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How Ranil Wickremesinghe hit the Presidential jackpot

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For Ranil Wickremesinghe the 21st of July last year must have been the day the political sweep, he had bought forty-six years back on his way to parliament, was finally drawn to win him the presidential lottery.

If fortune had a hand to play in his sudden elevation, she certainly had used a sort of devious way to achieve her goal.

Two years back, Wickremesinghe lay isolated in exile. Condemned by his own Colombo stronghold’s electorate to the political boonies, he had been forced to balm his mortally assaulted egoistic hopes by watching endless hours of ‘Designated Survivor’ on Netflix – as he told a TV journalist in an interview – which tells the story of a small time US Senator who, by a quirk of strange events, ends up installed in the White House as US President.

Somehow if great but fictitious tales of the unexpected help ambition’s hopes to nurse, and bloodied ego heal, no doubt, he also sought and found solace in the pages of his old ‘collector item’ Buddhist books and learned again in banishment, how the unconquered Licchavis remained triumphant since they heeded the advice of the Buddha, expounded in Dasa Raja Dhamma, which stressed importance of consulting the people. And which Ranil himself did not need an invite to lecture to the House, at the slightest opportunity.

But whilst surrounded by a melancholic gloom, his political epitaph had already been writ on the palimpsest of history in delible ink.

It would stay writ until future events, unforeseen in any tea leaves or Delphic oracles, would rise to show the pessimistic testament was not the last. That soon, with a constitutional quill, dipped in royal permanent blue ink, the tales of the unexpected would overwrite, on Lanka’s erasable palimpsest, the latest take on history.

But in the summer of August 2020, Ranil was in the dumps, at the nadir of a bleak political winter, lost in a ghastly graveyard of defeat, and sharing the collective crypt, with his fellow UNP members who had given up the ghosts after ignominious defeats. More than two hundred braves had marched to battle the hustings. None had returned alive. The Pearly Gates to Parliament remained shut to all. The shepherd, too, had perished with his sheep.

The grand old party, the UNP, lay vanquished in the dust. It was, under Ranil’s 25-year leadership, where it had never smoked real power, the worst catastrophe it had ever suffered. The martyrs of a lost cause, of a UNP torn by internal warfare, lay sprawled, nailed to the ground face down in shame, lay crucified to their abject defeat. They had none to blame but their leader and themselves. They’d fallen from angelic heights, and, in that mortal dust, saw no redeeming hope to stir them to rise again.

The only saving grace that destiny had reserved for the UNP lay in the solitary national list seat, the single one granted for the collective party vote.  It would enable one UNP star to make its brief appearance in the Parliamentary skies, and in the throes of death, give one last spurt of light before dying and vanishing from the galaxy for all time.

With heaven’s grace safely locked in an unknown secret safe, he announced that the anointment would be done when the time was nigh. Despite the mandatory constitutional requirement that the chosen name has to be sent to the Election Commission within two weeks, it was decided that Parliament would have to wait until the UNP chose whom to send at its leisure. The national list seat would be the golden visa card to enter the Pearly Gates.

Its leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe held it as his befitting punishment for his party‘s ignominious defeat. He would personally carry the cross of humiliation and enter parliament through the shameless rear door, he would come to the House, where he had entered six times as Prime Minister, as the humbled penitent to atone the sin of defeat.

Without fanfare Ranil Wickremesinghe entered Parliament on 23rd June 2021 and quietly took his seat in the opposition ranks for the fifth time.

There was always resurrection, always rebirth, always reincarnation, and always eternal hope for a new beginning in a better place and clime. If he were ever to regain the power he had lost, reclaim the dignity and honour Parliament bestowed on its honourable members, if he were ever to vindicate his good name and cleanse himself in public eyes, then he had to be on this hallowed ground, where only residents did qualify to win the Parliamentary jackpot.

If everything comes to one who waits, then he had to wait within this august Parliamentary chamber and be positioned to receive what he most did desire: power to bring the nation back on track, after its long spell of abuse by its political masters as a convenient tool to make private hay under a public sun.

With Fortune’s favourite steed at the starters’ gates, the bell was rung to start the race. The fates now swung into action to make the man, they had deserted earlier and left to the wolves but were now anxious to promote as the only Lankan politician who could salvage the nation from imminent doom – to pip the post by a furlong.

People power was soon marshalled at Galle Face Green when finally a people long denied the basic essentials of life thronged Colombo’s esplanade on April 9 and turned the popular recreational arena to a battle ground to force the president out.  They set up camp and dug their heels prepared for the long haul to achieve their mission. They, and other mysterious forces that would secretly creep in later, would be the vanguard brigade to storm the Bastille of Rajapaksa power.

From the depths of despair arose the frustrations that compelled the people to leave their homes and head for the rallying site of a peaceful protest to rebel against a corrupt Government and a President whose incompetence, vacillation and negligence had brought them to this sorry pass. The battle cry rose from the Galle Face sod, its roar to rival the deep seas. From the empty bowels of a people’s stomach rose the tantric mantra ‘Gota Go Home’ to echo in the secured confines of the Presidential Secretariat, only a stone’s throw away from the source.

All night and day through sun and rain the rebel rhapsody played on to force the President to quit. Fortune’s dark horse was now on course but yet a snag remained that could dispose the best-laid plans of fate.

If President Gota resigned, his constitutional successor in the interim would be Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa for a month. Article 31(2) states: No person who has been twice elected to the office of President by the People, shall be qualified thereafter to be elected to such office by the People.

But couldn’t Mahinda Rajapaksa interpret the clause and claim, the disqualification only applies to a twice-people-elected President seeking re-election and not to a twice people elected President to be elected by MPs in pursuance of their constitutional duty to fill a constitutional vacancy?

With his towering political stature yet behind him, Mahinda might pull it off in such an event as constitutional successor to the vacant presidential office.  The constitutional melee that would follow would certainly place at risk, Fates’ plans from coming to fruition. It became evident that the spanner had to be removed from the workplace. Soon a ‘Gota Go Home’ sideshow began outside the gates of the Prime Minister‘s Temple Tree home, with ‘Mynah Go Home’ as its slogan to drive him out and deny him an automatic constitutional claim.

If people power’s siege on the Green and its constant Gota Go Home cry, had failed to ruffle the equanimous feathers in Gota’s presidential cap, then the tempestuous Mahinda fumed and raged behind the besieged gates of his Temple Tree residence.

In a desperate bid to break the existing deadlock, he invites from the third league ranks of the Pradeshiya Sabhas, a chosen coterie of an equal temper fit enough to hear the first rough draft of a slushy resignation speech. The violence unleashed on May 9 by his mob of supporters makes him resign as Prime Minister a few hours later.

Lanka’s fate is now completely sealed. The ship is all at sea. Commanded by a captain who has none to command. Below in the galleys, the crew have mutinied. In the cargo hold, the containers empty, bereft of food, fuel, lights and basic essentials. Above on the deck, all the mates have been forced to walk the plank. The captain has retired to his cabin and stays put.

Ranil hears Opportunity’s knock on the door. He knows it will never knock on his door in his lifetime. Fortune’s dark horse turns favourite to pass the winning post as he steals a gallop over legitimate contenders by striding up the steps of the crumbling President’s House to lay first claim to the office of Prime Minister.

He carries no baggage, bears no chips on his shoulders, and attaches no conditions to his offer. He has shed his party, his principles, his prejudices, his liberal theories, his ideologies, even the Buddha’s Code of Righteous Rule which the Licchavis followed. He abandons them all and stripped of his party colours and vested interests, determined, like a neutral chameleon, to change skin tones to any hue necessary to blend with the surroundings.

He stakes whatever is left of his discredited reputation, even his neck, to boldly go for gold. A man who has nothing to lose has a world to gain; and with Fortune smiling upon the brave, sees the sunshine on his happy prospect.

He sees in failed Gota’s crumbling empire the building of his own. If he can occupy the floor below, and lay the foundation as Prime Ministerial tenant, he will be a breath or resignation away from residing in topmost penthouse. Power is not thrust upon one, nor is power given to one, real power must be taken whatever the cost. He will not have to wait long.

Soon events take place at a rapid pace. Appointed by a grateful Gota on May 12 not merely as Prime Minister but as the guardian deity of Rajapaksa interest, he carries the task of being frontman of the SLPP which wins him the appreciation of the party’s beleaguered MPs.

He finds, in the storming of the President’s House on July 9, in Gota’s flight to exile on July 12, in Gota’s resignation on July 14, in him being sworn in as acting president on July 15, the fates at work, with destiny inexorably driving him nearer and nearer his goal.

Only one final hurdle remains to be jumped. The in-House election for the supreme job.

He had served under two Presidents as Prime Minister often with scorn. He had openly envied the easy flight of the SLFP heiress Chandrika to the uplands of power. Though she had been invariably late in her arrivals, her triumph had arrived before due time.

He had squirmed with contempt when the parochial Sirisena of the Grama Sevaka mould, was sworn in as President and had assumed a superior air towards his inferior stature ever since; but had concealed his envy when this self-confessed arsonist of his father’s own paddy field, was granted royal privilege to shake the ungloved hand of Britain’s late Queen; and had secretly wished it was he and not Yahapalana Sirisena who sat as a peer at the G7 nations’ high table in Shima, Japan in May 2016.

But strangely enough, he tops the poll with a haul of 135 out of 225 votes. Even though the SLPP fielded its own candidate, adversity’s strange bedfellows cross the party line to vote him into presidential office. He is sworn in as the 8th President of Lanka on 21st July 2022.

But the privileges and joys of his one-year presidential tenure as a prisoner of the chronically corrupt SLPP whose majority rule in Parliament has kept him on a short leash, have not come without sacrifice.

In the field of human rights, the frontiers of freedom have not been extended but drawn further back. The freedom of speech, of the press, electronic and social media, of assembly, of liberty has been redrawn and confined within a narrower ambit and the right to the franchise has even been denied and this does not bode well for the health of Democracy at whose temple all pay lip service in cosmetic worship.

His descent into an increasingly authoritarian ideology is contrary and alien to his liberal inclinations, for which he was admired most and known best, but sadly, now no more. As a learned man of letters, Ranil must know that history’s lessons repeatedly show that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’

On the economic front, perhaps it is too early and unfair to hastily pass judgment. Suffice to say that whether you love or loath him, he has done a remarkable job in lifting the dark clouds of depression that had grimly brooded over the land last year. He has braved the challenge of pulling the nation out of the rut and restored a visible sense of normalcy to a nation that was tottering on the brink of anarchy and chaos last year. And the nation must wish Godspeed on his crossing over Lanka troubled waters.

His providential rise to power’s peak in his mature winter years that youthful summers long denied, makes Ranil the concrete epitome of ecclesiastical wisdom and explains why the undeniable truth of his unexpected rise to Presidential office is stranger than fiction:

‘The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.’

For Ranil, the secret: finally, being in the right place at the right time. Even as it was for Churchill in Britain’s darkest hour.

 

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