කරු ජයසුරිය

Since the announcement of possible changes in the UNP, there has been a plethora of attacks on Karu Jayasuriya. Many of them accuse him of ingratitude in that he seems to be challenging someone who had been enormously kind to him. The argument is that Ranil Wickremesinghe made him Deputy Leader of the Party once, and then again made him Deputy Leader, and this means he should be eternally grateful.

Interestingly enough, the criticisms come not only from those elements in the UNP that support Wickremesinghe’s continuing leadership of the party, but from people in government. I suspect this indicates that such people are nervous that the removal of Wickremesinghe will lead to a resurgence in UNP fortunes. That may well happen, but I believe that there will also benefits to the country.

Before arguing that point, I should address some of the inconsistencies in the argument of those who accuse Jayasuriya of ingratitude. In the first place, he was not initially made Deputy Leader of the UNP out of love and affection. He was given the position, which was created by constitutional change, when he had to give up the position of Chairman of the Party, since Wickremesinghe had decided that that position, as well as that of General Secretary, should be held by people not in Parliament.

If memory serves me right – I am writing this in India, in a morning unexpectedly freed up for the Parliamentary delegation, on the grounds that we should not go all hot and sweaty to see the Indian President after visiting Humayun’s tomb beforehand – Jayasuriya was replaced by Charitha Ratwatte and Gamini Athukorale by Senerath Kapukotuwa, both loyal to Wickremesinghe rather than the UNP. The implication is that Wickremesinghe wanted people devoted to him in positions with statutory powers, whereas the other two, who had independent personalities and convictions, were shifted to newly created positions which functioned in terms of the Leader’s predilections.

Nevertheless in 2001 it seemed that they were working together with other members of the party who wanted a change. It may be remembered that it was Anura Bandaranaike who warned Wickremesinghe about this when the latter was – not entirely surprisingly – in Norway. He rushed back and peace was restored, and the party then united in its efforts to topple the government that had been set up after the Parliamentary election of 2000. Provoked by President Kumaratunga’s increasingly erratic approach as well as the economic disasters of that year, but fuelled also in some cases by financial incentives which have traditionally been part of the UNP method of toppling elected governments, several people in the government crossed over and the UNP won the election that followed, at the end of 2001.

How deep animosity ran still between Wickremesinghe and his Deputy and Assistant was apparent from the fact that both were sidelined in the cabinet that was set up. I had assumed that they would be given the Ministries of Finance and Defence respectively, but those instead went to another pair whose main distinguishing feature was totally loyalty to Wickremesinghe, Kasi Choksay and Tilak Marapana. When I expressed surprise about this, Ilika Karunaratne, another fanatical Wickremesinghe supporter, told me that the other two could not be trusted. Marapana then proceeded to destroy the defences of this country, though it is a moot point whether the blind eyes turned to Tiger procurement were only his or also Wickremesinghe’s. Athukorale, who was probably the only person who could have challenged Wickremesinge, was dead by then, and I have often wondered whether the Tigers, who must have understood this, had a hand in his unexpected death a few weeks after the UNP came to power.

Be that as it may, the UNP government and its policy of negotiations accompanied by appeasement led to disaster, and President Kumaratunga rightly took over the Ministry of Defence. Her efforts at compromise were ignored by Wickremesinghe, though certainly Jayasuriya and the less dogmatic members of the UNP advocated discussions. The UNP then lost the election – despite Ravi Karunanayake’s certainty, in promoting the Wickremesinghe line – that the UNP and the TNA (then well and truly under Tiger thumbs) could not do worse than the SLFP in combination with the JVP.

The UNP stayed together however till the end of 2005, though I remember Jayasuriya’s diffidence about the agitation Wickremesinghe had decided on to ensure that President Kumaratunga’s term ended in 2005. When this subterfuge was taken advantage of by forces outside the SLFP to get a judicial ruling, which advanced the election to 2005 – wrongly, as I argued at the time, though the result was ultimately of great benefit to the country – Mahinda Rajapaksa won, whereupon the UNP began to disintegrate.

However it was only a couple of its leading lights who crossed over early in 2006. The others, led by Karu Jayasuriya, only followed when Wickremesinghe again began to tinker with the party. Though there had been some dissent, it was reported that peace had been made. But then Wickremesinghe, in announcing nominations to all posts – as was the prerogative of the Leader before recent reforms – omitted to make Jayasuriya Deputy Leader.

The Leader newspaper indeed, then solidly behind Wickremesinghe, ran an article which claimed that there was no such position in the party constitution. It seemed that they were aware only of the earlier version, not the amendments made when Jayasuriya and Athukorale had given up the positions of Chairman and Secretary General (needless to say, the provision then made about those posts had been forgotten, and in his efforts to shore up his position in the party, Wickremesinghe had made Rukman Senanayake and Tissa Attanayake, both Members of Parliament, Chairman and General Secretary.

It was in that context, having been pushed out of the position of Deputy Leader too (with Athukorale’s death the position of Assistant Leader had long been forgotten), that Jayasuriya crossed over with several others. And when he crossed back, it was after Wickremesinghe had cajoled him back, with the definite offer of the position of Deputy Leader. Obviously he was also unhappy with his position in government, but it is noteworthy that after he returned to the UNP he did not justify his action by criticism of the government in which he had served.

That essential sense of propriety distinguishes him from many politicians. I hasten to add that, though as is apparent I have great regard for him, and what he has been through, I believe he has considerable weaknesses as a politician. But these are weaknesses born of decency, an inability to push too hard, a willingness to trust others, a belief that one should not go public with recriminations. He will not be able to take the hard decisions that a national leader should – but he will make forcefully the points a good leader of the opposition should, without resorting to the subterfuges that subvert democracy.

Back in the UNP now, he has done yeoman service in undertaking unpleasant and unpopular tasks. His commitment to his responsibilities perhaps led advocates of reform to ignore him in their ill-starred campaign earlier this year. But the manner in which Wickremesinghe, having achieved some sort of compromise, then rode roughshod over those who had opposed him, has made them realize that it would be fatal to leave the UNP in its current state. And the results of the last round of local government elections have emphatically confirmed this.

I suspect, given Wickremesinghe’s skill in maneuvering, and his capacity to win people over with the impression that he would give them greater authority, that this new effort to reform the UNP will also fail. I am sure that there are people in government who will be happy about this, because they will see then an unbroken string of electoral successes for government.

But my own view is that, having after so many decades overcome terrorism and brought piece to the country, given too its developmental record, the government does not have to worry too much about elections in Sri Lanka. The danger to it lies in maneuvers abroad, and in this game Wickremesinghe is an unrivalled master. Those threats in turn contribute to instability in Sri Lanka, and will in particular affect government plans to promote investment and employment in the North as well as elsewhere.

Wickremesinghe may have indicated to government that his approach has changed, but all his pronouncements, about remorse for instance or about South Sudan, suggest a very different perspective. Ultimately the UNP must decide its future, and government should not get involved. But I have no doubt that both the UNP and the country will be better served if the UNP had a different leader. Efforts to paint Jayasuriya as ungrateful are mistaken and misplaced, and the UNP should make its decisions on the basis of an accurate view of what occurred in the past, and of where there has been bad faith.

Island 3 August 2011