03 January 2014

Man of the Year 2013: Karu Jayasuriya

Reticence, resolve and courage marks the man

He is known today as the Chairman of the United National Party’s recently instituted ‘Leadership Council’.  Today he is known as a politician, but politics actually came late in his life or rather he became political in the popular sense of the term at the age of 56.  That’s as late as you can find. 

What was his life before that?  Karu was a businessman and a very successful one too.  He served as a commissioned officer of the Sri Lanka Army from 1965 to 1972. He was appointed as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Germany by President Ranasinghe Premadasa. 

He entered politics formally when he was made Chairman, UNP in 1996 by Ranil Wickremesinghe.  Prolific and incisive political commentator C.A. Chandraprema has argued convincingly that Karu owes nothing to Ranil, rather Ranil needed Karu at the time.  The following year he was elected Mayor of Colombo by a large majority. Contesting the Western Provincial Council election as the Chief Minister aspirant, Karu almost led his party to an unexpected victory.  He was a fresh face in politics at the time, even refusing to put up posters because ‘it polluted the city he worked hard to keep clean’.  He entered Parliament from the Gampaha District in the year 2000 and has been victorious in every election since then.

It was never easy for Karu.  He was given the ‘hard ministry’, Power and Energy, ‘to make him a failure,’ some said. Karu delivered.  He rose to the position of Deputy Leader, UNP soon after.  After the party was ousted in 2004, if there has been anything consistent about the UNP, it is the demand that Ranil Wickremesinghe steps down.  Karu was the natural and popular choice as successor. We need not go into the details of party intrigue, suffice to say that Karu, unlike most politicians, did not seek position.  He was sidelined deliberately and his supporters were repeatedly stumped by an intransigent man who had tweaked the party constitution to keep his position secure.  At no point has it been recorded that Karu Jayasuriya showed any rancor in the face of this bludgeoning.

In the year 2007, Karu put aside political differences to join hands with a Government that showed for the first time true commitment to ridding the country of the terrorist menace. He put country before self and before party.  He was not riding a nationalist wave; Karu Jayasuriya pinned the national flag to his national dress long before the hurrah-boys did or even started mouthing patriotic rhetoric. When it was clear that a decisive military victory was on the cards, he quit. He returned to his ‘Mother Party,’ the UNP. 

In-fighting didn’t stop as the UNP lost election after election, subsequent to which defeats there were inevitable calls for the leader’s ouster.  Once again, Karu was the popular alternative.  He stood for election and was duly trounced, with little thanks to some of his staunchest backers who, it is now apparent, were more interested in securing position within the party than in reforming it.  Karu was marginalized. He did not whine; he worked.

Today, as the head of the Leadership Council, Karu remains what he has always been: a unifier. He recognized flaw in others just as he acknowledges his frailties and by the same token sees strengths even in his detractors or would-be ousters.  He therefore works to bring the best out of everyone.  That’s leadership.  That’s also hope for a nation that sorely needs an articulate, robust, tireless and nationalist opposition.     


Where was Karu Jayasuriya on January 1, 2013?  What was his status and stature in the United National Party?  If someone was asked about Karu Jayasuriya’s political future at the beginning of the year, the answer might very well have been ‘bleak’.  Now, at the end of the year, the much vilified and politically victimized Karu Jayasuriya is Chairman of the UNP’s Leadership Council.  He has not exactly ousted Ranil Wickremesinghe, but nevertheless has moved past his detractors including those who did their utmost to toss him towards the periphery or beyond of the leadership circle.  That meteoric rise in the short span of just 12 months is unmatched in the political sphere.  It has taken much hard work, long conversations, a resolve not to be swayed by praise or blame, and composure in the face of vitriolic assaults by media outfits that had invested in his rivals to the point that such individuals had been turned into pawns.  For his reticence, resolve and courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, The Nation names Karu Jayasuriya as ‘The Man of the Year 2013’.