“If the story-tellers could ha’ got decency and good morals from true stories, who’d have troubled to invent parables?”
~ Thomas Hardy
Since of late, there seems to be a spate of interest in our Prime Minister. Often referred to as Ranil, instead of Prime Minister, he has managed to draw unusual attention to himself; by the nineteen eighties he had already become the darling of the Colombo cocktail circuit, parallelling Lalith Athulathmudali at the time; his laidback lifestyle which emanates an aloofness beyond a mere ‘politician-ness’ of a politician has sometimes caused a great deal of suspicion among his constituents. His inflexible principle of unwillingness to lend any political favours to his friends and constituents has cost him a massive amount of perceived ‘man in power’-notion, to whom most of our voters turn in a circumstance of dire need. His oft-repeated free market economic practices followed up by real-time de-acquisitions of loss-making, state-owned business ventures have come for severe criticism by the leftover ‘left’ in the country.
Yet the labels attached to Ranil by the opposition, the stature he is held in the blurred pages of political scrapbooks, the length of years he had been decomposing in parliamentary benches without attaining real power, the introvert disposition of the personality and above all else, his unwavering belief in capitalist economic principles have enticed writers and commentators to label our incumbent Prime Minister as a work-in-progress-model of J.R. Jayewardene. Ranil may lack J.R.’s discipline, J.R.’s unmatched aura of the personality, his sharp and bell-like timbre in which he delivers his uncanny repartee in Parliament and his stoical strength in the face of mighty political storms. Yet, when one looks back at the last twenty five years, Ranil Wickremesinghe, without possessing any one of those ‘Jayewardenesque’ qualities, has withstood the present-day blizzards of political backstabbing and downright betrayals within and outside his own ranks.
Political leaders, some say, are made long before they even arrive on stage. Once they arrive, the somewhat clever and skilled ones, not necessarily the wise ones, even before any acclimatisation process, begin to play their theatrics and games in order to attain their goals. They seem to be in a hurry. But the ones who wait patiently for their turn consistently end up playing a much longer game, in their own terms, than those who rush to the targets ahead of time. The patient are the wise ones. Nevertheless in politics, in a given context, those who make the right decision to suit the given circumstances cannot be blamed for rushing to target.
Let us deal with the main subject of this column, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranil, as is being wrongly vilified and derided, was not catapulted into politics by J.R. Jayewardene straight at the 1977 General Elections itself. In fact, he was eased into the ’77 historic elections gradually by his uncle. What most writers and pundits don’t realise and fail to acknowledge is that the landmark ’77-election-victory that the United National Party (UNP) secured was a culmination point in a five-year-long struggle against one of the most repressive governments seen up to that point in time. The combine of Sirimavo and Felix Dias Bandaranaike was no easy duo to tackle. It was the popular belief at the time that Dudley Senanayake was the main vote-getter for the UNP. Except in 1952 at which Dudley received some kind of a fresh mandate from the voters to govern - the elections were held within 3 to 4 months of the passing away of his father D.S. Senanayake - UNP’s victories at the elections in 1960 and 1965 were too close for comfort. Dudley may have been a leader loved by all the people in Sri Lanka, yet when they trudged to the polling booth on each Election Day, they tended to vote from their heads rather than their hearts.
I have great personal respect and love for Dudley Senanayake. Yet Dudley, with all his magical charisma, never built the UNP from bottom up. His UNP was his father’s module; though he had great empathy for his fellow countrymen, his politics did not extend from the narrow corridors of power in Colombo to the broad streets and immense expanses of the rural meadows in the hinterland. Dudley’s authenticity dwelled in his personal sanctum of inner self-satisfaction. He was susceptible, to an unbelievable degree, to the vagaries of political change. A man who could be rattled by pressures of the domestic kind, on many an occasion, he showed that he was a politician unwilling to be enveloped by that all-alluring aura of power; greed was never in his disposition. But his fatal folly was his ‘Hamlotonian’ indecision, crippling him from making up his mind at the right time. The combine of these traits contributed to making Dudley Senanayake the leader he was. Even the so-called ‘green revolution’ which was heralded in the mid-sixties as a massive drive towards self-sufficiency in rice did not produce its desired results.
On the other hand, J.R. Jayewardene was the total opposite. Dudley became the leader of the UNP when he was only 41 years old. J.R. had to wait till he was 67 to be at the helm of the party, which he carried on his solitary shoulders when it was in the political junkyards. Dudley was Prime Minister when he was 41 and J.R. assumed that position after his 70th birthday. From 1952 until 1973, for 21 long and painful years, J.R. waited uncomplainingly to take the reins of the party. And one striking quality, in the wake of taking over the party after Dudley’s demise, was, despite the most incredulous in-fight with Dudley in the few years before his death, J.R. looked after each and every person who had pledged loyalty to Dudley during that in-fight- a rare quality of a leader indeed! One might ask as to what happened to Rukman Senanayake. Rukman was nowhere near national politics when Dudley was living. Rukman’s by-election for Dedigama was a textbook study of a campaign run by a courageous leader against all possible odds and the details of this are well chronicled in J.R. Jayewardene’s biography penned by Professor K.M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins.
Today, Ranil Wickremesinghe is leading that political party. Times have changed. Sri Lanka’s politics has gone through multiple transformations and its complexion and what lies beneath has undergone irreversible alterations. What was once an innovative adventure for some affluent, English-speaking and educated elite in Colombo has been passed to the hands of vernacular-educated, and again some extremely-crafty and personally avaricious vote-getters calling themselves politicians. Today, politics is an enterprise in which hungry and greedy men and women indulge in without any care for the service of man. When vile chauvinism is mistaken for patriotism, when thugs in saffron roam the streets with slogans borrowed from the Mahawansa, when bribes and favours are bartered for the most basic needs of the masses, when religious fundamentals have been transformed into fundamentalism in the religion, when government service is at the beck and call of the wealthy and powerful and when henchmen are misidentified for genuine consigliores of the Godfathers of politics, Ranil Wickremesinghe, whose potent repertoire is high-sounding socio-economic goals, might once again fall by the wayside if he lets down his defences.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, this socio-political parable of a Prime Minister, needs to come down to earth, at least once in a while, if he is to continue his term as Prime Minister. His rigidness is often construed as arrogance, his aloof temperament is taken for cold calculation and his lack of public-relation-oriented demeanour is misunderstood as discomfort among the commoners. Yet most pundits and scholars might well be mistaken if he or she forecloses Ranil Wickremesinghe’s tenure as done. A man who had the stamina to wait for twenty years, not nearly as calmly and stoically as did J.R. Jayewardene, does not have any more time to waste. Nor would the masses have patience with his apathetic approach towards facing issues head-on.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has to rebuild a party from bottom up instead of the reversal, a party whose crème de la crème has to emerge from the millions of the rural youth instead of Royal College in Colombo, a party that needs her energy not from the money-grabbers in the main cities but from the far-off farmland in remote corners in the country, North, South, East and West, a party whose fundamental message has to be palatable not only to the minorities in the country but also to the vast majority of Sinhalese Buddhists. That is a very tall order.
The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org