T. S. Eliot wrote his celebrated poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1917, thirty two years before Ranil Wickremesinghe was born. Therefore, it’s hardly correct to assume that Eliot based his Prufrock poem on Ranil. But, when you read through this long but delightful satirical poem, you can’t help noticing an uncanny resemblance. I don’t wish here to keep contributing to that miserable sport of lampooning Ranil (as Mr. Bean, etc). But the very fact that I suddenly thought of Sri Lanka’s unlucky Opposition Leader while reading Eliot’s poem shows how this kind of thing can work itself into the subconscious. It works like advertising, compelling you to think of a product not independently but according to advertising stereotypes.
And so it is with politics. Many journalists who normally hate each other, both left-wing and right wing, get together when they want some target practice. Their favourite target is Ranil Wickremesinghe. This criticism can differ in some detail. The left hates him for being classy and arrogant. The right hates him being not nationalist (or chauvinist) enough. Both sides hate him for not being the kind of macho, manly street fighter they believe to be the right man to lead Sri Lanka, unafraid of anything not just on earth but even beyond the Milky Way – the kind of insolent juggernaut who can roll over public opinion (which hardly matters), international opinion, The United Nations, the EU, the Indian government, the United States, the IMF, the Commonwealth – you name it.
The left and right got together to create the myth that Ranil is simply not fit to be president and is actually unelectable. Journalist Victor Ivan is just one of those strident voices. We can get back to that first point later; as to the second, it is largely a myth. Ranil has been very unlucky, that’s all. He may have been president in 2006 if Prabhakaran hadn’t been stupid enough to block his northeastern votes. But, before we discuss that ‘unelectable Ranil’ myth in more detail, let’s look at this very dangerous Sri Lankan mindset of believing that ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’. In other words, toughness prevails. You can see this in all walks of life. The cinema, the earliest common art form to turn this folk fantasy into every day entertainment. The stereotype tough guy hero best personified by the late Gamini Fonseka (a model derived from India) prevails to this day. The difference is that politics have replaced films as entertainment.
In real life, we have many other examples. Neighbours and drivers get tough over the simplest disputes. Policemen, like politicians or kachchery clerks, are expected to be tough. Nowadays, even schoolchildren get tough easily. Arjuna Ranatunge set an example to both schools and offices when he got tough with Australian umpire Darrel Hair. That Hair was stupid and nasty (and possibly racist) is another matter. But Ranatunga broke cricket laws and protocol (which are international, and not created at Ananda College, Colombo) by waggling his finger at the man. He was an instant hero. This government must have learnt something from Ranatunge, because it doesn’t care a whit about international rules of the game. No wonder Ranil Wickremesinghe looks ineffectual by comparison.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the other hand, is everyone’s dream leader. He’s big made, physically strong, wears a sarong (a throwback to the tough guy of the Sinhala films, though Gamini Fonseka culturally inhabited a larger world, at home in both sarong and pants), yells when he gets angry, and looks the archetypal tough guy in any context – parliament, football game, official ceremony, independence day TV broadcast.
Ranil Wickremesinghe just can’t compete. He can’t talk with throaty menace, nor can he freeze anyone with a stare. He can’t punch anyone on the jaw, or kick a football without making himself look silly. But he can write. Recently, he wrote an excellent analysis of Sucharitha Gamlath to the Sinhala weekly Ravaya. No other Sri Lankan politician could have written that. But the ability to write is not something that will please the electorate.
I now have serious doubts how about his fitness to rule this country, though not for any of the above. It’s due to his actions a democratic leader after all his reactions to the impeachment of the Chief Justice and by his handling of UNP internal matters. He looks increasingly like a man who has cracked under pressure.
It may be that he has been under pressure for too long. There are two kinds of leaders: those who grow and improve under pressure cooker situations (Nelson Mandela, Tony Blair, Benazir Bhutto) and those who deteriorate. Unfortunately, Ranil isn’t in the former category. But that still doesn’t rule out his eligibility for the top job. While he certainly isn’t the best out of a bad lot, neither is he the worst. And has anyone ever considered he might be lonely at the top? His most trusted stalwarts have abandoned him in droves and are filling government seats.
Ranil is waiting for his chance. Unfortunately, he isn’t going to fight for it, which is what Sri Lankans want. They want a street fighter, somebody who can get bloodied and will not hesitate to hit under the belt. They don’t care if he wants to represent genuine democracy, whatever style. Also, he’s a typical democratic politician in that he doesn’t worship the military. But, if elected as president, I wonder if Ranil would bother about being democratic now, simply because the chaotic, violent Sri Lanka he must rule may be ungovernable with democratic niceties. That would require a leader of serious mettle, a Thatcher in reverse, but Ranil isn’t that. Of course, he’ll have better foreign policy, but it’s survival, not foreign policy, which fills the minds of most voters.
Another criticism is that Ranil is aloof. He smiles rarely, if ever. He’s not going to kiss children and vow their mothers and grandmothers. He’s not going to kick footballs, and he’s not the kind of hypocrite who’ll turn ascetic on Poya Day. His lack of hypocrisy is among his biggest failings. But, if elected, he’ll occasionally put his foot in his mouth and govern as best as he can. The problem is that he looks increasingly useless while trying to hang in there.
Another argument against Ranil is that he’s the weakest, least imaginative of the ‘shining star’ line up of UNP leaders who emerged with JR Jayawardhane in 1977. This is quite true. But then, the rest have died, largely as a result of their own chauvinistic politics, and you can’t blame Ranil for that. To his credit, Ranil wasn’t in Jaffna when the municipal library was burnt down. He certainly didn’t direct mobs in July 1983 (a fact which irks both our left and right, though both sides must share responsibility of that catastrophe).
Finally, Ranil isn’t corrupt, which again doesn’t please anyone. He doesn’t want money. He only wants power, which is a quality of a democratic politician, because such people know that the state will look after their personal expenses and rid them of monetary headaches, leaving them free to rule while enjoying political power and its privileges. He’d thrive in a place with a savvier, sophisticated electorate who has more faith in science than in religious charms and other mumbo jumbo.
Unfortunately, the Sri Lanka which he must address is sliding more and more into superstition, ignorance and anarchy with each passing day.
His failing is that, in a time of acute political crisis, he’s unable to come up with a creative solution to counter the retrogressive Mahinda Chinthanaya (as Tony Blair successfully countered Thatcherism with his New Labour). What the UNP’s ultras are now projecting, via Sajith Premadasa, is a green-painted version of Mahinda Chinthayana, which nobody wants. That leaves us with a real dilemma because – as ineffective, ridiculous, aloof and unathletic as Ranil might seem, it’s hard to think of anyone else in opposition ranks who has a counter strategy to Mahinda Chinthanaya. That leaves us hard-working, salaried dredges without a future, and Ranil stranded in a political no man’s land -- unless he starts taking steroids and learns to kick a football.