President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s big boast was that he was able to stabilise a nation heading for economic disaster under his predecessor Gotabaya Rajapaksa. It sure was, but there is nothing to prove that it is not, even now. Wickremesinghe’s yardstick is different: he believes that the absence of fuel and gas queues is a clear indicator that Sri Lanka is once again heading towards prosperity!
To propagate this lie and entrench himself in power, Wickremesinghe has broken many laws, enacted more draconian measures and postponed local government elections. In the process, he has also allowed many state institutions to be privatised allowing his cronies to make a quick buck and turned a blind eye to rampant corruption, whenever it served his political needs.
That is what he did with Keheliya Rambukwella- until it all came spectacularly undone last week.
Rambukwella was accused of complicity in the scam that involved importing substandard medication, a form of human immunoglobulin, to the country. To do so, he allegedly submitted a Cabinet paper that there was a scarcity of and an urgent need for this medication. A group of officials were also implicated in the scam.
When the scandal broke and the matter went to courts, Rambukwella wished to appear as an aggrieved party, implying that it was he who alerted authorities to the scam. The court did not allow him to do so. Then he tried to evade questioning by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) provided palpably false excuses which led to his undoing. That led to his arrest. More importantly, he wasn’t granted bail which meant that he had to languish in custody. The courageous Magistrate who took these bold decisions and the Deputy Solicitor General from the Attorney General’s Department who brooked no nonsense must be commended for their efforts.
Nevertheless, questions remain. Queries are being raised as to why Rambukwella was promptly admitted to Prison Hospital. How is it that a person who is fit and healthy enough to hold a Cabinet portfolio suddenly becomes so debilitated that he needs admission to hospital? Should not that decision be made, not by medical officers at the Prison Hospital (as there was no indication there was a medical emergency) but by a Judicial Medical Officer?
More importantly, what is the role of Wickremesinghe in all this? When the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) proposed a motion of no confidence against Rambukwella in Parliament, many expected Wickremesinghe to request him to resign or, at the very least, assign him a different portfolio. Instead, Wickremesinghe actively canvassed support for Rambukwella, mustered sufficient numbers and ensured that the no confidence motion was defeated.
That did not stifle public outrage against Rambukwella. Faced with this backlash, Wickremesinghe then assigned him a different portfolio, again stopping shy of sacking him from the Cabinet.
What was astounding was the fact that even after the court arrested Rambukwella and placed him under custody, Wickremesinghe did not have the guts to sack him. If it was a history making feat to send a sitting cabinet minister to custody, it was an even more history making feat for him to remain a Cabinet minister while still in custody!
Compare this with the treatment meted out to former Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe. Ranasinghe dared to mention the name of Wickremesinghe’s aide-de-camp Sagala Ratnayake as a potential culprit in the scandala involving Sri Lanka Cricket. Within hours, he was allowed to attend a Cabinet meeting where he was confronted with several unsubstantiated allegations, humiliated in front of his colleagues and served with a letter sacking him on the spot.
The ruthlessness with which he acted against Roshan Ranasinghe was strangely absent when dealing with Rambukwella before whom Wickremesinghe was a toothless tiger. Even with calls from the opposition demanding that Rambukwella be sacked after his arrest, Wickremesinghe maintained a deafening silence, until the disgraced minister sent in his resignation. Such is the integrity of Sri Lanka’s stand-in President.
However, the leniency extended to Rambukwella will not prevent Wickremesinghe from trying to make political capital out of the latter’s arrest. Already, Wickremesinghe’s social media army has used its various platforms to sing his praises saying that he did not interfere with the Police investigation or the judicial process, allowing them to be played out without any hindrance.
This begs the question, why? It is not that Wickremesinghe has suddenly attained political sainthood. He is not averse to manipulating court or other processes when the occasion demands and when the stakes are high. We saw how high-handed he could be with the executive powers at his disposal when he used and abused various tactics to stall the local government elections due in March last year- and then indefinitely postpone them.
We also saw how he tried to bully the Constitutional Council on the issue of appointing an Inspector General of Police (IGP), in one instance pointedly ignoring the Council’s recommendations. We then saw how he acted with impunity when the scandal involving Sri Lanka Cricket erupted, disregarding a unanimous resolution endorsed by Parliament. So, Wickremesinghe doesn’t hesitate to waive the rules when he wants to rule waves. Still, he didn’t do so to protect Keheliya Rambukwella.
This is where Wickremesinghe’s political cunning comes to the fore. He is surely aware that his popularity is at an all-time low, that he has been tainted by associating, supporting and protecting the Rajapaksas and their Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and that his previous reputation as ‘Mr. Clean’ is in tatters because of what his cronies have done, from the Central Bank bond scam to the ongoing privatisations deals.
So, Wickremesinghe needs an escape clause. He needs an issue to salvage his reputation and portray himself once again as the epitome of virtue and integrity. When the Rambukwella issue presented itself, he didn’t mind sacrificing Rambukwella – who could not be rescued anyway because of the mountain of evidence against him- to gain some political mileage out of it.
That is Ranil Wickremesinghe, the presidential candidate in the making. Watch out for more episodes of a similar nature as the presidential election nears for that is what we can expect from this political Old Fox.