Photo courtesy of The Hindustan Times

Despite all indications to the contrary, a single seat in parliament has disproved political assumptions that shape our opinion. Just weeks ago, it was unthinkable that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political future could be resurrected, even resuscitated. The takeover of the premiership when he truly was on his last legs is an opening gambit that may prove to be clever and enshrine him as a sharp-eyed lynx that outfoxed geopolitical apprehensions in the region.

When the Rajapaksa cookie crumbled, the stakes were high. And so was the punditry when the premiership was taken. Harsha de Silva, a member of the opposition in parliament, maintained that the appointment was neither ethical nor moral. M.A. Sumanthiran of the Tamil National Alliance asserted that it was undemocratic.

This is not a moral or democratic issue. It is a strategic move to deal with a crisis that Sri Lanka has not witnessed before. The idealized conception of parliamentary democracy may not be relevant. Was Ranil Wickremesinghe the right choice? This is a vexed question that must be answered using other sensibilities than just idealized parliamentary democracy. One could perhaps begin by asking if it was strategically correct or not. Ranil Wickremesinghe may walk like a proverb and talk like a question but he is the only person who can handle this crisis. Many Tamils are of this opinion. Nevertheless, the relationship between Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Tamil is worthy of note.

The Tamils have often referred to Ranil as the fox. This allusion is derived from Machiavelli’s use of immoral means in politics and the suggestion of a blend between a lion and a fox for political leadership; the fox to recognize the traps and a lion to frighten the wolves. However, there is another important dimension – the Tamil experience with the old fox J.R. Jayewardene. J.R. was Ranil Wickremesinghe’s maternal cousin. This heady mix makes the Tamils view Ranil Wickremesinghe with suspicion.

A section of Tamil political activists and opinion makers are still copying this simulation related to Ranil. It is basically a fear of statecraft. This fear made LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran to devise a strategy to defeat him through an election boycott in 2005.

In 2005, Ranil would have been elected as president if the Tamils in the North East had voted. Nevertheless, Prabhakaran preferred to confront the war of hardliner Mahinda Rajapaksa rather than confronting Ranil’s clever strategies. Prabhakaran’s choice was doomed for him in the end. The LTTE’s usual approach is bringing down their invincible political opponents with suicide attacks. The case of Ranil was different. He was defeated by Tamil votes, not by suicide bombing. This was unusual in the LTTE’s hunting strategy.

Beyond his capacity, experiences and international reputation, the pro-western outlook of Ranil is the main reason why he seems an apt person for the current situation. Against this background, the defeat of Ranil in the 2005 election was a tragedy both politically and economically. Prabhakaran defeated not only Ranil, but the U.S interest in the peace process and the personal interests of then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. This is when the West turned entirely against the LTTE.

The former ambassador of the United States to Sri Lanka, Jeffrey Lunstead, described this in his paper United States’ Role in Sri Lanka’s Peace Process (2002-2006) published by the Asia Foundation. Lunstead explained how U.S interests had enhanced due to the peace process:

“The pattern of limited U.S. engagement with the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict changed dramatically with the start of the new peace process in 2001-2002. This was not due to any dramatic change in U.S. strategic interests in Sri Lanka, but rather to a combination of other factors:

  • The post-Sept. 11, 2001 atmosphere that ushered in a new determination by the U.S. to confront terrorism on a worldwide basis.
  • The election in Sri Lanka of a UNP/UNF government led by Ranil Wickremesinghe that was markedly more pro-West and pro-free market/globalization.
  • The personal interest of then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.”

In the words of Lunstead, Armitage’s personal interest was bolstered by the politics of the new UNP-led government. The UNP was traditionally a right of centre party. It is a member of the grouping of international conservative political parties, the International Democrat Union (IDU). In an MTV interview in 2003, Armitage pointed out this in different words. “I was very heartened by the comments of Prime Minister Ranil regarding a new infrastructure to provide assistance transparently to all segments of society very openly.”

In light of Ambassador Lunstead’s analysis, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government came to power with a clear economic reform program based on free market principles in line with U.S. government thinking on economic and international development issues. In Erik Solheim’s words, (Mark Salter’s ‘To End a Civil War: Norway’s Peace Engagement with Sri Lanka) he wanted to reform the economy to make Sri Lanka the Singapore or Taiwan of the Indian Ocean. When Ranil was defeated by the election boycott, the whole programme collapsed. If one looks at this in depth, the foundation for the country’s economic uncertainty today was laid in 2005 when Ranil was defeated.

The mistakes of the Ranil-Maithri government were a significant factor in the Rajapaksas’ resurgence. In 2015, the regime changed by giving space to Ranil again. But Ranil failed to prove his mettle because of the infighting with President Maithripala Sirisena. The question arises now about how Ranil will deal with calamity as it is a different challenge that he has never faced before. As Erik Solheim specified, Ranil Wickremesinghe is a great intellectual, not a street fighter. It has been proved that his intellect failed before the face of the Sinhala street fight-loving masses. Ranil never rose as a populist leader but he always created his own ground for chess. He is now batting on a pitch where the street fighting Rajapaksas fell.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe rallied, hoping he would rescue the nation without rescuers. If Ranil succeeds in this challenge, he will be an unforgettable leader among the people. If Ranil fails or others fail him, the country will be plunged into an irreversible crisis. History is a great teacher and hides many surprises. When the Tamils were responsible for defeating Ranil in 2005, it caused a disaster for them. If the Sinhalese defeat Ranil now, it will cause a disaster for the Sinhalese.  Ranil may or may not need Tamils now but he needs the Sinhalese.