By Sarath de Alwis –
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political narrative begins in 1977 with his election to Parliament at the age 28. His political path runs parallel to Sri Lanka’s triple lane highway to the Executive Presidency, Market Liberalization and the ethnic firestorm that engulfed and nearly consumed it. A study of his political biography is a discovery of the compelling complexities of our era. It is a vicarious witnessing of our descent in to a cruel ethnic inferno, suppression of a Sothern insurrection with a state brutality that has few parallels in human history, a firsthand experience of political obscenity with the ‘Lampu Kalagedi ‘referendum, the near total collapse of the rule of law and lastly our discovery and realization for a return to political civility and good governance. There remains another hurdle. The military resolution has not appeased memory and prejudice.
The four decades between 1977 and 2017 had different periods. There were periods of hope, change, experiment and promise. There were also periods of decay and degeneration. These multiple periods constitute the era that is mirrored by the political biography of Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The time context
When Ranil entered politics the Minster of Telecommunications [He later became Prime Minister and President] was a popular and coveted Minister. He could allocate telephones. He dispensed connectivity. He was the Czar of connectivity.
Today, we review his political biography at a time when the current incumbent of the same Ministry is wrestling with Google’s Internet Booming Balloons. Phone reloads are accessed at every street corner.In this age, connectivity is everybody’s entitlement and nobody’s business. But some things have not changed.
Monks Elle Gunawansa, Medagoda Abayatissa , Bengamuwe Nalaka – a random selection of a larger drift , are still in command and control of memory and prejudice of the majority community. To make matters worse Marxist political scientists have discovered that the Cholas invaded Lanka in 2nd century BC.
The politics of the project
The grand launch of the book ‘Ranil Wickremesinghe – a political biography’ at the BMICH is evidence of the earnestness of the enterprise.
The presentation of the first copy to the President, the introduction of Ranil – the subject of the book by Rajitha Senaratne the keeper of the conscience of the good governance government [Assuming that it has one] demonstrates that it is a sales pitch for a failing endevour now in its last lap. [This writer has given up hope]
There is an uncanny, spectral similarity to another political biography- ‘Premadasa of Sri Lanka’, brought out at a time when the siege ring was tightening around its protagonist.
Judging Ranil against history is not easy. Marx said ‘… men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please, but under circumstances encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living…”
A study of Ranil’s politics demands empathetic imagination. Concocted history does not help.
Yet, the book serves a serious purpose. It compels us to search for a more authentic account and an honest explanation of events in the period from 1977 to 2017. The sum total of Ranil’s political biography is captured in the sardonic fatalism of poet W.B. Yeats. ‘Life is a long preparation for something that never happens. ‘
A dispassionate assessment
Ranil’s bold bid to reach a final negotiated settlement with Prabhakaran by signing a cease fire agreement testifies to the man’s political courage. A military victory is only a respite. It does not erase or remove the memory of multiple layers and levels of sovereignties that existed before the emergence of the modern nation state. The illusive civic nation made of competing tribal components needs cohesion that can be achieved only through negotiation and accommodation.
Ranil was right in seeking a negotiated settlement. That he failed in the attempt does not diminish his logic of resolving post-colonial nationalisms.
His collusive politics with Mahinda Rajapaksa in the years in opposition can be variously labeled as expedience, cunning, indifference or pure and simple apathy.
Rajapaksa’s blatantly dictatorial attempt of subverting the judiciary saw the Leader of the Opposition Ranil riding Gondolas discovering the romance of Venice. He prohibited his MPs from responding to notices from the court of appeal. His complicity in the impeachment of the chief justice was apparent when he berated the party MPs for attending the Court of Appeal proceedings. In politics truth is a relative term and facts are riddled with counter facts. It is getting worse and wider with alternative facts.
Ranil a product of history
Historical necessity made Ranil a leadership contender. The populist President Premadasa had little patience with the establishment. He picked the remarkably, unremarkable D.B. Wijetunge to be his Prime Minister. He picked Ranil, the relatively junior prototypical UNP figure and therefore less remarkable, to be the Leader of the House. That was Premadasa’s way of telling Lalith and Gamini ‘Up yours.’
Ranil’s real ascendancy to leadership begins when random events made him Prime Minister on 7th May 1993. These events of the past continue to haunt us in to the present. The fragments discernible to this day, of those traumatic events defy either accurate reconstruction or our reasoned comprehension.
Ranil’s political biographer while chronicling events since independence resorts to some distortions that need correction. On page 20 in Chapter 2 ‘Political Background’ he writes “It is said that after D.S. Senanayake, independent Sri Lanka’s first Premier’s death in 1952, the premiership of the country should have been passed on to JR. However Buddhist priests vehemently objected to the arrangement, resultantly the premiership ultimately passing to Dudley. Buddhist priests wanted the leadership transferred to Dudley because JR’s father was a Christian.”
This is pure fiction. At the time of the death of D.S.Senanayake the first Prime Minister, the next in line was Sir John Kotelawala , who was the Leader of the House.
He continues the fiction further on page 20. “In the case of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike (a Christian by birth but who changed his religion for politics) who swept the polls four years later, in 1956, the story was different. S.W.R.D. triumphed primarily under the Sinhala Buddhist card, making race and religion his clarion call, thus appealing to the then 72% Sinhala Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. The same strategy Mahinda tried to pull off in January 2015, but failed.” Emphasis mine.
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been and will remain a consequential leader. He deserves a better and a more balanced political biography.
That said, we cannot let the gains of 8th January 2015 to be hijacked by philistine pamphleteering.
SWRD looms large even today. The rivalry of Maithree and Mahinda to claim title to the doctrinaire endowment and political mantle of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike is sufficient proof. Accusing S.W.R.D. Banaranaike of playing the race card is as bad as accusing the Pope of playing the ‘God’ card.
The present day UNP apparatchiks need to learn post-independence history. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike did not play the Sinhala Buddhist card. His was by far the sharpest intellect of any leader since independence.
That his call for social justice and equity resonated more with the Sinhala Buddhist majority was due to another post-colonial phenomenon – the rise of a vernacular oriented middle class. His emissaries to the people were the quintet of Sangha, Veda, Guru, Govi, Kamkaru. This quintet was institutionalized post 1956 and its residual remnants still manages to hold the SLFP wobbly but standing.
JR Jayewardene made Ranil a deputy minister in 1977 not because of his kinship with Ranil. In appointing the manifestly bright and brainy son, to ministerial office, JRJ was acknowledging and repaying a debt he owed to Esmond Wickremesinghe, his trusted consiglieri during his lonely years of waiting.
Once in power, JRJ wasted no time. His destiny was to shape destiny which he did forcefully and furiously. He dragged out a centrally planned economy from its insulated socialist cocoon. He hurled it in to the turbulence of a market economy at one fell swoop. Foreign trade was deregulated overnight. The Rupee was devalued by nearly 45%. Food subsidies that once made a UNP Prime Minister to resign were removed. Export processing zones were introduced. The changes were so swift, that JR redefined progress which was now measured in terms of speed in implementation.
These were not suddenly discovered policies. They were conceived in long hours of deliberations, when lesser men were exercising power and dispensing remedies, when lesser men were taking refuge in orthodoxy and resisting innovation.
Two men of destiny
Esmond Wickeremesinghe and JRJ were ardent free marketers. They strongly urged Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake to open up the economy in 1965. At the time it was a heretical idea. It had no precedent except in Lee Kwan Yew‘s Singapore. Dudley demurred.
He demurred, not because he feared political opposition. Opposition to JR and Esmond came from within.
Dudley’s trusted economic advisor Dr.Gamani Corea was a disciple of Raúl Prebisch whom he later succeeded as Secretary General of UNCTAD.
They were different times. The Chicago school was yet to make its presence felt. Milton Freidman was yet to discover the cost of a free lunch. The conventional wisdom as advanced by Prebisch and his followers was that third world economies had a way out through internal reforms and not by excessive focus on external trade. The way out for poorer countries was not trade but import substitution. That eliminates the need for manufactured products from richer countries. They should export primary produce to richer countries but save the foreign exchange.
To audacious and exuberant Esmond Wickremasinghe, the dependency theory was positively repugnant. He detested controls that inhibited entrepreneurial initiatives. To him the sedate highbrow economist Gamini Corea was a control freak. JR was an equally enthusiastic collaborator and an unhesitant free market missionary.
Already, Cousin Upali Wijewardene was showing signs of an entrepreneurial Ninja. He took advantage of the ‘Open General License Scheme’ that Dr.Corea had grudgingly acquiesced in. He assembled a modern Mazda car by importing its components under OGL. JRJ liked his Mazda and used it with fond care.
Esmond scoffed at the Dependency theory experts who allowed the import of Mini Mokes ostensibly to grow more food but used by the affluent class to take children to school.
The differences between J.R. Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake had more to do with their respective approaches to power than their personal ambitions.
Autopsy of a nation
Once in power, JRJ had to pay a heavy price for those market reforms. He had to ensure that his economic reforms will not be subverted by chauvinist segments who could and would construe opening of the economy as adulterating pristine values of an imagined heritage.
Dr. Rajesh Venugopal of the London School of Economics has made an incisive analysis of the Jayawardene years when Sri Lanka adopted a market economy. He captures its internal contradictions with dazzling clarity.
“Why did the UNP, a party identified primarily with the interests of Sri Lanka‟s capitalist class and committed to market reform, become a key participant in the escalation of a brutal civil war that was counter-productive to their material interests?
The answer is profoundly penetrating. Market reforms had the latent potential of provoking Sinhala nationalist opposition. [Listen to present day GMOA lunatics on India Sri Lanka ETCA agreement]
In JRJ’s zeitgeist, Market liberalization held the key to ‘nirvana.’ The UNP decided to outflank the insular nationalist forces. His fears were genuine.
He never comprehended why his dear friend and class mate Colvin, the Bolshevik Leninist, ended up drafting a constitution that conferred constitutional primacy on Buddhism. If a doctrinaire Trotskyites can be tamed in to an ecclesiastic enthusiast, anything was possible.
He was not ready to allow chauvinist racist elements to hijack his economic agenda. The Tower hall melody ‘Danno Budunge’ appeared to be popular at national and presidential events. The President, however was quietly humming to himself ‘I did it my way’.
In Cyril Mathew, JRJ found what he thought was the perfect counter to the opposition he feared. That the antitoxic was more toxic than the perceived threat is the story of the four decades from 1977 to 2017 less the five years 2010-2015 – the brazenly neo fascist Rajapaksa rule. No wonder, Mahinda Rajapaksa made son Nanda Mathew a provincial governor.