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Sajith Premadasa: At one with the masses

p2Ranasinghe Premadasa, who rose to the highest office of the land from rather humble beginnings, personified the very essence of the common man. He loved to mingle among the masses against the advice of his security detail, which unfortunately led to his untimely death that day. This strand of humbleness and simplicity is present in his only son, Sajith Premadasa, who yesterday donned the mantle of contesting the Presidential election in Sri Lanka on behalf of his political party, the United National Party, known as the ‘Grand Old Party’ of Lankan politics. And the UNP is to Sajith as much as it was to his illustrious father – a political mechanism to intervene in society for the benefit of social groups and individual Sri Lankans, aspiring, striving, and hoping as all human individuals do in their life.
If Ranasinghe Premadasa began from the bottom of the social structure in Colombo’s inner city, the urban heartland, son Sajith, who grew up within his father’s urban political community, placed his political roots in the island’s deep South, in remote, marginalised, rural society. A boy raised in an intensely multi-cultural metropolitan setting, became the political man in the culturally homogenous and intensely traditional setting of Tissamaharama and the Hambantota district.

The Daily News takes a close look at the life of Sajith Premadasa, from the avid wildlife photographer he once was to the man whose mere presence today, enlivens any social circle and animates people with his youthful vim and vigour.

A life on the move

Sajith Premadasa began his early childhood schooling in the St. Bridget’s Convent, Colombo, Montessori. He was then enrolled at S. Thomas’ Preparatory School in Kollupitiya, Colombo, where he completed his primary schooling up to Grade 5. He then studied briefly at Royal College before being sent by his parents to the United Kingdom to complete his GCE Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations at Mill Hill School, London, a private boarding school. There he was a school prefect, played cricket for the 1st XI and captained the school team in his final year.

His high school education accomplishments saw him selected to the University of London’s famous London School of Economics and Political Science (known popularly as LSE and intellectual home of several Sri Lankan notables before him) where he obtained a degree in economics and international relations. Although it was a three-year course, he took four years due to an illness but performed well enough to receive his bachelor’s degree.
He then briefly attended the University of Maryland, USA. During this time he interned in the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States’ Senate. It was while he was studying for his master’s that his father was assassinated and shook up his immediate life trajectory. A shaken, grieving young man gave up higher studies to return to his country and take up where his father had left off.

By his father’s side

Sajith used to accompany his father to events and watch how his father would interact and mingle with the people. He continued to emulate his father’s social work much to the criticism of some UNPers at one point.

In an article published on July 13, 1997, in The Island, Sajith is asked of his response to criticisms levelled by UNPers about social work that he had been doing and their complaint that it was not done through the party machinery. He replied that there must be a distinction between social work and party work.

Ambitions for higher office

When asked of his ambition in politics, Sajith Premadasa in an interview with The Island newspaper in 1999, says that unlike other families where the child or son directly takes over the political lineage, he had not done so. While his father began his political journey in the concrete jungles of Colombo, Sajith started his amid the rusticity of Hambantota. At the time of that interview, Sajith was the UNP organizer for the Hambantota district. Clearly, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s son was striking out on his own path in politics.

But even at that time, Sajith never shied away from revealing his intentions: “I hope to become the leader of this country, I am not going to hide the fact. A lot of politicians hide that. I will strive to come to that position and serve the people.”It was in June 1994 that Sajith was appointed to the UNP working committee. The year 1994 was a tumultuous one for Sajith when President Wijetunga refused to appoint a commission to investigate his father’s assassination.

“I resigned from the UNP working committee which was a post given to me by President Wijetunga. I resigned on the day he refused to appoint a commission. I don’t want a mudslinging inquiry, I want to find out the truth. So the day he broke the promise I resigned from the Working Committee and had nothing to do with the UNP election campaign in 1994.”

Ranasinghe Premadasa

When asked of the quality of leaders and those that he admires, he said that there is no one to match his father’s capabilities. “I always look at my father’s achievements as the standard which we have to maintain and if possible surpass,” Sajith remarks that he is a better version of his father, his positives amplified and minus some of his father’s faults.

Life in Hambantota

But even in politics, Sajith could have taken the easy way out. Had he continued to represent his father’s beloved Colombo Central electorate, he could have won by record margins. But a life of comfort based in Colombo was not his idea of serving the people. Instead, he opted to settle down in remote Hambantota, which is one of the poorest districts of the country – and remains so despite another political son of Hambantota even becoming President. Sajith knew this would be an unprecedented challenge to him.

Besides, Hambantota was the home turf of several senior politicians of the SLFP including future President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Many who knew the area called Sajith’s move politically suicidal, but he was undeterred. You could not blame them – it was a huge challenge for anyone from the UNP, even for a Presidential offspring, to take on.

Marriage

On July 23, 1999, Sajith tied the knot with Jalani Daithya Jayawardena. He and Jalani had met at the almsgiving of his father and Jalani in many interviews to the press said she was attracted by his sense of humor and ability to seamlessly connect with people.

Active politicsSajith entered active politics and won the Hambantota seat in 2000. He held the post of deputy minister of health between 2002-2003. He currently holds the office of Minister of Housing & Construction and Cultural Affairs.

Nomination for Presidency

This is not the first time that Sajith’s name has been touted for the Presidency. When Sajith was touted as a promising presidential candidate back in 2009, he told the media that the presidency was not the biggest problem faced by the people. He asserted the fact that 80 percent of people who lived in rural areas would not benefit from presidential debates. That same year when asked of his views on the abolishing of the Presidency, he said that he would retain the executive presidency but with reduced powers as an institution responsible to Parliament and people.

Now, a decade later, he has obtained the candidacy for the presidency for his party after an intense struggle in which he confronted elitism, internal conspiracies, and betrayals and overcame all obstacles without ever conceding on principles and always caring to protect the unity and integrity of his party, the party for which his father gave his life.

Sajith is the first Sri Lankan politician to take on his father’s mantle as a candidate for the presidency. But he has done so consistently without ever using his father’s name as a claim to any position. Unlike other politicians and presidential aspirants, his endeavour is not based on family nepotism, nor is it on caste or ethnic or religious affiliation. Just as his father did, Sajith also has striven and won on the basis of his own strength and accomplishments.The next step

Sajith’s hero will always be his father. It is no easy task to follow in the footsteps of such a gigantic figure in local politics even for a son, but so far Sajith has not put a foot wrong. Sajith, politically very young at 52, will carve a path to victory.

Source: Daily News