(The writer is a former editor of The Sunday Island, The Island, and consultant editor of the Sunday Leader)
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has taken on the role of an alchemist of sorts.
Ancient alchemists attempted to transform various metals called, base metals, as lead and copper by subjecting them to various treatment as melting to produce pure gold, which was the most sought after metals in those times, as it is today. They failed in their attempts which were said to be impossible to achieve on scientific principles.
A different kind of alchemist also attempted to produce an elixir that could make humans immortal or produce a panacea — sure cure — for all diseases. These attempts have so far not been successful although the attempts still continue, viz, ‘Vadakaha Sudiya’ and ‘Covid Paniya’ which we Lankans are familiar with.
Wickremesinghe’s chosen specialty appears to be Political Alchemy: Mixing up ‘base politicians’ together with other ingredients to produce pure gold recognised worldwide in the 21st Century — the All American Mighty Dollar which could save Sri Lanka from the financial and political crisis it is sinking in.
The Wickremesinghe strategy appears to be centered on the APG (All-Party Government) under his presidency. The opposition parties, the SJB of Premadasa, the TNA of the North and East, and allied parties of the JVP have declined invitations to join the APG under Wickremesinghe, and he is left with those of the Rajapaksa government left destitute after Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministers resigned and Gotabaya Rajapaksa took off to foreign climes with almost the whole country at his heels.
The leading lights of the APG are: Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, the vast number of Rajapaksa members left destitute and the triad of leaders of three minor political parties: Vasudeva Nanayakkara, the Trotskyite, spewing red-hot anti-capitalist rhetoric, Wimal Weerawansa, also an incendiary speaker creating tremendous noise but with little sense and Udaya Gamanpillar, leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya (Party Bearing Purest Sinhala Heritage) whose rhetoric does not cut much ice.
How the APG could make these disparate elements click and work out a strategy to produce the much-needed US dollars that will take Sri Lanka out of the hell fires, perhaps, only the Alchemist Wickremesinghe knows and has them all under his hat. But what happens if he fails?
Whether by accident or design when Gotabaya Rajapaksa decided to appoint Wickremesinghe as the Prime Minister and later he was elected President, he had chosen the best politician in harness for the job of negotiating with the IMF and countries Lanka is indebted to. Six times Prime minister and also having been the Finance Minister, he not only knows the complicated manoeuvres to follow but that he has also been on good terms with Western leaders whose opinions have clout with the IMF. Politicians and diplomats knowing one another over a period of time is said to be a distinct advantage in diplomacy. However, Wickremesinghe is in a severely disadvantaged position at home. The disadvantages are: His party was routed at the last parliamentary election and he is not an elected representative; his way to the presidency has been through the Rajapaksa family that has been driven out of politics. He stands firmly only on one foot — the Constitutional procedure adopted in his appointment — while his other foot is on the slippery support of the Pohottuwa members who may be asked to topple him by shadowy forces pushing the Pohottuwa around.
Another looming threat is the return of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Colombo from Bangkok. Since he fled the country to the Maldives and then to Singapore from where he sent in his resignation from the presidency and then on to Thailand, no country has given him a residence visa. Now it is reported that he will be back in Colombo and stay here until he gets back his US citizenship which he gave up to contest in the Sri Lankan Presidential Election.
This visit is fraught with the possibility of regeneration of political instability. The intention of return to power by the Rajapaksa family is quite evident and Gotabaya’s return could be used to whip up the now moribund Rajapaksa family spirit which in turn could ignite the Aragalaya activists who Wickremesinghe has repressed with severity.
All such events would have a backlash on Ranil’s Political Alchemy of turning out US dollars with IMF and international assistance.
Wickremesinghe does not seem to have learnt a lesson from a basic mental aberration that the UNP suffers from: Crushing legitimate dissent by force using UNP thugs or security services has been one of the main reasons for the nemesis of the party, the notion being that if the opposing forces are given a sound thrashing, the issue at hand will disappear. It did not happen on the first occasion and the problem is still with us; it did not happen when UNP political thugs joined in the 1983 anti-Tamil riots; failed in the use of violence when the Jaffna Public Library was set on fire and on occasions like well-known UNP strongmen led by ministers pulled intellectuals such as Ediriweera Sarathchandra and subjected them to humiliation and also the use of force to crush the trade union movement for opposing the Jayewardene government. Instead, they created massive backlashes which whipped the party to defeat at elections.
Last Thursday’s use of well-armed and uniformed security forces against a peaceful protest of student leaders with tear gas and water cannon would certainly not help in his Political Alchemy or even with his Western democratic supporters.