'IF'...: Warped mandate for Kipling-lover Wickremesinghe, winning over Sri Lanka daunting

Much water has flowed since the early years of his political leadership and Wickremesinghe is no longer hailed as the "Mr Clean" of Sri Lankan politics...
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe taking oath during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo | Presidential Media Unit)
Sri Lanka's newly elected president Ranil Wickremesinghe taking oath during his swearing-in ceremony in Colombo, Sri Lanka. (Photo | Presidential Media Unit)

In 1994, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led many progressive forces under the Peoples' Alliance (PA) banner to defeat the United National Party (UNP), the country's largest political entity, and become Sri Lanka's first woman president. Her electoral victory also marked the end of the United National Party's 17 years of contentious rule. The outgoing Prime Minister of the UNP was Ranil Wickremesinghe.

At the time of its defeat, the UNP's popularity was at an all-time low. The UNP's democratic credentials were in tatters. People had been questioning the electoral outcome of the 1988 presidential election amidst allegations of rigging. There was government corruption and some UNP leaders constantly drew public ire. The counter-violence of the UNP government to contain the 1988-1989 uprising of the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) was the final nail in the UNP coffin. When the party's extremely unpopular leader, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, was killed in a suicide attack on May 1, 1993, sections of the public treated it as a cause for celebration.

Following Premadasa's murder, DB Wijetunga was unanimously elected by the parliament to serve as President for the remaining months. Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was the Leader of the House, was elevated to the office of Prime Minister.

A year later, in 1994, Wickremesinghe found himself reduced to being a mere member of parliament as the UNP was relegated to the opposition ranks. UNP dissident Gamini Dissanayake had re-joined the post-Premadasa UNP and defeated Wickremesinghe in a secret ballot to become the Leader of the Opposition. With that, Wickremesinghe lost the leadership of the party.

In the aftermath of the serial losses, during an interview with this writer, Wickremesinghe said, he had suddenly gone from PM to MP and this was a politically defining moment in his life. "I treat Rudyard Kipling's "IF" not just as a reflective poem but also as a philosophy. In the darkest of times, I read and re-read it to find my feet," he said then.

Some still recall how Wickremesinghe left the Prime Minister's official residence, Temple Trees, within hours of the 1994 defeat. When he was asked by reporters as to why he had hurried away in such a manner, he quipped, "I was saving the UNP for another day."

Much water has flowed since the early years of his political leadership and Wickremesinghe is no longer hailed as the "Mr Clean" of Sri Lankan politics; or regarded as a man of principled politics or as a believer in democracy. His is a legacy ruined by the many years of defeat that has now created a politician who appears to be in 'survivor mode' at all times.

Under his watch, the UNP had been reduced to a single seat in the 2019 parliamentary elections (that too, thanks to the percentage e of votes polled under Proportional Representation). He had entered the House using that single seat while many top UNP leaders have defected and joined Sajith Premadasa to form the Samagi Janabala Wegaya (SJB), the country's main opposition party.

Now, Wickremesinghe has been sworn in as Sri Lanka's eighth president, an unlikely feat for the leader of a party with a single seat in parliament. The UNP lacks a popular mandate and, yet, Wickremesinghe was appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Prime Minister on May 12 after then-Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa was forced to quit amidst mounting public protests.

Three months later, he also replaced Gotabaya, the first Sri Lankan head of state to be forced to quit office, as President. The man with just one seat secured 134 votes in the House and defeated his main opponent Dullas Alahapperuma to be elected to the highest office in Sri Lanka.

It's all constitutional, but outside the legislature, there aren't too many people ready to celebrate Wickremesinghe's presidency. Instead, he is viewed as someone who collaborated with the Rajapaksas to secure power and someone who gives some political hold to a family forced out of key positions through a popular uprising.

It is not the first time that Wickremesinghe has come to the rescue of the Rajapaksas. In 2015 too, when Rajapaksas lost to the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe combine, he was seen as ensuring their safety and watching over their interests to the detriment of the UNP's political interests. Defending UNPers have also faulted him for the failure to probe the Rajapaksas for corruption, and for tampering with justice, resulting in the rapid decline of UNP's popularity. Critics say he was past caring for the means as long as he met his final political goal: the executive presidency.

To get there, he has maintained stoic silence when protestors have demanded the ouster of the Rajapaksas. He has also craftily cleared goalposts, one by one. Now that he is president, he has adapted an anti-protest stance and has already initiated action against those responsible for forcibly entering and occupying key government buildings during the three months of protests. On top of that, Wickremesinghe is viewed with suspicion as a pro-west and pro-India leader who might compromise national interests to raise crucial funds for the bankrupt nation.

(Photo | AP)
(Photo | AP)

For a man who sees politics as a "game of chess" and even a "blood sport", depending on the circumstances, the coming months are going to prove extremely challenging. His own political legacy -- what's seen so far to be his style of administration -- does not endear him to the public.

His immediate challenges lie elsewhere as he wears the presidential crown of thorns. He now needs to demonstrate his capacity to deliver and earn public trust. Restoration of essential supplies, paving the way for normalcy to return, securing bridge financing to deal with emergencies, debt servicing, and increasing revenue dominate his agenda.

Still, Wickremesinghe cannot afford to ignore the demand for democratic reforms in Sri Lanka. The public has clamored for the abolition of the executive presidency, a people's constitution, transparent governance, an accountability mechanism, and strict measures against the country's corrupt politicians.

His is a warped mandate, even though a constitutional one. To give this mandate, secured through political manipulation, some semblance of decency, Wickremesinghe needs to carve a new political path. His agenda cannot be one of saving the Rajapaksas, instead it has to be of serving the people. To do this, he also needs to come up not just with interim relief, but immediate democratic reforms.

(This is part of a series of web-only analysis columns on newindianexpress.com)

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