‘Grama Charika’ campaign reveals cracks in
the government prepares in earnest for the
commencement of the second term of office of
President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a few weeks, the main
opposition party, the United National Party (UNP)
appears to be intent on self-destruction, with its
crisis nowhere near resolution despite months of
much publicised discussion and debate.
Officially, the party’s disputes do not seem to
The party hierarchy maintains that reforms, aimed at
revamping the party, have received the approval of
its working committee and that they would now be
formally submitted to the annual convention
scheduled for December.
It is as if all the party’s woes would vanish
into thin air thereafter.
The reality is of course, different.
The ‘reformists’ in the party, led by the likes of
Sajith Premadasa, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Thalatha
Atukorale, believe that the struggle is far from
over and that only a leadership change can
realistically boost the fortunes of the UNP in the
face of the overwhelming powers now at the disposal
of the President and his ruling United Peoples’
Freedom Alliance (UPFA).
However, the campaign launched by the
‘reformists’ was considerably weakened when their
stalwart Lakshman Seneviratne crossed over to the
government in the wake of the controversy arising
from the 18th amendment.
That allowed the anti-reformists to claim that the
‘reformists’ were only carrying out a government
contract to destabilise the UNP.
It will be recalled that one of the jibes aimed at
UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was that the party
should get rid of the ‘tie coat’ leadership and
instal a ‘cloth and banian’ personality at the helm.
It was also suggested that under Wickremesinghe, the
UNP had lost its once substantial rural vote base
and that its grassroots organisational network was
This is a reality which the party leadership has
also conceded. In an obvious attempt to rectify
this, the UNP announced a campaign, styled Grama
Charika - literally, touring the villages.
Its aim was for UNP politicians to visit the rural
hinterland of the country, live for a few days in
each region and mingle with the masses. It was hoped
that this would bring the party closer to the people
This is in light of the fact that, in recent
elections, the UNP has conceded many rural
electorates to the UPFA.
This maybe mostly because of the success of the war
effort but being in opposition for nearly 14 years
has also taken its toll: the rural vote, often
swayed by issues such as who would build a road,
school or hospital rather than national issues, has
slowly but steadily accrued to the ruling party.
The Grama Charika campaign to counter this trend was
mooted by a high level committee headed by Karu
Jayasuriya is taking the leadership of this
campaign and announced its objectives to the media
He, however, could do little to hide cracks that
were emerging even as the party was embarking on
this ambitious programme as Sajith Premadasa had
already rubbished the campaign, even before it could
Premadasa may have been irked because his principal
allegation against the current leadership - that the
UNP is now alienated from the ‘common man’ - had
been hijacked by the party hierarchy to its own
It was now trying to launch a campaign that would
negate Premadasa’s primary claim to leadership of
the UNP: that of converting the UNP into a party
that caters to the interests of the masses.
However, in registering his protest, Premadasa
appears to have blundered.
Instead of presenting a united front to the public
and participating in the Grama Charika programme,
Premadasa denounced it as a stunt aimed at delaying
reforms within the party, declared he would not
participate in it and left for India.
It was display of petulance that cast Premadasa in a
poor light, especially as a leadership aspirant in
It makes him vulnerable to the charge that he has
his own personal agenda at heart, even at the
expense of the party’s interests.
It also puts his lieutenants in the struggle for
party reforms - the likes of Jayasekera and
Atukorale - in an extremely difficult position in
deciding whether they should participate in the
campaign or not.
Another factor is that the public face of the Grama
Charika campaign so far has been that of deputy
leader Karu Jayasuriya and not UNP leader Ranil
Wickremesinghe, possibly because the latter might
find himself uncomfortable in such a role.
Therefore Premadasa’s non-participation is more
an insult to Jayasuriya rather than being a slur on
Another reason that should cause concern for
Premadasa is that since the campaign is a decision
officially endorsed by the party, it would be
carried out at an electoral level -beginning from
Horana in the Kalutara district, the base of former
Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake.
Thus UNP organisers of the selected electorates will
be participating and this could be a strategic
victory for Wickremesinghe.
In the alternative, if electoral organisers toe
the Premadasa line and refrain from participating,
that would only add to the factions within the party
and would leave it hopelessly divided and that is a
situation the UNP should avoid at this critical
juncture, what with local government elections
looming in a couple of months.
The ultimate yardstick as to whether Premadasa read
the situation correctly would of course be the
success - or otherwise - of the Grama Charika
If indeed it is able to attract the masses and
restore the flagging morale of the grassroots party
organisation, then Premadasa would certainly
jeopardise his claims for the party leadership.
In hindsight, it appears that Premadasa’s decision
to pull out of this campaign - and go to the extent
of publicly denouncing it instead of at least
maintaining a dignified silence - can only be a
bonus for UNP leader Wickremesinghe.
It affords him an opportunity to sit back and
watch while his potential rival, Premadasa, paints
himself into a tight corner.
What is certain though is that if the UNP hierarchy
hoped that the Grama Charika campaign would offer a
welcome respite from the internal divisions of the
party, it is not to be. Instead, it has brought
these divisions into the public domain even more and
the party now runs the risk of being publicly
It is a fate that country - let alone its principal
opposition party - can ill-afford.