Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP Leadership and the TINA Factor

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  By D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the “Eksath Jathika Pakshaya Nayakathuma”  is portrayed as the single cause for the  perceived decline  suffered by the United National party(UNP).It is said that Ranil is a liability to the UNP and that the party can revive and renew itself only after he quits or is jettisoned. Sadly a substantial number subscribing to this view are within the UNP itself.

Now I do recognise and acknowledge that the leadership style of Ranil Wickremesinghe leaves much to be desired. There is a lot of room for improvement here.But I do not accept the argument that Ranil is the solitary reason for the UNP decline as I think it is due to a combination of several factors. Also I don’t think he is the only “Jonah” afflicting the party. The blame for the green pachyderm turning into a white elephant should be shared by many.

 There are sayings in English that nobody flogs a dead horse or kicks a dead dog!

 If Ranil Wickremesinghe is indeed a failure without a future then why is he the biggest target of numerous critics and opponents of the UNP?Would it not be best for the Govt to let the UNP burdened by Ranil, languish in opposition backwaters instead of trying to make that party enter the portals of power by encouraging a Ranil exit?
 But what do we see? A consistent pattern of venomous , low-down attacks aimed at Ranil personally. Avowed enemies of the UNP advise that party to get rid of him if it ever wants to enjoy power!Are we to believe that these worthies are proffering altruistic advice so that the UNP can taste power?

 The crux of the matter is that if Ranil is indeed the perennial loser then the ranks of government would cheer rather than jeer. The fact that this man is the constant butt of vituperative attacks in spite of being ridiculed as a failure  and continues to be UNP leader shows that there is more substance and potential in Wickremesinghe than what people give him credit for.

Let us remember that no one flogs a dead horse or kicks a dead dog.

Why is this? The only reason I can infer is that Ranil’s opponents fear that he has the potential to pose a serious political threat and if elected to office as President will perform well enough to get a second term.

" “There Is No Alternative” to Ranil at present. The sooner the UNP realizes it and backs Ranil fully and loyally the better it is. "

 Wickremesinghe is basically a technocrat and if elected to office would run a smooth and efficient administration. He has a firm grasp of economics and will be the best man to lead the Country on the road to economic emancipation.

Tragically for the UNP Wickremesinghe’s worth is not realized. Instead of seeing his positive side, bickering partymen opt to see the negative side alone. The glass is half-empty and not half-full for them.

Wickremesinghe is not a personality with an insincere ear to ear grin. He is not at ease in an unknown crowd. Ranil is more at home with a clique than the masses.He is generally reserved and aloof.

 There was this meeting  years ago with relatives of missing and/or abducted persons in Colombo. The atmosphere was emotional and a lot of women and children were crying. But Ranil displayed no emotion and came off as someone coldly unresponsive.

Actually Ranil was being true to himself and not playing to the gallery. He comes from a background where one is taught to control one’s feelings and not display emotions publicly particularly in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. But then does this conduct pay off in politics where posturing rather than principle matters more?
 If Ranil loses out politically by being honest to himself and not playing to the gallery at emotional gatherings, he also loses out when trying to break out of that mould and indulging in political play-acting.Take the disaster of the UNP campaign  a few years ago to visit the “irida polas” orSunday fairs and have heart to heart discussions with the people over the rising cost of living!

Ranil was seen gingerly navigating the mud and puddles and querying the common man and woman about prices of commodities. Wickremesinghe appeared like a camel in the Arctic or a Polar bear in the Sahara. Totally out of place.

I do not think Wickremesinghe has ever gone to a rural market in his life. I do not think he has ever bought anything from a village pola personally. I don’t think he keeps tabs on the prices of things in order to balance the home budget. If at all he engages in shopping, Ranil  would be more at home wheeling a pushcart through supermarket aisles, tossing things in from shelves and paying through plastic at the counter.

 So when Ranil ventures into unfamiliar territory and does not possess the “chutzpah” to pull it off he sticks out like a sore thumb. Not possessing thespian skills (Ranil has not played a general in any movie, has he?) Wickremesinghe simply cant and wont convince the rural masses he isn’t one of them. And the people know it too.
 Apart from this inability to relate to the masses people say that he lacks inter-personal skills and is uneasy in environments not to his liking or with strangers. He is also like a fish out of water in gatherings with certain types of people who unfortunately play prominent roles in politics.

 The Ranil seen at a Royal-Thomian is quite different to the Ranil seen at some party meetings. There are people who have complained to me that he simply ignores and does not even inquire after them let alone chat. Others have told me the opposite and spoke of Ranil in glowing terms and how warm he was.It appears that Ranil can be nice to some and ice to others.

 Another charge is about Ranil not being assertive enough.He is seen as being indecisive. Ranil is depicted as a cross between a Shakespearean Hamlet pondering “to be or not to be” and a Dickensian Micawber “waiting for something to turn up”.To me Ranil is more like Herman Hesse’s. “Siddhartha” than Hamlet or Micawber.Like the Brahmin Siddhartha on a journey of self-discovery Ranil too is a man who can “watch , wait and hope”. But can this philosophical attitude work in the Sri Lankan political landscape?

 Ranil has often been compared (unfairly at times) to his uncle Junius Richard Jayewardena. There are two sports related comments made by JR that I remember vividly.He used to call politics a bloodsport.

One comment was about boxing. The man who was kayoed by Colvin R de Silva at school in a boxing bout  came back decades later to send the Samasamaajists down for the count politically. JR said in boxing I aim for the face and hit the stomach.

The other perplexing comment by JR was about cricket. He said once that unlike other fielders who ran when the batsman lifted the ball to be under it and took a catch he (JR) never did so.

 He would rather miss the catch and let the ball bump and come to his hand. Once the ball was in his hands he could do anything with it. “when I run for the ball it is my master but when it is in my hand I am its master” JR said leaving his listeners bewildered.

Upon reflection , it appears that Ranil has imbibed one part of his uncle’s “sporty” wisdom. He waits for the ball to come to him rather than run for it. This explains his political conduct. Ranil misses catches and has forgotten the elementary lesson driven home by numerous coaches that in cricket “catches win matches”. As for the boxing lesson it’s nix!

 Another aspect of what makes Ranil tick or not is that in politics everything came to him on a platter. As yankee Dicky’s nephew and Esmond Wickremesinghe’s  son he had it made. Enters parliament as a novice and is straight away a deputy-minister. Cabinet Minister at the age of twenty-nine.

  He gets elevated to higher status within the UNP due to his party loyalty. He sticks with R.Premadasa and then DB Wijetunga. Becomes Prime minister and then opposition leader. He never had to work himself up through knitty-gritty politics. That tells and how!

 There is some form of detachment from power also. Look at the alacrity with which he vacated Temple Trees on two occasions in 1994 and 2004. No dilly-dallying. Contrast this with the pique of some former occupants to vacate the Araliya abode and look at some people who wanted to be in both Temple Trees and President’s house at the same time.

 There is also Ranil’s sqeaky clean image of being politically incorruptible. In another time and in another place this may have been the strongest factor in favour of a politician. But we live in a time and a place where the people who helped themselves to money meant for helping others are in high places and are hailed as heroes instead of being heckled as “horas”.

Thus we find a negative image being projected about Ranil.I don’t think this public image is truly representative of the man but then perceptions are what matter in electoral politics.

 What Wickremesinghe’s lieutenants should do is to support him whole-heartedly and cover up for the deficiencies in leadership style. This was what the UNPer’s of yore did for JR Jayewardena who also had a cold public image. This was what Federal Party stalwarts did for the sick and feeble SJV Chelvanayagam.

Instead of that what do we find? A bunch of disloyal, ambitious , petty “golayas” whose primary goal seems to be that of conspiring against the leadership and secondary goal that of one up-man ship over fellow party men.

" This does not mean that Wickremesinghe has lost control of the party. Despite sections of the media giving wide publicity to the internal dissension and sensationalising intra-UNP conspiracies the reality is that Ranil Wickremesinghe enjoys majority support among both the Parliamentary group and Working committee.  "

 Earlier political deputies would compete with each other to succeed the leader but would be loyal to him or her and work honestly for the party. Party leaders were not averse to fomenting intra-party rivalry to both prevent challenges to leadership and also stimulate subordinates into working diligently for the party.

But what we have in the UNP is a situation where leadership wannabes are impatient and want to topple the leader right away. In order to undermine the leadership they do not throw in their full weight behind the party and instead indulge in sabotage.

If one is to use a cricket metaphor the team spends more time trying to topple the skipper than play against the rival team, Batsmen don’t score runs, bowlers don’t take wickets and fielders miss catches . The idea is to lose the match so that the skipper can be replaced.

Thus the energies of Ranil Wickremesinghe are spent more in staving off internal conspiracies than taking on the chief opponent. Party stalwarts spend time either conspiring for or against Ranil than catering to their constituencies.

 Even in this Wickremesinghe is not tough as he ought to be. Instead of taking stern action against his detractors and conspirators firmly and decisively Ranil opts to exercise a velvet hand in a silky glove. He opts for intra-party Machiavellian tactics and byzantine intrigues to untangle himself instead of cutting the Gordian knot.Ranil floats like a bee and stings like a butterfly.

 This does not mean that Wickremesinghe has lost control of the party. Despite sections of the media giving wide publicity to the internal dissension and sensationalising intra-UNP conspiracies the reality is that Ranil Wickremesinghe enjoys majority support among both the Parliamentary group and Working committee. He has beaten back direct and indirect challenges to his leadership and despite the continual electoral losses suffered by the party, the party leader like Tennyson’s brook “goes on forever”.

I must also point out that not all party stalwarts are conspiring or revolting. There are many who have steadfastly stood by and are standing by Wickremesinghe. But such conduct does not get much mention in the media. Only the anti-Ranil antics get prominence.

" There is also Ranil’s sqeaky clean image of being politically incorruptible. In another time and in another place this may have been the strongest factor in favour of a politician. "

 There is something in politics called the “TINA” factor. TINA is an acronym for “There Is No Alternative”. Under present circumstances the “TINA” factor applies to Ranil too. There may be some who want to remove Wickremesinghe from a leadership position but the multi-crore question is who will succeed him? There are many possibilities but there is no one broadly acceptable to all sections within the party.

 In such a situation “There Is No Alternative” to Ranil at present. The sooner the UNP realizes it and backs Ranil fully and loyally the better it is. Headaches are not cured by changing pillows.

The UNP stalwarts rebelling against Ranil must do some soul-searching. Is the UNP predicament due to Ranil’s leadership alone? How many of these UNP stalwarts have adequate personal political clout? Are not many of them totally disconnected with their supporters? How many keep in touch with the constituency at grassroots level?

A political party is like an old-fashioned train chugging along an up-country railway line. The leader is the engine that pulls it at the front. Senior deputies are the engine that pushes it from the back. The leader cannot deliver alone. On the contrary deputies must bolster up the party by complementing the leader’s lapses.
Make no mistake! The UNP’s ills will not be cured by changing the leader alone. The party attitude and approach must change. Otherwise the very same people who draw knives to stab Wickremesinghe will not hesitate to plunge the weapon into Ranil’s successor also.

 Let us also not forget that the Presidency was lost by Ranil twice due to the LTTE. In 1999 the abortive attack on Chandrika Kumaratunge helped her win by riding the sympathy wave. In 2005 the LTTE prevented Tamils from voting through an enforced boycott and reduced Wickremesinghe’s potential votes resulting in  narrow margins of defeat. In 2010 the UNP led opposition front opted to field Sarath Fonseka for President with Ranil standing down.With the wisdom of hindsight it was realised that Wickremesinghe would have got more votes than Fonseka had the UNP chief been the Presidential candidate.

 This does not mean that Ranil's stock remains high  now. The  collapse of the Oslo facilitated peace process with the LTTE and the euphoric success of the Rajapakse's war against the tigers has brought about a  change of  mood amidst the majority community that is detrimental to Ranil.
 I do not think Ranil Wickremesinghe did anything wrong by promoting peace with the LTTE. I respect him for his courage in that though I had reservations about the way it was done. The intention however was good. Let us not forget that Wickremesinghe talked peace sincerely and genuinely. It was the LTTE that was faithless and ultimately betrayed the peace.

 Whatever his opponents say no one who knows Ranil will honestly say that Wickremesinghe would  have sold out to the tigers. But that is the type of vilification that  has been going on. The actual traitors are those selling the Country out clandestinely while thumping their pseudo-patriotic chests. Corruption parades around as patriotism.

 It was because Ranil Wickremesinghe participated in the peace process genuinely and the LTTE was at fault that the International community stood  behind Colombo in its effort to defeat the LTTE. It was also the peace process that created the environment for the Karuna revolt that weakened the LTTE considerably.
 Instead of highlighting these points and taking the bull by its horns the UNP has been on the defensive as if searching for a negotiated peace was a cardinal sin or error.

 One of the finest attributes of Ranil Wickremesinghe is his consistent refusal to play the communal card. It has been the bane of Sri Lankan politics that parties in opposition engage in communal politics to obstruct the government. Ranil changed this by not going down that path.

 But in recent times sections of the  UNP are  getting sucked into the chauvinist whirlpool again. Like the UNP of Sir John Kotelawela which shifted its stance on the language issue at the Kelaniya convention of 1955 some stalwarts in the present UNP too have  started backtracking. Replacing Ranil with another  at this juncture could result in the UNP regress on this aspect.

 Given the triumphalism of majoritarianism  and the perceived popularity of President Rajapakse it may seem virtually impossible that this regime could ever be defeated electorally. But then all things are impermanent and things do change.Political popularity is ephemeral.

It must be remembered that Winston Churchill won the war but was booted out in 1945 by Clement Attlee. Indira Gandhi dismembered Pakistan in a military triumph in 1971 but was unceremoniously ejected in 1977 after the emergency.

George Bush Sr won the Gulf war but did not get a second term in 1992. George Bush Jnr conquered Kabul and Baghdad but went down at his tail end as the most unpopular US president in history.

The Rajapakse regime has contained or diverted resentment against it by using  the war  victory as the opium of the masses. But the war  ended years ago  and it wont be able to justify its shortcomings perpetually through war-euphoria. There are misgivings about economic performance.  Charges of nepotism, corruption, repression, authoritarianism , mis-governance and abuse/misuse of power against this regime proliferate .

 Once the euphoria subsides the Country will begin yearning for better economic prospects. Man does not live by  victory on the war front  euphoria alone but also by bread and rice and dhal and sambol. If this regime cannot deliver then people may  welcome change.

It is here that Ranil Wickremesinghe could score provided of course that his party would stand by him. He can be projected as the man who could perform an economic miracle. He could also be promoted as the man who would usher in true national unity and unify its people.

 The Achilles heel of the Rajapakse regime is its corrupt cronyism and blatant family-bandyism. When Sirima Bandaranaike was premier from 1970 to 1977 she was accused of family bandyism. The UNP during the 1977 polls produced a booklet titled "family Tree" exposing the different family members and relatives holding high office. Dr. Wickrama Weerasuriya was the author. It was a smashing hit. By that yardstick the Rajapakse regime's nepotism goes beyond a tree. It's a grove. The UNP could have a field day  if it buckled down to the task.

 Another suggestion would be for the UNP leadership to reconcile sincerely and forge a partnership. I think Wickremesinghe should delegate more powers and responsibilities to Karu Jayasuriya. The  setting up of a leadership council and Karu Jayasuriya chairing it is a commendable first step.While Ranil remains the de-jure leader there could be a de-facto joint leadership.

 There is this story about the blind and the lame man. One could see the fruit on the tree but was not able to reach it. The other could walk up to it but was unable to see it. So the blind man put the lame man on his shoulders and guided by the seeing cripple walked under the tree. The lame man who could never have done it on his own sat on the other mans shoulders and plucked the fruit which they both shared.

 Both Ranil and Karu should forge a closer relationship  firmly and resolutely.There are some shortcomings in Ranil's persona that Karu could complement and supplement. Likewise there are fault lines in Jayasuriya that Wickremesinghe can rectify. Separately they may be lesser but together both can be greater.
 The UNP needs to re-invent itself and Wickremesinghe has to re-furbish his image. The party must be infused with a new dynamism and fighting spirit. If that is done reports of the grand old party's demise would indeed be premature.

More importantly the UNP must return to its roots and original vision. The founding fathers had a dream of a United and National party. The party must re-capture that vision. It has to strike out against chauvinism and articulate pluralist and egalitarian principles boldly. The party that helped  usher in freedom from colonial bondage decades ago must once again take the lead in forging a United Nation and a "new" Lanka where all her children will live equally and peacefully in a just society.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]

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