Politics, particularly in this part of the world are all about branding. The Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes were brand names that had good market value. Nowadays, the Rajapaksas are the brand to beat, no matter what their failings are. Wickremesinghe is also a brand- a brand that is long past its date of expiry.

Like a bad smell in the cesspit of Sri Lankan politics, Ranil Wickremesinghe lingers on.

The septuagenarian politician entered Parliament for the first time in 1977 as a green-behind-the-ears 28-year old representing the newly created Biyagama electorate thanks to his uncle, J.R. Jayewardene leading the then popular United National Party (UNP) to a landslide victory, defeating Sirima Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition.

Through fortuitous circumstances, Wickremesinghe leap-frogged in to the Prime Ministerial chair in 1993, following the assassination of then President RanasinghePremadasa and D. B. Wijetunge receiving a constitutional kick upstairs.

Wickremesinghe was as much a part of the Parliament as its furniture until he was kicked out by the people at last year’s general election in August. His UNP, hemorrhaging from the breakaway of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya(SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa managed just one seat and that too only on the National List.

For ten long months, the seat remained vacant. Although initial reports following the election said that Wickremesinghe would retire from politics, he didn’t. Initially, there were indications that he wanted to pave the way for a successor. That too never happened. His cousin, Ruwan Wijewardene was appointed Deputy Leader of the UNP, but he was never given a guarantee that it would be a stepping stone to the ultimate prize- the leadership.


Then a story was floated that Wickremesinghe would stay on until the party was ‘restructured’, whatever that meant. That too never happened. And now, surprise, surprise, Wickremesinghe is nominated by the UNP’s Working Committee to fill their solitary seat.

This is despite a previous edict by none other than Wickremesinghe himself that no one who contested from the party and failed to gain entry to Parliament would be nominated on the National List. Obviously, Wickremesinghe still rules the waves in the UNP and waives the rules as and when he pleases.

Why not? He is surrounded by a cabal of unpopular politicians- Ravi Karunanayake, Vajira Abeywardena, Akhila VirajKariyawasam, Sagala Ratnayaka, to name a few- whose only qualification for remaining in the UNP is their unwavering loyalty to the leader.  

Routed at the polls, reduced to just a nominal seat, one would have thought that Wickremesinghe, after more than a quarter of a century at the helm of the UNP, would have made way for the next generation, just as much as J.R. Jayewardene made way for RanasinghePremadasa, even if it was, as rumor has it, reluctantly. Astute politician that JR was, he placed the party’s needs before his own and ensured that the UNP remained in power for five more years after he retired.

Alas, those genes haven’t been properly transmitted from uncle to nephew. Wickremesinghe, by returning to Parliament and continuing to lead the party after reducing it from a regal outfit to rubble, has demonstrated that his lust for power- not even real power, just any sort of power, because he is a mere opposition MP- has not diminished.

If Wickremesinghe had any political sense, he would have abdicated long ago. The most opportune moment would have been after Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidential election victory, when the party was looking for a new direction. Had he handed over the reins to SajithPremadasa, that would have provided the younger Premadasa a semblance of a chance at the general election.

Instead, he engaged in a protracted, fractious and divisive battle to cling on to the UNP leadership. He succeeded, but at the cost of losing almost the entire UNP to Premadasa’sfledgling SJB. Some say Premadasa is a young man in a hurry and that he should have waited longer. That argument does not hold water when one has been a Parliamentarian for twenty years and when someone almost twenty years your senior is not giving way after losing election after election.

While Wickremesinghe must be hailed for his thick skin and tenacity, his achievements are by no means less significant: he has been Prime Minister five times- more than any other- but never made it to President. Under his stewardship, the UNP has never elected one of its members as President. The last UNP President to be elected from the UNP was Ranasinghe Premadasa– and that was some thirty-two years ago!

The UNP was an all-encompassing monolith, dominating politics, trade unions and public life in the country when Wickremesinghe took over the party leadership after Gamini Dissanayake’sunfortunate demise and D.B. Wijetunge’sretirement. Today, it is dead in all but name, reduced to a few hangers on and its name boardand building at Sirikotha in Kotte. That is what Wickremesinghe has to show for his more than twenty-five years of stewardship of the party.

At the time of the next presidential election, Wickremesinghe will be seventy-five years old. If he contests, he will only draw votes away from a SJB candidate. If he doesn’t wish to do so, what earthly purpose does he serve by entering Parliament now?

Politics, particularly in this part of the world are all about branding. The Senanayakes and Bandaranaikes were brand names that had good market value. Nowadays, the Rajapaksas are the brand to beat, no matter what their failings are. Wickremesinghe is also a brand- a brand that is long past its date of expiry and a brand that has been utterly rejected by the public so much so that anyone and any party associated with Wickremesinghe will not fare well at an election.

What then is Wickremesinghe’s motive in re-entering Parliament? There was much speculation that he is a Trojan horse, sent in to the opposition camp by the Rajapaksas. It is an open secret that Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe have a personal friendship to the extent that they ‘look after each other’s welfare’- hence, despite all the public posturing about revealing and punishing corruption in the other’s camp, that didn’t happen during the ‘Yahapalanaya’ government and it is not happening now.

Initial reports suggest that Wickremesinghe’s acolytes are trying to lure SJB stalwarts to their camp. That can only help the Rajapaksa’s and the ruling party. Wickremesinghe presided over the demise of the UNP. Is he now turning into a political serial killer, trying to kill off the SJB? We wait with bated breath to see whether that is his small footprint in our history.      




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