Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)
CHAMPIKA SPEARHEADS SJB IN COLOMBO
Two Thursdays ago at the Grand Monarch in Thalawathugoda, Patali Champika Ranawaka was suave, self-assured, and articulate. He began with an outline of his early life and political career, moved on to his vision for the future, and ended with a Q & A session with the audience, most of whom, to me at least, looked Sinhala, Buddhist, middle class, and young. Champika didn’t cut corners; he admitted, frankly and forthrightly, that tactics have to change, and that yesterday’s strategy may have to give way to a new one today. But if his campaign’s tactics have changed, its focus has not. “My main objective,” the man allocated Colombo’s No. 1 preferential vote from the Samagi Jana Balavegaya at the upcoming polls announced, “is to rid this country of family dynasties.”
Politics is all about the ability to deliver. It’s also about marketing the ability to deliver and what gets delivered. Good intentions don’t cut much ice. Neither do good outcomes, at least not all the time. Advertising and interaction are two key elements for any successful politician. Politicians, after all, behave the way they feel their constituencies want them to behave. In that sense Patali Champika Ranawaka remains unique, certainly a cut above the rest in his party. Though he is contesting from Colombo, from an outfit that’s constantly morphing, he doesn’t seem to belong to any constituency in particular. His electorate is, if not in the city, then in the district. But if he is to deliver well, he must go beyond city and district. He must aim higher. He can certainly aim far.
The party is led by Sajith Premadasa, and deputised by a group of ex-mps whose fortunes have vastly diminished since the Easter bombings. It’s a breakaway faction of an arguably more unpopular party which continues to house even more unpopular ex-mps, including the leader, a five-time Prime Minister.
As far as the possibility of a viable, democratic opposition is concerned, Premadasa’s party can get the support it needs from down under to challenge what has now become a popular and powerful government. The challenge is greater, considering that the present regime has gained more in popularity and power in its first six months, despite a vicious pandemic that spanned four of those months, than the Yahapalana regime did in a comparatively calmer first year. It’s even greater, since people don’t forget, and many of the names forwarded by the SJB are more disliked, and unpopular, than those mooted by the parent party, the UNP, and the governing party, the SLPP. In short, the SJB needs a saviour.
There’s every reason to believe that Champika can become that saviour. The significance of assigning a No. 1 preferential vote number, if nothing else, tells the story. To be sure, Ranil Wickremesinghe (Colombo) is No. 15 and Mahinda Rajapaksa (Kurunegala) is No. 20. But these are names that guarantee votes: Ranil will always win the more affluent suburbs of Colombo, while Mahinda will always win Sinhala Buddhist electorates. Champika’s No. 1 slot, on the other hand, seems intriguing: why assign that slot to a man whose past political associations have little in common with the party he’s contesting from?
The simple answer is, because he resonates with a growing section of the Sinhala Buddhist middle class youth. Champika is the SJB’S redeemer, the black swan Sajith Premadasa needs, because he can bring to the party and its leader an electorate the UNP is fast losing – as of now, that is – and the SLPP is in danger of losing. The Q & A was the first of a series of interactive sessions with politicians from all sides of the divide; that Champika happened to be the choice of the organizers for their debut event tells a lot about how he is viewed by this young crowd and the potential they think he possesses. The Yahapalana equation got wrecked long, long ago. The same formula won’t work. But for a new formula, a new face is needed. And the new face increasingly happens to bechampika’s. Which begs the question: who is he, and what can be bring to the table?
It’s all to do with filling a gap. The 2019 election was a disaster for the UNP, whichever way you look at it. It straddled populism and professionalism and lost on both counts to the much better marketed campaign of the SLPP. Part of the blame for that, of course, has to go to Ranil Wickremesinghe, and to sections of civil society who handed defeat to Sajith by making claims on issues more aligned with Ranil’s wing in the UNP.
Ranil himself took the opportunity of changing his party’s tune; there were times when even the most fervent UNP supporter didn’t know which direction it blew. The message everyone got, whether or not the leaders desired it, was that the top rung seemed more comfortable with passing power to Gotabaya Rajapaksa than allowing an internal revolt to take over its mantle. As a result, many of those who had revered the Dear Leader – for what they felt to be his stance on the economy and on issues like the rule of law – believed him to have sided with the Enemy. The focus shifted to Sajith. Now, given the rather questionable tactics employed by the SJB – including Sajith’s Twitter outbursts – it seems to have shifted to and rested on Champika.
The strongest point one can make about him is that he’s showing himself as more than just an appendage of the party he’s contesting from. For someone who somersaulted from one ideology to another – JVP, Jathika Chinthanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, UPFA, UNFGG, and UNP – this is only to be expected. The strength of his convictions lies in his ability to question (or betray, depending on how you look at it) the ideology he has allied himself with and abandon the camp he’s in. In the long run this can be more a curse than a blessing. But then the long run is far, far away.
Certainly, the Champika Ranawaka of the UNP and the SJB is not the Champika Ranawaka of the Sihala Urumaya and the Hela Urumaya. If one believes he has let go of the philosophy which guided those two
There’s every reason to believe that Champika can become that saviour. The significance of assigning a No. 1 preferential vote number, if nothing else, tells the story
The simple answer is, because he resonates with a growing section of the Sinhala Buddhist middle class youth. Champika is the SJB’S redeemer, the black swan Sajith Premadasa needs
Champika’s stances on the economy and national security appeal to a potentially broader base than either the proponents of militaristic nationalism, like the Sinhala Altright, or the supporters of liberal democracy, like Mangala Samaraweera
movements, one won’t be far behind the truth. After the Q & A, I asked him what he felt about the ideologies that guided him then, and why he chose to let go. Diplomatic as always, he replied that while he espoused the Chinthana Pravadaya once, it was a response to an imperative need of the hour: “Times have changed, and imperatives have changed with them.” In other words, the same plans can’t be resorted to forever. They must be re-examined. This is not something one politician has been doing until now; insofar as changing ideals is concerned, it’s something everyone in parliament has done, at some point. Even Ranil Wickremesinghe, and even Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Two concerns can be raised about Champika’s campaign. The first is tactical: will he assume the role of the party’s spokesperson after the parliamentary polls? The second is strategic: come 2025, and where will he be relative to Sajith Premadasa? The response of a political science student to a question I posed to him about the man, I believe, tells us all we need to know about Champika’s journey after August, tactically AND strategically.
“I believe he is all about himself,” the student said. “He abandoned the green development paradigm for a different one, and he’s been emphasising on it since his Mahinda Rajapaksa days. After all, he himself says he drafted the Mahinda Chintanaya. The question is whether he’ll make that a part of the SJB.” Which means, of course, that Champika has a high chance of emerging as a face in the party, in a context where most other faces – barring Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickramaratne – look unpopular and unseemly.
This is important, because Champika’s stances on the economy and national security appeal to a potentially broader base than either the proponents of militaristic nationalism, like the Sinhala Alt-right, or the supporters of liberal democracy, like Mangala Samaraweera. I say that because Champika repudiated both ideals at the conclave: in the same vein with which he said, “We should stop thinking that the solution to the country’s problems is appointing ex-military officials to every post”, he also said, “We must acknowledge the end of liberal democracy, particularly if Donald Trump wins a second term come November.” In those two statements, made at the same event, with the same kind of conviction, lies what is for me at least the quintessentially intriguing spirit of the man.