Forty empty years of Ranil’s politics (Sri Lanka's present Prime Minister)
H. L. D. Mahindapala
In a drama never seen in the Westminster tradition, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had brazenly escorted his closest partner in cut-throat politics, Ravi Karunanayake, to the front benches of the House on the day the latter was forced to announce his resignation because of his involvement in the biggest financial scandal in the 70-year history of the Sri Lankan Parliament. Normally, the ruling elite would for the sake of self-preservation take prudent and cautious steps to dissociate itself from an accused party facing multi-million dollar scandals. This is an obvious necessity because any association with the accused party casts doubts on the credibility, integrity, viability and, most of all, the morality of the entire government. The government, therefore, keeps a healthy distance to make at least a pretense of having nothing to do with the accused party who is left to twist in the wind from the nearest hanging tree by the self-proclaimed moral majority.
A prime minister may, out of personal loyalty extend his backing privately but never in public. The moral backlash would be suicidal to any leader in the Westminster model if he decides to embrace publicly those who are tainted with corruption. But kicking all moral considerations and public opinion aside the Prime Minister, in a bizarre turn of events, escorted Ravi Karunanayake to his ministerial seat. Why did he go out of his way to assist his Assistant Leader? What message does this act convey to the public? Doesn’t this leave the unambiguous impression that the Prime Minister is hand in glove with the accused? Or is the PM openly saying that there is no need for Karunanayake to worry now as he will be brought back to the front bench after the heat cools down later? Either way, it indicates that Wickremesinghe is, directly or indirectly, linked to the dealings that led to the resignation of Karunanayake.
The Prime Minister is a veteran parliamentarian, and a lawyer to boot, who should know, after all his years of experience in the Westminster system, that escorting corruption to one of the highest seats in Parliament reflects the lowest perversion of a kakocracy and not the highest values of a democracy. His act of enthroning corruption distorts and devalues the moral power of the fundamental principles of parliamentary practices and procedures needed for good governance. Most of all, it is a reprehensible act that questions his integrity. Isn’t his failure to maintain the basic principles the primary cause for the dysfunctional state of Yahapalanaya today? On which side of political morality can he be when he escorts corruption and enthrones it in a ministerial seat in Parliament, eh?
As they say, fish begins to rot from the head and there is no doubt in the public mind that the major issues that are dragging the Yahapalanaya regime into incremental loss of public confidence have originated from the desk of Wickremesinghe. From day one of the Yahapalanaya regime the President put the responsibilities of initiating, implementing, policing (FCID) and the monitoring of major state affairs on Wickremesinghe’s shoulders. It was a huge responsibility going beyond the role of holding a seat in the Prime Minister’s office. His role was to be the moral arbiter steering the state into a new moral order. In short, the responsibilities were showered on him with the expectation of processing policies and programs through clean channels to achieve the highest moral standards promised in the Yahapalanaya manifesto. .
The promised venna-suck (pronunciation : when-a-suck, meaning change/difference) in the Yahapalanaya regime was to achieve a squeaky clean administration. In fact, Yahapalanaya was born out of the need for a higher morality and its fundamental task was to act within unimpeachable parameters of political conduct. Clearly, the mandate given to Ranil (Mr. Clean”) Wickremesinghe on January 8, 2015, was to give moral leadership. The most appealing promise given to the electorate was to lift the nation from the depths of the moral morass into which it has fallen. Not only that, it promised to place the state on the Himalayan heights of purity.
The political capital they earned on January 8, 2015 was mainly to implement this promise. The crisis that is facing the government today is because Wickremesinghe, the CEO of the Yahapalanaya regime, has failed in his duty to give moral leadership. His failure is totally unacceptable. For instance, on January 9, 2015 he was sworn in as Prime Minister. And the rot began in February 2015 – less than a month after he became Prime Minister — with Wickremesinghe importing the head of the Central Bank (CB) from Singapore, Arjuna Mahendran. Apart from being Wickremesinghe’s willing lackey, Mahendran is a highly overrated spinner of bogus theories that impressed the new fixer of the Yahapalanaya regime.
Mahendran walked into the Central Bank making it known to all and sundry that Wickremesinghe was his Uncle”. Every other statement that fell from his big mouth began with the declaration : As Uncle Wickremesinghe told me….” etc. In other words, he was out to impress the officers of the CB that he was not a mere bureaucratic functionary of the state. He wanted to make sure that his words came from the highest source of the land. And with that kind of Uncle-Nephew” relationship anyone going against his word would be challenging the words of his Uncle”. In fact, he is on record saying that it was Uncle Wickremesinghe” who authorized the bond auction. All this goes to prove W. Dahanayake’s famous description of the UNP as the Uncle-Nephew Party”. Mahendran took it one step further and made the Central Bank also into an Uncle-Nephew” enterprise.
This appointment has been the primary cause of the current crisis faced by the nation. It signifies Wickremesinghe’s inability to make the correct choices on any critical issue. It confirms that all his solutions, whether in politics or economics, have ended in disasters. It indicates that hasn’t a clue of either the nature of the crisis facing the nation or its solution. Each time he comes up with a kokatath-thailaya (cure all) it has ended in dragging the nation and himself into worse situations. His standard solution is to pass the buck by appointing committees – endless committees that ended like his career in absolutely nothing. His choice of Arjuna Mahendran marked the beginning of the end of Wickremesinghe.
He has not explained why he imported Mahendran when there were competent and experienced bankers at home who had worked their way up to the top. But for reasons best known to Wickremesinghe he handpicked the Singaporean. Lo and behold, that appointment begat the Singaporean’s son-in-law, Arjun Aloysius. Who begat the bond scam. Which begat the Presidential commission. Which begat Ravi Karunanayake. Which begat his resignation. All of which begat the crisis we are in. Which makes Wickremesinghe the father of the political crisis facing Yahapalanaya regime and, more importantly, the moral crisis arising from his abject failure to honour his promises.
The stinking moral crisis that is flying off the fan is not what he promised. This is the anti-thesis of the venna-suck (difference) he promised to the people. The venna-suckers who rush to defend the PM will, no doubt, cite the failures of Mahinda Rajapakse, his immediate predecessor. This is their last resort to defend and polish the tainted image of a leader who promised the ideal state free from corruption. Pointing the finger at his predecessor’s past sins is a cheap trick to deflect attention away from the current corrupt hole into which he has fallen. It is not a valid defense, not after promising a venna-suck. In any case, two wrongs do not add up to one right.
The venna-suckers should know by now that their leaders stridently promised not to repeat the missteps of their predecessor when they dangled the Yahapalanaya as the alternative to Mahinda Rajapakse. The change / difference can come only from a new moral order. That is what Wickremesinghe has to deliver if he is to save his neck. In the next election people will be asked to vote not on Mahinda Rajapakse’s mistakes but on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s promises. He promised to do better than his predecessors by ruling from the highest moral plane. Who can save him if he fails to deliver his promises?
The sum and substance of the manifesto of the Yahapalanaya was to run the state on incorruptible principles. Today he stands as the lily that festered smelling far worse than Meetotamulla. The disillusioned people feel that they have been taken for a ride by Wickremesinghe whose own rotten record has risen, in leaps and bounds, way above that of his predecessor. Today he stands out as the irredeemable venna-sucker who had betrayed the principles he promised to keep.
The people have already given their verdict on Mahinda Rajapakase in the last election. It is Wickremesinghe who is in the dock now. People will be asked to vote on Wickremesinghe’s record and not on Mahinda Rajapakse’s performance. But Wickremesinghe is lurching from crisis to crisis unable to get a grip on the accelerating speed with which he is going down the slippery slope. When his moral worth hits rock bottom, sooner or later, will it be difficult to guess the verdict of people at the next election?
It is against this background that he fronted up, with pomp and bravado, at the gallery of pictures designed to celebrate his four decades in politics. Truth to tell, the missing pictures in the gallery would have been more dramatic and revealing than his self-adulatory poses hung on the wall. (More of this later.)
I must confess that I haven’t seen the exhibition but, without doing so, I can confirm that the whole show must be as interesting as the used tissues floating in Wickremesinghe’s toilet before they are flushed out. What is there in his career to make him look like a worthy leader of a nation, really? A leader is defined by the achievements he has scored in facing the challenges of the time and not by the number of times he became the prime minister. Any objective survey of his career will conclude that he has failed the big tests that confronted him and the nation:
Test 1: The nation was desperately in need of moral purity and economic salvation. He was hailed as Mr. Clean” with a special gift for managing the economy and producing results. That fiction was nailed when the bond scandal – the biggest financial racket in the nation’s history – exposed him as a person of interest in the fraud. With the bond scandal his moral status has nose-dived like a plane without fuel. Besides, his role in the bond scandal stands out as another example where he has exhibited his extraordinary capacity to create crises more than solving them.
Test 2 : The overwhelming challenge faced by the nation in the post-independent era was the North-South conflict. Leader after leader got stuck in the longest running war of Asia. Wickremesinghe’s smart idea to solve it was the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) he signed with Velupillai Prabhakaran. It was an abject appeasement which gave the upper hand to Prabhakaran. But in his blind arrogance Wickremesinghe believed that he had surpassed the record of Dutugemunu. Believing in his own fiction that he had solved the problem he removed the check-points and the barriers guarding the city. Prabhakaran knew better. He knew that Wickremesinghe was only a cardboard hero of the pin-heads in the UNP and not the people. He ran rings round Wickremesinghe and shot his CFA to indecipherable bits and pieces. Wickremesinghe has never recovered from the stigma attached to this political failure in which thousands died because of his stupidity. If the bond scandal ruined his reputation as Mr. Clean” and as a competent economic manager then the CFA proved that he was also a political idiot who believed that he could save the nation by selling a part of it to a fascist dictator. As stated earlier, his solutions exacerbated the status quo and made the consequences of his cock-eyed acts unbearable to the nation.
Test 3: Throughout his political career he put his faith in the West believing that they would come to his rescue the day he needs them. That day came on January 8, 2015 when he got back to Temple Trees” with the help of CIA, RAW, minorities and 50-odd NGOs. But to his dismay he discovered that the West was not going to risk their necks for him the way he had risked his neck for them. Let down by the friends he cultivated in the West, he had no alternative but to do a quick volte face and turn towards the East. That put an end to his reputation as a maestro on international relations.
Test 4 : He has overawed his UNPers by posing as a master political strategist who can outwit his rivals. But throughout his 40-year political career he has never been able to take the party to the peak of power. He could never rise above the No.2 position. He is a leader who had conceded publicly that non-UNPers are fit to lead the nation better than he could. In fact, in playing second fiddle to Gen. Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena he has confirmed incontrovertibly that the people have no faith in him. He knows that he does not have the capacity to be No.1. With all the political heritage and assets of the Grand Old Party of the nation behind him why has he surrendered the leadership of the nation to non-UNPers? Why is it that the people had refused repeatedly to place any trust in him? He leads the UNP only to install SLFPers and outsiders in power. After 40 years in politics isn’t his greatest achievement in installing Maithripala Sirisena as President? What else is there to his glory?
In conceding the presidency to non-UNPers successively he has conceded openly that he is not fit to the lead the nation, or even his party. Maithripala Sirisena won because they UNPers voted en bloc for him. Even the UNPers flocked to vote for the non-UNP candidates because they never trusted Wickremesinghe’s commitment to save the nation from its internal and external enemies. The humiliating factor in all this is that he has never been ashamed of playing second fiddle as long as he got a share of power below No.1. He has been quite content to play the role of No.2. In the last election he was hoping to grab the presidential powers through constitutional manipulation. He was hoping that President Sirisena would devolve all the presidential powers to him and retire into a ceremonial role. But that strategy too failed. So what is the big achievement in Wickremesinghe’s political career?
If, as shown above, he has failed to manage the economy, failed to stem corruption in his regime, surrendered to Velupillai Prabhakaran, come a cropper in his foreign policy, dragged the nation down to the lowest moral depths and never won the ultimate prize in leadership throughout his 40 years in politics where can one find the glory in his career? There isn’t a single issue on which he can go down in history as the man who made a lasting contribution to the economic prosperity, domestic security, territorial integrity and national unity and harmony. The last saving grace would have been his image of Mr. Clean”. But after Wickremesinghe’s involvement in the bond scam that image has come crashing down like the mountain of muck at Meetotamulla.
It is obvious that the pictures hung at the gallery to glorify his past do not tell the full story. Those missing pictures would have traced his political trajectory far more dramatically and truthfully than the formal pictures hung on the wall. The missing pictures would have attracted more crowds than the ones exhibited on the walls. For instance, the pictures of Gonawila Sunil, one of his close chuckgolayas, coming out of jail before completing his term for raping a teenage girl would have had an electric impact on the visitors. So would the pictures of Gonawila Sunil receiving a JP-ship, with the blessings of his master.
These pictures are significant because they reveal that Wickremesinghe’s moral standards run on parallel lines with that of his underworld king-pin, Gonawila Sunil : one rapes teenagers and the other rapes the nation. His political path had run in a straight line from Gonawila Sunil to Karunanayake without wavering in between. Of course, there has been a slight deviation and that was to import his most costly albatross from Singapore. But that is not the main issue. The issue that should be raised is simply this : what has he achieved in the intervening years, between Gonawila Sunil and Ravi Karunanayake, for him to crow and celebrate?
Let us begin by evaluating his claim that he has been the prime minister four times. Technically he is correct. But this claim fails to recognize that he was sacked from that post twice, first by his own party headed by Gamini Dissanayake and the second time when he was sitting blissfully at White House not knowing that his other partner in cut-throat politics Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK) had stealthily cut all four legs of the chair in which he was sitting.
The details reveal that there is not much glory in the number of times he became prime minister. First, he became PM, after the assassination of President Premadasa because Sirisena Cooray who was offered the premiership by President D. B. Wijetunga refused to take it and nominated Wickremesinghe to the post. Wickremesinghe was not the first choice. He became the accidental PM with the blessings of Sirisena Cooray. Second time he failed to last long because he was sacked on charges of selling the nation to Prabhakaran by CBK. Third time too he became PM with the power of another Sirisena. It was also questionable because President Sirisena appointed him with a stroke of his pen when D. M. Jayaratne was still sitting in the chair as the legally appointed PM. Wickremesinghe was not the people’s choice.
Fourth time, the people again refused to make him the prime minister in his own right. He fell short of the majority he needed to be PM in a house of 225. He managed to become the PM because the President decided to give him the job. If he couldn’t become the PM with 50-odd NGOs, CIA, RAW, minorities what are his chances next time round when he would have eroded the feel good factor that gave him the bare minimum to creep in through the back door to the PM’s seat the last time?
When CBK sacked him the timing was perfect : she couldn’t have picked a more dramatic moment to humiliate her opponent. In her vindictive ways she tried to fix him by appointing a commission to investigate the Batalanda torture chambers. The she delivered the coup de grace : stabbed him in the back when he was in the White House knowing that the public would not rise to bring him back. She has also described him and his politics very aptly. Putting down his inability to articulate a clear political vision she said: Ranil-gay kattay pittu”. Also hitting him at the place where it hits most she said: Ranil katha-karan-nay katin noway.”
Now consider the other telling statistic which is bound to go down in the Guinness book of records. It is stunning. According to all known counts he has lost 29 elections in 40 years. Can anyone find another loser like Ranil Wickremesinghe? Of course, after forty years of experience he must be feeling now the hot winds of change breathing down his neck again. In his bones, he must be fully aware that the next psephological statistic will rise to thirty, whenever the next election is held.
If he couldn’t rise to power on his own steam with the consent of the people 29 times, if he always had to piggy-back on outside parties to perform short and temporary stints at Temple Trees”, if he was thrown out of Temple Trees” by his own party headed by Gamini Dissanayake, if his gamble for peace with Prabhakaran – the most critical political mission of our time — led to utter failure, if the ground was cut under his feet by his then rival CBK when he was engaged in a charivari with Bush at the White House, inflicting the worst humiliation for a leader of a nation, if after 40 years he has failed to be Numero Uno, and if his economic management have shifted from Perpetual Treasury to perpetual treachery, if his future is as black as the back of well used clay pot in Gonawila Sunil’s kitchen, and, finally, if his climactic act capping forty years of parliamentary politics is to escort Ravi Karunanayake to his ministerial seat what is there for him to celebrate, really?
The exhibition of pictures hung to highlight Wickremesinghe’s political career was meant to be an advertisement for his achievements. I am told that it is also meant to be a preliminary launch of his campaign to win the next presidential race. So far I have not seen media reports of the people flocking to see the amazing glories of forty years of nothingness. There were more people rolling up in bus loads to pay homage to Mahinda Rajapakse when he lost power than those lining up to view the glories of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Up until this moment of writing I’ve seen only Ravi Karunanayake standing behind him, perhaps as quid pro quo for escorting him to the well of the House on his day of reckoning.
If he wanted to draw a crowd he should have exhibited pictures of him burning the CBK- Neelan agreement in Parliament and then rushing to sign an agreement with Velupillai Prabhakaran giving El-lam to him. A picture of his banging pots and pans at street corners to bring down the cost of living would have brought at least some cynical smiles. Or to see him riding in bullock carts to protest against the government would have been hilarious. A replay of him offering TVs and jeans to farmers too would have been a sight to watch. His pathetic performance of spitting on the heroic soldiers wending their way to victory is something that our soldiers will never forget. Nor will they forget him dodging February 4 celebration of Independence Day because there was no glory to him in watching Mahinda Rajapakse taking the salute. And his doing a U- turn from the west to the east is also a memorable feat.
The fundamental flaw in RWs character has been his inability to read the signs of his time. Time and again he has failed to decipher what’s happening under his very nose. Our village boys knew the lie of the land better than him. As everyone knows, when they were advancing victoriously, capturing Thoppigala, he ridiculed them as some futile rock climbers. But they knew better. So how can he lead the nation when he fails grasp the meaning of events under his own feet? He, in short, does not know whether he is in Pamankada or Alimankada, to quote his buddy Ravi Karunanayake.
He has now come to the end of his political career. He has nowhere to go from here. The next election will be definitely his last election. It will decide his fate forever. Right now he thinks he can survive by perverting parliamentary practices and procedures. His aim is to use parliament as his rubber stamp. He has appointed a Leader of the Opposition, R. Sambanthan, who is like his government: neither of them commands a majority in the House to stand on their own two feet. The SLFPers and other catchers” will have to back him all the way for him to maintain his majority. Whether the marriage of convenience between the two temporary partners – UNP –SLFP – will remain intact is yet to be seen. Certainly their honeymoon is over. How long the friction and the bickering that is bedeviling the misalliance can hold them together is going to be a perpetual tricky point.
It is the corruption in which he wallows that stinks to high heaven. He has even corrupted the Parliament. To begin with he survives in Parliament with the backing of the MPs who were rejected by the people. Then for his survival he forced a dissolution of Parliament to make the COPE report on the Bond scandal null and void. The manipulated and indecent dissolution of parliament to cover-up his Bond scandal confirms his utter contempt for the best of parliamentary traditions. In his usual delusional way he fancies that his short-term poli-tricks can sustain him in power for at least the balance of his term. But he forgets that his previous three short-terms as premier failed to keep him going for the full term because his cheap poli-tricks boomeranged on him. Knowing his past failures, this time he began his fourth term by passing a law to last at least four-and-a-half years. However, there is no guarantee that shifting loyalties in a Parliament notorious for cross-overs can sustain him in power for his anticipated full term.
He is also at logger heads with the President who still has the power to pull the rug under his feet, if he decides to undercut him. Besides, Wickremesinghe right now is walking on pappadums which are crumbling each time he takes a step in whichever direction he turns. His options are not only limited but dwindling. He has not much room to flex his muscles the way he wants as at the time he was sworn in as PM.. In short, he is on the brink of extinction and his future hangs on the mercy of the President. The judgment of the people will, of course, will not be so merciful.
He is desperately hanging on to power because he fears that the guillotine (FCID) he introduced to behead his opponents will chop his neck off after the next election. One things is quite certain : he is one politician who will not need a grave digger. Why should he? After all, he has been his own grave digger for so long that any cost of hiring a grave digger will be a total waste of money because he has been hard at work in digging his own hole for forty years