By Shyamon Jayasinghe –
“Ranil has fought, won and lost and he can rise again from zero. He is a phoenix personified”
Ranil Wickremesinghe, leader of the United National Party, is due to re-enter parliament shortly. I like to point out that this development is no ordinary event bereft of meaning. Set in context, Ranil’s return is a very significant political development.
It doesn’t surprise even an ordinary political observer why, upon the announcement of the party decision to nominate Ranil (RW) for the only slot this party won at the last elections, a panic has set in among the ranks of the prevailing opposition.
It is indeed both hilarious and ironical that the first to show worry and anxiety were the faction that split the Grand Old Party, dumped its leader as a good-for nothing and got into a new political outfit called the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB).
SJB members are busy using social media to thrash Wickremesinghe left and right. “People don’t like him,” one guy, with a deceitful air of impartiality, tells us. He means, of course that he and his men don’t like RW. “He is coming to back up Mahinda Rajapaksas – on a deal,” says another, leaving its readers trying to figure out the need for Rajapakse support for RW to enter parliament. The one I saw just before writing this, quotes UNP veteran MP John Amaratunga as saying “Ranil apawa ravattuwa,” [Ranil fooled us]. Old John – always well-dressed – was the first to aspire for the vacant slot but Ranil thought otherwise. The latter had not done himself any good as minister during the Yahapalanaya days except being a bite for jokes.
The JVP has also saught to attack Ranil but that party is too well-known over the past as being content with the role of attack dog; uninterested in telling the electorate what constructive plans they have if they, even by magic, happen to win.
Such attacks only expose the felt experience of failure on the part of the parties concerned.They tell more about the latter than about the victim.
The Role of the United National Party in the Political History of Sri Lanka
The United National Party has been the central stabilising and development political force in Sri Lanka’s political history. It had its roots in the Ceylon National Congress and in the era of the Donoughmore State Council. Great work in the revival of our hydraulic civilization – the restoration of irrigation schemes, colonization schemes, creation of Madhya Maha Vidylayas and Maha Vidyalayas, in the development of agriculture, setting up of a university system, wide-range health services and excellent public service and judiciary had been achieved under UNP leaders.
The destruction of this Grand Old Party in 1956 by SWRD brought in the break up of our country, tribalisation, communalisation and finally war. The harmonious development of our society achieved by the UNP was seriously disrupted. An economy with surplus got into the red. The coming of socialism further destroyed our economy. In the guise of socialism wonderfully-run world class tea estates were uprooted; other utility services well-operated by sound managed companies had been taken over and brought down to the ground. “Janasathu kireema” was the popular slogan. What actually happened was that corporations were set up to run the businesses well run by the private sector and these corporations were politicised institutions that were made to give cover to disguised unemployment.
JR at the Helm
The return of the UNP with JR in 1977 restored a lot of what had been destroyed. The liberalised open economy and encouragement to businesses led to prosperity. The Mahaweli Development Scheme and the Free Trade Zones added further boost.
Impact of Proportional Representation on Party Hegemony
Particularly after the new Constitution under JR when Proportional Representation (PR) was introduced, smaller party units formed and rose as decisive role players in the political fabric. Under the former First-Past the Post electoral procedure major parties held monopolistic control. That was a ‘winner takes it all’ system. It wasn’t technically undemocratic as small fish get swallowed up by the big ones. Prevailing democratic thinking drove JR to change that system into proportional representation (PR).
Ever since that change, it had been the case of a big party acting as a major partner in a broader alliance. The change impacted also on the UNP as its one-party hegemony was lost thereafter.
The surprising political triumph of the Yahapalanaya alliance in 2015 was as much a personal victory for Ranil Wickremasinghe as it had been for Maitripala Sirisena who had come up as ‘common candidate’ on the campaign platform. The reason is clear: RW was outright named and announced as the Prime ministerial candidate and he and his party led the entire electoral campaign to gain power. Wickremesinghe got the highest personal poll in recorded Lankan political history-topping, as he did, 500,000 votes in the Colombo District.
Having come to power, the common alliance led by the UNP did reasonably well on all fronts. Independence Commissions helped keep crucial institutions like the judiciary independent. Judges gave indictments even against the government. An air of freedom for the individual reigned. Foreign debt was under some control as regular payments were being made. We had good relations with the IMF and the West. We won GSP Plus.The economy was set to boom with the encouragement of business and free enterprise. Small development projects were spread througout villages under the Gamperaliya program. Young persons were encouraged to invest in businesses with the generous allocation of loans under the Enterprise Sri Lanka Project. The North got is first international airport. Relationships with the North were far from sorted out but definite measures had taken root and the sun of North-South cordiality began to emerge in the sky. Racist and communal outbursts had been kept down. The Freedom of Information Act was passed.
The special focus of yahapalanaya was on economics.There was sound fiscal management and and a move out of an import economy toward exports and foreign investment was noted. Several measures to grant relief to individuals got into place. Salary rises of Rs 10,000 were granted. Pregnant women were given a nourishment pack (Poshana Malla). In education, computerisation in schools was introduced with laptops given to students. Free Wifi was set up in many public places. In health, medicines were halved in price. Free stents were available to heart patients. The ambulance service called Suvaseriya was inaugurated at Ranil Wickremesinghe’s initiative; it is now highly popular although some JVP leaders had warned the patients who get into those vehicles that they can get electrocuted.
The above constitute only a patch of the many achievements under Yahapalanaya.
Unfortunately, Sirisena got hooked by the opposition camp to get back to their fold and to try and break up the UNP. What happened to the party later at election time was a product of Sirisena’s seedy attempts.
The upshot of this U-turn development was that the UNP was defeated badly at polls. Party members got disgusted with the infighting.
Re-entry of Ranil
Given that the Grand Old Party has a historic role to play it is important to take up from this point and rebuild the UNP without a Sirisena to sabotage the party.
The re-entry of Ranil Wickremesinghe to parliament is strategic to the overall strategic need to rebuild the UNP. There is a video going round that shows the considerable work and achievement of Wickremesinghe over 40 years in parliament. Ranil never publicises what he does and this is a political deficiency. He is a spiritually developed, good man who bears no hate for his political foes. Hear evil, but speak no evil. At a recent video interview Ranil was asked why he does not react to harsh personal attacks like those delivered by Sirisena. Ranil’s response tells the man: “that is my way” (eh mage heti). He is still fit and his brain is the only working brain among political leaders in the country.
Ranil has the personal integrity and the philosophy. He has the solutions for the unity and prosperity of our country; but he needs the men and women around him-like the Athulathmudalies and Dissanayakes- who can do the political fighting as he is no shouter-fighter. He is a soft taskmaster but the electorate wants something more dramatic.
There is Fonseka out there and there may be others of worth who can be co-opted. Young man Harin Fernando has great political talent and can be coaxed to join the party.
Ranil has fought, won and lost and he can rise again from zero. He is a phoenix personified