How Ranil Wickremesinghe Became Prime Minister Again

By
D.B.S.Jeyaraj

Return of Ranil : Remarkable Resilience od Premier Wickremesinghe. -Part Two

The first part of the article titled “Ranil Returns: Remarkable Resilience of Premier Wickremesinghe”published in the “DailyMirror” of May 21st 2022 resulted in my getting quite a lot of feedback during the week. Much more than usual. I was pleasantly surprised by the positive nature of the views expressed though some were negative too.

The responses ranged widely from a distinguished emeritus professor and author who observed “ Grusha may never carry that baby across the river, but at least her attempt to do so has been recorded,” to a retired Govt servant who opined, “What came into my mind at the 1st. instance of the news of his accepting the post of PM was ‘The Discarded Stone Became the Corner Stone’ as per Gospel”. A former Army officer had this to say “I agree with you. Ranil is the best person for the crisis. However I think he went about it the wrong way and has got everybody offside in typical RW fashion. “

The reader responses indicated to me that many people appreciated Ranil Wickremesinghe’s courageous decision of attempting the Herculean task of placing Sri Lanka on the road to economic recovery. In spite of his past blunders and deficiencies, Ranil Wicremesinghe has virtually bitten the bullet by taking on the mission of salvaging Sri Lanka’s sunken economy. Even the ranks of Medamulana are cheering.

Chamal Rajapaksa the pater familias of the DA Rajapaksa clan has complimented Ranil. According to a recent report in “The Island” Chamal said –““Ranil Wickremesinghe is very lucky. In 2015, Wickremesinghe was able to secure premiership in spite of not enjoying a parliamentary majority. Now, the UNP leader secured the premiership without another MP in Parliament. Wickremesinghe is lucky and the country too is fortunate that we have him to take up the mantle of leadership despite all his shortcomings of the past, when all other politicians are playing their petty tricks to grab power while the country was literally going up in flames.”

When Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa there was much suspicion and scepticism towards the appointment. He was both perceived and portrayed by his detractors and opponents as an agent of Rajapaksas who wanted to rescue the beleaguered Gotabaya. The media largely reflected this viewpoint. However this seems to be slowly changing now.

The Media Analysis

The media Analysis (TMA) report compiled by Verite Research took note of this slight shift.Monitoring the Sihala media for the May 16 – 22 week, the TMA stated as follows

“Some media voices framed Wickremesinghe along two angles in relation to his appointment as the prime minister. Wickremesinghe was cast as both a culprit and a victim.”

“On the one hand, certain sections of the Sinhala media positioned Wickremesinghe as a culprit. This framing stemmed from the portrayal of the premier as a rescuer of the Rajapaksas. Sinhala media voices continued to portray Wickremesinghe as a Rajapaksa collaborator”

“On the other hand, some UNP voices and feature articles tended to portray Wickremesinghe as a victim. For instance, these voices claimed that Wickremesinghe was being subjected to undue and unwarranted criticisms, despite rising to the ‘challenge’ of finding solutions to the economic and political crises in the country.”

“The currency for the portrayal of Wickremesinghe as a victim appears to draw from the perception that positions Wickremesinghe as a ‘challenge taker’. Media voices continued to give credit to Wickremesinghe for accepting the ‘challenge’, when the SJB and the JVP did not appear to come forward to do the same.In this context, some Sinhala media voices positioned Wickremesinghe as a victim. Therefore, last week’s positioning of Wickremesinghe appears to have conveyed a higher degree of support for him in comparison to the previous week.”

Ranil and Uncle JR

Among the many observations I have made about Ranil Wickremesinghe in previous writings, there are two points, I would like to reiterate here. The first is about Ranil and his uncle JR. Ranil has often been compared (unfairly at times) to former President Junius Richard Jayewardene known as JR. There are two sports related comments made by JR that I remember vividly.JR used to call politics a bloodsport.

President Junius Richard Jayewardene

One comment was about boxing. The man who was kayoed by Colvin R de Silva in a boxing bout during schooldays at Royal College struck back decades later and sent the Samasamaajists down for the count politically. JR once famously said that in boxing “I aim for the face and hit the stomach.”

The other perplexing comment by JR was about cricket. He said once that unlike other fielders who ran when the batsman lifted the ball to be under it and take a catch, he (JR) never did so. JR said he would rather miss the catch and let the ball bump and come into his hands. Once the ball was in his hands , he could do anything with it. “when I run for the ball it is my master but when it is in my hand I am its master” JR said leaving his listeners bewildered.

Upon reflection , it appears that Ranil has imbibed one part of his uncle’s “sporty” wisdom. He waits for the ball to come to him rather than run for it. This explains his political conduct on many occasions. Ranil often misses catches by forgetting the elementary lesson driven home by numerous coaches that in cricket “catches win matches”. As for the boxing lesson , Ranil does pretend at imes, to aim at one thing and hit another. But very often his punches are not punchy enough!

Herman Hesse’s. “Siddhartha”.

The second point is about Ranil and Siddhartha.To me Ranil Wickremesinghe’s philosophical outlook is very much like that of Herman Hesse’s. “Siddhartha”. In the novel the Brahmin Siddhartha is on a journey of self-discovery. At one stage, Kamaswami the merchant tells Siddhartha “Yes indeed. And what is it now that you’ve got to give? What is it that you’ve learned, what you’re able to do?”

Siddhartha replies “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.” Kamaswam asks “That’s everything?” to which Siddhartha responds”I believe, that’s everything!”. Like Siddhartha , Ranil too is a man “ who can think, wait and fast”. This philosophical attitude has manifested in his politics. Usually Ranil thinks things through thoroughly y before saying something. He has fasted without power in the opposition waiting for his opportunity. Currently after a “ fast nd wait” period, Ranil has got another chance to prove his mettle as PM in combatting the adverse economic crisis.

Politically resilient Ranil Wickremesighe’s return to power has indeed been remarkable. The advent of the 2020 parliamentary election saw Ranil’s erstwhile deputy leader Sajith Premadasa staging a “coup” and forming the “Samagiya Jana Balawegaya”(SJB).The SJB contested elections under the telephone symbol. Most MP’s of the United National Party(UNP) hitched their wagon to the Premadasa star. Political party allies of the UNP such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) Tamil Progressive Alliance(TPA) and the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) also switched sides.

Ignominious Defeat

The grand old party tasted ignominious defeat at the 2020 Parlamentary poll. The UNP led front obtained 106 seats at the 2015 elections but in 2020 the party failed to get even one MP elected. The UNP polled only 249,435(2.15%) votes. No MP was elected. Adding insult to injury was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s personal debacle. The UNP leader who had not lost an electon from the time he entered Parliament n 1977 was trounced in Colombo distrct.

Under the proportional representation electoral system the votes it garnered enabled the UNP to nominate a single MP on the national list. Ranil declined nomination and left it to the party to decide upon another nominee. There was keen competition among the UNP stalwarts –who had stood by Ranil through thick and thin – to be appointed s MP on the national list. So much so that the party was in danger of fragmenting again. Finally there emerged a consensus that the UNP leader should be appointed national list MP. Ranil relented and took his oaths as the sole UNP parliamentarian on June 23rd 2021.

Astute Political Skills

The UNP national list MP episode was lIlustrative of Ranil’s astute political skills in two aspects. Ranil may very well have desired the national list MP seat though outwardly posturing as not being interested. This led to an interesting situation where the party could not agree upon a nominee and instead opting for Ranil. The protracted wrangling within party folds to agree upon an alternative to Ranil in the form of a national list MP and the broad consensus reached in appointing him as MP strongly indicated the indispensability of Wickremesighe to the UNP at this juncture.There would be no potential aspirant to party leadership as is usual after massive electoral loss.

The second aspect was the timing of his re-entry to Parliament. The 2020 Parliamentary election was a great downfall for the UNP in general and Wickremesinghe in particular. In 1956 the party got 8 seats in a Parliament of 101 MPs.In 1970 the UNP got 17 seats n a Parliament of 157 MPs. But in 2020 the UNP had only one seat in a Parliament of 225 MPs. It was a crushing defeat.

It may have indeed been very very humiliating for Ranil to enter Parliament in such a situation. He may have been harangued mercilessly by both sides in Parliament and the media. The delay in making his re – entry to Parliament made a huge difference. By that time the sheen had worn off both the Government and opposition in Parliament. The lacklustre performance of Sajith Premadasa as leader of the opposition disappointed many. Ranil was sorely missed.He had been a fixture in Parliament since 1977.

So when Ranil made his Parliamentary re-entry there was no major hullabaloo. Of course there were some jibes and taunts but nothing significant. Ranil began making his presence felt in Parliament. He made many positive contributions. Soon the Country was plunged into an unprecedented economic crisis but those in power kept dilly-dallying.

Voice In The Wilderness.

Wickremesinghe offered valuable suggestions to cope with the economic crisis from going to the International Monetary Fund(IMF) to setting up a consortium of countries to help garner more financial aid for Sri Lanka. He also kept warning of acute food shortages and an imminent collapse of the economy. These were not heeded and Ranil was ignored like a voice in the wilderness.

Wickremesinghe made a tremendous impact by participating in the All party conference convened by President Rajapaksa to discuss ways and means of dealing with the economic crisis. The chief opposition SJB with 54 MP’s boycotted it but the sole MP of the UNP was at the conference. Ranil Wickremesinghe’s exchanges with Ajith Nivard Cabraal exposed the shallow economic policies of the then Central Bank Governor and demonstrated the UNP leaader’s better grasp of the economic malady afflicting the nation. When Cabraal resorted to personal attacks , Gotabaya himself apologized publicly to Ranil.

Even as the economic crisis worsened there were widespread shortages and enhanced power cuts. People began protesting. The “Gota Go Gama”protests at Galle Face Green and its consequences transformed the political environment. President Rjapaksa resorted to multiple measures to tackle the situation. While refusing to uit on the basis that he had a mandate given by 69 Lakhs of people at the 2019 presidentil poll, Gotabaya effected several changes in the government. He replaced the older cabinet of senior ministers with a new one of younger ministers. He fired many officials including Cabraal and appointed a new Central Bank Governor. A team of eminent economists was appointed as advisers. Colombo began interacting with the IMF and World Bank.


SJB and JVP Rebuffed Gota

Gota also invited opposition parties to help form a new multi-party Government. But the SJB and JVP rebuffed Gota. They insisted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa must resign first and emphasized they would not serve in any Govt under President Gotabya Rajapaksa. In a controversial move Gotabaya began pressuring his brother and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign as Prime Minister to pave the way for a new premier. The other members of the Rajapaksa clan in Government had all resigned earlier. Mahinda resisted the call to resign. There was a stalemate while a cold war ensued between both brothers.

Events however began to overtake. A meeting was held on May 9th at “Temple Trees” where SLPP members assembled in large numbers and urged Mahinda not to resign. Subsequently some of these “supporters” went on the rampage against the protesters opposite “Temple Trees” and at Galle Fce. The protesters were viciously assaulted by the armed SLPP mob which also demolished the structures constructed by protesters.Some SLPP MPs were involved in the attacks.The anti-protest violence itself had been allegedly planned and encouraged by key SLPP personalities.

Violence and Counter Violence.

After the initial shock, there was a huge backlash. While the attacks on the protests were universally condemned there erupted counter violence. Anti-SLPP mobs began unleashing violence.The SLPP supporters suspected of being involved in the attack were in turn attacked by organized groups. Some were manhandled and dumped in the Beira Lake. Some of the vehicles in which the supporters were transported to Colombo were identified and destroyed. SLPP Polonnaruwa MP Amarakeerthi Athukorala was set upon by a mob at Nittambuwa and beaten to death along with his personal security officer.

Nightfall saw further terror. The residences and businesses owned by many SLPP ministers, state ministers,MPs and prominent party supporters were besieged by mobs. The buildings were looted and set on fire. The Police, STF and military seemed unable or unwilling to curb the violence. Some attacks continued on the next day too. Houses, buildings , businesses and vehicles belonging to over 70 SLPP parliamentarians including present and past ministers were totally demolished or extensively damaged.

“Temple Trees” Attacked

Mahinda Rajapaksa had been reluctant to step down as Prime Minister. When news of the attacks on protesters by SLPP mobs was known, Mahinda submitted his resignation. This was immediately accepted by Gotabaya.It was a terrible night for Mahinda and his family. Large crowds gathered outside “Temple Trees” and surrounded the premises on all sides. The Mahinda Rajapaksa family was marooned within the “Araliya” abode.

Worse still were the sustained efforts by sections of the mob to enter the premises and attack Mahinda. The gates were breached and mobs stormed in. An arson attack was launched. Around 20 Molotov Cocktails or Petrol bmbs were thrown at the building. The fire was doused. Tear gas was fired repetedly to disperse the mobs. Shots were fired in the air. Finally Mahinda and Namal Rajapaksa with their families were evacuated by helicopter to the Trincomalee naval base.In a further development the ancestral house of the Rajapksas at Medamulna was attacked and destroyed. So too was the memorial dedicated to the parents of Chamal, Mahinda ,Gotabaya and Basil.

There seemed to be no Government in existence. Political instability was at its lowest point. All this while the country was in the grip of a debilitating economic crisis. Political stability was essential in negotiations seeking financial assistance from the IMF and World Bank.The newly appointed Central Bank Governor Dr.Nandalal Weerasinghe held a media conference where he warned tht unless political stability was urgently restored there was no hope for Sri Lanka to get out of the economic morass. Dr. Weerasinghe threatened to quit as Central Bank governor and return to Australia if the situate was not rectified within a few days.

President In a Quandary

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was in a terrible quandary. Although he was refusing to resign as president, he knew that his credibility and effectiveness was practically nil.He was legally the President but lacked legitimacy in the changed politicl environment. Furthermore Sri Lanka was in dire economic straits. Something had to be done urgently to salvage the economy. For all this a new and efficient Prime minister was needed. Moreover the new PM had to be acceptable to the international community as well as the global financial institutions.

The most suitable person available among the 225 MPs in Parliament was Ranil Wickremesinghe. There was a hitch. Gota had had a conversation with Ranil prior to Mahinda’s resignation. In that Ranil had reportedly asked Gota to resign as President. This was not to Gota’s liking. So President Rajapaksa once again turned to the Leader of the opposition. Sajith Premadasa refused to be Prime Minister with Gotabaya as President. “Resign first” said Sajith. Gota in sheer desperation turned to friend turned foe Sarath Fonseka but he toowas unwilling to work as Premier with Gota in the saddle as President.

Gota and Ranil Conversations

It was in such a situation that President Rajapaksa was compelled to turn to Ranil Wickremesinghe. There were lengthy conversations between Gota and Ranil. The facilitators were three persons – a key official at the presidential secretariat, a high -ranking office – bearer of the UNP and a media magnate close to the President.

The conversations were fruitful.Instead of asking Gota to resign, Ranil secured an assurance from the President that the “Gota Go Home”protests should be allowed to continue and not be suppressed.The President reportedly agreed. Obviously the logical conclusion of the “Gota go home”protest can only result in Gotabaya going home. But what is needed here is a dignified exit for President Rajapaksa. This may be possible by doing away with the executive presidency in two stages. The 21st amendment in the short term to bring back the 19 A to replace 20 A .Another amendment may be possible in the long term to abolish the executive presidency. Gota may be able to step down honourably saying he has done away with the executive presidency.

Political Stability

This then was how Ranil Wickremesinghe got appointed on May 12th 2022 as Prime Minister for the sixth time despite being the solitary MP from his party. The appointment has caused much controversy but was immediately welcomed by envoys of most western nations as well as India ,China and Japan. US Ambassador Julie Chungg tweeted positively just minutes after Wiclremesinghe was sworn in.The Central Bank Governor too opined that there was political stability after the new PM was appointed.

What Lies Ahead For PM Ranil?

What lies ahead for Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe? Will he be able to or be allowed to repair Sri Lanka’s battered economy ? How will he manage Parliament and govern as premier with the SLPP as well as the SJB turning hostile? Ranil has been gn?appointed Prime Minister at the pleasure of the President who is very unreliable. Will this relationship be durable?If Ranil is not able to discharge his duties s he sees fit, will he resi All these questions will be discussed in detail in the third part of this article.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

This article was published in the “D.B.S.Jeyaraj Column” of the “Daily Mirror”on May 28th t 2022. It can be accessed here:

https://www.dailymirror.lk/dbs-jeyaraj-column/How-Ranil-Wickremesinghe-became-Prime-Minister-again/192-237912