It has become a tradition for Ranil Wickremesinghe to visit various signature tents at the Royal-Thomian and respond to questions put to him. It’s all light-hearted. The questions are often tongue-in-cheek stuff and the responses are calculated to generate some laughter, one feels.
It was no different this year. Two questions stood out because they were as serious as they were light. The responses, similarly, drew laughter and also provided food for thought. One question was about prosecuting wrongdoers (of the previous regime). The Prime Minister was essentially asked when they would be brought to justice. The response was light: “We are investigating, we are going to courts and we are allowing the lawyers to make money.” He then added, as afterthought, “lawyers have been big supporters of our party, so we can’t let them down.”
He was obviously joking about helping lawyer loyalists, but he was correct in terms of the tangible outcomes of the process so far. What we do know and can appreciate is that such processes take time, perhaps longer than necessary but certainly better long than short for haste makes for error and perforce cannot service the cause of justice. What we do not appreciate is the selectivity that is so pronounced in the process. The focus is on allegations against the previous regime or rather key personalities in that regime. There have been serious violations, clearly, but some of them would fall into petty thievery compared to the daylight robbery associated with the Central Bank bond scam. If petty thieves deserve arrest, how come those accused of scheming to make billions are allowed to roam around free, is the question that many ask.
But it was all light-hearted and we can leave it at that. As light-hearted was the question put to him earlier, ‘Now that you are in power, what’s your next step?’ Pat came the answer: “The next step is to stay in power.”
It was not an answer typical of politicians. It was, in contrast, an honest response. That’s what politics and politicians are all about. Power. Striving to obtain it and thereafter fighting to keep it. Only, they don’t say it. Kudos to the Prime Minister, even if it was said in jest and even though it was a slick way of spelling out things. Not the time nor the place, one might say in his defense.
The match is done and dusted or rather was rained out. We can return to the response with more sobriety now.
Power. Some say it is about longevity and out-living the competition. That might explain J.R. Jayewardena and to a certain degree Mahinda Rajapaksa and their respective ascents. It certainly holds for Ranil Wickremesinghe. Luck, they say, can also figure in the equation. In Wickremesinghe’s case it was as much longevity as the lack of it among potential rivals within his party. Whether it is correct to call it luck is debatable, but he was lucky when part of the ruling coalition ‘fell into his lap,’ so to speak, in 2001. He was lucky when Maithripala Sirisena entered the fray in late 2014. On the other hand, perhaps luck is about being positioned well when events unfold in ways that opportunities are created. He was there at the right place and at the right time. That takes staying power.
Staying in power is a different kettle of fish. Today, for all his luck, if you want to call it, the most powerful individual in the country is Maithripala Sirisena. Power, in this sense, is best ascertained by the answer to a simple question — who can alter the political equation or landscape most with the least effort? This is why ‘staying in power’ is a challenge. There’s no light-heartedness here; certainly not in the sordid theatre called politics.
It’s a big challenge. Things have got so bad that those posing as ‘left intellectuals’ and ‘liberals’ (NGO personalities mostly in the latter category) are getting their respective knickers twisted in their plaintive cries of support for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe union. Left intellectuals who brutally criticised leftist parties for tying up with the previous regime, throwing in a lot of Marxist terms and drawing heavily from ‘revolutionary’ history, are keeping mum about these very parties supporting what would in their lingo be a ‘rightist government’. Those who mocked these parties for hanging on to the sari-pota and the saatakaya don’t seem to mind the current penchant for hanging on to the edges of the various jackets of the current regime. As for the ‘liberals’ who were horrified at the slightest infringement on liberties not too long ago, they are pretty quiet when this regime makes a mockery of its own doctrine of yahapalanaya.
It’s either about unspoken love for the ruling coalition or rather the UNP segment of it, or else it is a matter of ignoring anything or everything that goes against things they’ve claimed to hold sacrosanct including the principle ‘ends do not justify the means,’ in the belief that their not-so-veiled anti-Sinhala and anti-Buddhist outcome preferences are best served by this regime. The staying-in-power business is not being served by that lot and Wickremesinghe ought to know this very well, considering what happened in 2004 and 2005. He has disappointed the business community (they do not see this as a Maithripala-Wickremesinghe government, but a UNP regime). Trade unions, academics and professionals don’t make such distinctions, but they are not as gung-ho about yahapalanaya as they were two years ago. It has become increasingly hard for the so-called moderate Tamils to support this regime. In short, things have changed much since the euphoria of January 8, 2015. Perhaps the best sign of all this is the fact that this government has had to argue that the yahapaalanists are actually Sri Lankan Bolsheviks of the 21st century.
They weren’t being light-hearted. They were serious. They were hilarious, but they didn’t know it. What it demonstrated was a regime that’s clinging to straws and trying to convince a doubting citizenry that it is revolutionary. The interesting thing is that the people are not exactly hungry for a revolution. Talk about being ‘out of step’! What more should one say about ‘the next step’ of ‘staying in power’? Well, there is one thing: if you have to say it, it demonstrates self-doubt.
Yes, the Royal-Thomian is done and dusted or rather was rained out. Wickremesinghe’s response speaks not just for the UNP but the entire regime. The next step is all that this regime seems to be worrying about right now. And, the seriousness of it all is best evidenced by the fact that they’ve lost sight of the yahapalana principles in their political day-to-day. The 19th and the RTI will not carry them at an election, Wickremesinghe probably knows this. ‘Staying in power’ is not just the next step, it’s a trace that will mark each step and when it comes to this then one doesn’t really know whether steps taken are in the right direction or not. ‘Losing the plot’ did someone say? ‘Lost it already’ did someone quip?