By Rasika Jayakody –
The question should be ‘Who is Ranil?’ some might point out. Identity, however is not only about lineage, gender, ethnicity, religion etc.; it is about ideological choices too. As important is the ‘casting’ which is produced by decision and behavior, and this is what makes the ‘what’ of the title question valid.
UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe is a remnant of the Senanayake-Kotelawala-Jayewardena-Wijewardena family circle that governed post-independent Sri Lanka for more than 25 years.
He was also one of the influential members of the J.R. Jayewardena cabinet which included eminent personalities such as Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Ronnie de Mel and Ranasinghe Premadasa.
When Sirisena Cooray was offered the premiership of the UNP government after the demise of Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993, he nominated Wickremesinghe as the most suitable candidate for the newly vacant position, taking the party’s political future into consideration. His argument was that as Leader of the House, Wickremesinghe was ‘next in line’, even though Sirisena had far greater sway in the party.
Twenty years down the line, the United National Party, which was once the largest political party in the country, has suffered nearly 25 election losses under Wickremesinghe’s leadership. The UNP head-count in Parliament has gone down drastically with a sizable proportion of UNP Parliamentarians crossing over to the government at regular intervals. There is no unity at the top level of the party and as a result of that there is confusion in the rank and file when it comes to matters of national importance. Adding to the misery, a section of parliamentarians and provincial councilors who vehemently push for internal reforms flay the party leadership at open forums causing embarrassment to those who have voted for the UNP for decades.
The organizational structure at the grass roots level is in total disarray and increasing the membership-base of the party seems to be an insurmountable task. As a result of this ground level crisis, traditional UNP voters are reluctant to take the trouble to walk into the polling booth and cast their votes. This was reflected in the fact that UNP could not go beyond the 30% mark in most of the electoral divisions.
Wickremesinghe, needless to say, is one of the most erudite and experienced leaders in present-day political arena, with a sound knowledge on every aspect of politics apart from winning elections. Unfortunately his feudalistic mindset that makes him believe that the UNP is his own fiefdom is the biggest obstacle to the party’s comeback after a series of disastrous election defeats. Due to Wickremesinghe’s feudalistic approach of handling the party’s internal affairs, populist leaders of his camp who are actually “match-winners” have already crossed the aisle of Parliament.
Oblivious to the erosion of the party’s vote-base, Wickremesinghe is appointing district level leaders to spearhead the second tier of the party according to his own whims and fancies, without taking the populist factor into consideration. The UNP leader’s choices are personal and not political as they ought to be. This landlord behavior based on personal preferences has propelled underperformers into the forefront of national politics.
In stark contrast, the Rajapaksa regime has shown far more political maturity and astuteness when it comes to accommodating political opponents. Those who made jibes at President Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was the Opposition and Prime Minister, those who attempted to backstab him in his run-up to presidency in 2005 and those who leveled serious corruption allegations at him over Tsunami funds now hold senior positions in the government, sometimes even stealing the limelight from traditional SLFPers who backed President Rajapaksa all along and against all odds.
When allocating positions, President Rajapaksa places immense faith in the populist factor, regardless of the particular individual’s previous allegiances.
In the recent interview with Al-Jazeera, President Rajapaksa himself acknowledged the multi-coloured nature of his cabinet of ministers referring to some of them as extremists: “Right wing extremists are there, religious extremists are there – the Tamils, the Sinhala, the Muslims – we have all these people in the cabinet. They are all working together and I have to manage them.”
In other words, the Rajapaksa government has covered all bases and developed the ability to manage perception among various sections of society, effectively utilizing the multi-dimensional elements in the cabinet.
Although the UNP Leader has some important resources in his camp one can hardly effective utilization. For instance, there is Karu Jayasuriya a flagship leader who has a strong Sinhala-Buddhist flavor and a clean track record as a politician who did not stain his career with corruption allegations and malpractices. Then there is Mangala Samaraweera who brokered the strongest political alliance – the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) – in the post-independent political history of Sri Lanka. There is Sajith Premadasa who has a solid support from the grassroots voters and excellent credentials of being a leader who can garner the support of the less-privileged sections of the society. Also, the General Secretary of the grand old party is someone coming from an ordinary, non-English speaking family in the hill country, who received his tertiary education at a state university thanks to the free education policy by C.W.W. Kannangara. Therefore, the UNP technically has all the resources which can create a broad platform for various sections of society to come together and form a strong opposition. But it is apparent that there is no cohesive plan to ensure their effective utilization and MPs are operating as individual entities without a strong focus on any long term or short term objective.
What the UNP needs at the moment is an effective plan for utilization of resources and a modern leadership model, replacing the feudalistic approach of the party leader which is entirely based on personal preferences. Parallel to the replacement of the party leader position, there should be an inside-out change in the party at all levels. It is important to realize that the party should operate in a corporate-like manner, covering all elements of its traditional vote-base and consolidating everyone’s strength into one common ground where the party can re-invent itself.
This is something Wickremesinghe’s feudalistic mindset is not willing to entertain even in the face of a series of shameful defeats. Even the minor reforms he makes in the party from time to time reflects his feudalistic mind where benefits accrue only to stooges and unconditional supporters, leaving critics and dissidents out of the equation, resulting in further erosion. This is where the UNP Leader puts himself in a highly disadvantageous position, not in terms of retaining leadership in his party, but in terms of securing power at elections.
So ‘what’ is Ranil and what can Ranil become? As things stand, he is a feudalist and if he cannot re-invent himself, then he must be removed (he doesn’t seem likely to resign) or the UNP must reconcile to defeat after defeat after defeat.
*Rasika Jayakody is a journalist who may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org