UNP’s thinking and trajectory not positive: Navin Dissanayake
- I’m also wondering about the party, but won’t leave just yet
- Reforms do not mean changing positions; it should be fundamental party reforms
- No proper interaction with Ranatunga to fathom his role in the party
By Skandha Gunasekara
Respected public figure and cricketing icon Arjuna Ranatunga abruptly left the United National Party (UNP) last week, asserting that he felt his services served no purpose in the party. The Sunday Morning spoke with UNP stalwart Navin Dissanayake regarding Ranatunga’s departure and its implications for the party.
Below are excerpts from the interview:
Arjuna Ranatunga left the UNP recently. What do you think pushed him to do so?
I think the letter he issued is self-explanatory. He said, in the last paragraph of that letter, that he wanted reforms within the party. Actually, I was also involved with him in raising that issue. Reforms do not simply mean changing positions. It means fundamental reforms of the party, from the branding of the party, the organisational structure, marketing set-up, and having an honest analysis of what went wrong last time. Those are the pillars of actual transformational change. So without that kind of process, you can’t really resurrect the party. Those are the key issues that the party highlighted.
What’s the current status of the UNP?
I think after Arjuna’s resignation, they have not issued any statement yet. But I would imagine that a lot of people in the party are unhappy about how Arjuna was treated. Personally, I feel Arjuna is a very marketable product – one of the few marketable products that the UNP had. I don’t think there was a proper interaction with him to fathom what kind of position he wanted to have within the UNP. We’ll have to wait and see as to how the UNP reacts to it.
Are there any moves by the UNP to convince him to return?
No, I think it is final. That letter is very clear – he said he wants to form his own movement or something to that effect. He had said that he would be interested if a corruption-free movement asked him to be a presidential candidate, and that he would consider it. I think those statements made it very clear that he doesn’t want to come back to the UNP.
Were any changes made within the party after the defeat in 2020?
Changes were made. Three slots were filled – the Chairmanship to Vajira Abeywardana, the Deputy Leadership to Ruwan Wijewardene, and Assistant Leadership to Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. Arjuna and I said that we didn’t want any positions, and Arjuna has left. I’m still there. So, I’m also wondering – I don’t want to make any decisions about making a move yet, but the trajectory of the UNP and its thinking are not positive.
Your brother has left the UNP and joined the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). Will you also follow in his footsteps if you were to leave the UNP or will you join a different party?
No, I’d look at a broader coalition. I think to defeat the Rajapaksas, you need a very broad coalition including the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), SJB, UNP, and, if the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leaves the Government, then the SLFP as well. That is the need of the hour. Fragmented groups cannot defeat the Rajapaksas by themselves. Overall, a broader strategy is needed to defeat them.
How have talks between the UNP and the SJB progressed?
I think you can have intra-party talks. Intra-party talks are taking place continuously now, even with the UNP and the SLFP. The UNP is also holding discussions with the JVP. Informal discussions are happening all the time, and I think it’s a positive sign that the anti-Rajapaksa groups want to work together to defeat the Rajapaksas. However, anybody who says that the SJB can get 50.1% without the help of the JVP and the UNP and the other anti-Rajapaksa forces, I think, are living in a different world. Because in a “three-cornered” fight at a presidential election, it is always the incumbent who can benefit. Therefore, I believe that at a presidential election, you always need a two-cornered fight to defeat the incumbent.
The JVP has always had a policy of anti-corruption. If the JVP makes it a condition for any party forming an alliance with them to distance themselves from any person with allegations of corruption, is the UNP prepared to do so?
If they make that condition, I think that’s a very fair condition. No one would ever want to have people with allegations of corruption on their platform. I certainly would not wish to have such a person on my platform. All of society is now rebelling against this, and they are disgusted by politicians who are making money. Whether it is through the current Government or the previous Government, people have a very apathetic view of politicians because politicians are associated with making money.
Would that mean Ravi Karunanayake would be dropped from the UNP?
Well, I think as far as Ravi Karunanayake is concerned, there’s a case against him. I think that case has to run its course for anyone to make a fair and equitable decision about Karunanayake. The law of the land very clearly states that you are innocent until you are proven guilty. You can make allegations against people, but they have to be proven in a court of law. As far as Karunanayake is concerned, we’ll have to wait until the outcome of this court case to see what exactly happens to him.
What about talks with the SLFP? Will the UNP look for a possible alliance with them, especially after the experiences of the Yahapalana Government?
No, I don’t think so. After that bitter experience we had with Maithripala (Sirisena), where he basically unconstitutionally and unlawfully ditched the Government and brought in the Rajapaksas – whom he initially defeated and swore to the people to bring corruption charges against – I personally would feel very uncomfortable to work with Maithripala Sirisena.
Going back to the UNP leadership and its structure, do you think that in its current form, it can win any more seats in a parliamentary election?
Ranil Wickremesinghe has his pluses – he is an experienced leader and administrator, and people, especially the middle class and the intelligentsia in this country, feel that he is a person who can get us out of this mess that we are in. But there is of course a problem of communication, marketing, and branding of the UNP. I have certain ideas on how to overcome that situation. However, I feel that any political party, after a huge defeat like what we experienced, has to dig deep and do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats) analysis and then come to a conclusion on what really went wrong. Then, even if the leadership is in question as a result of the SWOT analysis, and the leadership is seen as a major flaw involved in the defeat, that certainly has to be rectified.
How much of that defeat would you attribute to the split with the SJB?
I would say quite a lot. The fact of the matter is that approximately 2-2.5 million hardcore UNPers did not go to the polling booths and vote. This is the reality. They did not go to the polling booths because they were appalled by the division between Sajith (Premadasa) and Ranil. I would say that the split would have been contributed.
You mentioned that an analysis identified the leadership of the party as a weakness, and that there should be a change. In your view, who should take up the reins?
Soon after the general election defeat, there were about three working committee meetings. In my view, if Ranil Wickremesinghe was going to step down as communicated to us by him, the replacement should have been Karu Jayasuriya. But Wickremesinghe then said that he was not going to step down, and we came back to square one.
Are you expecting to leave the UNP if there is no change, or will you give the party some time to change before you decide?
I cannot give a specific answer to that, as I’m not in a hurry, nor do I want to make hasty decisions, because the political landscape seems to be changing every day. So I don’t want to leave the UNP, but I would certainly be a democratic voice within the party for further changes, and I would espouse that cause.
The UNP is the oldest party in Sri Lanka and one which my father died for; that is the emotional link that I have to it. Therefore, I do not want to be a cause of the disintegration of the UNP; I want to be a factor that actually builds up the UNP.