16th May 1999
A little bit of your own party's history
My unseen friend, Viruddha Paakshikaya writing in these pages last week has attempted to make a convincing case for a United National Part victory at the forthcoming Southern Provincial Council election.
I do not grudge my friend these little fantasies but I feel it is my duty not to allow him (or her) to mislead our readers; hence my reply today.
At the outset, Virudhdha Paakshikaya tries to make a mountain out of a molehill out of the Wijeyapala Mendis issue that has, despite his vehement denials, rocked his party to it's very foundations.
The thrust of Viruddha Paakshikaya's argument is that I first castigated UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe for not taking action against Wijeyapala Mendis. Then, my friend accuses me of being critical of the UNP leader for suspending Mendis. Of course, to substantiate his rather curious logic my friend has taken pains to dig up old newspaper copies and quoted chapter and verse from my own articles.
I must say, Viruddha Paakshikaya, I am flattered. I say so because my writings seem to have hurt the fragile egos of your party members much more than I thought. I am also flattered to know that someone at Sirikotha is surreptitiously keeping a record of my articles. They say the best recognition of your work comes from your enemies and for me this gives much satisfaction!
But, I do digress. The issue here is that of Wijeyapala Mendis. What I first said was that the UNP leadership was vacillating over the Mendis issue. Now I ask you- and I will let our readers be the judges of this- isn't that a fact? Did Ranil Wickremesinghe have the courage of his convictions to sack, suspend or exonerate Wijeyapala Mendis?
Of course, not. As I see it, Ranil Wickremesinghe is an expert at watchful expectation and masterly inactivity. So, he took the easy way out. He appointed a committee to "study" the matter. This so-called committee of "experts" - and not Ranil Wickremasinghe- took the decision to suspend Wijeyapala Mendis. So, Viruddha Paakshikaya and Ranil Wickremesinghe might well argue- if that was a wrong decision, that was the committee's fault, not his!
The point I was making, Viruddha Paakshikaya is that Ranil Wickremesinghe is not a good leader because he is shy of taking decisions. If you are the party veteran that you claim, you could recall the days of J.R.Jayewardene or R.Premadasa. They never appointed committees to take decisions on their behalf.
If I may take the liberty, Viruddha Paakshikaya, I may even teach you a little bit of your own party's history. J.R.Jayewardene for instance did not tolerate any nonsense from his ministers and when some of them didn't toe the line he did not appoint committees he just sacked them. And they were not minions in the party- JR sacked the likes of M.D.H.Jayewardene, Cyril Mathew and E.L.Senanayake and he had no committees to prop him up on those decision.
Then, what did R.Premadasa do? When he wanted to make his displeasure known he promptly sacked Gamini Dissanayake from the cabinet and demoted Lalith Athulathmudali from the Ministry of Education to Minister of Agriculture when it was well known that both Dissanayake and Athulathmudali vied with Premadasa for the 1988 UNP Presidential nomination. Of course, he didn't have committees either!
In relation to such decisions, the decision that Ranil Wickremesinghe had to take was a negligible one but he shied away from it and sought refuge behind a committee. I know Viruddha Paakshikaya will disagree with my version but as I said, I leave it to the readers to judge.
The second point I made was that having vacillated for so long Ranil Wickremesinghe took the wrong decision showing that he lacks yet another quality of a good leader- sound judgement. It was surprising in that Wickremesinghe by training is a lawyer but he preferred to pronounce someone guilty before he was proven innocent.
It just goes to show that the decision was motivated not by fact or reason but personal prejudice. For, wasn't it well known that Wijeyapala Mendis openly supported and canvassed for Gamini Dissanayake over Ranil Wickremesinghe when the former returned to the UNP in 1994?
I believe I have explained myself adequately on these issues now. Besides, I do not want to continue in this vein any further, lest I be accused of launching a personal crusade of sorts against Ranil Wickremesinghe. That is furthest from the truth and I feel that I owe an explanation in that regard.
Indeed I do have great respect for Ranil Wickremesinghe as a person, a gentleman and even as a politician. I would even go so far as to say that he would even make a good President or a Prime Minister- provided he was served the post on a platter- as it happened in 1994 when President Premadasa was assassinated and Wickremesinghe came to be appointed Prime Minister.
But where I do disagree with my friend Viruddha Paakshikaya is that he is a good leader of the Opposition. I have always maintained that the post of Leader of the Opposition requires more political ingenuity and ability than being the President or the Prime Minister.
Take a look at our recent history, Viruddha Paakshikaya. When Premadasa died, fortunately or unfortunately, D.B. Wijetunge became President of the country. Coming straight after the authoritarian regimes of Jayewardene and Premadasa, Wijetunge was seen as a blessing. In fact he did quite a bit of good work in dismantling the state terror apparatus that existed when he assumed power, so much so that people started referring to him as "Dearly Beloved" and "Doing Bloody Well".
But, Viruddha Paakshikaya, just for a moment imagine Dingiri Banda Wijetunge as the Leader of the Opposition. It would have been a disaster, I daresay, with apologies to the good gentleman now enjoying the calm of retirement.
What I am saying is that a Leader of the Opposition needs to make things happen instead of waiting for things to happen and this is precisely what Ranil Wickremesinghe doesn't appear to be doing. But there is one statement made by Viruddha Paakshikaya that I couldn't let go unchallenged. He says that there is a conspiracy by our party to eliminate Ranil Wickremesinghe from the UNP leadership, citing various media reports against Wickremesinghe.
My own observation of that is the newspapers are merely reporting what is happening in the UNP and Viruddha Paakshikaya is entitled to disagree. But I have to take issue with him when he says that my writings are also part of that conspiracy- rest assured, Viruddha Paakshikaya I as a staunch SLFPer will be the happiest person to see Ranil Wickremesinghe as leader of the Opposition.
For, in my opinion that alone will ensure that the PA government will be re-elected at next year's elections without so much as a decent fight. I remember the "good wishes" extended by J.R. Jayewardene to Anura Bandaranaike once: 'many happy returns', the old master said, 'may you spend many long years as the Leader of the Opposition!' My sentiments regarding Ranil Wickremesinghe as Leader of the Opposition are exactly the same, my friend, and your wild accusations about a 'conspiracy' are plainly unfounded.
Then, Viruddha Paakshikaya, you talk of disputes within the SLFP and how the UNP is a more democratic party that tolerates dissent. In this respect, I feel I must refresh Viruddha Paakshikaya's memory for he seems to be suffering from a rather selective amnesia. Again, I'm afraid I have to teach Viruddha Paakshikaya a bit of history of his own UNP, just to prove how well they tolerate dissent.
In the days of Dudley Senanayake, R.Premadasa had differences with the party leadership. Dissent was tolerated so well in the UNP that Premadasa formed his own 'Purawesi Peramuna'. By the time Dudley Senanayake expired Premadasa was away in India and when he attended the funeral he was booed away by the crowds- that's dissent for you!
In the days of J.R. Jayewardene too dissent was so well tolerated that Rukman Senanayake, nephew of the revered Dudley and MP for Dedigama had to eventually leave the UNP despite his strong family ties to the Party and form his own Eksath Lanka Jathika Pakshaya (ELJP) with the likes of Jinadasa Niyathapala.
And learning a lesson from this, J.R. was so determined to encourage dissent that he demanded and obtained letters of resignation from all his members of Parliament!
Then of course in more recent history we all know what happened during R.Premadasa's regime. Dissent was so well tolerated that a great number of MPs signed an impeachment motion against the President in hush-hush secrecy. Premadasa's UNP was so receptive to dissent from among it's own ranks that those who dared to openly oppose his Presidency had to form their own Democratic United National Front (DUNF).
Ranil Wickremesinghe, your great democratic leader has since assumed the reins of the party but it appears nothing has changed. The UNP is still flirting with the DUNF- or what is left of it- but that has not stopped the breakaway groups.
The latest addition to the list is H. R. Piyasiri who found that the UNP welcomed dissent so much that he left and founded the United Mahajana Party (UMP) with it's base in the southern province.
And, with all this history behind you, Viruddha Paakshikaya, you have the nerve to say that we in the SLFP do not tolerate dissent. You cite just the formation of the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) by Vijaya Kumaratunga who-with all due respect to him- found his ideology too radical to be implemented within the more conservative SLFP!
Then, after all this, Viruddha Paakshikaya belatedly discusses the Southern Provincial Council. He says the UNP will win the polls comfortably which by the way is a tacit admission that the poll will be free and fair. In support of this theory he attempts to belittle what the Ministers of the region- Richard Pathirana, Mangala Samaraweera, Mahinda Rajapakse and Amarasiri Dodangoda- have done in the last four years by way of development.
The verdict on the development in the region will of course be given not by Viruddha Paakshikaya but by the people. But my friend cites in his favor a letter written by Minister Rajapakshe to President Chandrika Kumaratunga highlighting shortcomings in the PA election strategy.
Yes, Minister Rajapakse did write to the President cautioning her against complacency before the General and Presidential elections and what's more, that letter appeared in full in the newspapers. Now, Virudhdha Paakshikaya, could that have happened in your party without serious consequences?
Rajapakse was not penalized, there were no committees appointed to probe his conduct. Instead, the letter was taken in its correct spirit and remedial action was instituted which is why we will be winning the election. But, more than that, that's democracy, freedom of expression and tolerance of dissent for you Viruddha Paakshikaya which should serve as a lesson in politics for your party and it's leadership. But then, you will never learn, will you?
As for Viruddha Paakshikaya's final lament, that is regarding the exclusion of former Minister of Trade and Chief Minister M.S. Amarasiri from the Southern Provincial Council election campaign. I have this to say.
My friend appears to justify that decision saying that it is like dropping Roshan Mahanama from the Sri Lanka cricket team if he did not perform well, because we want to win the match. I find the cricketing parallel resorted to by my friend very interesting in these days of World Cup cricket fever. I think I too could borrow this analogy. And if I may do so I say -with all due apologies to Arjuna Ranatunga who on Friday played another gutty innings when many other batsmen failed- that sometimes, when you want to win the match you must do the most difficult thing: drop the captain himself!
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