Obituary: R.I.P UNP
Posted on September 14th, 2010

H. L. D. Mahindapala

 Ranil Wickremesinghe was expected to announce at yesterday’s press conference a reasonable and acceptable solution to the crisis caused by his failed leadership. But it ended predictably in worsening the crisis with the reformists rejecting his formula. The solution he offered was to plead for more time to devolve power to the younger generation of UNPers. It is obvious that with this offer he is trying to fool himself and his party. At the root of the crisis is a demand for a change in leadership not a cosmetic devolution of power. Nothing short of a change in the leadership can heal the divisions within the party. Wickremesinghe’s plea for time and the promise of devolution of power is clearly a ruse to remain in power against the rising tide of opposition within the party.

 His plea for more time (mark you, after 16 years at the helm of affairs) is typical of his usual stunts to dodge the issues confronting him. He has tried these stunts in the past and failed. The reformist movement gathering momentum within the party has, for the first time, the potential to drive him out of the leadership of the UNP and also from his position as Leader of the Opposition. At least for the sake of their own future, UNPers backing him must recognize that the party cannot be saved by Wickremesinghe. He is the sole cause for the crisis and the crisis won’t go away until he is removed. The party is in shambles and the crisis is dragging the party to its lowest depths in its 65-year-old history.

 Apart from the volatile crisis within the party Wickremesinghe is faced with the immoveable external factor of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Both stand at the two ends of the political spectrum. They are two classical contrasts that exemplify the art of wielding power in the two known ways “”…” one for total success and the other for utter failure. Wickremesinghe is struggling desperately to impose his authority as a leader and hold his party together without any success while the President has, without losing a night’s sleep, as he says, fragmented the opposition “”…” including the UNP, the main political factor in the opposition “”…” and reinforced and stamped his authority on political landscape with comfortable ease. He stands tall as a national leader without any formidable challenger while Wickremesinghe has been plagued with challengers and revolts within his rank-and-file.

 Each crisis that crops up consolidates the power, prestige and the image of President Mahinda Rajapakse as the captain of a ship who can steer his way through any stormy sea with confidence. Correspondingly, each crisis reduces the power, prestige and the image of Ranil Wickremesinghe as the captain of a leaky boat who hasn’t the slightest clue of dealing with the rising waters threatening to sink him and his crumbing boat.

 At each critical moment President Rajapakse hits the right note, at the right pitch, at the right time which resonates with the nation at large. Wickremesinghe, on the contrary, has failed to capitalize on the opportunities that came his way by singing an end-of-the-world dirge that is also out of tune, out of touch and out of favour with the people. For instance, he preferred to sing God Save the Queen-Bush-and-Blair at the International Democratic Union when the nation, as a whole, was singing “Namo, namo Matha” with President Rajapakse. And another thing: President is not afraid to take issues head-on. Wickremesinghe either appoints a committee or runs away to foreign lands just when his leadership is needed by the party. Each issue raised by Wickremesinghe backfires on him while the President hits the target with deadly accuracy.

 In short, Wickremesinghe is gifted with the unerring talent of doing the wrong thing at the most opportune time. Take the example of the latest issue of the 18th Amendment. It was the biggest national issue that erupted in the post-Vadukoddai War phase. He should have stood his ground in parliament, stated his objections for the record and then walked out at the time of voting. His walking out without stating his case “”…” an issue that should have been defined and articulated to the full — is a tactical blunder. He knew that the Presidential juggernaut could not be stopped at any stage after the Supreme Court held that the 18th Amendment was consistent with the Constitution. The least he could have done was to combat it comprehensively with arguments and left the words recorded in the Hansard. Now there’s only a blank in those pages. The media pictures of him walking with a handful of his “catchers” “”…” all in black — in the parliamentary precincts make the whole bunch look like undertakers on their way to bury the UNP.

 Common sense should have dictated to him that, as a leader, he has to be in the thick of it, putting his best foot forward and leading it from the front, even if it was doomed to fail. But he ran away to India when his presence, even for the sake of appearance, was most needed here. Besides, what did he achieve in India that was beneficial to enhance his image, his political base at home, or even to the cause of the 18th Amendment? Local and foreign media (See Daily Telegraph, London “”…” 9/9/2010) and the JVP came down on him like a ton of bricks for running away. They also targeted him for having talks with the President which did not take him anywhere. On the other hand, the President craftily turned the one-to-one talks he had with Wickremesinghe to make it known that Wickremesinghe was privy to the plans of the 18th Amendment.

 Of course, Wickremesinghe ran to the President to have one-to-one talks initially hoping to get assurances from the President that he would not undermine his shaky position in the UNP by opening up space for his MPs to crossover. Wickremesinghe was also aiming to give the impression that he has better access to the President than his backbenchers planning to crossover. By parleying with the President he was also hoping to convey to the public that he was on top of the brewing internal crisis of crossovers. Besides, he was concerned that the President had out-maneuvered him and enticed his strongest ally in the opposition, Rauf Hakeem, the leader of the SLMC. Hakeem, of course, joined the President not because he loves him but to save his own skin. If he stuck to Wickremesinghe his party (SLMC) would have gone to pieces. Even a political dodo will know that there is nothing to gain from being with Wickremesinghe: he is so powerless that he has nothing to offer anyone “”…” not even the power to save himself. He has nothing to offer his own party, his political allies or the nation. As things stand now Mahinda Rajapakse dominates the political landscape, with or without the 18th Amendment. The 18th Amendment is merely another feather in his cap demonstrating his popularity more than his power.

 While Mahinda Rajapakse’s ship of state is getting overcrowded, looking more like an LTTE ship smuggling Tamils to Canada, Wickremesinghe is getting more isolated like a lone canoeist going down the rough rapids into the Niagra without a paddle to steer his way into a safe haven, There was a time when he could summon the American Ambassador, Robert Blake, to his place at Cambridge Terrace to back him up. For instance, soon after the first Eastern Province elections Blake, at his request, corralled the diplomats in the Western colony stationed in Colombo and rushed to rescue Wickremesinghe’s political fortunes threatened by the rising nationalist forces grabbed with both hands by Rajapakse. Which diplomat bothers to raise the issue of “jillmarts” in elections now? Riding high in the post-war popularity President Rajapakse moves like a steam roller flattening everything in his path, including the Western diplomats.

 Wickremesinghe has no answer to counter this well-earned popularity which has elevated the President to be the unrivalled head of the Mahinda Yugaya — a new age which has the potential to run into the twenty-twenties. As I said earlier in a previous comment, no one has contributed to the electoral popularity of Mahinda Rajapakse as Wickremesinghe. For instance, every major move of Rajapakse defined the spirit and the needs of the times and brought him closer to the aspirations of the people while Wickremesinghe’s moves ran in the opposite direction alienating him even from the mass of his own UNP ranks. People began to vote with their feet by crossing over at every level “”…” from parliament to the village voting booths — because he was way out of touch with the people. Not since Sir. John Kotelawela has any UNP leader gone against the people as Wickremesinghe.

 The only way that Wickremesinghe can cut down the image of the President is by reverting to the ideological grassroots of the founding fathers of the UNP who were seen as formidable defenders of the nation. But the people are refusing to buy his cosmetics because he is seen as a fake who has lost is way by taking the wrong turn into a political wilderness. If he goes to the north to launch his election campaigns and if he goes to the West each time he loses his elections what faith can the people of the south have in him? What blinds him to the hard realities that are facing him is rather incomprehensible. Every UNP MP will tell you that he is one of the best politically informed and experienced parliamentarians with a global perspective, though tilted to the West. He also reads (a rare quality for our politicians) , especially biographies, as he once told me.

 But despite his reading he is yet to learn that a leader who aspires to be at the top cannot afford to forget the historical forces which motivates and propel politics. All politics derives its momentum from the historical past. Those who forget their history will be buried unceremoniously by the power of the living heritage. Wickremesinghe also should be fully aware of the politico-cultural trends that surfaced in “1956” “”…” the ground-breaking historic wave spearheaded by S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike. Though the purblind pundits dismiss it as “Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism” “1956” remains as the most dynamic undercurrent that wakes up from time to time as a corrective to bring the nation back to its mainstream.  “Mahinda Chintanaya” is the latest manifestation of the essence and spirit of “1956”. When “1956” resurfaced in “Mahinda Chintanaya” it demolished the theory of political pundits who claimed that the minorities are indispensable for aspirants seeking power in the south. “Mahinda Chintanaya” proved that “1956” is not only live and kicking with a capacity to survive on its own but also to thrive as a dynamic gravitational force which can reverse the centrifugal minorities into centripetal entities with a willingness to co-exist, despite their differences, at the magnetic centre of power.

 Wickremesinghe couldn’t have missed the impact of “1956” because his house was the centre of anti-Bandaranaike political activity. Sir John KoteIawela and Sir. Oliver Goonetilleke were frequent guests at the Wickremesinghe dinner table. His father, Esmond Wickremesinghe, operating from his political base at Lake House, was one of the brightest political manipulators of his time. He even excelled Sir Oliver Goonetilleke as the master coordinator of the behind-the-scene strategies to topple governments. It was the force behind J. R. Jayewardene who toppled Mrs. Bandaranaike’s coalition at the time when she, jointly with the Marxists, was threatening to take over Lake House in 1965. Sagacious political craftsmanship should be in Wickremesinghe’s blood because he was born and bred in it. Yet he failed “”…” not once but 16 times. Besides, he should be a wiser man now having learnt from his mistakes “”…” mistakes damaging enough to make him sit up and think twice before he leaps into his bottomless pits.

 But he has acted as an incurable recidivist returning to his failed past, over and over again, like a stubborn mule. At least after 16 mistakes he should have acquired some political nous to learn one simple lesson: those who live in cuckoo-land abandoning grassroots cannot garner votes. The answer is staring in his face and he refuses to look at it: he is out of step with the nation. His latest outburst in Bandarawela, reacting to the biggest internal revolt he is facing right now, is typical of his mulish reaction. He says that “he managed to uncover a conspiracy to destroy the party and was able to destroy it.” (Daily Mirror “”…” September 11, 2010). The Party has been reduced to 47 MPs and there is a chance of him losing the leadership of the party and his position as leader of the opposition and he says that he had destroyed “the conspiracy”.

 To begin with there was no secretive conspiracy to destroy the party. There was an open challenge to his leadership by those who wanted to save the party from going to rack and ruin under his leadership and he himself appointed committees to deal with it. If there was any conspiracy, it came from him with his usual sly stunts of cooking the minutes of Working Committee meetings, putting one against the other, planting stories in the media, running away from issues confronting him, having one-to-one talks with the President without telling the party, etc. But the worst is his woeful understanding of the crisis facing him. The lame defence he puts up to save his face is to refer to the collapse of the UNP in 1956 and 1970 and claim that he too can rise if only the UNP will allow him to stay in his seat, waiting for power to fall into his lap. But the UNP rose to power after 1956 on the solid back of Dudley Senanayake and after 1970 on the shoulders of J, R. Jayewardene. The grim fact is that he is neither a Dudley nor a JRJ.

This is another example of his failure to read the signs of the times. On both occasions UNP was revived by an enlightened leadership that was trusted by the grassroots. The UNP recovered rapidly on both occasions and did not go down 16 times in a row to win back the confidence of the nation. The UNP is now right back to where it was in “1956”. What reduced Sir. John Kotelawela in 1956 to eight seats was the total loss of confidence in him. He was branded as “Bandung Booruwa” for siding with the West at the first Non-Aligned conference in Bandung, Indonesia. Wickremesinghe is also seen as the stooge of the West. Sir. John was portrayed as the anti-Sinhala-Buddhist enemy of the nation when the “Dinamina” ran a picture of him barbecuing a pig at Kandawela. The implication was that in the Buddha Jayanthi year he was roasting pigs alive to feed his “Purple Brigade” “”…” the high class women who surrounded him. Wickremesinghe’s pig was in the Ceasefire Agreement he signed with Prabhakaran giving him the next best thing to Eelam. And the most telling cut of it all was when the Left told the people: Why do you need the UNP which was abandoned by the Senanayakes? The Senanayakes were the sons of the soil. Kotelawela and his clique were the Westernized aliens betraying the Sinhala-Buddhist heritage. The best of the UNPers have left Wickremesinghe and those remaining too are rebelling against him. Sir. John had the sense to quit and withdraw into his farm in Kent, UK. Wickremesinghe, of course, has neither the guts to quit, nor any place to go except into oblivion as the traitor who betrayed the nation.

 The lesson of “1956”is crystal clear to any political leader who intends to make the grade in national arena: he/she cannot move too far away from the grassroots and swing to the Western/alien camp. Like Bandaranaike, J. R. Jayewardene illustrates this force in politics. He survived and succeeded because he embraced Buddhism and donned the national costume though he was dyed-in-the wool Anglophile, brought up in the Anglican Church. He was a choir boy at St. Michael’s, Polwatte, Kollupitiya. But subsequently, in every step of the way, he cultivated carefully and projected the image of a defender of the Sinhala-Buddhist culture, going even as far as elevating Buddhism over Marxism in one of his lectures to the University of Ceylon. In fairness to “JR” it must be stated that he was committed to the nation despite his ambition of spending at least one night Buckingham Palace and placing guards dressed in the suffocating uniforms of those at Buckingham Palace at Queen’s House in the Fort. For instance, when the JVP uprising threatened the nation he pledged his support to Mrs. Bandaranaike. Rightly or wrongly, he also forced Bandaranaike to tear up the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact. The message conveyed to the electorate by “JRJ was exactly the opposite of his nephew.

 This is where Wickremesinghe failed. “JRJ”, his uncle, would never have laughed at the Army or ridiculed their achievements. Even thought the Marxist Left which could not attack the nationalist integrity of the Senanayakes went for “JRJ” and branded him as “Yankee Dicky”, the bogey man of the UNP, they could not dent his credentials as a man who would betray the nation. The great leaders of the UNP, from Senanayake to Premadasa, had the capacity to pursue successful strategies by identifying themselves with the larger interests of the nation. Wickremesinghe has only performed disastrous stunts, both to himself and the nation. He committed the unpardonable and indelible sin of betraying the nation at its most critical hour when he boosted the Tamil Tiger forces entrenched in Killinochchi and scoffed at the advancing Sri Lankan forces. He can never live that down. History will condemn him forever and ever for that betrayal. .

 Nor would a Senanayake, “JRJ” or, for that matter, even Kotelawela, ever dared to sign the Ceasefire Agreement handing over power and territory to the enemy of the nation. Wickremesinghe has condemned himself with his sins of commission and omission. There is no one to blame except himself. He is the myopic stunt-man who invited the Portuguese prime minister to celebrate the 500th anniversary of their invasion of Sri Lanka! He is the only known political leader who went all the way to Singapore to have breakfast with Capt. Gnanakone, one of the brothers running the Tiger fleet, which was only a cover-up to cut deals with the Tamil Tigers. He even ordered the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia to issue a ticket for him to visit Sri Lanka to finalise the Singaporean deal. He is the only known political traitor who invited a foreign government to directly intervene in the domestic affairs of Sri Lanka. It is on the Congressional records that he urged the US government “to put pressure” on Sri Lanka.

 The UNP recovered in the post-1956 and the post-1970 elections because the people trusted the Senanayakes and “JRJ” as defenders of the nation, however frustrated they may have been with their right-wing economics. This enabled the Senanayakes and “JRJ” to regain the electoral confidence rapidly because they never lost the political confidence they won in the colonial and the post-colonial periods as guardians of the nation. President Premadasa took the most radical step of even kicking out David Gladstone, the British High Commissioner, for meddling in the domestic affairs of the nation. Wickremesinghe, on the contrary, stands out as the only leader in the post-independence era who had no compunction in betraying and selling the fundamentals of the historical legacy that define the nation. He came out in the process as an unscrupulous wheeler-dealer who would sell the nation for his own survival. A leader who resorts to cheap stunts does not deserve to be at the head of any national party. If he manages to survive this time round he will limp his way to an inglorious end, dragging the UNP into a premature death.

 UNP, therefore, is facing a crisis of leadership “”…” a leadership that has lost the confidence of the people and its own rank-and-file. The crisis has deepened to the point where he just cannot impose his authority and taken command of the party. Whatever tinkering it may do to its constitution the UNP can never win power as long as Wickremesinghe is at the helm. He fancifully told C. A. Chandraprema, in an interview published in The Island, that credibility fluctuates: it goes out and comes back. He is waiting for it to come back. But this is one pendulum that will never swing back “”…” not to him at least.

 The time has come for the UNP to change its misguided captain and elect a promising replacement who can steer the ship back to the people. If it can’t do then it must hand over the final rites to Barney Raymond and ensure a decent burial to honour the great leaders of the UNP who founded and defended the nation with all their might.

2 Responses to “Obituary: R.I.P UNP”

  1. dhane Says:

    Why worry to change the leadership in UNP. RW is the most efficient undertaker to bury the UNP. Let him stay in leadership few more years same same as like LSSP & CP it will go down the “pallaum”

  2. Raj Says:

    Sri Lanka is doing quite well with the present arrangement. Ranil must never give up the leadership of the UNP. Please don’t give in to these reformists. Well done Ranil!

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