Ranil Wickremesinghe, the selfless leader of Sri Lanka

Saturday, 6 May 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



A review of Dinesh Weerakkody’s book on the Prime Minister

Dinesh Weerakkody recently launched a biography of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe among a distinguished gathering. The keynote speech was delivered by Sashi Tharoor, Indian politician and former Under Secretary General of United Nations.

He is the current Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs. Minister Rajitha Senarathne delivered a speech and mentioned the leftist background of the PM’s father. He said that Wickremesinghe kept his multi-ethnic and multi-religious Royal College heritage right along so that he is more equipped to give a lasting solution to the ethnic problem of the country.

The book is a political biography of a leader who has been engaged in politics for 40 years so that the book eventually deals with the 40 years of political history of the country. After briefly describing Wickremesinghe’s political history in one chapter, the author describes the PM’s involvement in various important areas of Sri Lankan political history. This was an interesting approach against narrating the events in a chronological order.

Another praiseworthy aspect was that the author being a close associate of the PM was never hesitant to criticise the main character of his book where necessary. Therefore the book was never a mere admiration. 

Turbulent career 

Out of the Sri Lankan leaders Ranil has gone through the most turbulent career in politics. Greatness was thrust upon some of them and the others had to wait for a longer time till they got the baton. During his long and uninterrupted spell in Parliament Ranil had his ups and downs. As Weerakkody pointed out, he was given additional and responsible portfolios by President Jayewardene due to his ability and capacity to work. 01143

President Premadasa appointed D.B. Wijethunga as Prime Minister and Ranil Wickremesinghe as Leader of the house ahead of Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake, his leadership contestants. After Wijethunga he lost the leadership to Gamini Dissanayake. Following the assassination of Dissanayake he became the Leader of the party and the Opposition. He became the Prime Minister for a short spell where the President was from the Opposition party. He lost presidential elections twice, once after the assassination attempt by LTTE on the incumbent President and then after the LTTE ordered Tamils not to vote at the election. 

He faced several challenges to his party leadership and however managed to survive. He had to hand over the Opposition nominations to two common candidates, one lost and the other won. In Ranil’s words, “The important thing is never give up and standby what you believe in, JR did that and Premadasa followed.” Page 148

Ethnic conflict

“In 2002, with no end in sight to the ferocious war that was raging, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Ceasefire Agreement that brought the war to an end. The signing of that agreement was the act of a statesman who put country before self and the Right to Life above all others… When he said that he would negotiate a ceasefire and an interim administration with the LTTE, he stuck to this platform although defeat after defeat followed him.” Page 150

“It is seldom that ethnic and religious minorities can determine governments. But despite losing ethnic majority support, and losing elections as a result, Ranil Wickremesinghe stayed steady to his course.” Page 148

This was an attribute of a selfless leader. A not-so-close parallel would be Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi conducted his last hunger strike on two demands that Indian Government should pay 350 million to the Pakistan Government and the Hindu refugees who came from Pakistan should release the properties they forcibly acquired from Indian Muslims. The Indian people and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru conceded in three days. 

In this line the PM met his counterpart in the President who fought hard to reduce his own powers which is a rare phenomenon in world politics.

Inaction of PM

“It may therefore be better if Ranil puts his resources to full use now in fighting corruption and taking the country on the development road. This is what the public and Maithri (the President) want from him.” Page 116

In Annexure 1, Weerakkody has given his own article published in Daily FT titled ‘Ranil must rise to the challenge and deliver before it’s too late,’ where he blames that so many people are slowly getting disillusioned with Ranil’s style of governance. 

This is the common consciousness of majority of the people who are used to being under near dictators. There are two issues at hand, one is political reforms and the other is economic reforms. Under political reforms we need to have a new constitution and a mechanism of power sharing. 

Previous governments tried both these without the support of the Opposition or the Opposition deliberately did not support since they have put their own objectives ahead of the national objectives. However ours is a democracy and not a government like that of Lee Kuan Yew. Therefore we need the consensus of all the intellects, idiots and foxes. Presently we are passing that lull period. 

When Gandhi stared the hunger strike, the people understood the justice in three days. Our people need much more time. The Sub Committee of Centre-Periphery Relationships of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly published its report where Chief Ministers of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party recommended that the powers of the Governors should be curtailed drastically which needs a referendum although the SLFP officially rejected a referendum. 

Several members of the Joint Opposition actively participated this sub committees. The debate is going on. Ranil does not want to take this to the people and get ownership of it but he facilitates the exercise. This is everybody’s baby. If no one is wearing that hat, civil society should do so. The country needs all the corrupt and un-corrupt politicians in this process so that the Government is not in a position to pursue anti-corruption campaign at this moment. That is the crux of it.

On the economic front successive governments maintained deficit budgets for popular reasons. Deficits were supported by loans. In the past we got grants since we were a low income country. Now the situation is different and we get commercial loans instead of grants. As a result of deficit budgeting, interest rates and inflation rates have gone up with the arbitrary holding of the exchange rate by the successive governments. Hence governments facilitated an anti-export policy, resulting in balance of payment issues. 

The previous Government took massive loans and invested in uneconomical projects at least in the short run. Government revenue and export earnings have dropped drastically. Now we are stuck and cannot invest in development projects. 

Opening of the economy in 1977 was the first economic revolution. At that time as a country we were stuck. There was a lot of opposition to the open economy and some of the businesses which were under State protection went out of the scene. Successive SLFP governments also followed the same policies. 

Now we want the second economic revolution. That is Free Trade Agreements. Ranil plans to extend the existing one with India, to have new agreements with China and with Singapore. “Ranil launched a plan to reform State-Owned Enterprises, enter into trade agreements with India and China, to increase market access and restructure the key investment promotion agency to become even more appealing to foreign investors.” Page 183

As happened in 1977 some of the businesses will have to be closed. Our businessmen should take up the challenge to take on the markets of those big countries. Or else foreign investors should come to take those opportunities. The majority of the country including the businessmen and professionals are in the defensive mode. They may be thinking that it is wiser to safeguard present pennies rather than going for future pounds.

Politicians like to keep loss-making government institutions, to exercise their power and to appoint their henchmen to vacancies (or otherwise) in reciprocal favours. They make propaganda that selling those institutes is a loss to the country. In fact, the loss is to maintain those institutes with taxpayers’ money. People do not understand this and vote against selling those assets affiliated with a false sense of nationalism. So the hard pills have to be taken just for survival. It might take some time to get the mindsets changed since we are a democracy.

I suppose those are the reasons of visible inaction of the PM who was very active in 2001.

Social market economy

Social market economy combines free market economic policies and characteristics of a welfare state. This was initially introduced in Germany in 1949 by Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.

“Ironically Ranil addressing a World Bank sponsored summit which was held in the Colombo suburbs (early 2016) said that his Government wants to consciously reduce indirect taxation. The Premier said that currently 80% of tax revenue comprised indirect taxes, while only 20% came from direct taxes. He said that this was wrong, considering the fact that 80% of the country’s wealth was held by 20% of the population. Ranil further said that we want to reduce indirect taxation to 60%, while at the same time enhancing direct taxed to 40%, comparable to global standards.” Page 128

Figures of India or Singapore are very much closer to the standard the PM mentioned. The PM’s vision appears to be that to take the country from crony capitalism sponsored by successive governments to social market economy.

Personal attributes

“His tendency to gather around him his close friends of years gone by, who have done very little to help him when he was in the political wilderness, but flock around him when he is in power, has been one of his outstanding weaknesses, which has drawn justified criticism from many quarters.” Page 181

In the Preface Weerakkody said: “Ranil is surprisingly a very simple man who never throws his weight around. He is only interested in getting a job done well.” 

“His seeming reluctance to mix freely with friends, and more so with the common man, made it difficult even for those who admired him, and wanted to enthusiastically support him. This flowed more than an innate shyness than from a seemingly feeling of superiority, but the result was the same.” Page 180

Recently when the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapsed, the PM was in Japan. He cut short his next visit to Vietnam and rushed back. Thereafter he has visited the site although several other members of the Government did not visit the place and those who were visited were booted out by the people. However he was with a facemask when all the people accompanied him were without facemasks. This is Ranil and I think the people of this country should learn how to live with this character for the benefit of them, their children and their country.

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