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This is my Nation


                                    Country lacks a strong opposition                                   

All this is not to say that Ranil Wickremesinghe will someday salvage the UNP. If he is to do it, he needs a makeover too- both in policy, grassroots electoral strategies and in what he says and does in public. The UNP must evolve a cohesive strategy for the nation, that would seek to optimise- and not criticise the military gains of the government. It must be in tune with the nationalist sentiments in the south, while preserving the advantage of traditionally being perceived as minority friendly. Then, it must also kick start its’ grassroots organisations, which are now wracked with divisions and battles for preference votes. Wickremesinghe himself could do with a few tips on how to conduct himself in public, so that, he would not be a source of embarrassing video footage for the State media. It will be a long road ahead, but the UNP can take heart from the many chinks in the UPFA’s armour: allegations of corruption, wasteful expenditure on a mega Cabinet and an economic downturn as well.

For the Grand Old Party of Sri Lankan politics, the United National Party (UNP), it has been another election, another defeat and now, another call for the resignation of party leader and Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe.When the party’s Parliamentary group met in the aftermath of the resounding defeat at the Central and North Western Provincial Council elections, there was a chorus of voices demanding Wickremesinghe’s scalp. The thrust of their argument was that, Wickremesinghe is no longer a marketable commodity; hence, he should go.

Taking Wickremesinghe to task were the ‘usual suspects’, the likes of S.B. Dissanayake, Johnston Fernando, Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, Lakshman Seneviratne and Thalatha Athukorale. This is not a list that raises eyebrows-except that, they were joined by a quite vehement Sajith Premadasa.

Later, at a party event, Wickremasinghe asserted that, there was a concerted attempt by the ruling party to destroy the UNP. He declared that, while the Government may succeed in roping in a few UNPers disgruntled with staying in the Opposition for a long period of time, the UNP itself would survive.

Divide and rule

Of course, dividing the Opposition is a time tested strategy for any government. Wickremesinghe’s uncle, J.R. Jayewardene (JR), divided the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) systematically. The deprivation of Sirima Bandaranaike’s civic rights, lead to a power struggle, and Maithripala Senanayake staked his claim for the leadership.

Soon, there was a SLFP (S) faction and SLFP (M) faction, and they were battling it out in court for the control of the party’s Darley Road headquarters. Then, there was the offshoot Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP) lead by Ms. Banadaranaike’s estranged son-in-law, Vijaya Kumaratunga-and they were all merrily at each others’ throats!

There is a lesson in that for the younger brigade in the UNP. That was a time when the prophets of doom were saying their eulogies for the SLFP. Many thought that the end was nigh for the party founded by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. Instead, it has now been in power for 12 of the last 15 years- and wreaking havoc with the UNP.

If JR assiduously pursued his strategy of ‘divide and rule’ with the SLFP, then Mahinda Rajapaksa has perfected it to an art form. Not only has he divided the UNP, he has also succeeded in dividing the two groups that staged insurgencies in this country-the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)!

Ranil’s removal is not a panacea

Those who are clamouring for change in the UNP- especially Wickremesinghe’s removal- appear to believe that, dismissing the Leader of the party and appointing someone else will be the magic mantra that would return it to power once again. This is where the UNP appears to be erring.

There are two fundamental flaws in this argument. Firstly, while Wickremesinghe himself has a plethora of faults, he is not the reason why the UNP is losing. The United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and President Mahinda Rajapaksa are on a roll, their popularity bolstered by the war effort in the North. The UNP dissidents must realise this.

It is true that Ranil Wickremesinghe entered into a ceasefire with the LTTE. How the Tigers abused that ceasefire is now emerging in battlefield footage from the North- each picture is a slap in Wickremesinghe’s face. But, the UNP can do precious little about that now.

Headless body?

After the 1977 election and JR’s sweeping victory, it was said that, had the UNP fielded a cadjan branch as a candidate, it would have won (‘UNP eken polpiththak demmath dinanawa’). The situation is similar now for the UPFA. The tide is now firmly in favour of the Alliance- and the UNP must bide its’ time till that passes.

Secondly, there is no charismatic personality in the UNP that can take full control of the party and turn it around. Of the would be contenders, Karu Jayasuriya was the most credible alternative-mature, honest and comfortable with the masses- but his crossover to the government, has put paid to any chances of UNP leadership.

Of the others, S.B. Dissanayake is the most vociferous, often waxing eloquent of his presidential ambitions. The man has his merits- and tremendous organisational capability- but he lost his Hanguranketha seat at the Central Provincial polls by a huge margin of over 10,000 votes. If anything, that should prove the argument that the UNP votes are at a trough- and that, very few people can do anything about it.

Then there is Sajith Premadasa. The younger Premadasa will certainly benefit from the services rendered by his father, but that legacy could be a political liability as well. If and when he dons the leadership mantle of the UNP, we can picture the UPFA propagandists going to town on the minuses of the Premadasa era.

Sajith is certainly leadership material. But, being in his early 40s, he would do well to reflect on how his father played second fiddle to JR; being a young man in a hurry may not be the best option for him at this point in time.
All this is not to say that Ranil Wickremesinghe will someday salvage the UNP. If he is to do it, he needs a makeover too- both in policy, grassroots electoral strategies and in what he says and does in public.

The UNP must evolve a cohesive strategy for the nation, that would seek to optimise- and not criticise the military gains of the government. It must be in tune with the nationalist sentiments in the south, while preserving the advantage of traditionally being perceived as minority friendly.

Then, it must also kick start its’ grassroots organizations, which are now wracked with divisions and battles for preference votes. Wickremesinghe himself could do with a few tips on how to conduct himself in public, so that, he would not be a source of embarrassing video footage for the State media.

It will be a long road ahead, but the UNP can take heart from the many chinks in the UPFA’s armour: allegations of corruption, wasteful expenditure on a mega Cabinet and an economic downturn as well.

The results will not materialise in the short term, and may not be evident at the next general election itself- but then, the country needs a strong Opposition, for that will, in turn, lead to a better government, and that is what this nation needs at this juncture.

****