By N Sathiya Moorthy
Ruling UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa’s ‘revelation’ that President Maithripala Sirisena had offered him the Prime Minister’s job a high 71 times would mean that he got it once in every 20 days or so during the 46-month life of the non-existent ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU). What makes Premadasa’s claims even more interesting is the fact that the offer came his way a high 61 times after Sirisena had created the first of the ‘twin constitutional crises’ by sacking Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and replacing him with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on 26 October 2018.
That makes a unique offer that anyone in Premadasa’s place would have found it difficult to resist – but he did do so, obviously without batting an eye-lid. Considering that Premadasa came out against the President’s ‘sack-and-replace’ after an initial lull of two days or so, and assuming that Sirisena would not have pursued his course afterwards, it would have been high-pressure tactic of unmatched combustion that the former had resisted with all his might.
The old adage says, ‘There comes a time in men’s lives…” Was this Premadasa’s time that he missed, or he was/is destined for something much bigger, would be known only in the coming weeks, months and years. But by resisting the temptation, and standing unflinchingly by the party and the incumbent leadership, Premadasa has proved his mettle, not only to the outside world but more so to UNP insiders, who might have suspected him to be a ‘Trojan horse’, but with a self-serving proposition in mind.
Not this one, not this time. In the past, before the UNP came back to power and Wickremesinghe became Prime Minister after making one-time rival Sirisena, President, Premadasa was among the permanent critics and opponents of the Wickremesinghe leadership. Once the party began changing tactic, and Wickremesinghe began working for a non-UNP presidential candidate in Sirisena, not only Premadasa, other aspirant leaders in the UNP too fell silent and cooperated.
If they thought that they could side-step well-entrenched Wickremesinghe and fight it out on another day, of their party’s choice, that was not to be. Sirisena set the time, venue and game, and the UNP had to play the game to the set tune. That they have since won at semi-finals, thanks to the Supreme Court order, has does made up for Sri Lanka’s democracy credentials. But will it hold until the end of the second-half, comprising the presidential and parliamentary polls, is anybody’s guess at the moment.
‘Good boy’ behaviour
By playing ‘good boy’ in the eyes of the party insiders at the height of the twin ‘constitutional crises’ inflicted by President Sirisena, Sajith Premadasa may have won over the hearts and minds of those ‘Colombo Seven’ UNP elite who have had only disdain in the past for ‘southern leaders’ of the Premadasas’ kind. Before Sajith’s time, his slain father, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, had to go over the head of the elitist leadership of the party, to reach out to the non-urban UNP cadres and voters alike, to be able to succeed JRJ in their times.
On the ground, Sajith became more resourceful than even the entrenched leadership of Wickremesinghe, who was distraught in the early hours and days – and also the latter’s hangers-on. They all were seen collecting at ‘Temple Trees’, the official residence of the Prime Minister that Wickremesinghe continued to occupy even after his ‘sacking’ and ‘replacement’ by Mahinda R. Or, they were busy bringing in truck-loads of their supporters, for the leadership to see, and for the media to give full coverage.
It was Sajith from among the top leadership who was seen in the court halls, addressing the media and through that the UNP cadres across the country, and the nation as a whole. Though his eyes, for instance, may have looked as confused and less confident almost as always, his very presence sent out more than one message, maybe. One was for the nation that the party was united. The other was to the party that he would not indulge in any kind of ‘ambush’ at a critical stage as the one that was evolving until the Supreme Court had annulled the dissolution decision of President Sirisena.
Yet, questions would remain if someone in the UNP (or, from outside, as is often the wont) for UNP to make Premadasa the party’s presidential candidate. Square and simple, the vacancy may arise if and only if Wickremesinghe is ready to step down. In the past, he was known to have done so whenever the party had faced an existential crisis – which was for most parts. Today, when the ‘constitutional crises’ has catapulted him and the party back onto the centre-stage, he may not be the one to yield.
Two, and even more important, independence of the Wickremesinghe camp may project him as the ‘unifier par excellence’, there is still a need for the party to project a ‘unifier candidate’ in the presidential polls, which in all likelihood is expected to come ahead of the parliamentary polls. True, the opposition is just now divided between Sirisena’s SLFP and the more popular SLPP of Rajapaksa, over the choice of a common presidential candidate. That should be advantageous to the UNP-UNF rival, prima facie.
Yet, the UNP cannot afford to rest its laurels on the hope that the adversaries cannot come together for the presidential polls. As a party that had masterminded the ‘candidate coup’ of 2010 and 2015 presidential polls, it should be prepared to face a similar fate at the hands of the Rajapaksas especially, without holding to the established belief that they could be ‘family-centric’ and nothing more in choosing a presidential candidate.
If it is going to be a tough battle for the presidency, then Sajith Premadasa may not be the UNP’s best candidate, as he has failed to cultivate the crucial Tamil and Muslim voters through the past years as a senior Minister, and in a personalised way. He has not cultivated the leaderships of the Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil parties, for him to communicate with those vote-banks.
What remains however are fading memories of his more calculative father, with whom the LTTE worked at one time to have the IPKF out, and then slay him in broad-day light at a ‘May Day’ rally in the heart of capital, Colombo. This could cut in more ways than one, and with consequences in the presidential polls and beyond, for the UNP as a party and the UNF as a well-oiled machinery, or whatever could be made of one.
Leave aside the Muslim voters, a majority of whom would only be happy to see that a Rajapaksa is back there at the nation’s helm, the Tamil voters, young and old, may talk shop on old stories, and see Sajith P as ‘cut from the old cloth’. For his own UNP second-line, of which alone he is one just now, a ‘smart politician’, including the son of a long-forgotten leader who deserved better, is an unpredictable quantity to handle – and push around, if they wanted.
Yet, Sajith’s advantages are that he has held onto an impeccable personal record, in terms of corruption charges and the like. Most if not all his competition from within the party hold a poor record in the matter, which makes them at once ineligible for presidential candidacy. The Premadasas hail from southern Hambantota district as the Rajapaksas, and those from the South who do not want another Rajapaksa at the nation’s helm may prefer him to an ‘urban’ or ‘urbanised’ elite.
Yet, the UNP cannot decide on its presidential candidate until they are sure of who the rival(s) are going to field, and what would be his/her pull over the Sinhala-Buddhist majority electorate. This apart, the current phase of the UNP-led Wickremesinghe Government not to back the ‘Tamil cause’ as they had vowed ahead of the 2015 presidential polls might mean that the Tamils might once again rise the bogey of boycotting the polls – and this time round, go about things outside of the TNA leadership. If that were to happen, it could well be a ‘all-Sinhala’ election for the presidency, where any UNP candidate might find the going tougher than already.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)