The United National Party (UNP) in Sri Lanka and the Indian National Congress (INC) in India, are both Grand Old Parties. They were vanguards of the freedom struggle against the British and were the first to govern their countries after the grant of independence in the late 1940s.
But both are in a bind now, following defeats in elections and loss of power through splits and defections. According to the Cassandras, the UNP and the INC are facing extinction”. But the more charitable critics would say that they are in deep waters” to get out of which, they will have to go in for a drastic image makeover, adopt a totally different political program and establish rapport with the voting population.
Both are facing an acute leadership crisis. In both cases, the current leaders (Rahul Gandhi in India and Ranil Wickremesinghe in Sri Lanka) have been rejected. But there is no clear and credible alternative to them to be able to face the charismatic leaders ranged against them, namely, Narendra Modi in India and the Rajapaksas in Sri Lanka.
Both parties lack a country-wide figure to replace the existing leader, Rahul Gandhi and Ranil Wickremesinghe. Rahul and Ranil, even with all their faults, are the only all-nationally known figures. Among the motely crowd of second rung leaders in the UNP and INC, there are bright ones undeniably. But none of them has a country-wide political stature to command the attention of party cadres and draw the masses.
The result is that both the INC and the UNP have decided to continue with the existing leadership till a new a new leader is found. In the case of the UNP, Wickremesinghe will continue as Leader for six more months and in the case of the INC, Sonia Gandhi will continue to be Interim President till the All India Congress Committee meets in January 2021.
While in the UNP, there is no demand for elections to choose the leader, having given the task to the Working Committee, in the INC, there is a clamor for elections and also an unarticulated but thinly veiled demand that the Gandhi family should step aside to enable an outsider to takeover. Rahul suspects that Modi and BJP are behind the campaign against the Gandhi family because the BJP knows that the INC had gone down when the Nehru-Gandhis had stood aside and let others be in charge. The BJP and Modi know that the Gandhis, be it Indira or Sonia, have led to the INC to victory from the depths of defeat and despair. Indira Gandhi did it in the late 1960s and Sonia did it in late 1990s. With Dr.Manmohan Singh as a front, Sonia indirectly ruled India for two consecutive five year terms till March 2014.
The demand for elections to decide the leadership issue also comes from a mistake notion of the elite that political parties should be run like other democratic structures. But the fact is that no political party in a traditional society is run along Western lines with elections and bureaucracies. Political parties in traditional societies marked by primordial, hierarchical and patriarchal social and cultural ideologies, are formed around particular leaders who are charismatic or who have inherited charisma by virtue of their familial links.
Although official rules may require the holding of regular elections, no party in South Asia holds elections not even the BJP which is the current favorite of the Indian elite. Political parties are typically woven around and led by individual leaders. The masses too look for an inspiring leader rather than dour and colorless party apparatchiks. As a result, the INC was woven around Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi and the UNP was woven around the Senanayakes and for a long time around Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party was woven around the Bandaranaikes and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna is woven around Mahinda Rajapaksa. Party cadres and the voting masses accept the personal nominees of the Leader without insisting on the proper procedure.” It is significant that the 23 INC leaders who had sought elections, could not succeed in their mission despite media support.
Punjab Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh argued that this is not the time to raise the leadership issue or call for elections when the party is under a threat from the dictatorial Modi regime. These moves would cause disruptions in the party. He further said that Modi’s success is attributable to the absence of a strong and united Opposition.
Amarinder noted the immense contribution of the Gandhi family to the country’s progress since it achieved freedom from the British rule. The Gandhis are the right fit for this role. Sonia Gandhi should continue to helm the Congress as long as she wanted,” he said, adding, Rahul should thereafter take over as he is fully competent to lead the party”.
But defeating Modi is not easy, even given the mess he has made of India’s economy and India’s relations with its neighbors. With all his drawbacks he still is the tallest Indian leader commanding country-wide support. His party managers are street smart, pushy and amoral. And party leaders have the authority to enforce compliance among the party cadres. This gives Modi and the BJP an edge in elections. Even if defeated at the polls, the BJP’s adeptness at political maneuvering helps it get to the seat of power finally. Congress under Rahul sorely lacks the BJP’s chutzpah.
Rahul’s resignation after the INC’s defeat in 2019, his apparent reluctance to take the post of President even though his mother Sonia is not physically fit, makes the second rung leaders wonder if he has Modi’s will to capture and retain power. The way the INC lost power in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and almost lost in Rajasthan showed lack of management skills and chutzpah on the part of the top leader.Rahul and Sonia had failed to provide the goals and the wherewithal to achieve those aims. All he did was to keep tweeting against Modi. But this had no impact on the ground situation.
The UNP has been suffering from a lack of credibility among the majority Sinhala community (74% of the population of Sri Lanka) from 2015 onwards. It had earned the displeasure of the majority community because it exposed the security forces to the scrutiny of the UN Human Rights Council, the US and Western powers. The denigration of the vanquishers of the dreaded LTTE was not to the liking of the majority. The UNP-led government’s bid to draft a new quasi-federal constitution in collaboration with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) gave the impression that the Wickremesinghe regime was giving in to the separatists”. The regime was also tarnished by the Central Bank bonds scam.
To cap it all, its lack of unity and pusillanimity in dealing with the threat from Islamic fundamentalists, despite intelligence alerts, led to a complete loss of legitimacy. Though Sajith Premadasa’s Samagi Janawega Balaya (SJB) took part of the blame (as reflected in its defeat in the Presidential and parliamentary elections) the UNP under Wickremesinghe took the brunt and suffered really grievously unable to get even one man into parliament.
The UNP, currently with Wickremesinghe as a stopgap leader, has to find a leader with an image that attracts the Sinhala-Buddhist majority without getting dubbed a puppet of the Tamil and Muslim minority parties. It has to have a leader with both gumption and grass root level support. Given the dismal track record of Wickremesinghe and the lackluster record of the second rung, the UNP like the INC is unlikely to get back on its feet anytime soon.