New Delhi: Sacked Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe may not be the most popular leader at present, but he is still giving tough competition to current the PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, says Sri Lanka’s former Minister for Development of Petroleum Resources Arjuna Ranatunga.
In an interview with News18, Ranatunga reflects on the ongoing political turmoil in his country and says the controversial appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM was a ‘wrong decision’ at a time when the government was anyway gaining unpopularity.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has not been able to prove majority and you have the upper hand now. How popular or unpopular is Ranil Wickramasinghe?
I think it is not about being popular or unpopular. When we formed the government in 2015, Sirisena became the president, he was supported by the United National Party (UNP) under Ranil, and all the other communities such as Muslim, Tamil and the civil society were also backing Sirisena. Then we had the Parliamentary elections where Sirisena’s party and Wickramasinghe’s party could not get a majority. People perhaps wanted the two main parties to join together and sort out issues that we couldn’t sort out for the last 30 years. So when Rajapaksa was appointed the Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, everyone knew it was unconstitutional. But now I won’t be able to talk about it since the matter is in court.
But the thing is, we have done a lot of good things in the last three years. I was part of the government with Sirisena as President and Wickramasinghe as PM. We did a lot of development work, plus we have been paying the loans that we have to pay. So we were getting the country settled in the first three years. Only now we looked at giving a lot of things back to the public than go on debts every time.
Wickramasinghe is not a people’s person but he is a very good ambassador and statesman. I have worked him in the last three years and he has been very positive. A lot of plus points are there and it was a very good combination with Sirisena. It is unfortunate that they had to break that communication and not many people are happy with the present set up.
Wickramasinghe, as you say, is not a people’s person. Do you think that became a trigger for Sirisena to break ties with him?
I really don’t know the reason behind it. I am very close to both of them but we were not even told. We all experienced sadness. It was very difficult to bring them both together to get rid of Rajapaksa in 2015. The entire country was looking to have a new president and prime minister, and get the country to a different level — which we did in the last three years. I am not saying we were 100 per cent good, but we did much better than the previous government. Even if you take the cost of living and the prices before 2015 and now, apart from one or two important items, all other items are still cheaper than they were in 2015. I think we didn’t properly advertise what we had done. We had not marketed ourselves that well.
That was one of the discussions we had in the cabinet. Even the media was with us. But we never capitalised on those issues. If you take the previous government under Rajapaksa into account, it was getting a lot of promotion without doing anything. They were showing a lot of things but nothing was happening. Here, we had done many things but the marketing aspect was very weak. The message was not given to the public. We took a few decisions without informing the public. Take fuel prices for example. The treasury came up with a new policy that the global prices need to go up for us to increase our prices. By doing that, we were saving a lot of money for development work but we didn’t announce it. With this saving, each MP was given 100 million rupees to do development work in those areas. That’s a lot of money and no MP had ever been given it. In the past, it was handled by one or two of Rajapaksa’s brothers or someone else. But now, each MP was given funds to develop their respective areas. Now, had the people been aware about it, they might not have reacted the way they did. I think those are the mistakes we made.
When Wickramasinghe was appointed the Prime Minister, he didn’t have a majority. It looks like we are back to square one with Rajapaksa, but you’re contesting it. Where do you draw the line between constitutional and unconstitutional?
When Wickramasinghe was appointed, we had the 18th amendment in the country. Now we have the 19th amendment which has undergone a lot of changes. Most of the powers were taken away from the President and given to the Parliament. That was the target we had in mind. But there are some issues with the Constitution where you need two-third majority or a referendum to change some of the powers by the President, which we could not do. The court told the government not to bring about changes when we were trying to do so. But I feel what has happened now is the difference between the two amendments.
Do you think Wickramasinghe can lead the UNP in the upcoming elections?
It is up to them. He is a very good worker and has kept the UNP together for the last 24 years and you must give him credit for that. But I’m sure people need a change. I’m sure the UNP will do the right thing by the time it’s time for the next elections. There is a request from the public to appoint a new leader in the UNP. We want members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), who are not happy with the current situation, to join us. Rajapaksa’s people are not very happy with the state of affairs either. Honestly, I’m looking at getting honest people in the political arena. I don’t know who will head the alliance, but the UNP is a majority party.
What does the current alliance have to say about Wickramasinghe?
There are people who want him to stay and there are people who want him to step down. Even people in the UNP wanted a change, the country wanted a change. Some wanted him to stay back and some wanted him to assist. It is up to the UNP to decide that, but I personally feel he should be around to guide whoever takes the UNP and the government forward. He is a very experienced politician. He might not be a popular guy but he is a very intelligent politician.
Rajapaksa swept the local body elections. Then there was massive rally which garnered attention in his favour. Do you think this recent episode — of him becoming the PM and the Parliament getting dissolved — has put him on the back foot?
Absolutely. They have taken a wrong decision. They should have given time for the government to become unpopular. I know Rajapakasa, he is another very experienced politician. I don’t know why he wanted to get into power so quickly when things were on a platter. The government was getting unpopular. Fuel prices were going up. So we as a government could not do much in terms of giving concession to the public. But I think they lost a lot of credibility by trying to get into power through the backdoor and even the popularity has gone down badly. In fact, the UNP has come up due to this episode.