Failed UNP leadership-contender, Sajith Premadasa gave us his views on why he suddenly dropped out of the leadership stakes in the UNP – taking his supporters and detractors off guard. Excerpts of the interview with Faraz Shauketaly.
Q: You said “you will definitely” take the leadership. What happened?
A: Well, to be honest with you, the people’s popularity that was visibly prevalent during the campaign and the party conference was not clearly reflected at the main decision making body of the party. There was a very sharp division as I saw it and the party seniors told me that it was not prudent to divide the party and go for a contest at this time. I considered all the views and I thought that at this particular juncture I need to step backwards slightly.
Q: Was it not better to have gone for an election, to prove the point that you do have support?
A: Well I did not have a point to prove for the country. As far as support for Sajith Premadasa is concerned everyone knows even today that there is a support for me, it is unfortunate that was not reflected at the Working Committee.
Q: Does this not indicate a bankrupt ideology and plans in the UNP?
A: Here I am talking of the party in its present state. We however brought in a new constitution which is more reflective of the party cadre. These will kick in after 12th of April. We will have more representation after that date. We will have local authority, union, affiliated representation at the Working Committee after the 12th of April. Right now we don’t have it but it is coming.
Q: What do you say to people who say, “Sajith Premadasa let the side down. He disappointed us?”
A: First and foremost my popularity was generated by how I conducted myself politically and I will not diverge from that. Having said that I did not mislead I made an attempt. But the people have to recognise that I have to respect the views of the party seniors and they were adamant I don’t go for a election contest as they perceived this to be the wrong time. We have further local government polls.
Q: Which the UNP will lose. I mean Mr. Wickremesinghe is a serial loser, that’s his track record?
A: I don’t think you can say that. Well here you have to understand that I have been given greater responsibility, empowered so to speak to expand the party’s reach and appeal to revamp the grass roots level. I am not saying that I have a magic wand that will transform the party overnight. We have to start this process and ensure that we will be victorious at national level — parliamentary and presidential.
Q: If it follows that you are empowered and given responsibility to revamp, does it follow that your nominee will get the national organiser’s role?
A: Well I can’t dictate who should be appointed to positions A, B and C. As far as this post is concerned I know that Ranjith Madduma Bandara who was proposed by Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, is the only contender right now. But lets wait and see if there are others who would also come up. This is due to be settled in the next few days hopefully by consensus.
Q: But surely just by going for an election doesn’t mean that the party is to be split just by having an election? It’s only exercising a democratic right after all!
A: True. It’s a very dicey situation. Not particularly straight forward at this juncture. I took a very important and pivotal decision which history will prove was the right decision.
Q: What will happen to all those who supported you? Will they not be victimised by the Wickremesinghe camp?
A: Certainly not. They are all my responsibility and I will ensure that no one is victimised.
Q: What are you going to do with all those party members lower down the rung, who were hoping you would be elected leader so that in future elections they too would have a vote when it comes to electing the party leaders and senior positions?
A: When I brought that proposal at the Working Committee only Ranjith Madduma Bandara supported it. No one else spoke. It is important that these party cadre too should have a say.
Q: Do you think that Ranil Wickremesinghe is electable?
A: Its not a question of getting one person elected. What we are facing right now is a process to make sure that our party is energised and enthused enough to face the current political challenges. Re-energise and enthuse the party cadre.
Q: How does one get enthused by the likes of Mr. Wickremesinghe. He is 62-years old and has lost election after election?
A: Well age does not come into it. Capability does. As far as re-energising and enthusing the party is my role and I will get the others to play a role too.
Q: But when people know that when they vote it is Mr. Wickremesinghe who comes instead of you…
A: Well it is my duty to nullify that perception. I shall try my darn best that I will strive to achieve this. Of course I am making a statement now I must convert that into practical action to ensure that our party is electable and victorious.
Q: Don’t you think you have missed your chance? That you have missed the boat, committed political suicide?
A: That kind of analysis is made by novices; by those inexperienced in political analysis.
Q: Do you feel that you have put back your chances of leading this country, that you have put back your plans by about 10 years?
A: Says who, Aristotle? No, I don’t think so. I don’t want to give time lines. But I believe that I am a prudent decision maker, that I am realistic and I live at ground level, not on Cloud Nine and I am aware of facts and fact and reality dominate my thinking; not speculation, not innuendo, flimsy ideas. The truth of the matter is that I recognise there is a huge expectation caused by a sea of change but in the cause of party unity and in the name of having some semblance of co-operation and consensus that I took a step back. Certainly I have been given a gigantic responsibility to revamp the party and we must do so from the bottom up and gear our party to face the challenges of a dominating and autocratic government.
Q: What do you say to people who say that you lack leadership quality?
A: It’s a democratic country, people can come to their own conclusions.
Q: Isn’t it your actions that cause them to think like they do?
A: Well I have to only point out that my doing politics in Hambantota and obtaining the highest preference votes there in the midst of Hambantota is proof indeed of leadership quality. If this does not demonstrate that then I don’t know what does.
Q: But you keep going on about Hambantota…
A: I keep going on about Hambantota because I am elected from Hambantota…
Q: Sri Lanka is a bit bigger than Hambantota?
A: Well my party has not nominated me to be the candidate for presidency.
Q: Have you spoken of that with Mr. Wickremesinghe?
A: No I have not.
Q: Would you say that you would be leader of this country only when you yourself are a senior citizen?
A: Well, all that is dependent on the wishes and fancies of the people. You must go back to that old dictum, a week is a long time in politics. I would say a second is a long time in politics; for all the detractors and doomsday sayers I say that Sajith Premadasa is alive and well and the wishes of the people of this country will be achieved in the near future. Don’t discount anything.
Q: Will Mr. Wickremesinghe truly give you a freehand to let you get on with your new brief?
A: Well give me a few months and I will give you an honest answer of life in the aftermath of being the Deputy Leader of the UNP.