Sunday, September 13, 2015

Champika Ranawaka’s moves

"All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream in the dark recesses of the night awake in the day to find all was vanity. But the dreamers of day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, and make it possible."

“The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, T. E. Lawrence

In his review of James Manor’s Expedient Utopian, Regi Siriwardena highlights S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s attitude towards authority and how this shaped him while in power. He infers that Bandaranaike’s clash with the UNP was symptomatic of a long line of personal clashes, alternating between rebellion and submission, which ended up with him courting authority and at the same time being indecisive enough to bend to popular pressure as and when it was expedient to do so (hence Manor’s title for his book).

He then conclude on a pithy note: “Perhaps Bandaranaike saw no inconsistency between the two (i.e. expedience and idealism) because his brand of populism was dependent on the assumption that whenever supposedly popular forces asserted themselves, authority should bend before them.”

This is the truth, and not just for Bandaranaike. Politicians seek the opportune from whatever moment. They are rarely if at all fired by idealism, and if they are it’s to again grab at what’s opportune. Rhetoric and frill are good for talk. Statesmanship, however, is as far away from our politicians as it was back in 1956 (or for that matter 1948). That is why or rather how most national heroes venerated today not only kowtowed to the imperialists but condoned the stunting of dissent against them by Marxist parties. Sad, yes. But true.

Writing before the parliamentary election last month, this writer commented on the Jathika Hela Urumaya and Champika Ranawaka (“Reflections on the ‘Sihala Urumaya’ that was”) and his (largely perceived) opportunism. Ranawaka (or anyone else in that party for that matter) is not an opportunist in any sense (yet). He has however demonstrated an ability to enter and wreck equations in whatever party or movement he’s in. That doesn’t indicate opportunism. That indicates an ability to enforce his vision on those movements, enough for his opponents to lose legitimacy immediately, if not afterwards.

Ranawaka was with Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2014. Well, he was with him before that too, but the point is that during that time he badmouthed the then opposition United National Party (UNP) enough to make one remark “Strange bedfellows!” at his and his party’s alliance with that same party. As such his moves, political or otherwise, must be judged on how well he handles this alliance, especially in light of what it stands for and how far he is able to subsume his vision for its sake (a no-no situation as far as he’s concerned, not impossible though).

The Jathika Hela Urumaya doesn’t exist anymore, not on paper and not in spirit. He did maintain its identity during the presidential election, but immediately after that all he not only substituted another party (the diamond-shaped good governance alliance) for it but went as far as to dilute it in favour of the UNP.

On one level this indicates two possibilities: that the Hela Urumaya lost its base (in a manner of speaking) upon its rejection of Mahinda Rajapaksa, and that Ranawaka is willing to let go of his original positions (on race and nationality in particular) if that will get him closer to the likes of Lakshman Kiriella (“any gona can conduct a war”) and Ravi Karunanayake (“Alimankada and Pamankada”) and consolidate gains within the UNP. While one can doubt the latter point, it’s an inevitable outcome should the former point be true.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya emerged when both the UNP and the SLFP (and its People’s Alliance) were dallying with the LTTE and its mythmakers. Getting nine members into parliament barely three years after only 0.5 percent of the country voted for you isn’t just a coincidence, after all. Perhaps this was best illustrated by how the Sihala Urumaya (under S. L. Gunasekera) viewed the political relationship between the LTTE and the two major parties: “between the devil and the deep blue sea”. A middle way was what it aimed for. That’s what it got.

The point is that 2004 wasn’t 2014. Mahinda Rajapaksa was no Chandrika Kumaratunga and for this reason, rejecting him meant a partial rejection of race-driven nationalism. Ranawaka, let’s not forget, did not conduct himself well during the Aluthgama riots, even going as far as to call Muslims “outsiders”, never mind that this statement was criticised by Mujibur Rahman, who under the UNP contested with Ranawaka himself last month – and in Colombo too!

Professor Nalin de Silva was frank when he said that Ranawaka’s political philosophy was nothing but “power and power” (a reference to his book Balaya saha Balaya). He was wrong. Champika Ranawaka’s track record bears testimony to what politicians do, yes. But this has in no way demonstrated opportunism on his part, not because he is an angel but because each time he has jumped he has taken use of a particular social ill which he has, to the best of his ability, eradicated.

Naturally enough, this puts him at odds and in a favourable light when compared with the likes of Rajitha Senaratne, S. B. Nawinne, and pretty much everyone else who jumped from the UPFA to the UNP during both general and presidential elections this year.

There’s another reason for this. Every time he jumps, those who oppose him lose legitimacy. That is what happened in 2000, when he hijacked the Sihala Urumaya and crippled the likes of S. L. Gunasekera (who, let’s not forget, went as far as to call him a “Taliban”).

Those who opposed his decision to support Maithripala Sirisena from his own party, with the exception of Ellawala Medhananda Thera, were no different. They too lost legitimacy, not only because they supported the real underdog in the election (Sirisena was the top dog, by the way) but because the rift between rationality (on the part of Sirisena) and rhetoric (on the part of Rajapaksa) was reflected in the rift between Ranawaka’s JHU and Udaya Gammanpila’s Pivithuru Hela Urumaya.

Here lies Ranawaka’s biggest strength: his ability to wield opposition when those he opposes have lost legitimacy. No politician here has matched this achievement. Speaks a lot about the man.

Patali Champika Ranawaka is thus a dangerous man. Not because he seeks the opportune, but because at a time when seeking the opportune has undone movements and politicians, he has waded through thick and thin and emerged as victor. Always. He is a T. E. Lawrence in the making. For our time.

These are still early days though. Whether he can withstand the lure of “power and power” while manoeuvring politically will depend on how well he handles his transition from the largely chauvinist UPFA to the cosmopolitan UNP, bearing in mind of course that not all chauvinists vote for the UPFA and not all lotus eaters vote for the UNP. Politics is never that simple. Ranawaka, one suspects, understands this better than anyone else.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at