By Dayan Jayatilleka –
‘They had come from different hemispheres of the night, from different worlds of thought and conduct…“Oh God” said Smiley aloud, “Who was then the gentleman…?” ’
–‘Call for the Dead’, John Le Carre
Vasudeva Nanayakkara simply shouldn’t have said what he did about Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It was un-parliamentary and unfair. Why then did it happen? What triggered it? What does it all mean and portend?
At one level what it means is that the delay in holding the parliamentary election is utterly unconscionable and unwise. The confrontations in the Northern streets and in the parliament simply mean that the safety valves have to be opened and the head of steam that has built up released by means of an election, or else the points of tension will proliferate and polarization will accelerate.
The clashes on the Northern streets and the verbal clashes in the parliament point to the need for a swift end to this blocked transition. We need a legitimate and broad-based government, and we don’t have one.
When Vasudeva sees Ranil Wickremesinghe, he sees a much larger political and historical obscenity than the one he uttered: an unelected Prime Minister who does not command a majority in the legislature but has embarked upon a course, not of consensus building but of legal repression of the much larger Opposition. He also sees a man with a history of violent suppression of Opposition protests. Therefore, when rudely asked to sit down, he vented.
This situation is only partially the fault of Ranil Wickremesinghe. He was after all, ready for an election any time after April 23 and called for one. What he should have done was to make it the theme and demand of his successful May Day parade and rally. He didn’t and will probably be unable to generate as much momentum again, in order to do so—though he boasted publicly of getting a hundred, two hundred or three hundred thousand marchers to Colombo if he wanted to push elections through.
Ranil’s real fault lies in not conducting himself in a manner that an unelected PM who heads a minority government should. He should have treaded softly, opened a conversation, built consensus, and limited himself to constructive measures. Instead he was arrogant and aggressive in discourse and actions. He has proved himself a riskily polarizing figure once again and thereby contributed to the radicalization of the opposition, including the SLFP—making things rather tricky for President Sirisena.
Ranil is proving counterproductive on more important and quite specific policy fronts: economic, ethnic and external.
The scandal over the Central Bank bonds, with its fallout on the island’s image in the world’s money markets, would have been far less controversial had the PM not appointed a non-Sri Lankan as the head of the country’s Central Bank, resulting in the affront of the country’s currency notes displaying the signature of a non-national.
The growing southern nationalist backlash and the radicalization of populist nationalism, which has its fallout within the SLFP, is not taking place because of President Sirisena or as a reaction against him, but is gaining traction precisely because of those notorious appeasers, Ranil and Chandrika. Against this backdrop, President Sirisena has done well to appoint Champika Ranawaka to the Constitutional Council.
To return to the Vasu versus Ranil controversy, it holds up a mirror before the contemporary political history of Sri Lanka, as well as the choices before us. Vasu and Ranil come from two very different places on the political spectrum. They have travelled on two alternative tracks. They are almost antipodal. They each represent half the story of the last half a century of Sri Lanka’s history.
Ranil and Vasudeva emerged at the same time in global, Asian and Sri Lankan history. They belonged to the generation of the Vietnam War and the April ’71 uprising. The patron saint, the symbol in the sky of youth the world over was Che Guevara. Ranil and Vasu were on opposite sides. For half a century since, Vasu and Ranil have always stood—barring the Accord/JVP interlude of the late 1980s—on opposite sides of the barricades.
This ideological and philosophical polarity cannot be reduced to party politics and the UNP as such. As a young Municipal Councilor in 1957, Ranasinghe Premadasa had toured Russia and China and returned to write a sympathetic booklet. After the April ’71 uprising he attended every sitting of the Criminal Justice Commission proceedings in order to understand what made Wijeweera and the other young rebels tick. Rukman Senanayake wrote a piece in the Indian journal ‘Himmat’ in the early 1970s in which he identified Che Guevara as his hero.
Thus the UNP always contained a socially sensitive, progressive current. Ranil Wickremesinghe was on its opposite side within the party. His caucus within the party’s youth/students front and the Kelaniya branch were hard-core radical right-wingers.
From his political appearance in the very early 1970s, Ranil represented the pro-Western, ruthlessly repressive Rightwing of the UNP—ruthlessly repressive towards Southern opposition and dissent, not towards Northern separatism, that is. The sole exception of this hardcore rightist option was the brief period in which Ranil sought and obtained the support of the Premadasa faction as represented by Sirisena Cooray in 1993-1996 and therefore shifted to a vaguely social democratic stand. Having obtained in 1994, the vital post of UNP organizer for Colombo Central from Cooray, Ranil shafted the latter when he was framed and locked up by Chandrika in 1997.
By stark contrast, since his own emergence at roughly the same time or slightly earlier, Vasudeva always represented the anti-imperialist, socially progressive, populist left. He was jailed by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime in 1971 and by the JR Jayewardene regime in 1983. On both occasions the charges were false.
I might add that both Vasu and Mahinda Rajapaksa were jailed, on separate occasions in the first half of the 1980s, by the UNP government in which Ranil was a Minister. Mahinda was taken away in handcuffs, smiling, and was taken to his mother’s funeral from jail, where he had spent a few months. As such they share a set of political experiences and trajectories, though their ideological formations were rather different. Vasu, Dinesh Gunawardena and Mahinda Rajapaksa belong to the same political generation as Ranil, but this trio belongs to political streams that almost always acted as allies since 1956. They comprise the bloc of Centre-Left forces, or what they would call “the progressive camp”. They, together with Nanda Ellawala and Sarath Muttetuwegama, represented the tough young strain of anti-UNP politicians who faced and fought a hard authoritarian UNP which had a five sixths steam-roller in parliament.
For them, their generational contemporary Ranil was always ‘The Other’– ideologically, socially and temperamentally— in a manner that the older Premadasa and even JRJ never quite were. In the eyes of Mahinda, Vasu and Dinesh, Ranil is simultaneously a more dangerous and much smaller personality than his predecessors as UNP leader. Therefore, to be rudely instructed to sit down by Ranil when the Speaker had permitted Vasu to make a point of order would have triggered an emotional charge of particular intensity.
Ranil, Mahinda, Vasu and Dinesh have one thing in common though: none of them have changed fundamentally. Shortly after he became party leader, Ranil broke with fifty years of UNP tradition and formally aligned his party with the Global Right, by obtaining membership of the International Democratic Union co-chaired by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. His economic policy is neoliberal and his international policy unabashedly aligned with the US-UK. He never uses the term Non-Alignment. (He was so far out in right field, that President Jayewardene, the NAM Chair, removed him after a mere year, from the post of Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs.)
The appointment of a non-national as Central Bank Governor, the ongoing wave of legal repression of the numerically large Opposition by the minority UNP Government, and Ranil’s discourse and conduct in parliament shows that his elitist arrogance has only worsened with age. If Ranil wins the parliamentary election we know what to expect.
Ranil represents the borderless Right, Vasu the patriotic Left. Ranil represents, as he has always done, ruthless rule; Vasu represents as he always has, resistance and rebellion. Ranil is an elitist, Vasu a populist. Ranil a reactionary ruler, Vasu a permanent rebel. Ranil is arrogant, Vasu is defiant.
Ranil and Vasu represent two philosophies and world outlooks; two opposed ways of being. Ranil is an Iago-esque conspirator and manipulator; Vasu an orator and fighter. Ranil is an Iceman, Vasu a firebrand. If statues were to be cast for these two ontological opponents, this is how I see them: his foot on the neck of the patriotic masses, Ranil bows before the West, tugging his forelock; Vasu stands upright, clenched fist upraised, his beard thrusting forward, a shout forming on his lips.
The Vasu versus Ranil fight holds up a mirror before us: do we find ourselves more in solidarity with Ranil or with Vasu? Do we feel closer to Vasu or to Ranil? Do we find ourselves standing with, or nearer to, Vasu or to Ranil? Who are we really?