The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

Ranil and the country's most dangerous moment
Ranil Wickremesinghe's style could not be more different from that of the man who has succeeded him at Temple Trees. Last week this man was in his political element backslapping journalist guests, and excelling in small talk. He wore beige colour pants, and his general approach seemed to be one that was decidedly understated. He tolerated inebriated scribes -- and at some points he looked more guest than host as he moseyed from table to table, grin getting wider each time he did that.

Wickremesinghe in contrast is the man who almost defines 'aloof.' These two men may be pitted against each other in a Presidential race a few years from now, and with the nation passing its most dangerous moment since the ceasefire was declared more than two and a half years ago, Sri Lankans are feeling anxious about their future even as these two men plot their own tentative personal political moves…

There is definite discomfiture in the UNP about Ranil Wickremesinghe's leadership. Many UNPers even if they cannot claim it openly are saying under their breath that it's time Ranil Wickremesinghe released the UNP from his long held grip on it. When the UNP appointed a new Chairman who cannot exactly be described as young energetic and dynamic an Editorial in a newspaper that regularly cheers for the party went ballistic against the leadership's apparent inability to size up the situation and the need of the hour (…which to hear this paper say it, is to appoint movers and shakers as opposed to geriatrics to the party's top slots.)

So, Ranil Wickremesinghe has become a political quicksilver quantity. Sometimes, he is seen as the old Mahogany chest-of-drawers, the only solid guy in the UNP who has experience, tenacity and some amount of national stature. But at other times, there is an instant thaw and all these visions of substance collapse in a heap -- and Wickremesinghe is seen as the party's main liability, unable to win elections, unable to innovate and unable to check-mate the opponent. Party men (and why should we name names here) have got their knives out for Wickremesinghe, and they seem to say it is with some justification.

They say it in all manner of ways and here are some: "This is the only country in which a leader is allowed to lead his party to so many defeats and continue. Now look at America. Al Gore lost in his bid for the Presidency, and after that the democratic party will not hear of him.'' Or they say: "It is time Wickremesinghe went -- but the problem is also that there is nobody in sight in the UNP who seems to be able to succeed him. But then, he must go and let the chips fall where they may, and then we do not know what the UNP might come up with. After all, who would have thought of Ranil in the heyday of Premadasa, Dissanayake and Athulathmudali???"

So Ranil Wickremesinghe plays the nonchalant overdog. He pretends not to hear any unkind words and he goes from occasion to occasion in his overworked tie and suit. He still welcomes dignitaries, and then there are the shades of the old glory when he shook so many international hands, that people thought the United Nations has come to be headquartered in Colombo.

Here is where Ranil Wickremesinghe's story turns a page. He is at the moment seen as the incorrigible loser, but Ranil Wickremesinghe's political legacy, whether it was adventurous or merely accidental, cannot be underestimated.

People have for the most part forgotten that when Ranil Wickremesinghe folded up the barricades in Colombo and announced that he welcomes the LTTE in the city, he was seen as a madman. The previous government had waged a "war for peace'' and there was a fierce duel with the Tigers putting Colombo to the torch even as the army was taking-out one top LTTE General after another with the help of the LRRP.

But then in his own way Wickremesinghe upended that particular table. Then there was necessarily a new arrangement of forces, and for a while the refrain was "Ali Koti Givisuma'' and Norwegian subterfuge. But peace came to stay for two and a half years, and of course at times it was a hideous farce of a peace with the LTTE taking the lives of 50 army informants, and eliminating Tamil rivals habitually, as they still do.

But yet, the changes kept steadily contrasting with this downside. In the people's view there was peace for all intents and purposes, and the psychological impact of it created a peace that kept critics dumbfounded almost every time.

This now seems undeniable especially after the Kumaratunga government that succeeded has sworn allegiance to the same set of policy. Kumaratunga recalled the Norwegians, and she has now announced she will even talk of the ISGA, the Tiger Interim Administration proposals which when in opposition she dismissed with contempt as an affront to the Sri Lankan nation.

The argument being made here is not so much about the detail of what's the solution -- the ISGA, or reverting to the status quo ante per Karuna. These are in many ways the minutiae for the analysts who prefer to do the small print with a long handle…..

The point here on the contrary is that whether anybody likes it or not, the Wickremesinghe legacy is substantial. He laid down change, even if he did it possibly in a very craven way - - and perhaps even to manage his own personal political fortunes. But that created the space for the economic rejuvenation of Jaffna and the Wanni, and he seemed to have created the space even for Kumaratunga to abandon her 'war for peace.' The bottom line is that it has been made impossible for any side to resume hostilities without considering a thousand factors which are all part of the reality since the Wickremesinghe decision to fold up the barricades.

Both sides feel incumbent upon themselves now to consider the international factor before declaring war, and Prabhakran cannot easily revert back to being the loose canon that he was without considering the future of his wife's Agriculture Degree and his sons Karate lessons, even though Dayan Jayatilleke may not agree with me on this matter. No, that's being unnecessarily facetious for the sake of some necessary lightening-up of the prose….

But the serious fact is that Ranil Wickremesinghe's legacy is more than two years of peace and hope, which even his worst critics cannot deny, has caused an absolute sea-change in the way in which the Sri Lankan conflict has come to be perceived. As for Ranil himself, this is his strongest suit. He may even call himself a Churchill, who won the war and lost the election. Of course any comparison with Churchill will invite laughter in the pub, because Ranil Wickremesinghe is to Churchill what a gnat is to a Dinosaur. But it is Ranil Wickemesinghe's almost accidental legacy that keeps him propelled within the UNP despite his loser-luck, and which also keeps the country believing in some change of heart or some last minute rear-guard to salvage the peace, in this most dangerous hour.

In this way Ranil Wickremesinghe created a conundrum. His policy is mostly seen as being accommodating to the point of selling-out, and he is seen as an elitist bumbling buffoon of a leader who is at the best of times out of touch and effete. But, strangely what he has left behind is something that most everybody fears to walk out on -- and while it is Ranil Wickremesinghe's understated strong-suit, it is also one of the credibility straining upshots of the strange interregnum between the war of 2001, and the uncertainty of today…..

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