A man for all seasons save this; after the salt has lost its savour, no one wonders why the elephant hasn’t left the room... yet, still
I’m not a fan of clambering aboard passing bandwagons, but this Ranil-bashing business can be a tad ticklish and therapeutic. Since we Sri Lankans in general, and denizens of Colombo’s isolated citadel in particular, are so good at being wise after the event, I have to remind myself that the joke’s on us every time a meme catches my eye and coaxes that reluctant funny bone.
However, there is merit in calling out the aloof figure who was such an integral, if insignificant, contributor to the larger national interest over the years. The jury is still out on the significance. Hear me out, but next to his nemesis, Mahinda Rajapaksa, he’s right up there in the political pantheon of ‘top of the pops’ post-1994. And in their longstanding premiership battle, he’s a loser only by the whiskers of Kûrvi-Tasch. Yes, you know who.
Of course, if and when the prevailing political winds change – as they’re wont to do, no matter what our voting patterns or preferences/prejudices are in the eternal, ephemeral, now we call ‘the present’ – we’ll probably change our minds at least a little. Change is nature’s gift to political animals who cannot bear too much reality or too little reward for trouble.
Therefore, for now, I’m smiling a little behind the tears of anger at how ironic poetic justice has been in the case of our once so-called ‘Mr. Clean’. Smiling because there’s something mildly asinine and also white-elephantine about such a straw man and his apologetic cohorts; leaning together, their collective headpiece filled with straw: insisting that nothing happened.
MR may come and MR may go, but I go on until the PCs poll are done and I’m dust... again – or ashes. What price ‘disce aut discede’? One school of political thought suggests that weak democracies give rise almost inevitably to strong post-democratic states. On the other hand, cynics wouldn’t recommend democracy – that worst form of government but for all the others – precisely because it can elect the very tyrants which it likes under aegis of populism.
Maybe both shoals swim in the same pond. Either way, Ranil’s apathy and arrogance brought us not only sweat and sighs; but after all was said and done... no superhighway to safety, security, stability and sustainability – only blood and tears (4/21), the truncation of a longstanding nationalist project that was pluralistic and inclusive (the GOP), and the entrenchment of a post-democratic mindset (no nipping that in the ‘bud’ now).
Let’s not forget the tears of anger for the culture of impunity that was the talk of the town in the mid-‘noughties’ and later (2005-2015); and with which he probably didn’t fully come to terms, much less invent. That latter honour belongs to his kinsman JR in the heady five-sixths flush immediately post the 1977 polls. Yet such a viral – or bacterial – culture was also certainly instituted, cemented and perpetuated by the sea-green incorruptible themselves: from 2015 to 2020. And – as may be seen – setting the stage for a post-democratic culture to entrench itself beyond the dismantling of the last great democratic-republican party?
Not because Ranil didn’t care enough to allow the wheels of justice (as everyone saw it in 2015) to grind slowly. But because his case for democratic-republicanism was compromised by a lack of transparency and accountability in his own corner – cabinet, cabal and coterie. Judgment must begin in the household of God. And if you’re promoting liberalism abroad but are a tyrant at home, you’re bound to run aground on the rocks of your hypocrisy sooner than later. After 26 years of steering a slowly sinking ship, pity it was to be later rather than sooner.
Here’s a prediction: we’ll look back in (more) anger in 2025 than we’re doing in 2020. And – God forbid – probably beyond! If (or when) the little liberties we took for granted under a regime committed to RTI, transitional justice and government by commission rather than a militarised regime vanish in a puff of gunpowder. Hindsight, like posterity, has 20:20 vision. We’re going to need it. In a post-democratic nation state, you’re bound to miss the most miserably effete liberal democrats you could call ‘dunce’, ‘duffer’, or ‘dunderhead’ with impunity. However paranoid you may have been about the UNP in 2010-15, you were safe.
So, for the nonce, we unite in bashing our favourite punching bag du jour, albeit a soft target now that all other liberal-democratic lovers are estranged or dead... or crossed over to the dark side. Political analysts call it a due comeuppance.
But psychologists may be closer on the nose, with their pinning the nail on the head of the wounded-elephant donkey. Society needs a scapegoat as a safety valve for its less savoury impulses. Only such a pathetic sacrifice will appease our demons. The problem with being a living sacrifice for the appeasement of the people is that – like Ranil now – it tends to crawl off the altar, or slouch towards Battaramulla in an umpteenth Second Coming to be born again on the solo ticket of the UNP’s National List.
If only the byzantine complexity that is the inner bureaucracy of the UNP could see that, or break free from their Machiavellian boss, then the Greens would have a fighting chance and start (small) all over again. Already, the SJB, scenting gore, have made overtures. The grass is always greener on the same side of the fence.
So be it. In defeat, if not delivery of promises made, he – finally – has been found to have a use over ‘noblesse oblige’ and other outdated ideals no one understands, and serves a cause larger than cronies or close friends.
And let that be his epitaph for now. ‘Noblesse doesn’t always oblige’, not even after the liberal democrats lined the street for him in the dark days of a constitutional coup long-forgotten now.
RIP Ranil. Goodbye, and thanks for all the high ideals and low-down on technocracy. Pity they didn’t work; nor you.
Where once he stirred up apathy wherever he went – and on rare occasions, anger or even outrage (remember that surgical mask worn to inspect those graves of the garbage-dump dead?) – he can now take consolation in a kinder eulogy. Appearing as he did last week, together with his coalition partner and one-time nemesis ‘Mr. Dirty-tricks’ before the Police Unit of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry still investigating the Easter Sunday attacks, ‘Mr. Clean’ can rest assured that his reputation will take a turn for much worse before it ever becomes more salutary again – if at all. Perhaps the long game has been long over...
It’s the coming of wisdom with time to realise that our erstwhile ‘heroes’ have feet of clay. In the early, heady, days of ‘Good Governance’, he was a paragon of virtue to the pundits and darling of the big business chambers, cocktail circuit movers and shakers, and doting aunties in their coffee klatches. But kaffeeklatsch acumen is as unreliable as the congee that passes for consommé on a Chinese restaurant’s hopper night special. They’d betray their grandmothers for a quick grasp of the greasy pole atop which sits the security, stability and sustainability which they crave and as they see it today.
For a stalwart of a group that went from Grand Old Party to No Seat Non-Entity (save the ‘sorry-you-lose but here is a technical bonus as compensation’, yet never paid the penalty except by dint of losing several elections in a row and sundry premierships), Ranil must be thankful that – with the post-4/21 charade being what it is: a parade of political has-beens being trotted out like bread and circuses for stale public consumption – he has never been held accountable by his own party, or properly punished by the opposition or any incumbent government for gross negligence or the turning of a Nelsonian eye… phew – breathe. And yet, and yet.
In another nationalistic age (1977-1994) where a cunning old fox crushed civil liberties with one hand and brutally suppressed sectarian insurrection with another, his was the youthful face of a hope that Sri Lanka would survive into a brighter sunnier upland – if you forget, for a moment, darker allegations against his own modus operandi. In a milieu where militants on both sides of an implacable ethnic divide were militating against any chance of peace (1994-2004), his was the voice of reason and a negotiated settlement to a protracted insoluble conflict. Let’s not call him a traitor to nationalism again.
Is it possible that had he and his indefensible apologists kept their intractable promises in this third and final innings – inter alia to end the culture of impunity and bring abusers of state resources to book rather than condone those under his mantle the same excesses – the court of public opinion would be singing a different tune, and hymning another saviour of the nation-state?
Is it probable that the history-books will interpret the UNP’s thrashing as a sort of inverse Pyrrhic victory? Where for want of a reformed leader, a party was lost, but its DNA perpetuated in its clone the telephone? Shall we not read Ranil’s long-drawn-out snatching of defeat in August from the jaws of victory in January 2015 as the only way the essence of what the GOP once stood for – nationalism, national unity, Unitarian democracy of a more pluralistic inclusive stamp – would/should/could survive?
Is it likely that we’re mourning loss? And coping with our anger at betrayal through denial and displacement? When the dust settles, would we have crucified not only a false Messiah but a master technocrat who – warts and all – was to the manor born in Machiavellian politics?
And I for one will lose no sleep if RW rides off into the sunset yesterday. But we’re going to need more reflective republicans in the days ahead, I suspect. Since any political opposition worth its salt in the present milieu will have to fight fire with fire, or post-democratic militancy with comparably majoritarian populism, if it is to make progress in Parliament and win back hearts and marketplace minds...
However wounded the body politic was by criminal negligence, its corpse no longer lies bleeding in the street. Therefore, let us go about like Diogenes the Cynic in broad daylight, looking for a replacement for the last of the democratic-republicans to stand against the fall of night.
It’s the coming of wisdom with time...
(Journalist | Editor-at-Large of LMD | Writer on Grand Old Parties | Student of Realpolitik)