Rebels steadfast as ever in demanding unp reforms

By Rohan Abeywardena
The power struggle in the United National Party is far from over even though there is now less public exchanges possibly in view of the forthcoming local elections and reformists not wanting to be blamed for any debacle.
But reformists are steadfast as ever in their demand for greater democracy in the party.
Reformist camp leader Sajith Premadasa who is aspiring for the party leadership of the party speaks his mind in a wide ranging interview with The Nation.

Following are excerpts:

Q: Suddenly, UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya talked on Thursday about implementing Panditharatna recommendations to revive the party.
These recommendations were made some years back and were left ignored all these years.
Does that mean that they are no longer interested in the reforms package that has already been approved by the working committee for adoption into the party constitution?
I am sorry that is a question you will have to put to him. I also heard this statement, but this is a question he has to answer. I got no idea.

Q: Increasingly it looks as if the leadership challenge is heading for open showdowns. Now you launched the ‘Uda Gam Charika’ from Horana on Thursday in direct challenge to your leader Ranil Wickremesinghe starting ‘Grama Charika’ from the same electorate on Saturday and Sunday. Where are we heading?
That is absolutely rubbish.
It is just a creation of some mischievous elements in the political and media arena.
As far as I am concerned there is no Charika.
All my life I have ensured that I have promoted the interests of both rural and urban constituencies, which form the backbone of our party and I have always mentioned that 79 per cent of Lankans live in rural areas so some greater emphasis has to be put on the needs, grievances and interests of rural folks.
I have said this all along.
So it is good that the party has initiated a programme to promote rural interests.

Q: Is it not too much of a coincidence that you started your ‘Udagam Charika’ from Horana on October 28 when your leader is launching his ‘Grama Charika’ from the same electorate just two days later?
This is where you missed the bus.
Two days before Horana, I was doing my programmes in Kurunegala.
Where was the media in Kurunegala?
I have my own way of doing things in terms of promoting party interests.
I always try to ensure that when I embark on political activities in parallel to that there is a development programme in place.
For example, yesterday I was in Horana in three of the model villages my father built – Jayadadagama, Maugama, which is my grandmother’s birthplace and Arunagama. In two of those villages there were requests from the area temples that they were conducting development activities in view of the 2,600 ‘Sambuddha Jayanthiya’ and they wanted some help and assistance as far as their temple renovations are concerned.
So I have a programme called ‘Sasunata Aruna’ and we provided Rs 50,000 each to the two temples.
One is located in the Maugama area and the other in Arunagama.
I have done this all my life. If ever I go to a particular area in addition or in tandem with the political programme.
I also have a development programme that I implement so that there is some sort of benefit to the locality and this is a principle that my father followed.
For example, from this file (showing a file) you can see this is the particular request from the Batuwita Sri Jayasekeraramaya on the road leading to Maugama.
They requested some support for constructing Atavisi Buddha Prathima. So this is how I have donated funds. Similarly this (showing another file containing exchange of letters with another temple) is what we did in Arunagama. All along I have told our party that it is one party that has so much resource.
We supposedly claim we have a huge international network, especially in donor countries.
So, I always mentioned to our party that while doing all the programmes to reinvigourate and rejuvenate the party, let’s go beyond and try to help the people.
This is the difference. I have a party revival approach which emphasises development and the party leadership has another programme called Grama Charika.
At least keep in mind all these efforts are initiated with the sole objective of bringing the United National Party into power.
Remember during the Jayewardene era, Prime Minister Premadasa had the Uda Gam Programme, Lalith Athulathmudali had his Mahapola programme and Gamini Dissanayake had the Mahaweli Programme.
So these were different development oriented approaches, which the prominent members of the UNP adopted in supporting the people living in any particular locality, while providing an injection of energy to the party.

Q: Some have observed that the party convention might not be held in December by getting some one to get an injunction against it on a technicality and therefore the status quo will remain.
I am not privy to such information. I don’t know whether you have a back channel which provides you with relevant information about plans to scuttle party convention. This is a question best asked from the leader of the party. If I may say so if the party conference is not held, then I think that would be something highly damaging to our party.

Q: People like Mangala Samaraweera and Ravi Karunanayake are arguing that what’s needed are not reforms, but discipline in the party and those who are clamouring for reforms are only helping the government.
I think members of our party have every right to voice their opinion on a variety of issues.
That may be their stance, but I as a member of the UNP was born into the UNP, what you can term an authentic UNPer.
I say the party has to undergo drastic path-breaking reforms and changes if we are to succeed at future elections purely because if you look back at our track record, it points us in the direction of reforms not a status quo ante.

Q: Ravi Karunanayake is staking his seniority in the party on the basis he has been elected five times and been in parliament for 17 years openly says that you should not consider the party leadership as your inheritance. What is your answer to that?
He is entitled to his own opinion in a democratic country, but you have to understand he is not a UNPer.
He is a DUNFer.
As far as his seniority and my seniority are concerned please go back in time and look at the political history.
He is not a UNPer as he came to parliament from the DUNF.
He joined the UNP very much late in his political life.
So I don’t need to answer political juniors in the UNP.
I do believe absolutely that there should be no inheritance at all, but the problem is one has to listen to the opinions of the people and I challenge your newspaper to do an authentic field study throughout the country and if you do a very balanced opinion poll as to who the people of the party want and as to who the country wants, I think it is irrelevant the opinion I give or what anybody else gives.
You can find out your own answer.

Q: He even chided India for giving you VVIP treatment. What have you to say about that?
I don’t think a politician can dictate to any country as to how they receive and how they treat foreign dignitaries.
As far as I am concerned I think I am doing a better job as far as my party and my country is concerned in terms of conducting foreign relations.
This guy who has supposedly objected or made a fuss about the reception given to me is supposed to be the secretary for international relations in the United National Party.
So if he needs any lessons in conducting international relations I am certainly willing to spare a moment of time from my busy schedule to educate him.

Q: He maintains that he has activated all 54 branches in his Colombo North electorate for the current year, which he challenges anyone to match in any other electorate. His charge is that those who go around talking so much have not done their work in their electorates.
What an achievement? Is that the litmus test in politics, whether you form branches or not?
I would say the classic litmus test is the electoral test.
Kindly go back five months in time to the general election result.
It was only in the Hambantota District that we managed to save the same number of seats that we obtained in 2004.
In all the other districts in the whole country, the numbers declined from 2004 figures.
This is a district wise election and not a first-past-the-post electoral contest.
It is not just Colombo North, but the Colombo District result.
What happened to Colombo District result at the last election?
The UNP numbers elected to parliament dwindled.
What happened in the rest of the country?
Everywhere it got reduced, except in Hambantota.
How did we manage to do that while having a President, a first lady, a son of the President, a brother of the President, an international air port being built, an international port being built, an international cricket stadium being built, and a vast amount of resources being allocated for other development work in the district ranged against us.
What is the secret? I will leave it to the nation and the readers to decide.

Q: Leaving aside those two individuals, there are others in the party also saying that this is not the time for reforms.
All I can say is that I am 43 years young.
As far as my political career and political advancement is concerned, I can wait another 20 years?
Look at the Jayewardenes and Premadasas they reached the higher echelons of political power much later in life.
So waiting is absolutely no problem for me.
We have more than five to six million UNP members in this country, but are they willing to wait 20 years.
If the United National Party membership tells me to forget about reforms and let’s preserve the status quo.
Let’s go on and on committing self- destruction and becoming the permanent party of the opposition.
I have absolutely no issue if the party membership says so.
Not one or two people who are not representative of party opinion.

Q: Mangala Samaraweera is spearheading a protest campaign on the third month anniversary of the passing of the controversial 18th Amendment in which they will bring to Colombo one million people on that day next month.
Will you be taking part in that protest since you have already been axed from the Grama Charika speakers list?
If you are challenging me as far back as numbers are concerned please go back in time and check all the protests we have had, I have brought the highest number of protesters.
Even those members of parliament from the densely populated Colombo District have not been able to bring such numbers from their electorates to these protests.
Even in this case I will strive to ensure that I will bring the highest number.
There is absolutely no issue. I have not been axed from anything.

Q: But you are not taking part in the Grama Charika programme since your name has been deleted from the speakers’ list.
How can you say I am not taking part? It has not even commenced. I have my own programme on those two days. I am so sorry that you are so ignorant.

Q: I based my question on published reports in national newspapers that you have been chucked out of the speakers list.
Whose reports? I can’t help if there is a campaign of propagating misinformation. I can’t help it if you are gullible.

Q: The party must have leaked that information.
You better check the sources because I am not privy to those sources. I am doing a programme that is productive. It will not be a waste of time. My programme will ensure that it has value addition both to the area and the party.

Q: So, what exactly will be your contribution?
I am helping two areas some time on Sunday.

Q: That is in addition to helping those two temples during Uda Gam Charika in Horana on Thursday.
Yes. You can be rest assured I will play a prominent, productive and constructive role to ensure that our party is victorious.

Q: These reports indicated that in the event the convention is put off once again your supporters will show their strength by summoning all provincial council and local government members to Colombo. Is there any truth in that?
You are being highly presumptuous.
You are assuming that the party convention will not be held whereas every statement has been made both within the working committee and outside that the party conference will be held and I am acting on the assumption that it will be held. There are lots of reports and lots of propaganda about a variety of issues.
It is best that you filter out such information and ensure that whatever information that you obtain is authentic and truthful.

Q: What are your options if your struggle to bring free and fair elections to elect the party’s leaders does not come to fruition?
All options are available, but my only option is on going on my political journey as an UNPer.
The more obstacles and objections I face in this political journey I will ensure that the proximity between myself and the people of this country is lessened and I get closer and closer to the people and try to understand their thinking, their expectation, and their heart beat.
As far as the political competition is concerned at the end of the day the critical component in that process will be people of Sri Lanka.
They will decide what is best for them.

Q: In a sense you can’t blame the leader wanting to sabotage or postpone this convention as it is obvious that your supporters will shout him down even if he tries to address the conference.
That is absolute rubbish.

Q: You have overwhelming support at the provincial and local government level.
I am glad your Nation newspaper accepts the fact that there is a greater opinion in my favour at the provincial and local government level.
What I request you is kindly do a survey throughout the country and ask the people the question who is best suited and which cause should one ought to follow to make our country prosperous and make the UNP a party that is electable. The people will give the answer.
As far as shouting down and creating mischief at the party convention is concerned that is absolute rubbish.
I am a great democrat. I am not going to instigate any process in any way to obstruct anybody.
I am a true democrat not just a verbal democrat.
I am a democrat even through action.

Q: Fear is that your supporters will shout him down.
I am not in the business of attempting to eradicate the various emotions that political leaders may have.
If they have a problem in terms of fear psychosis they must consult some specialist.
I am in this job to serve the 20 million people of this country.
At the most critical juncture the world will know who has the numbers and what numbers they are.
My only objective is ensuring that the people of Sri Lanka get a good service as far as us politicians are concerned and to ensure that we have an authentic, modernised methodology to alleviate the grievances of the people of Sri Lanka and I shall strive to achieve those targets.

Q: Your father was known as a workaholic who would work from as early as 3 am. What are your working schedules?
It is not a matter of what time I go to sleep or at what time I get up. I may be one of the hardest working politicians around. There again your past, present and future achievements will exhibit whether you hard work has paid off or not.

Q: How do you differ from your rivals?
My programme of reinvigourating, rejuvenating and modernising our party is developmental political work.
It is not merely confining myself to political activity.
It is politics with development; politics with value addition; politics with social service.
That is the difference.
This development-oriented political approach, which some of these jealous personalities don’t like because they don’t believe in politicians intervening to make sure you create prosperity and well-being for the people of the country.
They believe if you enrich the richest in the country that the perks, privileges and the various supports they have will get percolated down to the grassroots.
I think neo-classical economic theories are rubbish. It doesn’t work.
It has proven as absolute and total failure.
And I think people elect politicians to embark on a proactive and constructive role to ensure that all citizens of our country are able to achieve prosperity and a higher standard of living.
In my approach, I have basically inculcated the basic human needs approach of the totality of the country and not just the needs of the elite and the rich.

Q: Your incumbent leader believes in free market forces doing the job, but you feel the need for more than free market forces.
Market forces alone cannot reach national targets, but you must not scuttle the market forces.
They are important as you cannot create artificial demand and supply.
The market forces are an important structure in any society.
In any economic programme, you have to allow the free market to flourish, while at the same time we all have to be cognizant of the externalities of the free market forces. The various deficiencies, divergences, the positive and negative discrimination processes that are implemented through this free market process, those externalities have to be eradicated through strict and thorough governmental interventions.