by Rajan Philips

It is now 16 years since Kumar David and I became beneficiaries of the editorial indulgence of Manik de Silva at the Sunday Island. We had become addicted to pro bono political writing in the 1970s (Kumar quite a few years before me) with Hector Abhyavardhana in the weekly, The Nation, that Hector edited. The Nation became The Socialist Nation after Felix Dias chose to assert proprietorship over the name in The Nation that had first been registered as a newspaper by SWRD Bandaranaike. He was then an emerging politician, likely before Felix Dias was born or was still in his shorts. FD was interested only in the name of the paper and not its continuation as a widely read political weekly. So, The Nation was left to die by Felix Dias, while Hector continued with the Socialist Nation, but not for long.

1977, 1982 and 1983 upended the political dynamic that generations of 20th century Sri Lankans had grown accustomed to. The old media for political writing withered away. I occasionally wrote to the Daily News and the Sunday Times after 1994. That was the year when, like Aragalaya last year, Chandrika Kumaratunga spectacularly dislodged a regime that had been entrenched for 17 years and was intending to go on forever. Regime displacements are always to be celebrated even if the replacements frustratingly fall short of expectations.

Oddly enough, even the Rajapaksa regime was left to kick around for the same number of 17 years (2005-2022), if we discount the unconsummated four plus year interruption of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dyarchy. Some might see poetic justice in that Mahinda Rajapaksa, who for a while seemed poised to become a king forever, became the first sitting President to be defeated in a presidential election. Not to be outdone, his younger brother would become the first President to be non-violently forced out of office.

Felix and JR

The suggestion for Kumar and me to write to mainstream papers, viz. The Sunday Observer, came from Rohan Edrisinha in late 2005, after Mahinda Rajapaksa became president and Rajpal Abeynaike the new editor at Sunday Observer. When Mr. Abeynayake left the Sunday Observer under not uncommon circumstances, we were encouraged by Prof. Vijaya Kumar to write to the Sunday Island where Manik had become editor after his long stint at the Lake House. Another friend offered this timeless encouragement at that time: you fellows are lucky writing what you like in English, because the sinister and important government people in Sri Lanka do not generally read English anymore. If someone like Felix Dias were around, you would be in jail!

Felix Dias may or may not have been sinister. NM Perera called him Satan, and SJV Chelvanayakam, a good friend of Felix’s father, considered the son to be a man who had no standards. But no one accused Felix Dias of incompetence. His problem in the last century was that he was over competent. Sri Lanka’s problem this century has been too much incompetence and too little competence at the highest levels.

The LSSP used to mock Felix Dias, in characteristic Trotskyite jargon, as JR’s epigone. The truth, and the irony of it, is that Felix was a political goner by the time JRJ came around to stage his swan song. What would be worse was that Felix Dias had to suffer the posthumous ignominy of having a Memorial Lecture in his name delivered by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. That was the ultimate insult to a man who for all his egotistical flaws, was known for his exceptional wit, flawless English diction and rapid fire delivery. That was in the heyday of parliamentary politics.

I believe it was Mervyn de Silva who used to opine that Felix Dias was the fastest English speaker in the Commonwealth. America had its rapid fire deliverer in Hubert Humphrey, Senator and later Vice President from Minnesota. A delightful anecdote that did the rounds those days was how after listening to Felix Dias deputizing for his Prime Minister at a Commonwealth Summit, Queen Elizabeth had asked him whether he went to Oxford or Cambridge. “Your Majesty, Felix is said to have replied, “I went only to the University of Ceylon.”

To disentangle the thread of JRJ from the knot of Felix, JR Jayewardene did not leave room for any epigone. He outlived every one of his original contemporaries and had an extended last word even as he dutifully honoured the last journeys of his fallen friends and foes. Sirimavo Bandaranaike was a circumstantial late addition and JRJ unchivalrously took her out of the political contest. Seeing all this in perspective the question to ask now is whether Ranil Wickremesinghe is having his swan song and his last word like JRJ had 45 years ago? Is he now JRJ’s real epigone? Yes and no, and both in so many different ways.

Ambition and Betrayal

He is finally, and not surprisingly, making it look official, that he is going to be a candidate at the next presidential election. Every prospect would seem to lean in his favour, but even the best laid presidential plans could still go awry. The more important question is what would be left of the country after Ranil Wickremesinghe finally fulfills his grand desire to be, and gets to be, an elected president. Going euphoric about Ranil’s clever maneuvering, everyone is forgetting the first casualty of his latest maneuvers. And that is the unceremonious abandonment of his once grand commitment to abolish the executive presidency. None has been so grand on that commitment as Ranil Wickremesinghe. The betrayal is equally massive in proportion.

It gets worse. While abandoning abolishment with his opportunistic left hand (that he no longer needs), Ranil Wickremesinghe is aggrandizing presidential powers with his authentic right hand that is now out of the pocket. He is surpassing JR in laws and gazettes and cabinet decisions. JR ran a cabinet with the resignation letters of his Ministers as MPs in his two pockets. Ranil has a cabinet whose ministers depend on Ranil to continue the lifestyle that they have gotten used to at the people’s expense and on national debt. The cabinet in its wisdom has declared Galle Face out of bounds for virtually everything other than your constitutional walk and religious activities.

And the President, after declaring several state services, especially health and transport, emergency services, is now declaring war on teachers. Go mark the A’ Level exams, or you will be prosecuted, and your property will be confiscated. A draconian threat in the name of protecting the education of children. The teachers are in a pickle because the President’s position may find support among the people most of whom are parents. Yet, it is a bit rich coming from a man who was part of the government (after 1977) that gutted the country’s educational system by giving licenses to mushrooming private schools.

The President is reaping the benefit of a national fatigue over protests. And the protesting trade unions are not able to link their sectarian demands to the broader problems of the people. Many unions, especially those in the energy sector, have lost their credibility as workers or professionals, and are incapable of formulating economic demands in political terms. That used to be the case before 1977 and before the abortive general strike of 1980. In many ways, the country has drifted to a similar moment of contest and consequence, not choice, as in 1980. The parameters of the contest are very different, and so will be the consequence. The paramount question is who will prevail.

Ranil’s Maneuvering

After 1977 and after 1980, despite JRJ’s enormous power there was a counterpoint to the government. The opposition parties were divided and in disarray, but they did provide an alternative terrain for political mobilization. The funny thing now is that even though Ranil Wickremesinghe may not win a popularity contest, he is now poised to be more viable as a presidential candidate than he has ever been. Come to think of it, you cannot think of an equally viable opposing candidate to run against Ranil Wickremesinghe in the next presidential election. Sajith Premadasa has neither the fire in his belly to inspire his followers, nor the candle under his posterior to be an effective nuisance to Ranil Wickremesinghe. The general supposition is that he would strike a deal to be Ranil’s PM. Not quite like father like son, but enough to make a deal.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the only other real contender, and now he has more than mere name recognition. But he could be the victim of his sudden rise in popularity, a case of peaking prematurely with no time for consolidation. If the local government elections had been held in March or April as previously scheduled, the NPP would have had the opportunity to prove its mettle and consolidate its success. It could have built on that success for the parliamentary election and then for the presidential election. Not anymore. To note, the NPP is the only party left that still has the abolishing of the presidency on its platform.

Now with the LG elections indefinitely postponed, and the presidential maneuvering to advance the next presidential election, the NPP too is in a kind of political pickle. Many NPPers think that the LG elections were deliberately stalled to prevent the NPP from establishing itself as an independent electoral force. There is some truth to this, but what is unfortunate is that the NPP did not prepare itself for this stalemate situation in which it is losing all the momentum while President is making all the advances.

The fly in the constitutional ointment for the President is the timing of the next presidential election. The clear constitutional position is that as an unelected successor to an elected President, Ranil Wickremesinghe will have to serve out the full term of his predecessor. Therefore, he cannot exercise the power of an elected President to call for an early election during his first term. But nothing is so black and white in the political space of Ranil Wickremesinghe. Planted news stories are heralding a presidential election early next year. Rumours are being floated that there is legal opinion supporting the President to interpret the constitution self-servingly and call an early election. So, the Supreme Court will be called upon again to provide its ruling in support of an early presidential election. And that after summarily disregarding the same Court’s recent directive to provide resources for the LG election to go ahead as announced.

The proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill is one area where the President is being exposed in all his contradictions. The bill is under attack, and for very good reasons, by everyone who supported him and his yahapalana initiative. But he has new acolytes to do his bidding, and his Minister of Justice is going around saying that the current bill was drafted quite a while ago and it is not at all intended as a response to last year’s Aragalaya. Really? Then why not send it back to the drafting table?

The President is also playing his reconciliation trump card quite brilliantly to divide and weaken the opposition to the Terrorism Bill. It requires some effort of moral contortion to simultaneously pursue the enactment of the currently proposed Terrorism Bill and the setting up of Truth and Reconciliation Commission to review past violations of human rights. Even the UNHRC in Geneva will be in a real dilemma dealing with the two initiatives at the same time. But welcome to the world of Ranil Wickremesinghe.

He has already pulled off a veritable new Quad for bring petroleum products to Sri Lanka, by lining up India, China, Australia and America for supplying and distributing petroleum products in Sri Lanka. There are many uknowns and many problems with the new arrangement. But what it has done masterfully is to find a way to downsize and diminish the Petroleum Corporation without the dreaded remedy of privatization and labour protests against it. Just as the President is isolating and weakening everyone who might disagree with him. He is cleverer than Felix, and he is more than an epigone to JR.