Editorial Director,ITV & GCTC Executive Board Member
COLOMBO is among the most pleasant cities for a tourist to visit, and there are few hotels which can match the majestic Galle Face Hotel on Galle Road. Next door to the hotel is the High Commission of India, and next to that the US Embassy. These days, the closeness of the two compounds to each other mirror the growing partnership between Washington and Delhi, two capitals that have been far apart for much of the past. But the attractions of the hotel is not only its Old World charm but the view of the waves of the sea from the oceanfront hotel, followed by the calming sound the seawater makes as it reaches the beach. However, April 04 was far from a calm day for Ranil Wickermasinghe, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who faced a “Loss of Confidence” motion against him in Parliament that day. Ever courteous and soft-spoken, it must have been an effort for the UNF leader to remain calm as speaker after speaker excoriated him and called for him to step down, including several who had been his supporters till recently.
After the formidable Junius Richard Jayawardene, it had been Ranil who had taken up the leadership of his party, and after a lapse of three decades, it is clear that most of his party colleagues want to see another individual take charge. The most popular among these is the son of a former President, the legislator Sajith Premadasa. Even though Prime Minister Wickremasinghe is an outstanding human being and a competent administrator, it is clear that he has overstayed his welcome within the ambitious ranks of his own party. The consequence is that whatever is left of the remainder of his term in the second highest office in Sri Lanka ( after the Presidency of the Republic) will be marked with acrimony and controversy. Given the spreading sentiment against Ranil’s continuance, it would be best if he were to voluntarily quit rather than get forced out of office. This No Confidence motion has not succeeded, but others are certain to follow, in different guises. Indeed, the opposition motion was secretly encouraged by ambitious people from Ranil’s own party, the UNF .
Watching what is taking place in the Sri Lankan parliament about a PM who has stayed too long, Atal Behari Vajpayee comes to mind. By the close of 2002, Vajpayee had clearly lost the robust health needed to do justice to a job that mandates a gruelling workday. His medications made it difficult for Vajpayee to concentrate on the tasks and crises that he was confronted with on a daily basis, with the result that effective authority shifted to Principal Secretary to Prime Minister and National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra. From around July 2002, it was Mishra rather than Vajpayee who was calling the shots in the Prime Minister’s Office, the hub of governance in India. Being a lifelong bureaucrat averse to listening to any view or individual he disliked (and this was a long list), “Executive PM” Mishra in effect took precedence in policy over the Cabinet Ministers in the Vajpayee government, including Deputy Prime Minister and Union Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, who has always been unable to go against either Vajpayee or those nominated by Vajpayee to exercise his powers.
The lack of political antennae of Mishra and his (not surprising) bureaucratised approach to policy resulted in decisions being taken by the BJP-led government that steadily reduced the party’s popularity among its supporters, with the result that enough of them stayed home during polling day in 2004 to ensure that the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi prevailed over the BJP in the Lok Sabha ( Lower House) elections to the national parliament. Had Vajpayee gracefully accepted that the state of his health made it impossible to continue into 2003, and handed over the baton to Advani, the BJP may have retained its hold on power in 2009. The health crisis facing Vajpayee made the Prime Minister offer his resignation. But this was tearfully turned down by Advani. The chance to be PM comes but once in a lifetime, and Advani lost it in 2002 by putting his affection for Vajpayee above the needs of the BJP and the country for a healthy PM. In the 2009 polls, Advani failed to enthuse voters and the BJP lost further ground to the Congress, regaining power only under Narendra Modi in 2004, who however seems to be going the Vajpayee way in being excessively dependent on officials for both policy formulation as well as implementation.
The problem with Ranil Wickremasinghe is that he is too nice for the job. The Prime Minister of a country should not be a “nice guy” who is obliging to as many people or interests as possible. He or she needs to be tough on certain issues, the way former President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa was when faced in 2009 with calls from the US and the EU to give LTTE leader Prabhakaran a safe exit from the trap that the Sri Lankan military had laid for him under the guidance of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Because of the Sri Lankan leader’s refusal to obey powerful countries used to deferential behaviour from others, Mahinda Rajapaksa ( with help from a few friendly countries) defeated the LTTE and ensured the end of terrorism in the island. As a consequence, the Sri Lankan economy started to improve and these days, the nightmare of violence and terror attacks that was the norm in the past is becoming a distant memory. However, current President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremasinghe are seen by many as too eager to please the “international community” (CNN and BBC-speak for the US and the EU) by giving unprecedented concessions on sovereignty and self-respect to the US-EU combination who interfere in the guise of “ protecting human rights”. The concessions given by Sirisena and Ranil to Washington and its European allies will not save the Sri Lankan government from harsh demands to punish the Sri Lankan military for shaming NATO by defeating the LTTE in a way that NATO failed to do with the Taliban in Afghanistan and with Al Qaeda and Daesh in the Middle East, despite killing several tens of times more civilians than the Sri Lankan military did in its war with the LTTE. While Russia, Syria and Iran did the heavy lifting against Daesh, CNN_BBC-Al Jazeera gives the credit to NATO, the way the US and the UK forgot that it was Moscow that defeated Hitler from 1943 to 1945. More than any other reason, it is the perception by Sri Lankans of Sirisena and Ranil bowing to US-EU pressure that is clearing a way for the return to power of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the next Sri Lankan election.