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30th March 1997

UNP: taking the safe path

By Rajpal Abeynayake

The Kumaratunga government is no longer a government on test. Elected by a wafer thin majority in 1994, the Kumaranatunge government has now done more than two years - and won a mid term election.

The period of apprenticeship is definitely over. Historically speaking, of course, most incumbent governments have won local government elections. That's the way the Sri Lankan electorate thinks. ( You cannot get your roads done by voting for the man who is out of power).

That notwithstanding, Ranil Wickremesinghe has to look very sharp.

If the duty of the opposition is to oppose, why is Mr. Wickremesinghe not doing so? Can Mr. Wickremesinghe restore the UNP juggernaut after what is obviously the nadir?

Mr. Wickremesinghe takes pride in the fact that he is a gentleman.

Old school tie, Esmond's son and all of that. On many occasions the party has been trying to goad him into action, but Mr. Wickremesinghe has played the gentleman card.

But, in the process, the UNP might have reduced itself to a whimper, and whose problem is that?

There is another argument that Mr. Wickremesinghe lacks the organisational skills of, say, an Athulathmudali or a Dissanayake or a Premadasa.

But, the basic problem with MrWickremesinghe may be that he is politically taciturn. Whereas Gamini and Athulathmudali were almost garrulous, Wickremesinghe prefers disengagement. He wants the opposition to stew itself, without any contribution from him.

Good gentlemanly show, but do things work that way in Sri Lankan politics? Gamini and Athulathmudali were almost pugnacious in their adversarial spirit. Plainly put, they could be pains in the neck. For instance, they were a pain in Premadasa's neck.

Politics was raucous, and no doubt the discourse was mean spirited when these gentlemen were around. But, there was less violence than now among the minions and the hoi polloi in those times. The catchers and the hangers-on have a way of doing these things as well.

When the "mahattayas'' are carrying the can, they tend to enjoy the show and sit back, almost in spectator fashion. For example, it had not exactly occurred in the mass mind, or the electorate, that the Executive Presidency was a demonic thing, until Lalith, Gamini and their boys suddenly painted the whole institution as a demonic one.

Though it is correct that N.M. Perera lent his analytical mind to the matter and demolished the Executive Presidency intellectually at the very outset, it was soon obvious that NM"s was only an intellectual approach. It required Lalith and Gamini to create a political issue out of the Executive Presidency, in hindsight, it appears, an issue that was not really there.

If it was a real issue, why is the Executive Presidency a non-issue now, particularly because those who promised to topple the system have not done anything about it?

The answer lies in the fact that the Presidency was a political rallying call that was almost artificially created by Athulathmudali, Dissanayake and the bad boys of the opposition at that time who knew that there is no way to mobilise the mass mind without raising issues where there are non-issues and generally creating a racket.

Now, whether this was all in good spirit or not is another matter, a more fundamental philosophical kind of query. But, in oppositional politics, you can either choose to go that way, create a noise, maybe get assassinated, or maybe get lucky and come into power. Or you can take the safe path, the road of the stiff upper-lip, and get buried anyway.

Though by no means can this be a final pronouncement, this may be what has happened to Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil set the style by quitting Temple Trees after the UNP had lost, good laudable act at which everyone clapped hands and rejoiced.

That was really a good gentlemanly proper thing to do, jokes apart.

But since then, if Ranil has emasculated himself, sort of elected to take a "come what may'' attitude of political fatalism, then he has only himself to blame for the political debacle of the UNP. Secretly, one can't help but be delighted that Ranil is not an Athulathmudali or a Dissanayake.

Personally, I feel that the country can do without such naughty boys, because their politics had a adversarial spirit that was downright destructive.

But, the opposition can play a more constructive role, without reducing itself to the status of wimp.

Apart from the political comparisons and all that, that is what's expected of an opposition.An opposition without its fangs can be pretty dangerous in a democracy. Such an outfit allows a government to get off without being accountable, allows a government to get away with the idea that anything it does is acceptable and normal.

Hence the political dictum that would have been the happy credo of the Athulathmudali's and the Dissanayake's: the duty of the opposition is to oppose.

The credo does not have to be abused, but the opposition can take legitimate action, for example, to lambaste the media policy of the government which has turned out to be a bit of a fiasco. Or for example, it is the duty of the opposition to keep the government to the promises that it solemnly made, such as the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the broad -basing of the shares of Lake House.

The current hierarchy of the opposition may say, in reflex action that all these things have been done, because there isn't the slightest doubt that there have been statements issued from time to time bringing up all these issues.

But, politics does not happen in Sri Lanka or any other place by the power of the statement.

Ranil will remember that his uncle was the master of the Satyagraha, the man who restructured the UNP by building up the JSS, and metamorphosing himself as a union man, when in reality he was the great oppressor and capitalist roader who would have not minded handing over this country to the exploitative robber barons on a platter.

But that was politics. Anybody who did not engage in that kind of tub-thumping campaign was destined to go into political oblivion, even Dudley Senanayake, for example, who of course enjoyed more public acclaim that Ranil Wickremesinghe, and therefore enjoyed more days in the sun without doing much hard work for it. But, other than Dudley Senanayake, everybody else has to work for it, which is why the current political leadership of the opposition has to get away from its docile mode if it wants to get serious about making any political contribution to this country which will be remembered in history.

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