Saturday, November 15, 2014

Ranil Wickremasinghe is not Clement Attlee

And it's a pity he isn't...
Winston Churchill knew words, to the extent where he could command an entire country with the passions they aroused. Few can deny how he shifted policies and war-thrusts through those memorable speeches he gave. Fewer can deny that the man accumulated fame and popularity over the years. Megalomania and belligerence are, I suppose, two side-effects of having that kind of popularity well up in you. This is what happened to Churchill.

Still, it was Churchill who first warned his country about the dangers of kowtowing to the Nazis, at a time when he was being shrugged off as a political "anachronism" in a country and world that were (supposedly) embracing peace and appeasement over war. He was vindicated, of course, which was what got him the confidence of his country. It wasn't just luck, however, and many will agree that he shrewdly calculated the dangers of what he called the "Nazi menace" long before anyone else.

Churchill was also a colourful politician. He knew that for all the nationalist sentiments he was arousing, the war would end some day. Unfortunately, the belligerence and megalomania which welled up in him proved too much. He couldn't keep up with time. Thinking that the war would win him the support of his people, thinking that the war-thrust would guarantee Conservative victory for quite some time, he became complacent, letting internal party squabbles go on without resolving them. This isn't unique to Churchill and the Conservative Party alone, as Chiang Kai-shek would find out later in China. Wars don't guarantee party victories. They don't license complacency, especially on the part of politicians.

There is talk that Mahinda Rajapaksa, like Churchill, is cashing in on his war victory. Too much. Anti-regime commentators claim that a war victory doesn't license indefinite rule. Rajapaksa has been called a "war monger" once too many times perhaps, but the truth is that those opposed to the man and his policies never get tired of shouting that his time is "up". Now that he's heading for a potential third term, dissent is high. Claims must be made. Justifications of "he's been here too long" should be shown. And so the opposition have decided to focus on one period in history to compare with him: the Churchill-Conservative defeat of 1945.

Yes, wars are conducted by those best fitted to lead wars. This doesn't however make them fit to lead a country in peacetime. This is the same argument one can make of Sarath Fonseka. Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, is different. Those who claim that he's banking on the war victory have got the story only half right. That he has whipped up fears of an imminent LTTE "return" in the event of the UNP's winning an election is true, legitimate though those fears may be in the eyes of some voters. But this doesn't make him a "complacent Churchill".

There's a bigger side to this story, however.

"Winning wars doesn't always make you a leader" is something a friend of mine told me a long time back. He was anti-MR and a diehard UNP loyalist, but that didn't hinder both of us from agreeing to what was obviously the truth. To those heavily overdosed with Cartesian logic, however, his statement automatically means that it is the opposition that is most capable of running a country in peacetime. Sorry, but it doesn't work that way. Moves towards demilitarisation and democratisation, slow as they have been, are eventual outcomes in any country emerging from a war. Whether or not these moves should be made by those who won the war is irrelevant, the way I see it. What's more pertinent is to see who's more able and willing to handle them. This is where the UNP is facing a problem, big time.

Let me be more specific here. The UNP has tried to compare 2009 to 1945. This means that the government is comparable to Winston Churchill's. This also means that the opposition (i.e. the UNP) is comparable to the Labour Party which was operative at the time. So here's the role swap: Mahinda Rajapaksa is Winston Churchill, and Ranil Wickremasinghe is Clement Attlee (which would make the JVP the Liberals, but that's another debate). Forget the Rajapaksa-Churchill analogy here. Let's take the other role-swap.

1945 was a muddle for the Conservatives. Stricken with internal conflicts, power struggles, and complacency, it became a poor replica of what it had been before the war. But this isn't all. The Second World War wasn't conducted by them alone. It was conducted by a joint coalition between them and Labour. Yes, a coalition. Think "mutual interests" here. It saw politicians from both parties leading the war on every important front. The mood in the 1940s was definitely "pro-war", and to this end both parties contributed their share. For the sake of war and peace, hence, party politics were cast aside.

The War Cabinet, which had been set up as a partnership between the two main parties, had Clement Attlee as Britain's first Deputy Prime Minister and the inimitable Ernest Bevin as Labour Minister. The truth is that while the Conservatives were in power, it was the Labourites who were really running the show. This in turn meant that their social and economic programs were reflected in what they did during the war, which, as time went by, sided an increasingly pro-reform and left-leaning population on their side.

Can Labour of 1945 be compared to the UNP of 2009? Definitely not. And it's obvious why. From the very start, almost zealously, the UNP opposed the war. There were no assessments of "mutual interests" or "greater evils" made. Under Ranil Wickremasinghe's leadership, the ceasefire (synonym for "appeasement") became their guiding wartime principle. The truth is that while the UNP didn't actually kowtow to LTTE demands the way certain sections of the media cut them out to have done, their deliberate and stubborn refusal to "join" the war cost them dearly. It's not too late to amend, clearly. But comparing their situation to that of the Labourites in 1945 and implying that they should be leading the country by virtue of their being the opposition isn't going to help.

If it's about "comparisons", hence, this is how it should be done.

Ranil Wickremasinghe is not Clement Attlee. Never was, never will be. The UNP under him didn't support the war. That's not how Attlee worked. Claims made to the tune that the UNP should take over power won't work as long as people see them as having been the biggest opponents of the war. Which they were. This cost them credibility. Rajapaksa knows this. He doesn't need to highlight it in everything he says. And he doesn't. It's prima facie and, except perhaps for the kepuwath kola crowd, there for all to see.

So much for that role swap. Here's the other.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is not Winston Churchill. Churchill thought he could handle peace as he had war. He couldn't. I've written before of how he went on paying no regard to the conflicts which were splitting his party. Briefly put, he became politically "redundant", stubbornly believing that he could lead the country just by the charisma and leadership he had shown in the war years.

There was also another reason for his downfall: reform.

By 1945, the Conservative Party had all but completely "ruled" Britain and her empire with an iron fist. It was seen as a party of old-fashioned ideals. In an era of zealous social reform on both sides of the Atlantic, they could hang on to power only through compromise. Churchill wasn't known for his compromising skills. Attlee was. There was an image-deficit between these two owing to how flexibly the Labour Party allied itself with the war effort and at the same pursued its social and economic program. The problem here was aggravated, perhaps, by the belligerence and complacency which Churchill "suffered" from, which in turn kept him in ignorance of postwar social and economic realities.

Rajapaksa, on the other hand, compromised. Readily. He ensured that whatever internal rifts developing in his party didn't project him as languid and/or redundant. Exuding a charisma that established him as a politician who could forge unity no matter what, he won. His victory was perfectly timed. A masterstroke. The 18th Amendment and the demerits of the 1978 constitution with regard to granting incumbents an "edge" over opposition are peripheral to this. Going by this, thus, the UNP's complaint that a war victory shouldn't always mean unlimited rule by those who led the war is baseless and downright silly at most.

The bottom line is this: the UNP is trying to compare itself with Attlee's Labour Party. That's not going to work. The present government may be undesirable. It may be dictatorial. It may be cashing in on its war victory. It may even be five years too old. And many of us may agree to this. But unless and until the UNP and in particular Ranil Wickremasinghe facilitate an ideology-shift in their ranks, all they can do is continue whining about how power should really belong to them.

This in itself, by the way, is an acknowledgment of defeat: "We know Mahinda won the war. We know we did nothing to help him, and indeed tried to sabotage his efforts. We also know that we brought in Sarath Fonseka and left him out in the end. But most of all, we know Mahinda's going to stay in power for quite some time. So all we can do is whine about the same democracy-deficit we championed when we were in power."

Ranil Wickremasinghe isn't Clement Attlee, hence. It's a pity he isn't. A pity for him and for the rest of the UNP.

See also:
Where the UNP has got it wrong
Reflections on 2005 for 2015
Love him or hate him, he's still here