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Citizen Silva, columnist of the Sunday Times, provides a different perspective of Sri Lanka’s new president. I am sharing his/her article on my own webpage to give it a wider audience.
Musing about an appropriate title for this column, I hit upon that well-known English saying ‘Cometh the Hour, Cometh the Man.’
Try as I might, I have not been able to accurately identify its source – save that it is the title of one of Jeffrey Archer’s recent best sellers, and also the title of an episode of the popular British TV series The Royal.
Basically it refers to a dire situation — when all seems lost and nobody is willing to take the lead — and there emerges an unexpected leader who successfully deals with the situation. A case in point was the appointment of Winston Churchill as Britain’s prime minister on May 10, 1940, when Neville Chamberlain was forced to resign.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, like Churchill whom he admires and tries to liken himself to, has long sought the top job – but like Churchill and the Scottish King Robert Bruce, he failed and failed so many times that he was written off.
In 1994, when Gamini Dissanayake was killed during the presidential campaign, Ranil wanted his party to replace Gamini’s name with his on the ballot – but the party overlooked him and chose Dissanayake’s widow instead. In 1999, Ranil contested Chandrika Bandaranaike for the presidency but lost (51% to 42%) – perhaps because Chandrika garnered a large sympathy vote after she narrowly missed being assassinated by the Tamil Tigers three days before the election.
In 2005, Ranil contested again – but lost narrowly (50% to 48%) to Mahinda Rajapakse, possibly because the LTTE prevented many voters (ostensibly UNP supporters) living in the parts of the country they controlled, from casting their votes.
Despite Ranil’s great success in the 2015 parliamentary election, when he won the highest number of votes in his district, his Yahapalana government became so unpopular that he suffered the ignominy of not only leading his party to humiliatingly losing every seat it contested at the next election but also losing his own seat.
Undeterred, Ranil persisted — manoeuvering himself to corner the sole National List seat available to his party. Mocked by the massive SLPP majority in parliament, being called a lone elephant, a butterfly and even a thief, Ranil bided his time.
In 2019, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president. ‘Rajapaksa’ was then the most marketable brand in Sri Lanka. Since then, brother Basil cluelessly mismanaged an economy where the only growth was in his bank balance while nephew Namal was playing water sports, racing cars through the streets of Colombo and getting himself lucrative company directorships.
Gradually and then suddenly, the ‘Rajapaksa’ brand became the most hated in the country.
When Mahinda was forced to resign as PM and the position of Gotabaya became increasingly untenable, he thought to bolster himself by appointing Ranil as his Prime Minister – and when Gotabaya finally decamped and fled the country, he appointed Ranil to act as President.
Like Churchill who shrewdly outmanoeuvred other contenders like Lord Halifax to squeeze himself into the top job, Ranil seized his chance.
“Politics is more than chess. It’s teamwork like cricket,” he stated in an old interview that recently resurfaced on social media. “It’s a hard game like rugby and it’s a blood sport like boxing.”
Despite all this talk of cricket and rugby and boxing, Ranil’s classmates at Royal College (newly appointed prime minister, Dinesh Gunewardena, was one) remember him as someone who never participated in any competitive manly sports like cricket, rugby or boxing at school – nor even chess or scrabble!
To take an analogy from sports, Ranil has reached the top job in the country in the same way that Pauline Davis-Thompson won her gold medal for the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In the same race that Susanthika Jayasinghe came third for the bronze medal, Davis-Thompson came second to Marion Jones. Nine years later, when Jones was found guilty of taking drugs and was disqualified and stripped of her Olympic gold medal, it was awarded to Davis-Thompson. Ranil similarly, having lost the presidential election twice in the past and entering parliament in 2019 (after he saw his party decimated) only by the skin of his teeth — has managed to become president.
So Ranil Wickremesinghe’s Hour has finally Come – and he has now realised his ambition of getting the top job in the country.
We wish him well – and urge our nation to give him time. All those who were chanting “Gota Go Home” never really thought ahead as to what should be done if Gota actually DID go home. Who could – or would – succeed him? With no credible takers, we can hardly condemn Ranil for grabbing the presidency.
Will he now act with statesmanship and pragmatism, taking the hard decisions to get our economy back on track and carrying his team with him? Will he just turn out to be the Great Protector of the Rajapaksas and other politicians who used their powers of office to immorally enrich themselves?
Is Ranil’s confidence (like that of Winston Churchill who became prime minister of Britain in 1940) born of knowledge and capability far greater than his peers in parliament – or is his confidence the type of hubris that will inevitably be followed by nemesis?
Only time will tell.
The new president would no doubt be aware of the Royal College motto ‘Disce aut discede’ meaning ‘Learn or Depart’.
But he would do well to remember the complete hexameter that is found in the famous inscription in the chapel of Winchester College in England: ‘Aut disce, aut discede, manet sors tertia: caede’ which can be translated as ‘Either learn or depart – but there remains a third alternative: be punished’.
History has shown that leaders who fail their citizens often suffer gruesome punishments.
Just remember the fate of the 17th century Dutch prime minister Johan de Wit…