THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE: Between the return of pragmatic politics’ Everyman and the anger of a native wit at inconvenient truths about his government, Sri Lankan realpolitik has gone from the sublime to the ridiculous to the surreal
The appointment of the Hon. Ravi Karunanayake, MP as the Minister of Power and Energy has set the polecat among the pigeons. It has got a knowing glance from the national press. While setting social media ablaze. And one can see why. But one might also be invited to see why not. Also what else hangs in the balance between political ethics and public expectations.
The reappointment of the Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe, MP as the Prime Minister is not without its own catcalls and controversies. The sentimentally democratic seem unsurprisingly pleased. While less naïve and more cynical stakeholders in the great republican game cough behind closed hands.
The two personalities go hand-in-hand. Or, as the scandal sheets may essay it, they go hand-in-glove. For they are both honourable men. On top of being honourable members of parliament. One has agency in the most recognisable democratic-republican project. While the other has appeared inimical to transparent national governance with integrity. He also seems indispensable to the instrumentality of any United National Party government. This begs not only the question, but an investigation as well. What is really and truly going on?
I can see three ships come sailing in the light of a silvery moon. To essay three levels of possible responses: the superficial, the strategic, and the subversive. The first is sublime for those who like to get angry regularly at political scoundrels who let them down. The second is ridiculous, because we ought to have known better by now that it is ‘for them, not us’ that the great game is being played. And the third is surreal – because it has been hidden in plain sight; yet we refuse to see it, because to do so would be to see things as they are – as nothing – with no one behind them… and induce an incurable nausea at the way sausages are made…
On the face of it, the Rt. Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe has lost it. Where civil society – at least its Colombo based and suburban chapter – expected the cornered worm to turn, the utterly uncowed ‘usual suspects’ appeared to have wormed their way back in. If the urbane kaffeeklatsch set could not countenance a president-led coup then, they now find they can’t take the latest turn of events with milk and two sugars, and lump it. Once they thronged the streets ‘not for Ranil, but for democracy’ – and once the barricades were lifted by the court, they expected Ranil to ‘get on with it’. But it’s back to business as usual?
First, the right honourable gentleman appeared nobly disgruntled by an irate president’s less than charitable returning of the premiership mantle. And we mostly sympathised with the latter’s plight. Because all the president’s mien did was to underscore the ungracious nature of native wit rapped on the knuckles by a court he, et al., had created through constitutionalism. No one on Facebook or Twitter is likely to forget the sorry spectacle of a sophisticated premier squirming in second-hand embarrassment (as a young lady of my acquaintance noted) at the humiliated chief executive’s wrath.
Then, the prime minister outdid himself in terms of being graceless vis-à-vis civil society’s expectations of him – by claiming a victory ‘not for democracy, but for the UNP’ (refer the rally at Galle Face Green). Also, by appointing a gerontocratic cabinet of the usual suspects, he cocked a snook at those Liberty Roundabout demonstrators’ fond hopes. This cabal of old Johnnies and other lackadaisical walking-dead, rather than a younger more dynamic and ostensibly clean group of women and men (to steer the ship of state back on course and offer a new hope for a leaner cleaner political future for Sri Lanka’s GOP), lost that party many brownie points last week and possibly the next general election.
And, last but by no means least, he – in the face of no little social media pressure – resisted the temptation not to appoint the least honourable gentleman to a position of national power (pun intended) and trust again. After a hiatus in the doldrums, it was a bit of a shock to see the big man in wheeler-dealer circles back at his beloved leader’s side…
We sense Sharmini Serasinghe’s anger in print and sympathise with the vocal outrage of all the ‘voices of change’ on social media who feel short-changed by the most dishonourable of appointments. It only consolidated the impression most folks with the national interest at heart had. That the party driving the reforms agenda was most in need of transformation.
But it is far from being the whole story. In fact, at the political practical level, it is a non-starter. For this is not the Rt. Hon. Gentleman being stubborn or insensitive. But simply interested in surviving! Even changing our lens to delve into another dimension of this hard-to-stomach disappointment with the green chief won’t yield a good bowel movement or non-dyspeptic perspective. And the next two sacs of interpretation below – from a cynical strategy to a nasty subversion – only plumb the entrails of realpolitik. Which RW as much as MR (but not so much MS) excel at.
Of course, while a significant segment of liberals rue opportunity lost (to start the ‘Good Governance’ project afresh and in a more meaningful, more significant way) and the opportunity cost (at election time when the floating vote bobs away), the diehard apologists have rushed to defend the indefensible. Among their arguments is the need to reward political loyalty, which is so uncommon these days that it is at a premium. Also the value of a good hatchet man and a great fall guy for all your party’s covert shenanigans under the GG radar and guise. And the necessity of such a man for all seasons being in one’s inner circle.
For sure, the honourable gentleman is the kind of friend that sticketh closer than a brother. And we understand that he is not only steadfast but good in a scrap. That alone, on top of retaining the number of non-partisan rats who might have deserted what then appeared to be a sinking green ship, might have ensured the return of this working man’s everyman.
Feel free to vent your spleen on Ranil and Ravi as you may – they are both honourable men – but there is something to be said for remaining true to pragmatic politics in a party that has found winning elections elusive as time goes by. But only technocrats and savvy number-crunchers can see the merit in rewarding the royalist who will never let his king down. That loyalist whose presence without portfolio in lean times distinguished him as a key to his party’s future stability and earned him the reward of a powerful (no pun intended) return on investment in the would-be emperor’s present well-being.
And for my next act, I’ll revert to metaphor; if only to avoid libel and slander. A long time ago, in a republic not so far, far away, a great but not so good Caesar-like patrician invented a genre of apparently clean politics. This ‘great game’ kept his nose out of the mud while slush-funding his party through the ill-gotten gains of consuls and senators. Those he appointed to siphon off state funds systematically and receive the salaams of foreign embassies bearing gold, silver and a good deal of mirth. It appears that his legacy has been received with great interest by a grandee related by blood and marriage. There, I’ve said it. So let the discerning reader understand. I’ll publish and be damned.
That is why generals of the Goths and Huns in a previous regime will never be prosecuted by these kings of empty words and poker-faced countenances. There is a certain inviolable honour among thieves, only slightly inconvenienced by the optics of playing politics. They are all part of a corrupt-at-bottom political super-structure, that occasionally plays to the gallery in the national interest. It is also why those who expect to be commended for being outraged at the UNP’s ostensible volte-face must be able and willing to countenance the reality that it is – and has always been – in the SL GOP’s DNA to talk ‘governance’ and walk ‘organised crime.’ And it is perhaps only marginally better than a former regime that walked and talked ‘cops and robbers’ as if being a military dictator were better than being merely a mafioso with a messiah complex.
And if we (the editorial ‘we’ – being you, dear) worked against the coup by any means fair or foul, then we can hardly point fingers when arguably the chief countervailing force against it gets his due reward. It would make us not only more hypocritical than the right honourable gentleman and his noble aide, but about as nuanced and sophisticated as that native wit who rails against his inconvenient premier.
(Journalist | Editor-at-large of LMD | Writer #SpeakingTruthToPower.)