Wednesday, 22 January 2014 00:01
Says Jathaka tale of King Kosol sums up 9 years of ‘Mahinda Chinthana’ given inequality of income distributionThe Government is on a crash course to disaster and its days are numbered, asserts newly-appointed Chairman of the United National Party Kabir Hashim, adding that the only obstacle to bring the Government down is unity within the party. A very confident Hashim explains moves to revive the party, preparations for the upcoming elections, achievements of the Leadership Council and the UNP’s foremost task of getting into power. Following are excerpts from the interview:Q: You were recently appointed as the Chairman of the United National Party. What do you think about this appointment? A: I had to take up this position in a very challenging time. The UNP has been in the opposition for a prolonged period. There have been some visible divisions in the party. This is not a position that I can have a name tag and enjoy. This is going to be tough. It is a position you have to take and work hard.
Q: What are the major challenges ahead? A: The most important and the most critical challenge is to bring unity; to bring everybody together. The other challenge is that as the Chairman I have to provide confidence to the party vote base that the UNP will come back to power. But in that process I am sure that I might have to play more than a Chairman’s role in working with party grass roots leaders to reorganise the party. That is something that is lacking in the party. We have to go beyond our own positions and responsibilities if we want to revive this party.
Meanwhile, something that is bothering me is that I have been a provincial-based politician rather than a Colombo-based one. I built up myself from the grass roots. I have always been a people’s man. I am available and accessible to my voters. I am very agitated because this position is taking a lot of time, keeping me down in Colombo. Apart from that I am also in the Leadership Council. I am beginning to wonder how I should divide my time and what my responsibilities should be. For me my responsibilities have always been towards my voters. I have to find a way of reconciling this.
I am also a consultant economist but I have put that on the backburner for the moment. No more of my professional work for the time being and I have fully dedicated myself to the party. We have no time to lose. We are in the serious business of getting into power.
Q: How confident are you that you will succeed in this endeavour? A: I am extremely confident. I am brimming with confidence. We are members of the largest and strongest single political party in the island. It is only a perceptional and attitudinal change that we really need for the UNP to be back on track. For the last couple of years people have had this negativity from the grass roots to the leadership thinking ‘we can’t’. But now we are saying ‘yes, we can!’ That’s the beginning. Nobody can match our organisational structure. The Leadership Council has developed the ‘Jana Jaya’ program which will touch the heart of the UNP organisation right down, even below the polling booth, into the villages.
Q: There are allegations that you are a favourite of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Some argue that there are more senior and experienced members in the party who deserve this post. Your comments?A: I am not anybody’s person. I feel that the UNP does not belong to any leader. It belongs to all of us. It is our heritage. It is our right. I have had the guts to get up within the party, at Parliamentary group meetings and criticise Ranil Wickremesinghe. I have also had the guts to speak to Sajith Premadasa privately and criticise. I am not going to take any sides. I believe that I will stand up for the party for the right thing. If I am not satisfied with certain decisions and if in my position I feel that we are not working independently for the betterment of the party, then I will take the necessary course of action to protect the party. That does not mean that like some people I would slander the party or criticise the party in public. We have party rules, we have party ethics. We are not supposed to talk about the party outside the UNP. There is an ethical way of dealing with party issues. People don’t see me saying things outside because I will not resort to cheap publicity and become a hero. I call it ‘sillara janapriyathawaya’ . When I take a certain stand, that will be done privately within the party and not outside the party. Right now I have shown very clearly that I am not part of anybody’s camp.
I was out of the country for a while and when I came back the Leadership Council was set up. The three persons – Ranil Wickremesinghe, Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa – had already started negotiations with the priests. It was unanimously decided by Karu Jayasuriya and Sajith Premadasa that this was the best way forward. Then I was asked to come in and help to get this thing done. It was Wickremesinghe who was refusing to accept certain conditions laid down by the priests. We finally managed to bring all three of them and try to convince them on the eight proposals by the priests. At that point we took certain stands and we worked independently.
In my actions in the future if people feel I am siding with either one of these leaders and if they feel that it is not fair the way I behave taking decisions, then I am willing to be criticised at that time. But I have up to now taken independent decisions. I don’t think it is fair for anybody to say that I am so-and-so’s person, because I have decided to work with the Leadership Council.
You asked whether I deserve this position; I am sure there are better people than me. I don’t think that I am the best person, but I have been chosen by the party. I also look at Gamini Jayawickreme Perera as an inspiration. He resigned from his position because he felt that there should be a change in the party. Therefore my position is a transient position; it is not a permanent one and can be taken at any time. Of anybody feels that there is a better person and if they want to put somebody else, it is open. I am not going to say I am going to leave the party or I am going to walk out. If tomorrow I have to give this position to somebody else, I will do it with a lot of happiness.
When I was given the position I also thought about not taking it. I mentioned about my greater fear of whether I could serve my people in Kegalle and still handle both pressures. I knew if I accept this I can’t keep it as an ornament. I have to deliver. Then again I thought this was an honour being bestowed upon my district; for the people who continuously brought me into the Parliament for the last 19 years. Secondly, I represent a minority community; if I did refuse this position it might have looked bad for my community. In the last 19 years every election I won except for 2010, I won without having any position in the party. In 2010 I was appointed the district leader. Some people think these positions are great things. My belief is that I would only need a position when UNP is in power because that’s where I can use a position to deliver. Even if this position is taken away from me, the same commitment would be there.
Q: Your voter base has gradually come down during the past several years. When you are unable to manage your own electorate, how can you organise a massive party like UNP? A: My electorate is the best electorate in the Kegalle District. It is the best performing electorate in the Sabaragamuwa Province. I have touched 42% at the last provincial council in 2011 when in most electorates the voting percentage for the UNP has been 22 to 28%. My electorate has won more often than lost. The number of votes would have come down but that has come down from Ranil Wickremesinghe to Sajith Premadasa; their total number of votes has also come down. But my voter percentage has increased. I have performed and my electorate is one of the best electorates in the province, and I am saying this with lot of pride. I also say with lot of humbleness that it is not because of me but because of a team who works with me.
Q: What are your plans to revive UNP? A: We have no magic formula. With an autocratic rule and with a virtual dictatorship in the country, for a democratic force to re-emerge would be a huge challenge. It is a massive challenge for a party which has been wrecked by division by defeat for many years. But we are more confident than ever. Mahinda Rajapaksa has had the capacity to divide many parties in this country, starting from the JVP, JHU, Muslim Congress, CWC, LTTE and TMVP, but one party he has not been able to divide successfully is the UNP because our party is resilient. We have the structure, we have the commitment. The conviction of the party membership is something that nobody can change. Parliamentarians might jump, elected members might jump, but our party cadre is loyal.
"The most important and the most critical challenge is to bring unity; to bring everybody together. The other challenge is that as the Chairman I have to provide confidence to the party vote base that the UNP will come back to powerWe have no magic formula. With an autocratic rule and with a virtual dictatorship in the country, for a democratic force to re-emerge would be a huge challenge. It is a massive challenge for a party which has been wrecked by division by defeat for many years. But we are more confident than everThis Government is on a crash course to disaster. That is helping us. We can bring this Government down. The biggest obstacle we have is unity. A lot of people have to make sacrifices. Unity should be the first focus of the UNP. That is the main and only challenge. I actually don’t see any other challengeThe SLFP and its allies in the last couple of years have made a big deal out of small issues and led effective false propaganda. They are very good at that. When we were in power they accused us claiming we are going to sell Sigiriya and Sinharaja. But we never had a move to sell Sinharaja or Sigiriya. But right now it is happening the other way. Sinharaja is now partly sold. The land surrounding Somawathie Chaithaya is sold. The most prestigious lands in Colombo is sold or mortgaged to the Chinese. Most of the coastal land is sold. I challenged in Parliament that some islands in Puttalam are sold. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said he would resign if I prove it. I am still of the position that it is soldIn Buddhism there is a Jathaka tale about a king called Kosol. He saw 13 dreams. In his sixth dream he saw that in his courtyard there were a few pots. There is only one pot filled with water and that is overflowing; all the other pots are empty. All his ministers, staff and even the queen all are filling the pot that is already overflowing. The king is very upset about this dream. He goes to Lord Buddha and explains his dream and asks what the dream signifies. Lord Buddha says, ‘Do not worry, the dream is not about you. It is something about the future. There will be cruel leaders who will only look at supporting one class of people. They will forget the people and only look after themselves.’ This Jathaka tale sums up the nine years of the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’; absolute inequality of income distribution in this country"
We are developing a plan. We have a program of work. Our greatest asset is the bungling up of the Government. That is a great help to us. We should have been paying them to do what they are doing; but they are doing it on their own nevertheless. This Government is on a crash course to disaster. That is helping us. We can bring this Government down. The biggest obstacle we have is unity. A lot of people have to make sacrifices. Unity should be the first focus of the UNP. That is the main and only challenge. I actually don’t see any other challenge.
Q: What is the latest on the internal crisis? A: It is getting better. I am confident that people are making sacrifices and attempts to come together. There is a feeling of brotherhood. That is important. It is slow. It might take time, but it is happening. There are external sources who are trying to prevent it at any cost. One of the tools used is media itself. It is a tough battle. We don’t have many Opposition friendly media at the moment. Most of the news goes down to the voters as negative.
Q: Although you say things are improving, we feel the crisis is worsening by the day. Your views?A: I don’t agree with you. Give me an indicator.
Q: Sajith Premadasa last week declined membership of the nomination board. Premadasa and Thalatha Atukorala have still not accepted membership in the Leadership Council. A: How would you say things are worsening? Look at the brighter side. The positions are still held vacant for them because of the feeling of reconciliation. Anyone else would have by now filled these positions and forgotten about it but we have decided we are going to wait. We are hoping we will unite. Premadasa should be in the nomination board because he is one of our leaders. At the same time, it is his right to accept or reject it. It is his decision. However, this does not mean we are giving up on him. That is the positive sign; look at it from that way. This clearly shows that people are willing to make sacrifices. We are waiting till he also at one point will have a change of heart.
Q: The party might have a soft corner towards Sajith Premadasa but what about members such as Shiral Lakthilake, Asoka Abeysinghe, Range Bandara and Maithree Gunarathna? We don’t see the UNP showing any kindness to them. A: Organiser posts of Asoka Abeysinghe and Range Bandara were taken out by Ranil Wickremesinghe. The first thing the Leadership Council did to show its independence and power to take decisions was to restore their organiser posts. Their letters are ready. Their letters will be issued in the next few days. The Leadership Council did not care whether they were Ranil Wickremesinghe’s people or Sajith Premadasa’s people. However, this does not mean the Leadership Council will have the same mindset to deal with every situation. There might be some situation where we might have to take a stand. The Leadership Council will not succumb to undue pressure. Don’t you think this is positive? You should give the party a fair assessment.
It has been years of long struggle for the UNP with the divisions. We believe we need a little healing time. We should give that time. But we cannot go on like this forever. The party needs discipline. It is very important that people talk with one voice. That disciplinary action needs to be taken at certain levels. Another decision taken by the Leadership Council took was that all disciplinary actions that are being instituted when we took over to be suspended and transfer those cases to a reconciliation board. Joseph Michal Perera is heading the reconciliation board. Some of the people we could not reconcile. We decided to sack some members who breached party rules and we have decided to bring in new people.
Q: There are accusations within the party that the Leadership Council is not performing well. Your comments?A: From their point of view it is a legitimate accusation because we don’t see anything tangible that the Leadership Council is doing. Being a member of the Leadership Council I would say we should be given a fair chance. It is a huge, gigantic task to put this party together. The Leadership Council sits virtually three to four days a week. We have been trying to develop political strategies and at the same time attend to the basic housekeeping maters of the party. In the rush in-between we are trying to get different fractions to unite. Then two elections prop up. Of course we are a grand old party with machinery but the machinery is creaking. So we are now getting it oiled. It is taking a little time. I would say that in the last one-and-a-half months of operation what we have done effectively is to show that we are in charge. In that sense Wickremesinghe being the National Leader of the party makes requests to the Leadership Council when he needs to get certain things done. As for the nominations of candidates for this election, we are deciding appointment of the nomination board and we will be deciding the candidates.
One of the other tangible things we have done is develop a grass roots level structure called ‘Jana Jaya,’ which works through the current existing organisational structure of the UNP but extends down to the grassroots where we are looking at a J.R. Jayewardene style reorganisation in 1977.
There are dissenting voices in the party still; I would not say no. People have the right to dissent. That is what democracy is all about. Yet the majority is falling into place. Slowly but firmly the Leadership Council is gaining control of the party.
Q: How prepared are you for the upcoming Western and Southern Council elections?A:The party would have started preparing much earlier. We will not make the same mistakes again. As I told you the Leadership Council is just one-and-a-half months old. We are unable to do much within such a short time. There are no miracles; only commitments and hard work. For elections, we need to prepare much early. We are really focusing on national elections because we think the President is hurrying his agenda. He changes his agenda all the time. We think there might be a national election anytime this year and we feel it would be before end of the year. But for the Southern and Western Provincial Council elections we are putting every resource to work to fight this. We are not fully prepared. However, we are preparing now and I feel that we would be able to fight it effectively. We have a committed team and a good set of candidates. We have a Government that is getting unpopular by the day. Even though the Government will use all available State resources and use undue, unfair means, the UNP will be able to effectively fight this election. We will show tremendous improvement in performance.
Q: If you have such an excellent set of candidates, why do you struggle to name chief ministers for Western and Southern Provinces?A: It is not a question of struggling to name people. There are strategies. Some parties run with a candidate; some run without a particular name. We have still not decided whether we are really going to think of naming somebody or whether we are going to run with just an open list. We are looking strategically at these elections. We are looking at this election and the national election coming up; what do we do? Where do we hit? We are very careful about this. We are not going to get under pressure when the media keeps questioning who the chief minister will be. We are looking at the bigger picture. We are playing our cards really carefully.
Q: Sarath Fonseka has openly stated that he will secure at least 25 seats at the upcoming Western and Southern Provincial Council elections. What kind of threat does his party pose to the UNP? A: General Fonseka’s party would make a dent in vote bases of many parties. It might have an insignificant impact on the UNP too. The UNP vote base is rock steady; they will either vote for the UNP or not vote. People see General Fonseka’s party as a temporary role and it does not pose a serious challenge. At this point we would look at him as an ally in the Opposition platform rather than as an enemy. We think finally his challenge would be to the Government more than to us.
Q: As the main Opposition, people expect you to talk about national issues in this country. Even after the appointment of the Leadership Council, we don’t see UNP raise people’s issues. Your comments?A: There are two reasons for that. How many papers give us due exposure when we talk? How much does it get highlighted? What we say is that this Government threatens free media in this country. Media does not report what it’s like but what it’s told. It is not that the Opposition is not talking; it is that what the Opposition is saying is not fully reported. That is one thing the people must know. In Parliament we have spoken many a times about the drug business that is taking place in the country, long before it exploded.
We have stood up against human rights issues; then they labelled us as terrorists. We stood up against the Casino Act because we believe it should not be done. We would not tolerate such thing under a UNP regime. Then we have taken a stand against the Rathupaswela incident where people’s rights were trampled.
We have spoken about ethanol that has been brought in billions of rupees loss of revenue to this country for the illicit liquor trade supported by the Government. Has it been properly highlighted? We have spoken about child abuse by politicians. We have spoken about interference in the Judiciary. We respect the media for standing up and doing its best. Within these controls, it is doing its best. But now we are thinking of alternative methods of taking our message across. We cannot say ‘no, it is not being reported,’ we have to find ways. In that sense, be fair. The Leadership Council is looking at ways of raising people’s issues that can have an impact.
Q: What do you have to say about the Chief Opposition Whip participating in a Government-sponsored pilgrimage?A: He has given an answer. But there is still lack of clarity in some issues. If there is continuous clarity, the Leadership Council will take this up seriously. Nobody is above the party’s rule.
Q: What is the Leadership Council’s position on this matter? A: It is being discussed at the moment.
Q: John Amaratunga has said he is willing to stand with the Government in Geneva, if the UNP allows him to do so. Your views?A: We have not discussed this matter yet. To protect the sovereignty of the country, the UNP is willing to take any stand. But we are not willing to cover up wrongdoings of the Government. We will not let the infringement of sovereignty happen, we will stand by the country. That does not allow the Government to use that as their own thing by hammering reporters, lifting people in white vans, thrashing Opposition politicians, taking over people’s land by force, to have unlimited amount of corruption, tampering with the Judiciary. We are not allowing the Government to do that. If anybody is going to protect them on that ground, we will not tolerate that.
Q: Do you think Amaratunga will cross over to the Government?A:You will have to ask him. Nobody is indispensible. This party does not stand on big names or people or leaders. This party stands for its policies, principles, visions and its grass roots supporters. Up to those people to take decisions but the party will go on.
We got an indicator that with the Government’s popularity falling rapidly, one of the ways the Government is trying to prop up itself in the coming election is to take 200 UNP elected members at provincial and pradeshiya level. For a Government it is easy to threaten people. Most of our members are in a lot of financial difficulties and have a lot of political and other pressures. But this does not mean the UNP is falling or the Government is getting any better. These are cheap temporary tactics the Government can use. But this gives a proper indication that Government members who have all the privilege, benefits and powers are crossing over to the UNP. How do you rate that? Justin Galappaththi and his son from Matara District enjoying all the perks of the Government walked across to the UNP. If they think UNP is looking bad, they will not come. They have confidence. However, these crossovers are not going to stop our road to victory. We are not threatened by these things. It only shows the bankruptcy of this Government.
Q: Prior to 1994 the SLFP went through a similar phase. But they always fought on behalf of the people. Even today people talk about the successful agitation campaigns they organised when they were in the Opposition. Your comments?A: The SLFP and its allies in the last couple of years have made a big deal out of small issues and led effective false propaganda. They are very good at that. When we were in power they accused us claiming we are going to sell Sigiriya and Sinharaja. But we never had a move to sell Sinharaja or Sigiriya. But right now it is happening the other way. Sinharaja is now partly sold. The land surrounding Somawathie Chaithaya is sold. The most prestigious lands in Colombo is sold or mortgaged to the Chinese. Most of the coastal land is sold. I challenged in Parliament that some islands in Puttalam are sold. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said he would resign if I prove it. I am still of the position that it is sold. We are not allowed to get information. There is no freedom of information; there is no freedom of movement. You asked a good question, why can’t the UNP capitalise on the issues? The UNP has been working more through a parliamentary democratic system to gain power. The UNP always used peaceful measures. But times are changing. All over the world people are coming out in the streets with violent anti-government demonstrations which have moved to government transformations. The UNP is also now looking at giving leadership to that kind of struggle. That is a huge mental change for the UNP. But nobody can point a finger and say the UNP is not capable of doing anything like that. It is like awakening a sleeping giant. The ‘Jana Bala Meheyuma’ organised in Colombo in 2004 is by far still the largest protest crowd ever organised in the Colombo city. It was done by the UNP. But even then we did not resort to violence. That is our principle. We believe in certain values and will not destroy them. We will also ensure that we will protect democracy.
Q: How would you describe the current political and economic situation in the country?A: In Buddhism there is a Jathaka tale about a king called Kosol. He saw 13 dreams. In his sixth dream he saw that in his courtyard there were a few pots. There is only one pot filled with water and that is overflowing; all the other pots are empty. All his ministers, staff and even the queen all are filling the pot that is already overflowing. The king is very upset about this dream. He goes to Lord Buddha and explains his dream and asks what the dream signifies. Lord Buddha says, ‘Do not worry, the dream is not about you. It is something about the future. There will be cruel leaders who will only look at supporting one class of people. They will forget the people and only look after themselves.’ This Jathaka tale sums up the nine years of the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’; absolute inequality of income distribution in this country. When the Forbes magazine says that our GDP is 60 billion dollars and one individual owns 550 million dollars of assets, which is almost 1% of the GDP, that is how bad the inequality is. This Government is protecting only one class of people, the rest of the people are in huge trouble. That is why their days are numbered and that is why the UNP has started working.