Is Ranil still a statesman/ Mr Clean?

Ranil, the resilient leader

Dinesh Weerakkody presenting a copy of the biography to President Maithripala Sirisena as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe looks on at the launch in April

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe completed 40 years in Parliament in July this year and a special debate was in held in Parliament to felicitate the Prime Minister on Thursday. This article is an extract from the last chapter from the Prime Minister’s biography authored by Dinesh Weerakkody and released in April.

The visionary 

The late John F. Kennedy described politics as a “noble adventure, an adventure in which one joins hands with the masses for the service of man”. That is undiluted, unadulterated politics. Not that the Kennedys didn’t play “politricks” in their heyday. But playing “politricks” with a nation’s wellbeing and her people’s vulnerable mindset is an unforgivable sin. 

Ranil Wickremesinghe clearly believes in that doctrine. He does not evoke enthusiasm or exceptional public praise and adulation. In that sense he will never be a man of the people. He also does not relate easily to his fellow men. His reputation however is clean, his intellect and knowledge unmatched by any politician of the recent past, or of the present. It is often said that Ranil takes after his uncle J.R. who was known as the cunning fox. His reputation internationally and his relationship that he had built with countries/regions like India, USA, the EU and Britain was again unmatched, and his ability to parley at the highest forum on equal terms is something that has made him stand head and shoulders above his colleagues, and those who lived in a fool’s paradise of thinking they could match him or act as a suitable replacement for him have come a cropper. 

For all these reasons, may be, many of his supporters were totally convinced that the future of Sri Lanka lay with him, and with him alone. Try as we might, we could not find anybody in the country who could match his ability and his skills.

Outside of politics, Ranil has many other interests. He is the Chair of the Dhayakasabha of one of Sri Lanka’s historic temples, the Kelaniya Vihara and a Dhayakaya of Gangaramaya, Walukaramaya and the Weragodalla (Sedawatte) temples. He has written and spoken widely on Sri Lankan history, Buddhism and world politics. He is an avid reader – devouring books and web articles, news relating to regional politics, international affairs and world history. He is interested in cutting-edge developments in all fields of knowledge globally and locally. 

He appreciates indigenous Sinhala music, Western classics and opera as well as Bollywood songs. Ranil and his wife enjoy native and international cuisine as well as travelling to places of historical interest. He is one of those who believes that thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened and that goodness never decreases by being shared.

Resilient Leader

Over the past 20 years Ranil has been at the butt end of all the criticism and jocularity of his detractors. He had been defeated on so many occasions, sometimes unfairly, but his resilience was unmatched. Some would say that he should have resigned honourably, and “done a David Cameron”, but we live in a different society where the rules are not quite the same, and the political culture is quite different. So, despite all the defeats, all the criticisms and despite being at the butt end of repeated jokes and insults, Ranil stuck to it, and when the time came to contest the presidency, he quite rightly felt he should be the Opposition’s choice.

This, however, was where reality took precedence over perception, and most of his close supporters felt he could not win. Whenever I made inquiries in regard to his acceptability, the answer I got from influential politicians, was, “We would love to see him on the throne, but equally, we are quite sure that he will not win.” So, a modus vivendi had to be found, and Maithripala Sirisena was the answer, fortunately acceptable to all, and a man with a good name who has up to now, filled that post by and large, with great acceptance. 

Perhaps, Ranil only had himself to blame for getting himself into such a situation, and his supporters and colleagues were convinced he had no chance. His seeming reluctance to mix freely with friends, and more so with the common man, made it difficult even for those who admired him, and wanted to enthusiastically support him. This flowed more from an innate shyness than from a seeming feeling of superiority, but the result was the same. So, a “common candidate” was found and Ranil was sensible enough to “see the light” and stand aside graciously, for somebody else who in many ways came from “nowhere” to occupy a position which he thought was rightfully his. He knew the danger of Mahinda winning a third term, what Ruchir Sharma in his book ‘The Rise and Fall of Nations’ terms the ‘Mugabe Risks,’ referring to Sri Lanka.

Having agreed to stand aside he did not “sulk like Achilles in his tent”. He leant his full weight behind the Opposition candidate, and rallied his own party to ensure a resounding victory in the face of all the opposition they had. To his lasting credit, he behaved like the gentlemen that he is, throughout the election, and thereafter. It is therefore to him that this country really owes its present freedom, and while it is easy to say that he would not have won on his own, it is even easier to say that no other candidate would have had a ghost of a chance against the ruling party, without his unstinted support.

What has he done to justify the faith, which so many have placed in him? Like any politician, he is subject to compulsions of compromise, adjustment, and often, of not doing what some of us think is the right thing. He is not perfect by any means. No man is, and less so a politician. One wishes that he is sometimes slightly more temperate in his language and more circumspect in his support for his supporters and friends whom you can stand by, not stand up for, when wrong is done. The damage he did to himself in some of these matters is incalculable, particularly before the “last” election.

He is a man of few words, but he is always willing to listen to advice. At the same time, he rarely shows in words, what he thinks of such advice, but I have often found him to follow it without demur. His tendency to gather around him his close friends of years gone by, who have done very little to help him when he was in the political wilderness, but flock around him when he is in power, has been one of his outstanding weaknesses, which has drawn justified criticism from many quarters. Let us hope, for the sake of the country, those people entrusted with key institutions, deliver, or go home.

One would have hoped that he exercised better judgement in the appointment of ministers and boards of corporations. He could have done far better than he has done, even leaving room for fulfilling his obligations as a politician. He has promised several welfare measures in his manifesto, but the pressures of prime ministerial pre-occupation have prevented him from devoting adequate time to implementing the good things he wants to do. 

Perhaps his pre-occupation with “fire fighting” is a serious obstruction to the progressive measures he wishes to introduce. When he does devote adequate time and ensures the implementation of his ideas, this country will be a far better place, particularly for the poor and the needy, who will realise that his party has long ceased to be a party of capitalists, but is a veritable “Party of the People”. The result has been that whereas he could have done an excellent job, he has only done a good job.

His ideas for the country, what he has negotiated internationally and his forward thinking, are of course unmatched, and if one compares it with the previous 10 years, one can see the yawning gap between the intellectual ability of the past, which was virtually nil, against his present thinking. His willingness to grasp the underlying issues in terms of the ethnic problem, and reconciliation is commendable, but one hopes that he will not renege on his promises, like his predecessors, Dudley Senanayake, the Bandaranaike family, Rajapaksa, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and J.R. Jayewardene, when the time comes to fulfil. 

Political expediency is not necessarily the only resort. It has to be tempered with the willingness to do what is right by all communities, irrespective of the final outcome. Ranil has shown his intellectual capacity in many fields, and the skilful manner in which he has manoeuvred towards his objectives, to ultimate success, are commendable. He is far more “approachable” than he was a couple of years ago, and he has learnt to mix with the common man more freely than his aristocratic past has permitted him to do, hitherto. “Thank you” is a word rarely found in his vocabulary, but that does not by any means indicate that he is ungrateful. His attitude and willingness to oblige at all times are unfailing indications of his deep sense of gratitude. 

Fortunate

We are fortunate to have a political leader such as him to lead the country. Rather than try to pull him down, people of goodwill and influence should stretch out their hands to support him in taking this country forward so that it can be a leading nation in the region. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have given priority for creating harmony among ethnic and religious groups of the country and it is amply demonstrated that they have been very successful in that effort.

The foreign policy of the Sirisena-Ranil Government has been aimed at rebuilding relations with India and the West that were strained during the previous regime and keeping good relations with China too. As a result of that, the European Market has been re-opened for our fisheries products and Ranil has been able to successfully negotiate to regain the GSP+ concession. He also initiated the Megalopolis Project which he planned when he was Prime Minister in 2001-2004. He proposed major economic reforms and a knowledge based social market economy, which will be built on the principles of social justice.

The cohabitation arrangement that Ranil put together where one (UPFA) of the two main parties in the political system is divided (JO being the splinter group), while at the same time the two main parties are also working together in Government was appreciated by the West and brought about political stability. The Government also had an understanding with the Opposition — the TNA and the JVP [Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna], those being the other major parties that supported President Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate in the Presidential election of January 2015. However, they went separately at the Parliamentary election.

The question of SLFP dissidents who are sitting in Opposition starting a separate party did not worry Ranil. He was determined to usher in a new era where the UNP and SLFP could work together and also work with the other parties. He made the whole Parliament into a government by setting up oversight committees. The exact executive policies were to be looked at by the Cabinet, but the oversight committees would look at implementation. It has become a two-tier Government. 

He has also proposed major education reforms that have the potential to create global opportunities for our young and is also looking to strengthen the health system to face health challenges of the next decade. He has also planned on reducing the income disparity levels in the domestic economy and increasing exports. Ranil launched a plan to reform state-owned enterprises, enter into trade agreements with India and China, to increase market access and restructure the key investment promotion agency to become even more appealing to foreign investors. 

Tourism development to attract high spending tourists as well as developing the rural economy is also a top priority for Ranil. Special economic zones and a special financial and business hub in Colombo have also been proposed. No UNP leader has ever before propounded progressive ideas and plans for the development of the country as he has done nor would have been capable anyway, other than a handful like his uncle J.R., Premadasa, Gamini Dissanayake or Lalith Athulathmudali.

For Ranil, in his political journey, sealed by his landslide win in Biyagama at the 1977 General Election, he has enjoyed a record, unbroken 40-year stint in Parliament. It may be said that Ranil got the UNP leadership by default in 1995. Nonetheless, after President D.B. Wijetunga resigned from active politics in August 1994, when the UNP was defeated by the then SLFP led PA coalition in the General Election held that month, the leadership should have passed on to him. But that was not to be, with the UNP Working Committee voting in Gamini Dissanayake as the Opposition Leader.

The road was open for Ranil to take-over the leadership of the UNP, due to the untimely deaths of party seniors Premadasa, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali. Nevertheless, in the 22 plus years that have passed since November 1994, Ranil has been able to maintain the leadership of the party despite going through more storms than one, with challenges to his leadership having come from Sajith Premadasa and Karu Jayasuriya in the interim. Whether Ranil won the leadership of the UNP by default or not, history has to judge the man by the fact that he has still been able to maintain the UNP as the island’s single largest political party in the grand old party’s 71-year-old turbulent history, of which he has been its longest-serving leader, with no successor in sight.

Overall, as a leader and a politician, he is certainly not to be found wanting. He has done much that is good. His thoughts and ideas are of the highest order. All he needs is the will and the unstinting loyalty of his supporters and his trusted advisers to see him through. Ranil knows if the Government’s popularity keeps eroding, Rajapaksa becomes a factor, he becomes an obvious choice for disgruntled voters, especially from the majority Sinhala community and the former President would surely mount his comeback bid. Ranil has a game plan up his sleeve when he recently said in an interview that former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has no chance of returning to power. 

But there are some positives that Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrated during his tenure as President that Prime Minister Ranil must seriously take note of in order to succeed. As Anura Bandaranaike, Speaker of Parliament 2000-2001, Ranil’s childhood friend once said about Ranil, “I can say of Ranil that he does not use unnecessary words, speak more than is necessary, has a fine understanding of responsibility. His commitment to any task is hundred per cent. He has a clear vision of the country’s future and a definite aim.”

Ranil’s ascent up the “greasy pole,” in Disraeli’s memorable metaphor, was not rapid nor smooth. But he is the best man for the job at this moment of time. Moreover, given that South Asia is emerging as a geographic sweet spot, we all want Ranil Wickremesinghe to succeed for the sake of the country.

Perhaps his pre-occupation with “fire fighting” is a serious obstruction to the progressive measures he wishes to introduce. When he does devote adequate time and ensures the implementation of his ideas, this country will be a far better place, particularly for the poor and the needy, who will realise that his party has long ceased to be a party of capitalists, but is a veritable “Party of the People”

His ideas for the country, what he has negotiated internationally and his forward thinking, are of course unmatched, and if one compares it with the previous 10 years, one can see the yawning gap between the intellectual ability of the past, which was virtually nil, against his present thinking. His willingness to grasp the underlying issues in terms of the ethnic problem, and reconciliation is commendable, but one hopes that he will not renege on his promises

We are fortunate to have a political leader such as him to lead the country. Rather than try to pull him down, people of goodwill and influence should stretch out their hands to support him in taking this country forward so that it can be a leading nation in the region

Whether Ranil won the leadership of the UNP by default or not, history has to judge the man by the fact that he has still been able to maintain the UNP as the island’s single largest political party in the grand old party’s 71-year-old turbulent history, of which he has been its longest-serving leader, with no successor in sight

Overall, as a leader and a politician, he is certainly not to be found wanting. He has done much that is good. His thoughts and ideas are of the highest order. All he needs is the will and the unstinting loyalty of his supporters and his trusted advisers to see him through

Ranil’s ascent up the “greasy pole,” in Disraeli’s memorable metaphor, was not rapid nor smooth. But he is the best man for the job at this moment of time. Moreover, given that South Asia is emerging as a geographic sweet spot, we all want Ranil Wickremesinghe to succeed for the sake of the country

 

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