did at the time of Gamini Atukorale.
The Indian question
Another matter discussed at the UNP Political Affairs Committee was the Indian question. Wickremesinghe informed the members of the PAC that he had made inquiries from the Indian authorities about the pressures being brought by India on the Sri Lankan government and he had been informed by the Indians that they had not brought any pressure to bear on the Sri Lankan government, but had emphasized two points - the need for a political solution and the need to provide relief to internally displaced persons. The point to note is that the Indians had not emphasized the need to stop the war in the north.
This puts the lid on any hope that some quarters may have entertained of the Indians intervening to bail out the LTTE at the eleventh hour. Reason with regard to the Sri Lankan question seems to be re-asserting itself both in Tamil Nadu and in New Delhi. The arrest of V.Gopalswamy or ‘Vaiko’, the call by Rahul Gandhi to hang his father’s assassins, the moderation of the stand taken by Chief Minister Karunanidhi, and the anti-LTTE stand taken by Jeyaram Jeyalalitha, the stands taken by respected newspapers like the Hindu and the Times of India, and the statements made by the Tamil Nadu Congress Party leader, are all pointers to the fact that there will be no 1987 style Indian intervention in Sri Lanka.
The Indian central government for its part seems to have realized that intervening in Sri Lanka to keep the rabble in Tamil Nadu happy will boomerang on the central government in a matter of months. The time that would elapse between intervention in Sri Lanka and the first appearance of negative effects in Tamil Nadu in terms of an inflammation of separatist hopes would be so short that the present government may have to deal with it without being able to leave it to its successor. The government in waiting, the BJP, is also not very vocal with regard to the Sri Lanka issue, obviously because they don’t want to be left holding the Tamil separatist baby in Tamil Nadu.These factors seem to have restored sanity at the centre and given the government the political will to withstand the posturing in Tamil Nadu, even letting the Indian central government fall if the worst comes to the worst, rather than giving in and helping to create a monster.
Sanity also seems to have reasserted itself within the Karunanidhi camp. The aging Karunanidhi will not be in politics for much longer, but he has a dynasty to bequeath power to. A master of realpolitik, Karunanidhi was a man who could change tack when he feels that the present policy is disadvantageous to him. In the early 1990s, after the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, he was wiped out politically but he made a comeback and has been much less LTTE inclined since. Besides, he probably realizes that the rise of separatist sentiments in Tamil Nadu will be the end of his family’s domination in Tamil Nadu politics and that his family too would go the way of Amrithalingam, Yogeswaran, Neelan Tiruchelvam and others of the established Tamil leadership in Sri Lanka. It may perhaps be safe to say that the government is more or less over the worst with regard to the Indian factor.
Last week the JHU Sangha Sabhawa and the central committee met in joint session to discuss the pressures emanating from India. JHU media secretary Nishantha Warnasinghe said that an all party conference chaired by Mr Anandasangaree should have been called to counter Karunanidhi’s all party conference. He also stated that anti-LTTE Tamil leaders like Douglas Devananda, Siddharthan, Karuna and Pillaiyan should be invited to join this all party conference and reply to Karunanidhi’s APC. He further stated that the Indian Communist Party had joined Karunanidhi’s APC and that local Marxists like D.E.W.Gunasekera, Tissa Vitarana, Vasudeva Nanayakkara should have made representations to the CPI in this regard. He lamented that nobody has taken the initiative to utilize the forces already present in the Rajapakse government to counter pressures from India. Ven Ellawela Medhananda instructed Minister Champika Ranawaka to talk to presidential advisor Basil Rajapakse about this.
In the coming months, it won’t be so much the Indian issue that will present a headache to the government but the GSP+ issue. The duty free concession for garment imports from Sri Lanka granted by the EU in the wake of the tsunami had proved to be a boon for apparel exporters. While exports to the US held steady at around 1.5 -1.6 billion US Dollars over the past several years, the granting of the GSP+ concession saw the exports to the EU increasing sharply after 2006. Apparel exports to the EU was around US$ one billion before GSP+ was granted and by 2007, this had increased sharply to around $ 1.45 billion. So the inevitable withdrawal of GSP+ will create some problems for the country. UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake raised the GSP+ issue at the UNP parliamentary group meeting and said that the government was preparing to give the apparel factory owners a handout in the budget to compensate for the loss of the GSP+ facility and that this will only result in additional taxes being heaped upon the people.
In any event, even with the withdrawal of the GSP+ facility, exports to the EU cannot go below the one billion US$ mark that was achieved before GSP+ was granted. The whole purpose in granting concessions like this to enable a country to penetrate a market and once they have come in and established themselves, the hope is that they will be able to stick on even after the special concessions are withdrawn. Sri Lanka had been in the EU market long before GSP+ was granted and if after it is withdrawn, exports go crashing down even below the US$ one billion level that was achieved without it, then this so called tsunami ‘aid’ has been in fact a poisoned chalice as far as the industry is concerned. Some reduction in the exports to the US and the EU has to be expected because of the economic conditions in the world today, but at least a part of the gain since 2006 has to remain with Sri Lanka.