Rajpal's Column

29th April 2001

Story of a conservative old fashioned shogun-fight

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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All the technocrats within the United National Party who attempted a bloodless coup to get rid of party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe should brush up on their end-game.

Getting the end-game right is as important as getting the opening right, and you don't need a FIDE master to tell you that, just ask a Visaka Vidyalaya or Royal College chessplayer.

It was not the middle-game but the end-game that was played for a week, in the glare of the spotlights. The majority of the top rung, and the majority of the UNP's MP's were with the coup plotters when the end game began last week, but then came the absurd rotation of rooks, pawns and other minor pieces over a chessboard that that looked set for a game of decisive lightning chess.

Technocrats usually don't play good chess; they are more adept at running business concerns or even removing teeth. (A former President of the Organisation of Professional Associations, a dentist, is a living testimony to that, the OPA being the ultimate enclave of the technocratic braves.)

Some technocrats can never win an end game, which is why they are destined to be technocrats in the first place. If they could win end-games, they would have ended up setting up their own fiefdoms and power centres.

But if technocrats can't win end-games, they are known to be good at openings, which is why their credo often is "well begun is half done.''

In this spirit, the technocrats of the UNP, with the other technocrats of the world, have another opening which they seem to have not considered. The technocrats of the world could form a new party, a DUNF in second round.

But herein lies the paradox. Why don't the UNP's rebels get themselves kicked-out of the party as Lalith Athulathmudali did, and form a third force under duress? ( The day he was sacked from the UNP, Laltih Athulathmudali was to say " it is the saddest day in my life.'' But he moped for about 24 hours. Next morning, he got up, and collected his arch enemy Gamini Dissanayake, with whom he had a common cause now. The result was the DUNF, which despite a rather unfortunate acronym, was built up into a third force which was on the verge of usurping the UNP when Mr. Athulathmudali was assassinated. )

But the UNP's technocrats do not want to think about a third force, because they harbour the delusion that Ranil Wickremesinghe is slim pickings, that he can be ousted easily "at the proper time.''

But that's all theoretical, and not easily translated into practice. To a great extent the theory is very sound. The UNP doesn't have an authoritative and dangerous political figure such as Premadasa as it's boss, so why should the party faithful take the drastic step of leaving the party, when there is every possibility that the ineffectual leader can be removed?

But, this is the Premadasa impeachment in reverse. With Premadasa, the entire Colombo political elite and the kosher classes from the correct side of the tracks, had arraigned their forces against a person who was painted a crude usurper, with unsavory and sinister beginnings.

Here, on the other hand, Wickremesinghe is the Prince, and the others just seem like the frogs in political uniform, even though they may not be from Jinthupitiya or Kesselwatte or any of those places physically close to Hulftsdorp.

The Prince is no Machiavelli, it is right, but if the technocrats are on one side, the Prince seems to have a fat bunch of oligarchs who are ready to support him because they know their power with him is assured. The technocrats on the other hand will not like to tolerate a bunch of fat-cats on the make.

But the power equation in Sri Lanka is not decided in the trenches of Badalkumbura or in the mines or even in the union smoke rooms of Lever Brothers.

By and large the power elite still moves in the fashion of those old kingmakers of the Japanese LDP move. The LDP, is run by old men in grey suits, who are, whether they are in pinstripe or in dowdy business outfits, still the most ruthless representation of the capitalist face of Japan.

Generally they are oily haired old men who have not smiled in a hundred years, who look like they pass their time playing mah-jong with fat women. But, when it comes to choosing the leader of the LDP, which is equivalent to choosing the Prime Minister of Japan, they play a very conservative game. They'd rather have the LDP led by a mediocre but dyed-in-wool industry friendly capitalist, than some wide-eyed and efficient adventurer.

In the UNP, the power struggle has resulted in a vaguely similar conservative outcome. But, the leader of the UNP does not automatically become the leader of the country, though the current UNP leader definitely thinks so. So the kingmakers of the UNP, fat cats oligarchs all, will forever be in a state of discomfiture. Their man will only be able to wriggle and shout out policy in opposition, whereas in Japan, a mediocrity is allowed to at least make a hash of it, until the people of Japan throw up their hands in disgust until one hugely embarrassed king steps down, triggering off yet another conservative power struggle in oily I mean smoke filled - rooms.

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