17 July 2020

Whither Sajith Premadasa and the SJB?

Sajith Premadasa, as the leader of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB), would theoretically be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The SJB, a breakaway faction of the United National Party (UNP) is embroiled in a legal battle with ‘The Mother Party’ regarding the membership of the renegades. Allegations about doctors documents pertaining to registration aren’t helping the party either.

Legal wrangles aside, the SJB was forced to bat on a sticky wicket. The leader of the coalition was routed at the Presidential Election when he contested on the UNP ticket. After breaking ranks with the UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Premadasa and the SJB seem to be resolved to turning this election into a battle for Sirikotha, the UNP headquarters, rather than an attempt to wrest power from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

Where does this leave Sajith and the SJB? It has to be about political survival and in this sense the ‘Battle for Sirikotha’ can be seen as a consolation prize worth fighting for. Besting the UNP would obviously give the SJB some hope looking ahead.  How far Sajith could take the party is left to be seen. At some point the SJB would have to decide whether the man is an asset or a liability.

Sajith Premadasa has certain things going for him.  He enjoys wide support within the party, probably less on account of stellar leadership qualities than the fact that he is not Ranil Wickremesinghe. Sajith believes being President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son is an advantage. This could be true for staunch UNPers. His father’s track record wasn’t squeaky clean, after all Sri Lanka suffered her bloodiest post-Independence period during his watch.

If Ranil’s brand of liberalism is passé, one might think that Saijth’s ‘nationalism’ would be a corrective. He has alienated people like Mangala Samaraweera who voiced the neoliberal agenda and of course spared no pains to subvert the nation’s sovereignty and effectively turn it into a US colony, true. However, if it’s about who talks the nationalism talk better, then Sajith and indeed anyone else in the SJB is a distant also-ran to many in the SLPP (Note: ‘nationalism talk’ is not ‘nationalism’). His claim of being afflicted with ranavirugaya is comparatively hollow, to put it in a nutshell.

He is a good speaker who can rouse a crowd. This was evident long before he was picked as the UNP’s presidential candidate.  In a party that lacked color he was a colorful speaker, which doesn’t say much. Patali Champika Ranawaka is way more eloquent, but he never sought membership in the UNP.  He draws more cheers than Ranil. Way more cheers.

He is humble. He showed humility in defeat. He would apologize whenever he uttered something silly or false. The problem is that it’s almost a habit. He can be counted on for tripping at every turn, so much so that he ends up doing the work of his political enemies.

What’s Sajith Premadasa’s true value when it comes to gratitude, combating corruption, his stand on the capital punishment, skills as a minister, etc? Let us explore.

Sajith betrayed the man who stood by his father during the dark days of the impeachment motion of 1991. Sajith betrayed Karu Jayasuriya on a number of occasions. Karu was also a staunch supporter of Ranasinghe Premadasa. In short Sajith’s machinations within the UNP have been absolutely crude and motivated mainly by political greed.

Sajith, as the Deputy Leader of the UNP and a senior member of the yahapalana cabinet kept mum over corruption and misrule. He did not utter one word about the Central Bank Bond issue heist in which several senior members of his party were implicated.

Sajith is homophobic, as evidenced by his rant against unnamed napunsaka and avajathaka individuals. He wants the implement capital punishment. He’s no liberal although diehard liberals and leftists in his camp do not dare comment on the positions he’s taken. That says more about the backers than the man, however.

The man. What about him?  

He’s a promising politician if ever there was one. But where is the money to deliver heaven on earth? Planning is not his strength. This he demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt when he was Minister of Housing Construction and Cultural Affairs.

The ‘plan’ was to build 25 houses in each model village. Foundation stones were laid in around 700 locations. Houses were built in less than 200. The talk was of building more than 10,000 houses but in fact the total number built was less than 3,000. The impression was that the state would foot the bill. What really happened was that a grand opening would be organized when around 10 houses had been built, where the man would unveil an opening plaque (costing around Rs 500,000) with the media in attendance. Each housing unit, costing around Rs 1 million, had two bedrooms, a small living room and a kitchen with a toilet outside. Each beneficiary had to cough up around Rs 500,000 in installments which many eventually struggled to pay on time. Around 60% of these housing schemes didn’t have water while there was no electricity either in a significant number. It was matchbox housing. To make things worse, some of the beneficiaries already had houses of their own. Poor selection!

Lacking of proper planning was clearly evident. A housing scheme for the visually handicapped was built in Siyanethugama, Ranminitenne on the boundary of the Yala National Park. No electric fence was built to protect the residents. Of the 29 houses built, only a handful are occupied. Schemes in Lunugamvehera and Sooriyawewa were built squarely on elephant corridors. Elephants have destroyed many of these houses.

In short, proper feasibility studies were not done. Some Divisional Secretariats were not informed. Bullish aides brushed aside local government authorities. In some cases, houses were to be built in areas under the Department of Archaeology. The Cultural Triangle authorities in some cases were kept in the dark. Speaking of things cultural, during his tenure as the subject minister, the Central Cultural Fund which had a Rs 400 million fixed deposit was drained to almost nothing. Sajith had a program to build 25 dagobas. Only a handful were built in the end. It was all ad hoc. It was all wasteful. No plans. No feasibility studies. A lot of talk though. That’s Sajith Premadasa.

That’s not all. Let’s consider his recruitment policy. There were some 15 institutions which came under him). Recruitment guidelines were blatantly violated and unqualified persons hired exceeding cadre requirements of several of the 15 institutions that came under him. The NHDA, for example, took in some 2,500 persons in excess of a cadre requirement of 2,300 to 2,400 which had already been fulfilled! Sajith even waded into the territory of cabinet colleagues trying to force officials to recruit beyond cadre requirements. Officials were rendered helpless because there was no provision to hire or pay salaries.

The SJB may very well come second, probably a distant second to the SLPP. Not on account of Sajith Premadasa but in spite of him. It would be for reasons that have little to do with policy or competence. The disgruntled but diehard UNP with few options would be the hero of whatever successes that the SJB scores on August 5, 2020. It would leave the members, loyalists and of course the senior leadership with a dilemma. Ranil didn’t deliver. Sajith doesn’t seem even half-way competent in this regard. Less an asset, more a liability, one would have to conclude.