Underside Of The Tissa Attanayake Saga

Whatever said and done, UNP General Secretary Tissa Attanayake’s crossover, which took place on the final day of nominations, was a surprise move that rocked the country’s main opposition – the United National Party. Attanayake’s possible crossover was in the grapevine for more than two weeks, but it all ended when he made an emotional public speech at ‘Sirikotha’ saying he would never betray his conscience by accepting money from the government and leave the party. While he made that speech, tears welled up in the politician’s eyes and everyone thought Attanayake would be the last person to break ranks with the party. However, when he made that speech, Attanayake never gave assurance that he would not join the government. Therefore, it is important to read between the lines and decipher his message, carefully. 

“I was a UNPer from my birth. The government cannot buy me over. No one can buy my conscience over. No one in the UNP will sell their conscience,” Attanayake said denying the allegations that he accepted a large sum of money from the government in connection with a crossover. In fact, what Attanayake did here was deny the allegation that there was a mega financial deal behind the process. Attanayake never said that he would not join the government to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s candidacy. He reiterated that he would never “sell” his conscience. However, the naïve party supporter believed that “all’s well” with Attanayake and he would stay with the party to ensure the victory of Common Candidate Maithripala Sirisena.

One person who knew there was something “fishy” with Attanayake was UNP National Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, an astute politician in every sense of the word. When the story of Attanayake’s crossover broke out for the first time, two days after the defection of former SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena, the UNP General Secretary got himself admitted to a private hospital and Wickremesinghe visited him. When the Party Leader asked him about the issue, Attanayake held his hand and assured that he would never switch allegiance. But, the UNP Leader was aware of his association with a Parliamentarian of another party, who has close links with some top echelons of the government. Wickremesinghe has been in the business long enough to know that every affiliation has a purpose and Attanayake and the aforesaid Parliamentarian are no exemption. Interestingly, the Opposition Leader was of the view that anyone who wanted to leave the party should be allowed to leave without any obstacle as their “presence” would only put a damper on the party’s future plans. 

When several close associates warned the Opposition Leader of Attanayake’s possible defection, Wickremesinghe told them not to lose any sleep over the matter. “Those who want to go will go, but the party has to move on,” Wickremesinghe said. It was exactly the same way he responded when he heard speculation about UNP Matara District MP Buddhika Pathirana trying to cross over. However, Pathirana, making a media statement, said a few days ago that he was never planning to cross over to the government. 

However, when Tissa Attanayake attended the UNP Convention last week, just two days prior to his exit, the Opposition Leader knew that The General Secretary was “up to some mischief. “ Nevertheless, he was given a speech at the 55th convention of the party as he was still the General Secretary. The highlight of the event was UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa speaking in praise of Tissa Attanayake at the convention, commending his role as the General Secretary. On reflection, it is still a question whether Premadasa was unaware of Attanayake’s political somersault at the time he was making that speech. 

Premadasa is known to be a close associate of the parliamentarian who acted as the ‘go-between’ of the entire process. He is also known to be a political advisor of Premadasa and a key supporter of his campaign to be the leader of the United National Party. Attanayake, a few months ago, held many discussions with this Parliamentarian to “develop” an understanding between Ranil Wickremesinghe and Sajith Premadasa. Therefore, it is naïve to believe that Premadasa was unaware of Tissa Attanayake’s ‘somersault’ when he spoke in full praise of the General Secretary of the party, just two days before the latter’s defection. 

Following the convention, Attanayake left for the residence of the aforesaid politician to discuss the final phase of the crossover. He was “unreachable” for most of the leaders of the Common Opposition on Sunday as he was in the middle of some serious negotiations.

On Monday morning, when everyone was preparing for the final day of nominations, the UNP General Secretary visited ‘Sirikotha’, the UNP headquarters, and had a meeting with his personal staff. At the meeting, Attanayake informed them he would be resigning from the General Secretary post of the party and thanked every staff member for their support. Following this meeting, Attanayake tendered his letter of resignation to the party, to step down from his position, officially. 

Attanayake was informed to be present at Temple Trees, the residence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, at 12 noon where the President and a host of ruling party MPs were scheduled to welcome him. Nearly a half an hour before the meeting with Attanayake, the President publicly announced that the General Secretary of the United National Party had joined the government. The President made this revelation while addressing crowds outside the Elections Secretariat, after handing over his nomination papers. 

When Attanayake arrived at Temple Trees he was greeted by Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa and Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena.  A large number of ministers and ruling party MPs, mostly the ones who joined the government from the UNP, stood alongside the President to welcome him. As Attanayake came near him, the President, wearing a broad smile, said, “okkoma parana yaluwo neh inne” . Former Deputy Leader of the Democratic Party Jayantha Ketagda also joined the government, along with the former General Secretary of the United National Party. 

Tissa Attanayake is no Maithripala Sirisena. Maithripala Sirisena was a prominent political figure in the District of Polonnaruwa and has a large vote-base in the area. He was, on the other hand, the longest serving General Secretary of the SLFP. Attanayake was never a “vote-machine” and he even lost his electorate, “Kundasale” at recently held elections. Therefore, Attanayake and Sirisena cannot be compared with each other, where the “electoral power” is concerned. 

But, with Attanayake’s exit, the UNP leadership loses one important factor. The former General Secretary was the only person in the top-rung leadership of the party who was aware of the ground-level machinery of the UNP. He was in full control of ground-level mechanism and had an in-depth understanding of its operations. On the other hand, Attanayake’s background gave him an edge over others to successfully deal with village level matters and the ground-level machinery. In that sense, Attanayake’s exit was a serious damage to the party and it left a gap that could not be bridged easily.

Kabir Hashim, the newly appointed General Secretary of the party, is an experienced politician who is fully qualified to handle a position such as that of the General Secretary of the UNP.  However, it will take a lot of time for him to familiarize himself with the ground level machinery of the party. As Kabir Hashim’s appointment was done just hours after Attanayake’s resignation, one has every reason to assume that it was a “pre-mediated stroke” by Wickremesinghe.

On the other hand, Attanayake was always known as a staunch supporter of the party leadership. He never played any role in the internecine battles against the party leader. His unwavering support to Wickremesinghe earned him many enemies in the party, but that never worried Attanayake. It is still a question as to why he decided to “ditch” Wickremesinghe and accepted the offer that came from the government through another party. In politics, everything has a “cost” but many thought the bond between Wickremesinghe and Attanayake was unbreakable.

It was a well-known fact among his closest friends that Attanayake was the only politician who carried Wickremesinghe’s photograph in his wallet. The photograph, apparently, was in his possession for nearly 30 years.

It was a photograph that was taken in the early 80s when Wickremesinghe and Attanayake went to Moscow together – along with a couple of others. In that picture, they stand in front of the Red Square of Moscow – which is quite famous among Leftists all over the world. The mere fact that Attanayake carried this particular picture everywhere he went was testament to his loyalty to the UNP Leader. 

When the picture was taken, Wickremesinghe was the Deputy Minister of Education of the late J.R. Jayewardene’s government and Attanayake was in the National Youth Council – or probably in university. According to Attanayake’s letter of resignation which had 09 pages, he started his “UNP-affiliated” student activist life in the early 80s while he was a university student. Later, the university student started climbing the rungs of the party and ended up being its General Secretary, under Wickremesinghe’s leadership.

 

(Courtesy: The Nation) 

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