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This is my Nation  


 

The quintessential hurdler at it again

For a man who made no secret of the fact that he had ambitions for the presidential chair, SB’s decision to re-join the SLFP must have been a difficult one. However, the motives of S.B. Dissanayake in joining the SLFP is the impact this will have on the presidential election campaign.
Undoubtedly, even if it is not for the most moral and ethical reasons, SB would be an asset to any campaign. He surely gets the job done.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a street smart politician, if ever there was one, feels that the contest is tough enough to enrol SB’s services. That he personally visited SB’s Hanguranketha residence to woo him to the SLFP, underscores the value placed on the man.
As such, his presence will add fillip to a UPFA campaign that is already streets ahead of the joint opposition effort.
SB is expected to bring to the President’s campaign: crowd-pulling risqué oratory, tactics bordering on the daring and a general knack for correctly reading the public mood

After months of intense speculation as to where his loyalties lay, the United National Party’s (UNP) National Organiser S.B. Dissanayake finally took the plunge and crossed over to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) last week.

Sumanaweera Banda Dissanayake, ‘SB’ to all, is of course, no stranger to controversy. He is as colourful and controversial as he ever was, be it as the Minister of Samurdhi Affairs, Minister of Sports, General Secretary of the SLFP, or even as a loud-mouthed opposition parliamentarian, the latter earning him a jail sentence for contempt of the Supreme Court.

It will be recalled that when he first crossed over to the UNP from the Peoples’ Alliance government, after falling out with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the move eventually led to the downfall of Kumaratunga’s regime, and helped usher in a United National Front (UNF) administration.
Following this manoeuvre, SB donned on himself the mantle of political kingmaker, but unfortunately for him, that UNF government was short-lived, and SB was confined to the ranks of the opposition once again. It was here that he fell foul with the highest courts of law and was jailed.

SB saw himself as a martyr of sorts, following that escapade, and on being pardoned and released from jail, he made thinly veiled attacks on the UNP leadership, even though he was allowed to resume his role as the National Organiser of the party.

In interviews with the media, SB was not shy to admit that he harboured presidential ambitions. He contested the Provincial Council elections this year as the Chief Ministerial contender from the UNP, and lost to the lesser known Sarath Ekanayake, but polled a record number of Preference votes.
It was then that he made noises about wanting to be the party’s nominee for the presidential election against President Mahinda Rajapaksa. As events unfolded, the UNP eventually refrained from nominating a candidate, and endorsed the candidacy of General Sarath Fonseka instead.

Many UNPers saw this as a strategic move by Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was fighting his own battle within the party to remain as its leader. A third straight defeat at the presidential polls would have indeed been disastrous for Wickremesinghe.
However, the party’s decision to endorse Fonseka meant that the prospect of Wickremesinghe contesting the 2016 presidential polls now becomes a distinct possibility. And, SB, now a not so young man in a hurry, was not enamoured with this prospect.

SB did meet with Fonseka, after the latter’s nomination, and offered his support. He even went on record heaping praise on Fonseka for his role in annihilating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) calling him the ‘Man of the Match’. But obviously, after weighing his own prospects, he had second thoughts.
For a man who made no secret of the fact that he had ambitions for the presidential chair, the decision to re-join the SLFP must have been a difficult one. It is also a decision that would have made other party seniors in the SLFP more than a little uneasy.

However, the motives of S.B. Dissanayake in joining the SLFP are not the issue at stake here. What is more relevant for discussion is the impact this will have on the presidential election campaign.
Undoubtedly, even if it is not for the most moral and ethical reasons, SB would be an asset to any campaign. It will be recalled that it was SB who masterminded the now infamous Wayamba Provincial election campaign during the Chandrika Kumaratunga presidency. Therefore, he surely gets the job done.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, a street smart politician, if ever there was one, feels that the contest is tough enough to enrol SB’s services. That he personally visited SB’s Hanguranketha residence to woo him to the SLFP, underscores the value placed on the man.

As such, his presence will add fillip to a United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) campaign that is already streets ahead of the joint opposition effort. Even now, we have had a glimpse of what SB can do, because he has been allocated time on State media to liberally criticise the UNP in general and Ranil Wickremesinghe in particular, notwithstanding the fact that Wickremesinghe is not a contestant at the poll.

But SB’s re-entry to the SLFP does come at a price. Many members of the general public, regardless of their political affiliations, detest opportunistic politicians who switch loyalties for personal gain. And most of them would categorise SB as belonging to this group, especially in view of his very recent outspoken comments, which were supportive of General Fonseka and critical of President Rajapaksa.

The negative effect of this is redressed by what SB is expected to bring to the President’s campaign: crowd-pulling risqué oratory, tactics bordering on the daring and a general knack for correctly reading the public mood.

From a UNP perspective, there is an initial negative impact for exactly the same reason: SB was perhaps the party’s only genuine platform attraction, and now, he is on the other side. For a party which is anyway struggling to find its feet among the grassroots, against an immensely popular President, this could be a crippling blow.

In the long run, however, many UNPers are happy. The majority of them never considered SB a ‘genuine’ UNPer, given his undisguised ambitions and his persistent close personal friendship with President Mahinda Rajapaksa. They also viewed him as a divisive force within the UNP, given his continued agitations within the party to oust Wickremesinghe.

Now, with SB out of the way, they feel the path is clear for Wickremesinghe to forge ahead, perhaps with Karu Jayasuriya as a stopgap deputy leader being amenable to pave the way for the younger Sajith Premadasa to be Wickremesinghe’s deputy. Ironically, this would be a J.R. Jayewardene-R. Premadasa like combination, they feel, albeit with the nephew and son respectively of the previous generation of UNP leaders.
Yet, very few politicians who know SB will bet that this is the end of the SB saga; rather, they feel this is only the beginning.