Ranil Sriyan Wickremesinghe known as Ranil is in the seat of power again as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the sixth time. The new Prime Minister was neither elected to office by the people in a general election nor endorsed by a majority of MP’s in Parliament. Ranil is the leader of the United National Party(UNP) that had been roundly defeated at the last Parliamentary poll. He is the sole representative of the UNP in Parliament now. From Lone MP to new Prime Minister was how some newspapers described his assumption of office.
Ranil was virtually catapulted into office through very peculiar circumstances. He faces formidable challenges as Prime Minister of a failed, bankrupt state. The ramifications of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment as Prime Minister , the intricacies of the current political environment and the nature of play in Parliament in the future, would be delved into in greater detail in the second part of this article.
As for now I am extracting a few inspiring paragraphs from the special statement made by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on May 16th 2022. Ranil bared the truth about the perilous state of Sri Lanka’s economy and that he has accepted the challenge of trying to resurrect it. He called upon everyone to support him in this endeavour. Here are the relevant paragraphs-:
“Last Thursday, I accepted office as the Prime Minister. I did not request this position. In face of the challenging situation facing the country, the President invited me to take up this position. I assumed this duty not only as a political leader, but also as national leader who has benefited from free education at the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo.”
“The next couple of months will be the most difficult ones of our lives. We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.”
“I have no desire to hide the truth and to lie to the public. Although these facts are unpleasant and terrifying, this is the true situation. For a short period, our future will be even more difficult than the tough times that we have passed. We will face considerable challenges and adversity. However, this
period will not be long. In the coming months, our foreign allies will assist us. They have already pledged their support. Therefore, we will have to patiently bear the next couple of months.However, we can overcome this situation. Doing so will require taking a new path.”
“We must immediately establish a national assembly or political body with the participation of all political parties to find solutions for the present crisis. This will enable us to discuss with all parties and to arrive at decisions for short-, medium-, and long-term action plans that will enable us to rebuild our nation within a specified time frame.”
“We will build a nation without queues for kerosene, gas, and fuel; a nation free of power outages, a nation with plentiful resources where agriculture can freely flourish; a nation where the future of the youth is secure; a nation where people’s labour need not be wasted in queues and in struggles; a nation where everyone can lead their lives freely with three square meals a day.”
Undertaking a Dangerous Challenge
“I am undertaking a dangerous challenge. In the Caucasian Chalk Circle, Grusha crossed the broken rope bridge carrying a child that was not her own. This is an even more difficult undertaking. The precipice is deep and its bottom cannot be seen. The bridge is made of thin glass and there is no handrail. I am wearing shoes with sharp nails that cannot be removed. My task is to safely take the child to the other side.”
“I am accepting this challenge for our nation. My goal and dedication is not to save an individual, a family, or a party. My objective is to save all the people of this country and the future of our younger generation. I will undertake this task willingly risking my life if needed and will overcome the challenges facing us. I ask you to extend your support to me in this endeavour.I will fulfill my duty towards our nation.That is my promise to you.”
Unique Selling Point
Ranil Wickremesinghe has been the target of escalated insults,jibes, taunts and .invectives after being appointed premier. These attacks are nothing new to him.It “goes with the territory” from the time Ranil gained a certain stature in politics. However very few of these attacks are about his ability to repair and revive the economy. Even his vilest critics would grudgingly a=acknowledge that if any one could pull Sri Lanka out of the economic morass it has sunk into, it is Ranil. Indeed that is Wickremesinghe’s unique selling point!
Ranil Wickremesinghe’s flair for providing political leadership for economic revival is point that this column has emphasised in the past. “Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP Leadership and the TINA Factor” was the heading of an article written by me more than eight years ago. The article published in the “Daily Mirror”of December 20 2013, was written in the context of the political situation prevailing then.
The all – powerful President Mahinda Rajapaksa was seemingly invincible at that time. The chief opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wicremesinghe was perceived by many as a “serial loser” who could not defeat Mahinda.There were some in the UNP who were conspiring to seize the leadership from Ranil.
My article was supportive of Ranil and argued then that “there is no alternative”(TINA) to him as UNP leader then.I also pointed out that after the war victory euphoria faded away and issues concerning Sri Lanka’s economic upliftment became more important to voters, Ranil Wickremesinghe could be projected as the better choice. The following excerpts are indicative of what I wrote then –
Political Popularity is Ephemeral
“Given the triumphalism of majoritarianism and the perceived popularity of President Rajapakse it may seem virtually impossible that this regime could ever be defeated electorally. But then all things are impermanent and things do change.Political popularity is ephemeral.”
“It must be remembered that Winston Churchill won the war but was booted out in 1945 by Clement Attlee. Indira Gandhi dismembered Pakistan in a military triumph in 1971 but was unceremoniously ejected in 1977 after the emergency.George Bush Sr won the Gulf war but did not get a second term in 1992. George Bush Jnr conquered Kabul and Baghdad but went down at his tail end as the most unpopular US president in history.”
“The Rajapakse regime has contained or diverted resentment against it by using the war victory as the opium of the masses. But the war ended years ago and it wont be able to justify its shortcomings perpetually through war victory-euphoria. There are misgivings about economic performance. Charges of nepotism, corruption, repression, authoritarianism , mis-governance and abuse/misuse of power against this regime proliferate.” .
“ Once the euphoria subsides the Country will begin yearning for better economic prospects. Man does not live by victory on the war front euphoria alone but also by bread and rice and dhal and sambol. If this regime cannot deliver then people may welcome change.”
“It is here that Ranil Wickremesinghe could score provided of course that his party would stand by him. He can be projected as the man who could perform an economic miracle. He could also be promoted as the man who would usher in true national unity and unify its people.”
“Wickremesinghe is basically a technocrat and if elected to office would run a smooth and efficient administration. He has a firm grasp of economics and will be the best man to lead the Country on the road to economic emancipation.”
What I wrote then about Ranil being the ideal choice to spearhead efforts for the country’s economic upliftment has come true nnow. He has not been elected and is a solitary UNP parliamentarian. Yet he has now donned the leadership mantle in the mission of economic recovery. Ranil like Bertolt Brecht’s Grusha is now carrying the baby across facing fearful odds. Bravo Ranil!
Ranil Wicremesinghe was part of the Junius Richard Jayawardene led “green elephant” juggernaut that swept the general elections of July 21st 1977 winning 141 of the 168 seats then in Parliament. He has been in Parliament continuously since then as an MP except for a short break from August 2020 to June 2021. It is an indicator of Ranil’remarkable resilience.No other MP in the present Parliament has as much seniority as Ranil. Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Mahinda Rajapaksa were elected to Parliament before Ranil in 1970. But they both lost in 1977 and were not in Parliament for many years. Rajavarothayam Sampanthan entered Parliament along with Ranil in 1977 but he too suffered breaks in between. Also Sampanthan forfeited his seat in 1983 after refusing to take an oath under the sixth Constitutional Amendment.
The 1977 poll was the last parliamentary election conducted under the old first past the post winner system. Ranil himself contested and won the newly created Biyagama constituency with a majority of 6769 votes.He polled 22,045. H.A.David Hapangama of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) came second with 15,276 votes.Biyagama was carved out of the Kelaniya and Mahara electorates in the demarcation of 1976. Ranil’s baptism in politics was as the UNP organizer for Kelaniya in 1975. However when Biyagama electorate came into being , he shifted to the new constituency. It was UNP strong man Cyril Mathew who contested Kelaniya and won in 1977.
Four Decades in Parliament
Forty years is a long time in politics. Wickremesinghe reached a significant milepost in his political journey in 2017 when he completed four decades of being in Parliament continuously.Starting from 1977, Ranil has weathered parliamentary electoral storms in 1989, 1994, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010 and 2015 . In 1989 he won from the Gampaha electoral district under the new proportional representation system.Thereafter he was elected to Parliament from Colombo district topping the preference votes among the UNP list of candidates until 2020. Ranil tasted defeat for the first time in 2020.The UNP was trounced at the August 2020 poll. None of its candidates were elected including leader Wickremesinghe. But the party was entitled to one nominated MP on the national list. Thus Ranil re – entered Parliament as a nominated MP in June 2021 and has been for many months the “lone elephant”in Parliament.
Premier of Short Terms
Ranil was sworn in as the new Prime Minister for the sixth time last week. This is a record. Dudley Senanyake was sworn in as PM four times. In the case of Ranil he has only been a sh premier of short terms. He first became Prime Minister in May 1994 after President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE.Premier DB Wijetunge became President and Ranil succeeded him as PM.He held office until August 1994. Ranil became Leader of the Opposition from 1994 to 2001.
In December 2001 Ranil was elected premier and underwent political cohabitation with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. She dissolved the UNP-led Govt in 2004 and held fresh elections. The UNP was defeated at the April 2004 elections. Thereafter Ranil was leader of the opposition until 2015. Ranil holds the “record” for being leader of the opposition for the most number of years.
Maithripala Sirisena defected from the Rajapaksa Govt and became the presidential candidate of a multiparty coalition headed by the UNP. Sirisena was elected president in January 2015 and appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe s Prime Minister though the UNP had only about 50 seats in Parliament. After the August 2015 Parliamentary poll, Ranil was sworn in as Premier for the fourth time. Though the UNP did not have a clear majority, a viable Government was formed with the aid of some MP”s from the SLFP.
So Maithripala became President and Ranil the Prime Minister. Soon sharp differences – political as well as personal – began to emerge between both.The “Good Governance” Govt they ushered in lost its lustre gradually. In one of the worst instances of political double crossing, Sirisena struck a deal with Mahinda in October 2018 and appointed him Prime Minister replacing Ranil. After a 52 day political and legal battle Wickremesinghe was restored as Prime Minister again. He was sworn in as Prime Minister for the fifth time in December 2018.
The Easter Sunday bomb attacks of April 21st 2019 radically transformed the political climate. Former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa spearheaded the return of Rajapaksas to power by getting elected President on a “Strong man leader for national security”platform. In the Parliamentary elections Sirisen saved his skin by aligning with the Rajapaksa led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna(SLPP) and got elected as an MP.
Wickemesinghe however underwent political difficulties at the hands of his deputy Sajith Premadasa who formed the Samagi Jana Balavegaya(SJB). Most of the UNP MP’s deserted Ranil. So did the minority party allies of the UNP. The grand old party was routed at the 2020 election. None of its candidates were elected including leader Wickremesinghe. But the party was entitled to one seat on the national list and Ranil re – entered Parliament as a nominated MP in June 2021. The lone UNP Parliamentarian was sworn in a year later as Prime Miniser for the sixth time on May 12th 2022.
Never Elected President
Despite his lengthy political career ,Ranil has never been elected President. However it must not be forgotten that the Presidency was lost by Ranil twice due to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In 1999 the abortive assassination attempt by the tigers on Chandrika Kumaratunge injured her. She lost an eye. This helped her win by riding the sympathy wave. In 2005 the LTTE prevented Tamils from voting through an enforced boycott. This reduced Wickremesinghe’s potential votes resulting in a narrow margin of defeat.It later became known that Mahinda Rajapaksa had struck a deal with the LTTE in regard to the boycott.
In 2010 and 2015 Ranil did not contest the presidential elections . He stood down in favour of Sarath Fonseka and Maithripala Sirisena respectively. In 2019 after protracted political wrangling , Ranil let the UNP deputy leader Sajith Premadasa contest the presidential elections. Currently there is much speculation that Ranil Wickremesinghe could become President after a dignified exit by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That seems a remote possibility at this point of time. However as Doris Day sang in “The man who knew too much” movie – “Que Sera, Sera, Whatever will be, will be”.
Let me conclude the first part of this article on a personal note. I entered journalism as a trainee reporter on the Tamil daily “Virakesari” in 1977 the same year that Ranil Wickremesinghe entered Parliament. My first chance of speaking to Ranil for the first time was after the 77 poll. I uttered just one word and he responded with two words. What happened then was this.
When Ranil Wickremesinghe won for the first time in 1977 there was a lot of excitement among the old hands at “Virakesari”. This was because Ranil’s father Esmond Wickremesinghe had been the chairman of a group of newspapers to which the “Virakesari” also belonged for some years in the late sixties and early seventies of the 20th century. Later Esmond pulled out and the “Virakesari” came under the re-structured Express Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.
“Congratulations” -”Thank You”
Some of the old timers at “Virakesari” like veteran photographer Rodrigo would keep referring to Esmond as “chairman” though Industrialist A.Y. S. Gnanam was the Express newspapers chairman in 1977. Ranil was appointed Deputy minister of Foreign Affairs at the age of 28 after being elected MP. One morning when details of the new ministers and deputy ministers were announced , Rodrigo was on the phone talking to someone. When I passed by, Roddy thrust the phone into my hands and said “chairman’s son Ranil is deputy foreign minister. congratulate him”. So I simply said one word “Congratulations”!. He replied “Thank You”.That was all. I handed the phone back to Rodrigo.
I never got the chance to interact with Ranil Wickremesinghe in my professional capacity as a journalist during the years I was in Sri Lanka. It so happened that the news rounds I covered never brought me into Ranil’s orbit. I did not cover ministries under Wickremesinghe in those days and never got the chance to talk to him.
Even in terms of gathering political news and inside stories,, Ranil Wickremesinghe was not one of my ministerial sources in the JRJ cabinet. I relied on ministers like Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Anandatissa de Alwis, E.L. Senanayake, Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, A. C. S. Hameed, K. W. Devanayagam ,,Gamani Jayasuriya and Festus Perera for that.
Social Occasion in Kandy
In my case the only occasion I interacted with Wickremesinghe “socially” was in 1985 during the time of Margaret Thatcher’s visit to Sri Lanka. Former “Sunday Leader” editor Lasantha Wickrematunge and I were working at “The Island” at that time and were in Kandy to cover her visit.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, Education and Youth Affairs minister at that time invited us for dinner. I found him to be a genial conversationalist and amiable personality. He was well-read and well-informed. Though I cannot remember the details of he conversation now, I do recall being immensely impressed by his vast knowledge of men and matters.
We joked much and laughed lot.I remember that when the band came around, Ranil picked “Kandy Lamissi” by Mariazelle, to be played. He was a bachelor then and we teased him about who his “menike” was. He took it good-humouredly. It was a very pleasant evening.
I left Sri Lanka in 1988. While writing to “The Sundy Leader” from Canada I got to know about Ranil’s views on certain issues – like the Oslo-facilitated peace process – through Lasantha. I did not interact with Ranil directly.
In Dec 2013 I wrote an article in the “Daily Mirror” that I have referred to in this article earlier. Ranil telephoned me from Colombo and thanked me for it. In 2014 , I wrote an article titled “LTTE- enforced boycott lost Ranil the presidency in 2005”.It was published in the “Daily Mirror” of October 24th 2014. Again the UNP Leader Wickremesinghe telephoned me directly and thanked me.
In that article I had explained in detail about how and why the LTTE wanted Ranil’s defeat. I later heard from UNP sources that copies of the article had been distributed widely at “Srikotha” then.. I was also told that Ranil Wickremesinghe had mentioned my name and the article at a public meeting. He reportedly told the audience to read DBS Jeyaraj’s article to know the truth about the 2005 Presidential election.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com
This article was published in the “D.B.S.Jeyaraj Column” of the “Daily Mirror”on May 21st 2022. It can be accessed here: