“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” ~Robert Louis Stevenson
When one looks at the immediate future of leadership of the United National Party (UNP) with a keen eye, one comes to the inevitable conclusion that Sajith Premadasa is the natural successor to Ranil Wickremesinghe. But with the rumored entry of Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka into the UNP as an Assistant Leader, another new and tumultuous chapter will begin in the storied Grand Old Party (GOP) of Sri Lanka. Sarath Fonseka is a natural and real hero of the Sinhalese Buddhists. He is a person who has shown immense stamina to withstand the humiliation brought on by the Rajapaksas, resist their political witch-hunt, endure two and half years of jail time, and who had the guts and resilience to contest the Rajapaksas at their peak. With the entry of the former Commander of the Army who delivered the victory against the Tamil militants, the leadership-conundrum of the UNP will get muddier, to say the least.
UNP’s history of electing leaders
Unlike the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), whose leaders have arisen from one single family until, almost after fifty years of the emergence of Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena, the election of leaders In the UNP has been relatively transparent. A sensible observer would not fail to note that at each stage of leadership change, except when Dudley Senanayake succeeded his father D S Senanayake in 1952 after latter’s death, there has been relative calm and peace in the wake of each succession. And each succeeding leader had had the full collaboration and unstinted support of the entire party. Despite the grave difference between Dudley and J R in the late sixties up to early-seventies, when the latter assumed the leadership of the UNP, he managed to take full and complete control of the party and secure an unprecedented victory in the 1977 elections.
No political party has obtained such a resounding mandate from the voters thereto and since. Nevertheless, entry of a total outsider, not an SLFPer, but an apolitical national leader in the caliber of Sarath Fonseka might upset many an applecart. The traditional UNPers would find it extremely uncomfortable in the presence of Fonseka. When leadership in political parties is in play in the main arena, all lofty ideals and inspirational rhetoric are thrown out the door. The lowest levels are stooped to and character assassination comes out as the principal tool in the hands of opposing contenders. Such loathsome political machinations manifested themselves in 1952 in the form of a short booklet, ‘Premier Stakes’ whose authorship was attributed to Sir John Kotalawela. However, it is most unlikely that such drastic and radical means would be adopted by any of the contenders in the field for leadership of the UNP today.
Sarath Fonseka is no unremarkable politician. His resume is rich with unparalleled achievements. He joined the Sri Lankan Army as a second lieutenant and rose to its zenith as Commander. His rank at the time was Lieutenant General. The rigid discipline of the army became part and parcel of him and he never hesitated to display that. Amidst an utterly undisciplined gallery of politicians, such a disciplinarian would unvaryingly stand out. In addition to his professional prowess, one outstanding quality that is associated with him is ‘strong-man’ image. In the narrow context of strong man, amongst the past UNP leadership, D S Senanayake, J R Jayewardene and Sir John Kotelawela stand out. The ‘Strong-man’ image is associated with two diametrically contrasting qualities. One is respect and the other is fear. Some leaders are respected by their followers as well as their adversaries while others are feared by their followers but loathed and disrespected by their adversaries. . All three aforementioned leaders, Sir John with his numerous weaknesses, were respected by their followers. Fear was never an emotion that was connected with that sentiment. R Premadasa belongs to the category of leaders who were feared but very seldom respected. In political leadership, both sentiments, respect and fear, do play a very significant and crucial role. But those leaders who were feared by their own followers represent a very mean and base weakness of humanity- feared by the followers because these leaders hold power over them.