New wine in old bottles?

By N Sathiya Moorthy

Rumours that Minister Sajith Premadasa, if denied the ruling UNP’s presidential ticket, may join hands with incumbent Maithripala Sirisena, to face the polls later this year, may have nothing much to do with the truncated team of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to postpone the launch of their ‘old-wine-new-bottle’ Democratic National Front (DNF), that may be far-fetched. It is even more so if the Sirisena camp were to use the rumours to pressure the Rajapaksas-centric SLPP-JO, yield the presidential ticket. There is little chance of that happening, either.

Sajith’s greater claims to the presidential ticket this time more than any time in the past is his acceptance as the ‘disciplined solider’ of the party. Unlike when the UNP was in the Opposition through the previous ten years, when the party with in power this time around, no one heard him saying a wrong word about the Ranil leadership, whether inside or outside the party fora.

At the height of last year’s twin constitutional crises, President Sirisena went on record that he had offered the prime minister’s job to Sajith more than once, and he declined. Better still for Sajith’s image, when it all happened, he was among the few top leaders of the party to be available not only to the media but also to UNP cadres, outside the courts to brief them, both on the legal aspects and the political angles.

Yes, Sirisena also mentioned the name of Parliament Speaker Karu Jayasuriya as another UNP leader to whom he had offered the prime minister’s post. It still remains a mystery how President Sirisena could offer an elected position in a party as old as the UNP, which has its own institutional pride and organisational structures, however centralised.

That way, Speaker Karu might have had more of the media time than Sajith P, for a presidential ticket-aspirant through the past years in the Government. But Sajith was not sitting quiet either. At the outset, he said that he had sought and obtained the less colourful Housing Ministry, but at the end of it all, he seems to have reached out to the party’s rural constituency, be it in the Sinhala Rohuna, or in eastern Batticaloa, through his housing schemes, though funded by the Indian neighbour and the rest.

In doing so, he has also not got caught in any controversies or corruption charges like some of the other UNP presidential aspirants, including Minister Ravi Karunanayake. Another purported aspirant, Mangala Samaraweera, was tentative at first, but since seems to have come around to backing Sajith P. It remains to be seen if it was a ‘master-stroke’ of the Mangala kind, if Sajith still remained unacceptable to rival factions.

Gota controversy…

It is anybody’s guess if and why someone should do a hash job of circulating a fake ‘US citizenship relinquishment certificate’ in the social media. Though attributed to the Gota camp, the chances are either fake, or it might not have had the approval of the man, who knows the fall side of such an unsustainable campaign.

It is now becoming increasingly clear that the SLPP cannot proclaim Gota the presidential candidate until he actually produces the original certificate in time. Thankfully for his camp-followers within the SLPP-JO not only Udaya Gammanpilla and Wimal Weerawansa but the man is also on record that he has the original with him.

If so, it may not be a bad idea for Gota to go public with the certificate. Not that he does not know about it, but is it that he is not as yet as sure as many others that he would after all be the SLPP-JO candidate, when the name is announced on 11 August, as scheduled? If that is (also) the reason for his tentativeness just now, what does the future hold for his camp within the larger combine?

Split parties, alliances

It is not only that major parties seem to be having problems about the choice of presidential candidates. If anything, it is already out in the open in the UNP, but the SLPP seems to be more cohesive. Yet, there may be a message in the public declarations (seen as unilateral and pressurising) there, too.

The worse however seems to have been reserved for the UNP, especially the Ranil leadership. If as a section of the media reported, if the Ranil camp’s idea was to force the candidate of their choice (which, of course, is Ranil himself), by using the purportedly new and fresh DNF against his own UNP second-line, that does not seem to be the case just now.

Leave aside the UNP parliamentarians and a divided working committee, even a sober alliance leader like SLMC’s Rauff Hakkeem is unsure of backing Ranil, wholesale. If anything, Hakkeem says that they cannot sign the DNF deal without knowing the candidate, whom they are attesting and promoting.

More importantly, Hakkeem has said that they wanted a ‘grass-roots man’. In the UNP-centric aspect of national politics in the contemporary era, it refers more to Sajith P than anyone else. Not only the SLMC, but every other existing and/or prospective ally of the UNP seems to have a problem, backing PM Ranil for presidency, especially after the ‘Easter blasts fall-out’.

It was different for different communities and constituencies, but they all seem to reflect Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s re-assertion that the Government leadership has failed them. This will also be the underlying issue impacting on the expected talks between incumbent Sirisena and predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, before the latter names the SLPP candidate early next week.

Current trends

It is becoming increasingly clear that if the current trends prevail and does not yield once again to the old ways of established sections of the nation’s majority polity, Elections-2019 may see the emergence of a new leadership from within the old parties – new leadership/candidates from old parties.

It could be a Sajith vs Gota campaign, later this year. Of the two, Sajith has been sharpening his sword for the big fight for years now. He has his UNP pedigree intact. So has Gota but then through the past year, when his name came to be doing the rounds, he was still presenting himself as a ‘reluctant candidate’. But the Easter blasts have changed the narrative, not only for the nation, in terms of security priorities, but also for Gota. He seems to be convinced that the nation someone like him.

So does Sajith, but focussing on the one-famous development agenda of the Rajapaksas, but relating it to the last man, not necessarily the last highway or expressway – all of which his UNP Government seems to have been doing anyway, but then continuing only in the predecessor Rajapaksa way.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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