Realpolitik – and the a/moral dimension of leading a nation

Saturday, 14 May 2022 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The appointment of Ranil Wickremesinghe to head a Rajapaksa cabinet exposes what’s ‘best’ and ‘worst’ about the socio-political milieu in our late great republic. 

But before we condemn realpolitik – ‘politics based on practical rather than moral or ideological considerations’ – out of hand, it’s best to reflect on the state of the nation for a little longer than it takes to rant #GotaGoHome (or now, #RanilGetGoingToo) at ‘NoDealGama’. 

And one will readily admit, all things considered – war, COVID-19, tsunami, loss of a World Cup – it’s the worst prospect our island has ever faced.

Not that one needs nagging reminders of what ails the nation. 

But that our governors are growing increasingly blasé about describing the problem and proposing fixes even belatedly, while blatantly avoiding any semblance of accountability. Responsibility is taking the rap. Accountability is paying the price. 

And a large part of the issue in intending to re-enact constitutional amendments (such as the 19th, which major on transparency in governance among other values) is that between action and accountability, crime and punishment, mistakes made and mandates withdrawn – falls the shadow. 

There’s a feeling on social media (but not necessarily in the marketplace) that results won’t match rhetoric.

Also complicating matters no little is the latent public sensitivity to impending starvation for socio-economic groups across a spectrum whose gap is rapidly diminishing. 

Desperate times call for desperate measures or drastic remedies. 

And you can’t preach “good governance” to a nation staring down the gun-barrel of a military on its deserted streets and seeing beyond the beefed up security to nothing worth mentioning to consume in the empty larders at home.

MAN for all seasons


Even the political opposition being willing to play ball – albeit hardball – with an unpopular executive is an indication of how bad things were the day before yesterday. 

And how much worse they could get the day after tomorrow if even supposedly principled parties don’t take the bull by the horns to prevent it from maddened careening in the china shop of unbridled authoritarianism! 

(Yes, principled politics is fine... not accepting ostensible sweeteners to join cabinet ranks is great – but can you eat your values as if they were vegetables, one wonders?)

Or perhaps it highlights the presumption of styling oneself as ‘a party of principle’ when one is able and ready to go back on tough words spoken on that long march from Kandy to Colombo? 

‘We will never partner with GR’ translated readily enough into ‘Well, on the condition/s that he...’ – when the chips were down... or is that when the opportunity showed up?

So it’s “realpolitik” all the way: from prez and premier to a crown prince in the wings and republican pretenders to the throne trying to disguise their proletarian roots by driving around Parliament in Prados. 

Perhaps it’s always been so? Even when – maybe especially when – it seemed as if principle had trumped patronage politics in the brief, shining moment of an all-too-rapidly discredited political summer that we remember with mixed emotions. Happy that the idea was mooted at all! Sad that it died an unnatural death in the face of hypocrites who did not practise what they preached (at best); or deliberately undid their own glory for the sake of ego or worse (at worst).

There is still merit in considering the value and validity of good ideas. Even if – perhaps, especially if – the people espousing them prove to be less than great or noble. (There is no greater heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.) 

So it may be worthwhile to attempt a differential diagnosis of how the introduction of an amoral dimension to addressing our most pressing problems intersects with the democratic impulse. Or, if you’re not SP: ‘Is Ranil a good guy or a baddie?’

The good: a charitable take

From the perspective of his champions, Ranil is a veritable knight in shining armour. 

He is bold and brave to embrace the challenges with what seems like elan and éclat. 

And if he is lacking in esprit de corps, so be it – after all, he isn’t there to win friends; but rather, to influence people the right people at the proper time in the correct way for the country. 

In fact, influencing people is what he’s good at; and he’s better at it than any other politician we have at present. 

Best let him get on with the unenviable task of (if not righting the ship of state, at least) rescuing the economy from its present doldrums. 

We must applaud him for his historic courage in rising to the challenge of riding forth on many occasions before as well, when the national economy was in dire straits. 

Now that it has hit rock bottom, it’s good to have someone at the helm who understands economics. Who’s adroit at navigating the shallows and whirlpools of global politics. And can sail the ship of state with commendable captaincy in international waters including safe havens such as harbours of aid, loans, and debt restructuring. 

A true citizen of Sri Lanka who’s making such a tremendous personal and political sacrifice at one of the most challenging junctures of our national vessel’s perilous voyage over stormy seas... 

The bad: a critical point of view

His critics take a far less charitable stance. 

For one thing, his appointment lacks both moral and material legitimacy, they would say. He’s a sole MP representing his electorally defeated, ethically discredited party. And he’s also a single voice that was at odds with the political opposition for so long... despite being a member of its ranks, now turning the tables on his former fellows for reasons of his own of which reason alone may know nothing. 

They would argue that not only did he fail to bring the culprits of a previous regime to book on a plethora of criminal charges. But that he set the stage to protect his political bedfellows and personal friends from prosecution. And also allegedly aided and abetted in a few financial misadventures himself. 

For another, the yawning gap between the highfalutin vision he holds up for public scrutiny falls far short of his personal praxis. Both as the leader of an ostensibly democratic party, as well as public policy lapses, as the prime minister in several administrations over the decades. 

Some would even go as far as to say that it was the disconnect between the high ideals of ‘good governance’ and its abysmal failure to deliver on electoral promises made. Which soured the electorate that welcomed a return to transparency and accountability. And drove the voters en masse into the arms of a subversive securocracy that still holds them hostage. 

And now, they suspect – nay, fear – that more of the same would ensue. By dint of which the culture of impunity that has characterised the political playground for so long, for too long, will return... and be rooted in the same dear spot for authoritarians, two-bit hoodlum politicos and robber-barons alike. 

Under the umbrella of rescuing the country from its present predicament, the nation state will continue to flounder in the mud of geriatric (though it’s unapologetically ageist to say so) realpolitik.  

The ugly: the cynical reality

The hard truth may be that Sri Lanka is not ready for a real and lasting change to its trite, stale, tired old political culture. Not the old guard in the neoliberal and neoconservative camp/s. Nor the elites in Colombo and the more affluent suburbs of the commercial capital.

Like the ex who’s hard to ditch, we’re constantly breaking up and making up with our executive. 

True enough, the youth of our country – together with other demographics representing a slice of island life (farmers, fishers, housewives, tradesman, trade unionists, university students, apolitical academics and professionals, clergy) – have agitated long and hard for a genuine transformation. 

Sadly, it is they who may have to go (and stay) at home... driven away by state-sanctioned thuggery, executive-ordained emergency and a legislature setting its face against a happier future for those demanding that an obscenely decrepit parliament evacuate its bowels.

Meanwhile, that Ranil – one his first day back in his familiar number-two slot – enjoined the continuation of the people’s “Struggle” at Gotagogama is both deceptive and disingenuous. 

On the one hand, it shines an innocent light on the face of a democrat abroad (near Shangri-La) who practises despotism at home (within Siri-Kotha). 

On the other, it conceals a suspiciously ambivalent attitude to the executive presidency – both in person and in principle. 

There is a tension in the breast of any man who would be king; but who has often, only too often, been compelled or constrained to content himself with being kingmaker – and usurper of thrones. 

Resolution of the dichotomy in the mind of the man, his monumental ego and the movement that has now sprung up again around him will drain the political machine of vital engine oil over the next two and half years or so – while no doubt filling hungry stomachs and refilling empty state coffers. 

So the sixth-time prime minister has ambitious demons to exorcise in the misadventure of an island-nation that has not been able to reject the stern embrace of a controlling, safeguarding, insidious executive presidency. It’s the ex who won’t go home... but lurks menacingly. 

A man who would play kingmaker may well end up as king of a denuded throne (the emperor has long been naked by now) if the trajectory of reforms leads Ranil to embark again on the lifetime ambition of being ‘first among equals’. 

As someone tweeted: ‘Consider this – if RW gets a majority in parliament on the 17th, then he will be in place to repeal the 20th amendment and revert to the 19th. SJB and all the opposition parties will have no choice but to vote in favour. Given the public sentiment, even the SLFP and SLPP will be compelled to vote in favour. Then GR will be a lame duck and RW will be the most powerful person in government. Thereafter he can propose the abolition of the executive presidency. Everyone will again have no choice but to vote in favour. Then RW will be the head of state. Mission accomplished?’

Ranil too will one day be an ‘ex’. However, now is his hour... as our much-maligned ‘national lover’.    

| Editor-at-large of LMD | 

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