Ranil Wickremasinghe is an honourable politician. People with principled politics are a rare breed in Sri Lanka fast becoming extinct. Such politicians usually say what they mean and mean what they say.
They do not for example put down certain things in black and white in their manifesto and then try to win support from interest groups saying "Dont worry about those".Such men do not cling to the trappings of office at whatever cost. Politics is very often a vocation and not a profession for them. Their political masters are the people who voted them in. If the people disapprove of them - rightly or wrongly - they simply detach themselves off from pursuing politics actively thereafter.
This is not a case of making a virtue out of necessity. There are many who facing rejection at the polls revise position in an opportunistic manner to prolong their politics. There are however a few who prefer to opt out of politics rather than stay on till they are finally asked to go in the name of God.Despite the derisive criticism of his detractors to the contrary , Ranil Wickremasinghe too is a man who will not cling on to power or political positions stubbornly. When the UNP was defeated in 1994 Ranil was the incumbent premier. He moved out swiftly from Temple Trees and accepted defeat with grace.Today he is a defeated Presidential candidate again. He lost in 1999 too. Apart from 2001 Dec the other Parliamentary elections faced under his leadership were all unsuccessful for the UNP. Even Provincial and Local Authority polls were not huge successes.In spite of these electoral reversals there was no demand from within the party seeking his removal. For one thing there was really no alternative and also the party subscribed wholly to his policies.Ranil was unlucky.
In 1999 the LTTE screwed his chances by the suicide attack on Chandrika Kumaratunga who won on the sympathy vote. This time the tigers destroyed his chances through the enforced boycott in the Tamil dominated regions. In spite of this the Mahinda Rajapakse majority was only 186, 000 plus. Mahinda got 50. 3 % to Ranil's 48. 4%.This time some sections in the party may think Ranil has to go. He himself may be advised to do so by some.. It is felt that the UNP lost influence among the Sinhala people due to Ranil's enlightened approach towards the Tigers. But the LTTE has stabbed Ranil in the back by its enforced boycott. Had the Tamils been allowed to vote freely Ranil would have been the victor with a 200 - 300, 000 majority.Given this resentment over the LTTE betrayal there is an opinion within the rank and file that the UNP modify its policies and change its functional style to suit majoritarian tendencies.
Unless Ranil is willing to change himself accordingly he is likely to be viewed as an impediment. Powerful calls asking him to quit may arise in the future. Ranil realises this and may want to bow out gracefully.Instead of waiting for someone else to make the demand Ranil may voluntarily and sincerely offer to step down. He is expected to do so at the forthcoming party working committee and Parliamentary Committee meetings. There will no doubt be an outcry that he should not go. But Ranil is not likely to heed that. He may relinquish office as both Party leader and Leader of Opposition. Already his friend and trusted deputy Malik Samarawickrema has quit party chairpersonship. Ranil may still opt to remain as MP till the next election. If there is no early sign of that he may think of resigning that too.
Already the minority communities are upset over this proposed change of leadership. With all his drawbacks the minorities have come to trust Ranil. This includes the greater part of the Sri Lankan Tamils too who voted for him wherever they were not restricted. In the Presidential stakes all eleven districts won by Ranil had substantial concentrations of the ethnic and religious minorities. So great is the minority discomfiture over Ranil's impending departure that a strong request is being made for him to remain as leader of the United National Front at least.When Sir John Kotalawela was defeated in 1956 he remained as a "Parliamentarian in absentia" till 1960 and then quit politics. He remained aloof from the party and did not involve himself in any way. When Dudley Senanayake resigned due to health reasons and the Hartal fall out in 1953 he quit politics for a while. He then returned to politics in 1957 and led the UNP to victory twice. After the 1970 defeat Dudley let JR Jayewardene become opposition leader while retaining party leadership. In another recent example Chandrika Kumaratunga went into self - exile in 1988 after her husband Vijayas murder but returned in the nineties to resume politcs and achieve remarkable success.
What Ranil will do remains unclear for now? Will he continue politics in a secondary capacity or maintain a detached interest or quit outright remains to be seen. Let it not be forgotten that Ranil Wickremasinghe is not a spent force. He is still a political force to be reckoned with. His electoral defeat was not a total washout. It was a narrow defeat. Also it was not a defeat of his political strategy too.Weerawansa may be crowing that the poll has proved that the minority votes are not needed for victory. There are many takers for this claim. In fact the UNP may allow itself be stampeded into such a mindset.What the likes of Weerawansa forget is that had the principal minority in the Country been allowed to vote freely and fairly the result would have been different. In that sense Mahinda's victory was in a sense due to the LTTE. The Sinhala extremists like the JVP and JHU have together with the LTTE Tamil extremists succeeded in making Mahinda win.
What this election has proved is that when a Sinhala candidate pandering to extremist views is challenged by a Sinhala moderate the minority communities must stand by the latter unitedly and vote in large numbers.The LTTE betrayal must surely rankle in Ranil's mind. It was he who de- proscribed them and signed a ceasefire proffering many advantages and legitimacy. If the ceasefire had not strengthened the tigers in Government controlled areas like Jaffna the LTTE may not have succeeded in its boycott to this extent. Yet the tigers condemned Ranil and got him defeated. What may be more hurting is the news trickling down about an alleged SP Thamilselvan - Tiran Alles "deal" that caused the LTTE to enforce a boycott to let Mahinda win. However much the LTTE betrayal rankles the uppermost concern for Ranil must be the rejection by the majority of Sinhala voters. An unscientific estimate states that Mahinda got 61% of the Sinhala Buddhist vote.Despite this his small majority was due to the minority vote going in large numbers to Ranil. But for Ranil the fact that he failed to get the majority votes must be painful. Ranil was deprived of those votes mainly due to the unfair and unfounded charge that he had made a sordid deal with the LTTE to sell out the Sinhalese and divide Sri Lanka. He was portrayed as a traitor and called a latter day Don Juan Dharmapala.Apart from this emotional aspect there is a pragmatic one too. Even if the minority votes help someone to win such victory alone is not enough to achieve a solution to the ethnic problem.
For a lasting settlement the majority of the majority community must support it too. This was denied Ranil. Against such a backdrop Ranil may very well feel that he has been rejected by the Sinhala - Buddhist majority for the wrong reason. This heartburn may compel him to drop out of politics altogether . Sir John Kotalawela too had that frame of mind.It was the ceasefire brought about by Ranil that helped the Country to get out from economic doldrums. During his short tenure as "effective" Prime Minister from 2001 Dec - 2003 Nov the long neglected North and East achieved a 12 % and 10 % percent economic growth respectively. The rest of the Country too grew. After his government was dismissed the economic situation has deterorated under Premier Rajapakse.The GDP growth rate declined from 6.6% to 5.2%. The budget deficit went up from 7.3% to 8.2%. The trade deficit increased from $ 1.3 billion to $2.2 billion. The current account deficit increased from $ 71 million to $ 648 million. Foreign aid utilisation came down from 27% to 18% .The crux of the matter was that Ranil's economic and ethnic conflict resolution policies were the best possible for Sri Lanka under the present circumstances. A Country divided already in a "de - facto" manner would have been reunited "de- jure" through the exploration of a federal solution. Instead of welcoming the man with such policies he was condemned as a traitor. His real and perceived personality traits were harped upon as deficiencies. Wearing a shawl, grinning broadly and being easily accessible to the so called common man and not the ability of good governance was projected as being the qualifications necessary to be President. The man who will surely plunge this Country into ruin if he follows his "chinthana" has been preferred for his unprincipled populism as opposed to the man of real substance.In such a situation one fully understands Ranil's desire to step down. He does not want further embarassment from sections of the party clamouring for his removal in the future. After all people like Ranil do not need politics as a career to oil their palms or fatten their purses. He is perhaps one of the last in the dwindling tribe of gentleman politicians.
This column however wishes to make an appeal that Ranil Wickremasinghe should not quit politics. He must even review any decision he may have taken to step down from party and opposition leadership. His quitting now along with Kumaratunga also going will create a tremendous void in Sri Lankan politics. This will seriously undermine the rational element in Sinhala political leadership. The vacuum will be filled by the irrational element of Sinhala political leadership. The time has not come for Ranil to bid farewell.The Mahinda victory is only Pyrrhic. Instead of throwing in the towel like a gentleman Ranil should take firm hold of the party reins like a street - fighter politico. After doing an intensive postmortem on the elections Ranils should devise new strategies and tactics while retaining the core values of his political philosophy. This column would urge the UNP to prevail upon Ranil to continue in office and continue to support him.
The only change that Ranil must do is cultivate a people friendly image and appeal to the rural masses without compromising on principles.This writer has no doubt that it will only be a matter of time before the Sinhala people realise their folly in rejecting him. There will be clamouring for him to return to leadership one day. The very same Kumaratunga who dismissed his government in 2004 on spurious charges faced up to her enormous blunder in 2005. Likewise the time is not far when the Sinhala electorate regrets its mistake in spurning dull yet solid gold for bright, worthless copper.Until then let Ranil bide his time. He owes this to the Country, nation, party and above all himself. Being a Royalist Ranil may think of learning or departing. But Ramil must not depart because the voters havent learnt yet. They will learn. Until then do not depart but follow the Thomian motto of be thou forever.."Esto Perpetua " Ranil!
[Morning Leader - Nov 23, 2005]