By Dayan Jayatilleka
What is the ‘main contradiction’ in Sri Lanka today? It is that between the very broad national base of support and sacrifice for the war and the resultant peace on the one hand, and the increasingly narrow character of the beneficiaries of the dividends of that popular peace, on the other.
The war was national but the peace dividend and its distribution appear limited. The regime itself appears manifestly national-popular at one moment and latently oligarchic at another. As in economics, it is monopoly that breeds such gross maladies and it is only competition that can rectify things. In Sri Lanka the political marketplace is no longer competitive. That must be changed now—and it can be.
If a tourist who knew absolutely nothing of Sri Lankan politics were told that from 1994, one of Sri Lanka’s two major parties has been led by a Mr. Wickremesinghe while the other has been under a Mrs Kumaratunga and then a Mr Rajapaksa, he or she would think that Mr Wickremesinghe was the country’s long standing president and the other two were leaders of the unsuccessful opposition party! The truth of course is the inverse! Sri Lankan politics suffers from an absurd anomaly and dangerous distortion. While it has a highly successful ruling party which has been under two leaders, it has a highly unsuccessful opposition party which has been under a single leader during the same period. Now that’s a topsy turvy way to be indeed. How can it be allowed to continue without correction?
It was in 1997 that Ranil Wickremesinghe made two decisions that were to derail and then wreck the party. The first was to embrace what became known as the Liam Fox accord, an understanding brokered by Conservative politician Liam Fox, for a bipartisan ( Govt –Opposition) approach to a negotiated solution to the Sri Lankan conflict. Ranil stretched the understanding and stuck to it as Chandrika did not. From that moment, the UNP‘s position was for a peaceful, negotiated solution with the LTTE.
This ran contrary to the UNP’s interests in several ways. As a party that had lost a great number of illustrious leaders at the hands of the murderous Tigers, the UNP had very decent anti-terrorist and patriotic credentials. All these were thrown overboard and the JVP as well as the SLFP’s propagandist were able to turn the Liam fox accord into a dirty word! The second liability incurred was that the UNP was unable to, or did not choose to applaud Chandrika when she did the right thing of resisting the LTTE and criticising Chandrika when she did the wrong thing such as inviting the Norwegian ‘facilitation’ – the wrong country, at the wrong time. Thus the UNP completely divested itself of the patriotic or nationalist credentials at a time in history when they were to be of great importance and even indispensability.
The second decision of 1997 made by Ranil ( of which the Liam Fox move was in fact the derivative or by product) was to affiliate the UNP officially with the International Democratic Union (IDU) the bloc of rightwing parties of the world, led by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. This was preceded and followed by bringing ‘experts’ from those parties to give political classes to the UNP. I remember making three critical points at that time:
firstly, not even during the Cold war, when it could have benefited the UNP financially and strategically, did any UNP leader however rightwing ever affiliate the party with an international ideological bloc. This was why the UNP was flexible enough to sign the Rubber-Rice Pact with Mao’s China in 1952, the Chinese Communist Party delegates were honoured guests at the UNP Conventions during President Premadasa’s tenure and China donated the fabric for his island-wide Free School Uniforms programme, while for their part, JR Jayewardene and Gamini Dissanayake were friends of Fidel Castro.
Secondly, the UNP never needed political classes from Westerners to rebuild and win elections. It was close enough to the grassroots to do so on its own. Despite political training by Ranil’s Western friends —who had lost in their own countries, to Clinton and Blair —the UNP has spent 15 years in opposition, while without the benefit of their wisdom the UNP never spent more than seven years out of office! Thirdly, the UNP has always been a party of welfare and later workfare, from the rice ration to free school uniforms and free midday meal for school children, Janasaviya, the Housing programmes etc, which go completely contrary to the economic philosophy of the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives. Ranil’s embrace of this ideological package explains his harsh economic policies of 2001-2003 and why he lost the elections held soon after his 2004 ouster by Chandrika.
So Ranil the maestro of political strategy adopted a political line and programme which lost him the votes of the Sinhala Buddhists because he was softer on the Tigers than even Chandrika’s PA, but also lost the Sinhala urban and rural poor, because he abandoned the UNP’s traditional economic policies for a savage, free-market fundamentalism.
Ranil’s chronic insensitivity to social trends and historical dynamics do not date from 1997 but from the early 1970s, when he was in the youth wing of the UNP. Reeling from defeat at the hands of a centre-left coalition backed by a mobilisation of the youth, and then stunned as was the rest of society by the violent youth rebellion of April 1971, the UNP proceeded to react and respond to the phenomena and social dynamics. Opposition MP Premadasa attended every session of the Criminal Justice Commission (the trial of Wijeweera), Rukman Senanayake wrote a piece on Che Guevara to an Indian magazine named Himaat, JR Jayewardene shifted the party’s discourse leftward, Esmond Wickremesinghe radicalised the line of the UNP Journal, Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamani Dissanayake and Tyronne Fernando joined the party as Young Turks with a populist or British Labourite critique of the SLFP’s feudalism. Karunasena Kodituwakku was being promoted as a progressive youth leader within the party.
Ranil stood icily aloof and alone from this re-invention of the UNP – a rebranding which energised it for 17 years, under two reformist leaders, JRJ and Premadasa. Ranil and a small group of loyalists, with one foot in the Kelaniya group and the other in the student wing of the party, remained consciously Rightwing and elitist in their ideology. It is this type of coterie he installed in the UNP since he took over; this economic philosophy he put into practice as Prime Minister, and this contempt for mass sentiment he displayed with his CFA and line of the LTTE.
At the Presidential election of 1999 and the parliamentary election of 2000, Ranil lost because of his line on the Tigers. In 1999 he was seen on TV, sitting under a tree, cracking his ‘joke’ on ‘handing Chandrika over to Prabhakaran’. In 2000, it was his celebratory attitude to the capture of Elephant pass by the LTTE (there were reports of toasts on a trip to Chennai) that did the UNP in electorally. At the elections after his ouster as PM, the issues were the CFA and the humiliation of the military personnel at the Athurigiriya safe house. The SLFP propagandists quite smartly contrasted this wimpish attitude towards the Tamil Tigers with Ranil’s mode of conduct in relation to armed Sinhala youth, by bringing forward eyewitnesses who testified on Rupavahini programmes, to gruesome goings on at Batalanda. Even when he was briefly PM, Ranil never filed a case against Rupavahini alleging false reportage!
Ranil Wickremesinghe now attempts to pin on his lapel like a medal of honour, a purported remark by either Prabhakaran or Balasingham that he, Ranil was a fox. However, during the Presidential election campaign of common Opposition candidate Gen Fonseka in Dec 2009-Jan 2010, Ranil Wickremesinghe complained in an interview on a European based pro-Eelam Tamil TV station, that though he had been called a fox, he had never once, even after Prabhakaran’s death, uttered a single word of criticism against him! That interview was on YouTube.
Ranil followed this up during the most recent parliamentary election campaign by two statements, one in Jaffna and quoted on Tamilnet and the other in a YATV interview, that if the UNP wins, all high security zones and military bases would be removed, and that the Sri Lankan military could restrict itself to the Jaffna fort. All of this goes to show exactly how intelligent the thinking of Ranil Wickremesinghe really is.
An opposition leader is usually able to win over the bulk of the youth vote and the new vote which is a protest vote; the floating vote and the women’s vote (the latter on cost of living issues) – and this is more so when it is the second term of an incumbent administration—but Ranil has managed to lose all those instinctively, naturally oppositional voter segments, donating them right back to the governing coalition.
Ranil Wickremesinghe who mistakenly prides himself on being a master strategist, attempted to offset this weakness on the majority front, by supporting and actually creating and promoting Sinhala Buddhist extremist proxies to launch flanking moves on President Kumaratunga’s various attempts at regional autonomy. From fundamentalist televangelism to Wimal Weerawansa’s diatribes against the August 2000 draft Constitution, the Sinhala fundamentalists piggybacked on the pro-UNP private media, chiefly the TNL.
This was of course a replay of the role of the Sinhala language papers of the Wijewardana press during the anti-Tamil race riots of 1958, and more generally the racist rightwing politics of the Kelaniya wing of the UNP from Wimala Wijewardana in the ‘50s to Cyril Mathew in the ‘80s. This strategic brilliance of Ranil Wickremesinghe resulted NOT in the JHU cutting into the SLFP’s Sinhala Buddhist vote base as he had expected, but breaking off the suburban middle class Sinhala Buddhist vote of the UNP itself!
One must concede though that Ranil has a unique record in electoral politics. He is the only politician I can think of against whom his opponents successfully used a slow-motion video clip of him waving a national flag and then clapping (yes, clapping) his hands. That TV clip was repeated on state television ad nauseam and every time it was shown he lost more votes.
How on earth can a serious political party continue to retain a leader whose presence at meetings and on the platform is dreaded by the party organisers of any given area, and worse, whose very deportment when shown on TV, causes a haemorrhage of votes? How can it continue to have as its leader, a man whose most memorable political slogan was "Mahinda Poda!"?
By contrast, whatever his flaws and shortcomings, Sajith Premadasa actually generates some enthusiasm and hope among the rank and file and grassroots voters of the UNP. Nowhere in the global South do the masses rally round a Leadership Committee – as ridiculously suggested by those fence-sitters chronically incapable of decision and thereby prolonging Ranil’s presence and the Opposition’s painful debility. (‘Having to choose between Barabbas and Jesus, the liberal appoints a committee’ said Carl Schmitt, famously).
So, in effect, the UNP activist in a village supposed to answer his SLFP interlocutor (whose highly visible leader is Mahinda Rajapakse) who asks him who his leader is, "er...umm...we couldn’t decide, so we are led by a...Leadership Council"! The people rally around a leader; a name, a personality; in the age of televised politics, a face. In Asia it tends, for better or worse, to be a youthful, instantly recognisable and popular personality from a well-known and loved (even if controversial) political family.
The UNP swung from one erroneous policy to another. For a brief period, under President DB Wijetunga, the UNP adopted a hawkish Sinhala policy ("tree and creepers"), and thereby donated the UNP’s traditional minority vote base in 1994 to Chandrika’s refurbished and modernised SLFP. Under Ranil the UNP has made exactly the opposite error: by pandering to minoritarianism it has lost its irreducible vote base among the Sinhala peasantry.
The way forward for the UNP lies in the Middle Path, between the disastrous deviations of Wijetunga and Wickremesingha.