Politics is all about making the most of opportunities and also about being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes political careers are made or ruined by such events. The political wisdom of Sajith Premadasa must be called into question in this context.
For comparison, in 1994 when Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa was at the wrong place at the wrong time- at Armour street on May Day- Ranil Wickremesinghe was at the right place at the same time: he was Leader of the House in Parliament. With Prime Minister D.B. Wijetunge becoming President, Wickremesinghe became prime Minister.
Again, in 2022, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa was ousted from office by angry masses, Wickremesinghe happened to be at the right place, the Prime Ministerial chair. So, he became President. Wickremesinghe didn’t make the most of being Prime Minister in 1994, quitting after the general election, but he sure is trying to extract the utmost from the opportunity of becoming President.
What is Sajith Premadasa, leader of the party he formed, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) and also the Leader of the Opposition doing in the current political scenario? Is he making the most of the opportunities that have been presented to him or is he making some colossal mistakes instead?
Premadasa’s SJB remains the single largest party in Parliament. That though may not be the reality on the ground. While the popularity of Wickremesinghe’s United National Party (UNP) and the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) remain at a very low level, all reports suggest that the Jathika Jana Balavegaya (JJB) is emerging as a frontrunner- if not the leading contender- to form the next government, be it at a presidential or general election.
The JJB first emerged as a force to be reckoned with, in the lead up to the local government elections scheduled for March 09, last year. That election was never held due to Wickremesinghe’s Machiavellian machinations. It was initially thought that the support whipped up by the JJB would dissipate and fizzle out, as it would be difficult to sustain such a momentum for that long.
To their credit, the JJB has been able to keep their campaign alive. This they have done by continuing their public rallies, articulating a clear-cut campaign against corruption which resonates with voters simply because so much of it comes to light day after day.
In the meantime, what has Premadasa and the SJB done? They have organised some public rallies but these seldom generate the kind of interest the JJB does. Now, it has embarked on a strategy of wooing and winning other parliamentarians who, ironically, contested on the SLPP ticket at the last general elections. Already, G.L. Peiris, Dilan Perera, Nalaka Godahewa and Channa Jayasumana have been recruited. So has Shan Wijayalal de Silva from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who is likely to be followed by Dayasiri Jayasekera, insiders say.
On the one hand, this has caused considerable angst among SJB backbenchers. The bombshell resignation of SJB Badulla district MP Chaminda Wijesiri on Tuesday is thought to be a result of the influx of parachutists from the SLPP which would result in Wijesiri having to compete with Dilan Perera for preference votes in the Badulla district. Wijesiri did offer an explanation saying the masses have lost faith in Parliament but this is hardly convincing because that particular lament was its peak during the ‘aragalaya’ one and a half years ago and he chose to do nothing about it then.
Premadasa may feel that there is more strength in numbers but he is not trying to form a government now, he has to form one after the next election. So, will his chances improve simply by taking SLPP MPs on board at this time when they are generally considered politically damaged goods?
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa, at the height of the ‘aragalaya’ invited Premadasa to assume duties as Prime Minister, he refused. That was both understandable and commendable. That was because Premadasa said he could not form a government tainted with the corrupt, communalist elements of the SLPP.
What is he doing now? He is trying to win over some SLPPers, one or a few at a time. Wouldn’t that sully the reputation of any SJB-led alliance as a party free of corruption? Will that not further strengthen the ‘unuth ekai, munuth ekai’ (‘they are all the same’) mentality of the voter who is disappointed and disgusted with the traditional ‘two party’ system which is now mostly SLPP versus SJB rather than the historical SLFP versus UNP?
The credentials of those crossing over are not lily white. G.L. Peiris served under Chandrika Kumaratunga, quickly teamed up with Ranil Wickremesinghe, then changed loyalties to Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Had he been holding either the Justice or Foreign Affairs portfolio in Wickremesinghe’s government, he wouldn’t even want to be seen with Premadasa.
Then, Nalaka Godahewa was the convenor of the ‘Viyath Maga’ which foisted Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the nation, projecting him as a miracle worker who could change the system. This project launched by professionals with little or no political experience failed spectacularly and took Rajapaksa down with it- and its stalwart, Godahewa, is fast emerging as Premadasa’s chief economic guru.
The inclusion of Channa Jayasumana is perhaps the most abhorrent. It was this gentleman -if he can be called that- who, despite being a medical professional claimed that Dr. Shafi Shihabdeen manipulated the organs of Sinhalese women so they would become infertile. Dr. Shafi endured a horrendous ordeal before he was acquitted when medical experts proved this was not physically possible but to date, Jayasumana has expressed no regret. Do such racists have a place in the SJB? How will Jayasumana, a rabid racist as demonstrated by his actions, share the same platform with the likes of Rauff Hakeem and Rishad Bathiudeen? Won’t Jayasumana’s inclusion incur a heavy toll to the SJB in terms of Muslim votes lost?
This is why SJB leader Sajith Premadasa’s strategies and tactics as the Leader of the Opposition has to be called into question before it is too late. He must be told that sometimes, in politics, less is more.