Political leadership has always been a challenge for all those who played such a role in society. In the first place, all genuine political leaders, especially, those who have won recognition in their societies, must make some self-sacrifice in the interest of the larger community. Along with self sacrifice comes the stress of bearing the burdens of aspirations, needs and interests of the community one leads.
Ranil Wickremesinghe, currently Prime Minister of this country for a historic fourth time, has borne the burdens of his community now for forty years in his life as an elected representative of his people. The national legislature has been his workplace ever since he became one of our youngest Members of Parliament in 1977.
Not very many legislators the world over have had the privilege of representing his or her community continuously for four decades. Such a trust placed in a political leader by his/her fellow citizens must surely be well fulfilled if those citizens are to continue to elect that leader to public office. Premier Wickremesinghe has enjoyed the trust placed in him by his voters to a degree that his political career has been unstoppable from his first entry into the parliamentary chamber, to deputy ministership, to cabinet posts, to premiership.
Premier Wickremesinghe has been one of our youngest Cabinet Ministers, earned more senior portfolios at regular intervals, withstood inner party rebellion even as presidential impeachment was attempted, and staunchly resisted authoritarianism and ethnic chauvinism. The scion of an elite family, once he had won the trust of his citizens to carry out governance, Mr. Wickremesinghe has allowed neither political defeat nor bloody and intractable social conflict to deter him or push him into a comfortable retirement. Perhaps, true to the grit and social commitment that characterized his illustrious forebears, Mr. Wickremesinghe has never wavered from his vocation and commitment to his fellow citizens.
If the career milestones have been impressive, the political challenges lived through on this long journey have been daunting: from transformation of the economy, to successive insurgencies, to constitutional crises and reform, to ethnic conflict and, natural disasters. Through all of this, Ranil Wickremesinghe has been with his people – whether holding governmental office or, in parliamentary opposition.
Forty years of such national service is indeed a moment that is recognized and celebrated not just by the Premier’s loved ones or the political party to which he has been faithful all these decades, or by his parliamentary colleagues. It is celebrated by all Sri Lankans in whose collective destiny he has played such a role.
Our national legislature has regularly celebrated such political milestones throughout its institutional life with all Members and officials observing these events with due solemnity and convivial warmth. Speeches are made – critical where necessary but appreciative – votes are applauded, cakes are cut, personal compliments given. Such moments are proud milestones of civilized, republican democracy. But this was, clearly, not so to some in our national legislature. For the first time in our parliamentary history there has been a deliberate and formal boycott of a celebratory session of the House to mark the personal achievement of a legislator.
When Parliament held a session last Friday to felicitate the Prime Minister on his 40th year in parliamentary politics, a small cabal of legislatures thought fit to ‘boycott’ the proceedings. Neither the MPs of the so-called ‘Joint Opposition’ group nor of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna attended this session. The Leader of the Opposition, namely, Mr. R. Sampanthan of the Tamil National Alliance, as well as other senior party leaders, noted this conspicuous absence of Members and expressed their shock and disappointment at this ‘boycott’.
Normally, a ‘boycott’ on the political stage, or at a political event, has meaning as a protest against policies or political practices. The parliamentary session on Friday was not on any policy or, for the discussion of any political action or measures taken by Government. Rather, it was simply to felicitate a fellow parliamentarian on his personal milestone. The boycott of such an event by those who, as MPs, are expected to attend, seems to imply the intentional, outright, slighting of an individual, in this case our Prime Minister.
Sadly, at least one high school classmate of Mr. Wickremesinghe, Mr. Dinesh Gunewardena of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna, himself a veteran parliamentarian, was part of that ‘boycott’. Since the occasion was of a personal political nature, citizens watching these histrionics, could easily interpret this boycott to be motivated by personal enmity rather than policy or formal politics.
While the MEP at one time prided itself in upholding national culture and identity, this kind of acrimonious behaviour in the national legislature by its MPs hints at a decline in the vision and practice of this political party. Our country is yet emerging from decades of bitter internal warfare and social conflict and its national fabric has suffered much – a culture of violence, corrupt nepotism, crude ethno-centrism, and bureaucratic inefficiency. The Parliament is at the forefront of the endeavour for national recovery. How can citizens look to our leaders for guidance when such leaders seemingly engage in this kind of petty personal enmity? We can only wish our Prime Minister well, as he steps into his forty first year in electoral politics. Our hope is that his steps will lead us even more towards civilized, democratic politics and, away from decadent, petty-minded mediocrity that parades as ‘patriotism’ and ‘nationalism’. The citizens can see for themselves the true patriots, the genuine upholders of the national weal.