What defines Champika Ranakawa, one of the most enigmatic political heavyweights from recent times.
Patali Champika Ranawaka’s somersault into the political establishment remains one of the more interesting developments from the last quarter century or so. Beginning with the JVP, moving to the nationalist right, only to later turn to the neoliberal right, he remains shrouded in enigma, a cut above the rest: while most of his colleagues go round in circles, shifting parties as you would shift from one musical chair to another in a never-ending cycle, he prefers straight lines.
Ruthless to a fault, yet quiet and tactful, our most perfectionist parliamentarian happens to be one of our most intelligent. He knows the numbers, and quotes them almost effortlessly. Even if he jumps to the wrong conclusions, he gives the impression of having taken a longer, more tortuous route to reach them. Whether he’s critiquing a development initiative or a financial scandal – of course while in the opposition – he resorts to logic, not speculation. His speeches are among the eloquent we hear from parliament today, at least by the standards of eloquence both government and opposition MPs have set for that unfortunate institution. He says what critics of the government want to hear, not what they’ve heard elsewhere. Insofar as opposition MPs are concerned, Mr Ranawaka has thus laid the benchmark and set the yardstick, even if he lacks the charisma and charm of his opponents.
What explains his appeal? It’s not as though he’s been consistent throughout. The truth is that he has indulged in as much pole-vaulting as most of his colleagues and contemporaries: a dubious record to be sure, but one which hasn’t attracted for him the kind of outrage others have.
Take a look at his affiliations: the JVP, Jathika Chintanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United People’s Freedom Alliance, United National Front for Good Governance, UNP, and finally SJB. His entry into the latter remains tenuous and debatable at best, yet it was with its formation that he let go of his past, for good: having served as leader of the most powerful nationalist party in the country, the JHU, he left that party, even if he did not disavow its ideology. What’s extraordinary about it is that regardless of where he has jumped to, his record has attracted less censure than that of most of his colleagues. Bottom line: consistency is not his forte, but his lack of it hasn’t worked against him.
If it’s isn’t consistency, is it survival? From the tail-end of the Cold War to the peak of a pandemic, Ranawaka seems to have been driven by two impulses: power and adaptability. But he’s hardly the only such politician who’s stuck to these credos. To say he’s survived due to some farsighted powers of adaptation is to overlook a crucial, inescapable fact: that adaptation for him signals not so much an ability to harbour different ideological affiliations across parties as it does an ability to adhere to the same ideology, the same worldview, while straddling different parties. In this, he is the superior of a great colleagues and foes. Bottom line: he’s survived not because he’s changed so often, but because, at a fundamental level, he hasn’t changed at all.
At a Q&A session organised by a group of young activists a few weeks before last August’s election, Ranawaka was suave, confident, and a tad tired. He spoke about his journey from university student to political activist to politician, underscoring his achievements without bragging about them. The man has, if anything at all, a clean record as Minister, whatever his failings on other fronts may be, and this became apparent as one slide transitioned into another on the screen.
Yet what caught me wasn’t the conviction with which he outlined his achievements, but the answer he gave to my question as to why he abandoned his activism over alternative development paradigms (he called it Sanwardhanaye Thunweni Yamanaya). Mr Ranawaka was polite, yet to the point with me: “We must bend when we have to, without clinging on to the same ideas, movements, and personalities forever.”
Does this offer a clue to his philosophy, if he follows a philosophy at all? Critics, especially from the Sinhala nationalist right, accuse him of peddling nationalism as a launch pad for his personal politics: a strange assessment, given that since at least the Donoughmore period politicians have been peddling nationalism, of all shades, for personal gain. What makes Ranawaka a target of nationalist vitriol here is not his tendency to shift parties so quickly, but his gift for dominating nationalist discussions while cohabiting with parties hardly amenable to such discourses: the UNP then, the SJB today.
That boils down to a simple truism: no matter the virtues he claims for pole-vaulting, no matter the vices he claims for sticking to the same ideologies, he’s achieved the best of both worlds, bending to the currents of political expedience while sailing on the same ship. If Ranil Wickremesinghe has been compared to a fox, Mr Ranawaka’s spirit animal, given these predilections, ought to be a leopard: not a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, but one whose spots can never change.
To ponder this is to ponder Ranawaka’s vision for the future. None of his critics, from the nationalist right or the pro-SJB opposition, has engaged him over that vision. In essence, it centres on the need to nurture what he calls “fifth generation leaders”, a meritocratic class of results-oriented politicians and officials. The emergence of that generation is, in fact, the objective of “43 Senankaya.” Rawanaka’s strategy to that end is to consolidate the Bandaranaike reforms of 1956 and the Jayewardene reforms of 1977, forming “an administration comprising of experts from various sectors.”
One can of course question how the reforms of 1956 will square with those of 1977 – can you think of a more contrasting, disparate set of policies? – but that is grist for another piece. For now, what needs to be understood is that Ranawaka’s political philosophy has engaged a suburban petty bourgeoisie, along with a young precariat milieu fresh out of university, engaged in part-time employment, and entranced by his talk of next generation leaders. The “43” in his brigade’s title refers to the year free education was enacted here: its aim, therefore, is the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of a post-1956, post-1977, and post-2000 educated class. This is ambitious, cutting across political differences and potentially unifying everyone from everywhere. Yet it is not without its problems.
Ranawaka’s showing at last year’s general election (he came second from last in the SJB’s Colombo district preferential results) confirmed two things: one, that the nationalist crowd he wooed long ago has defected to the SLPP today, and two, that despite a lack of support from this crowd, he could not canvass enough support from other communities and groups. The latter revealed a more fundamental failure: an inability to cut into a) Colombo’s upper middle-class and b) ethnic minorities from Central Colombo. In these constituencies he was upended by a neoliberal rightwing, populist centre-right, and minority bloc. Once these groups deserted him, he was left with only a Sinhala suburban middle-class: a paltry base from which you can aim for little, and achieve even less.
Ranawaka’s challenge then is two-fold, necessitating two strategies. Firstly, since he is locked into Colombo’s middle-class and ethnic minorities, he should cross the terrain, beyond city and district, canvassing popular support from other regions. Secondly, since he cannot do without city and district, he should scale the wall, winning support from non-suburban-Sinhala constituencies there.
To both cross the terrain and scale the wall is not easy. But given his dismal showing last year, he should opt for a strategy which squares the circle. Otherwise, he runs the risk of not only irrelevance, but also marginalisation: both of himself and of the “43 Senankaya.”
Today, he courts support from a niche audience: an anti-Rajapaksist, pro-meritocracy Sinhala middle-class as conservative as rightwing neoliberals. Unless he claims real estate elsewhere, he will find it difficult to achieve either his aims or the objectives of his brigade, even with a Sinhala electorate on his side. In politics especially, the past cannot be allowed to determine the future. In Ranawaka’s case, the past seems to be coming back with much ferocity. He must what he can to let go, paving a new road. A failure to do so can only condemn him to irrelevance and extinction.
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