Ranil Wickremesinghe is a loyal old boy of Royal College who is seen regularly at the innumerable functions of his old school.
Being loyal to one’s alma mater is indeed an admirable trait but Wickremesinghe does not seem to follow the vital advice of his old school emblazoned on his school flag: Disce Aut Discede — Learn or depart. On the contrary, he seems to be following the motto of his old school rival S. Thomas’ College: Esto Perpetua — Be thou forever. A basic criticism made against him has been that he wants to continue as leader of the UNP and refuses to give up leadership of his party despite the many stunning defeats he has led it into. Wickremesinghe appears to be endowed with his rival school’s spirit of Thomian grit — never say die, even when the sky falls on you.
Old school loyalties apart, leadership of the oldest and one of the most powerful parties is of vital national interest. The failure of the party since 1995 is attributed to the poor leadership of Wickremesinghe. He does not seem to believe in the axiom that those who do not learn from history are condemned to re-live the past.
Wickremesinghe was suffered many defeats both under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. In defence of him it is said that he fought by the Queensberry rules where as his opponent is a natural exponent of pol adi. But in this day and age what matters is who is standing firm on the canvass and who is groping on it.
Since he became the leader of the UNP, he has made colossal blunders. After he became prime minister following his only convincing political victory (at a parliamentary election) he on his own did a deal with Velupillai Prabhakaran — the so called Peace Accord. While it did bring about a temporary cessation of hostilities, it created a de facto separate state with boundaries clearly demarcated. His attempts with the so called international community to work out a peace agreement was bound to flop because Prabhakaran did not want a federal solution that was being proposed, but a separate state. Wickremesinghe’s poor judgement resulted in disaster.
His ‘peace agreement’ with the LTTE also did not prevent Prabhakaran pulling the carpet under his feet by issuing a fatwa to all Tamils not to cast their ballots — ballots that were expected to pile up for Wickremesinghe. He misjudged himself, in that he was more powerful in the eyes of Prabhakaran than Rajapaksa because he had the backing of the international community that could cripple the Tamil expatriate LTTE financial power — the motive force of the LTTE.
While Mahinda Rajapaksa was President, Wickremesinghe was gullible enough to believe that Rajapaksa wanted to come to terms with the UNP to get the required parliamentary majority. It resulted in 18 UNP cut-throats crossing over to the government on the promise of cabinet portfolios with all perks given to ministers. This resulted in the Grand Old Party being virtually brought to its knees while it assured a very stable Rajapaksa government.
Despite all his regrettable experience, Wickremesinghe now engages himself in talks of amending the constitution in concurrence with Rajapaksa. The obvious question Wickremesinghe should ask himself is: Why should Rajapaksa, now firmly ensconced in presidency and with an assured two thirds majority in parliament, now require his services in constitution making? It could be said that Rajapaksa is seeking the cooperation of the main opposition party in formulating a constitution in accordance with democratic practice and convention. Wickremesinghe should at least now realise from his bad experiences that Rajapaksa is no follower of constitutional niceties and traditions and he has another move up his sleeve. Most probably he wants Ranil Wickremesinghe’s finger prints on some political goondas that is being worked out, which he would present as his own proposals after ditching Wickremesinghe. If the move goes wrong, it would be declared as a Wickremesinghe proposal. If it works out, it would be once again, an illustration of the incomparable Mahinda Chinthanaya. It is once again the Rajapaksa ‘karapincha strategy’ at play: Inveigling opposition members to his service, making use of them and then ditching them as used curry leaves in the sink.
Wickremesinghe is once again acting on his own. Has he obtained party permission for negotiation on so vital an issue?
The first issue taken up by the two leaders is the non extension of the third term of presidency. Why this change of heart by Rajapaksa after going public on his intentions? He is agreeable to an executive premiership, probably with no limitations on the terms of the executive premiership. An executive premier could be as powerful with all dictatorial powers as an executive president, if he has a supine parliament under his control. This was seen in the first few years of the United Front Government of Sirima Bandaranaike but it ceased to be after the coalition partners, the Samasamajists, called it a day.
Whatever proposals the Rajapaksa-Wickremesinghe combo may turn up with, it has to be pointed out that both are disqualified from being constitutional architects. We have cited earlier, the naivety of Wickremesinghe as reasons for his disqualification. Rajapaksa is a very powerful president no doubt, but his scant regard for most of the vital sections of the 1978 Constitution has rendered it a rag-tag document that could be exploited only for his benefit. Denial of the many powers of parliament, such as the control of finance, blatant disregard for judicial decisions, making the executive branch of government a clerical department under presidential dictates, ignoring the 17th Amendment passed unanimously by parliament that could have restored the democratic system of governance, making both the state and most of the privately owned media lackeys of government while appointing well known thugs as ministers of government with immunity from prosecution, while building up a family plutocracy that has 75 per cent control of the national budget, are good reasons why Mahinda Rajapaksa should be kept far away from the constitution making process.
Besides, the main cause for constitutional reform — accommodation of minority demands — are not even being subjected to debate. Any constitution that ignores the minorities, will end up in the same pathetic state as the previous constitutions.
Let a constitutional assembly representative of all political parties and various national interests consider the proposals placed before them to formulate a constitution.
Political manipulators can never be successful constitutional architects.