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Power and betrayal

In the whirlwind of Sri Lankan politics, last week’s visit by Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD) to India carved a narrative that has both intrigued and polarised the political arena. This spectacle showcased the delicate art of political communication, underscoring the critical importance of reputation management and the nuanced dance of damage control in the face of adversity. 

For years, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), questioning authority and challenging the status quo, found itself in an unfamiliar position – defending rather than accusing. The controversial trip to India marked a turning point. Critics pounced, dissecting every word, every move, with relentless scrutiny. The lesson here? In politics, transparency isn’t just a virtue, it’s a necessity. 

JVP’s damage control

The JVP’s contradictory attempts at justification only fanned the flames of speculation, highlighting the need for openness in communication. The damage control was in the hands of Vijitha Herath, the key actor of the JVP, who knew the history of the party and ideology. Herath is a wordsmith and articulated the JVP standing with India cleverly, even though with limited success. Herath has been in politics for long enough to know that every question from the media does not need to be answered, but when you answer, you can be in control of the narrative. 

While Herath was saving face, the JVP’s other speakers were not as savvy, answering the questions of the media, which was looking for a great story. Unlike in the past, journalists in Sri Lanka are not afraid of posing challenging questions to political leaders. The JVP made the cardinal mistake of exposing Vraie Cally Balthazaar, a rookie to politics and a personable character, yet too young to face Sirasa TV, to defend the undefendable.

The journalists ganged up around her to question the JVP ideology, foreign policy, and geopolitics. The journalists were ruthless and did not have sympathy for the aspiring politician. It was not her fault; she managed the conversation the way she could, but the result was it exposed the JVP’s confusion on the Indian visit and geopolitical powerplay. This is akin to the United National Party (UNP) allowing a trade unionist, Saman Rathnapriya, to defend debt restructuring in front of the media. 

Politicians feel they have to answer every question despite not having adequate expertise, knowledge, and thought processes. Even some senior politicians are victims of answering everything that comes their way. If they are humble enough, they can avoid trouble by not having to answer uncomfortable questions. Two young politicians who are savvy and not answering questions they don’t know are State Minister of Foreign Relations Tharaka Balasuriya and the firebrand Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam.

The JVP was always a party of few faces and speakers, which enabled it to control its narrative well. However, in the last two months, at least 50 new speakers have emerged from the JVP/National People’s Power (NPP), resulting in a loss of control of the grand strategy.

Over the years, I have witnessed many political leaders and business leaders get sucked into the fame game. Over time, it’s individualism that triumphs but not the cause or the organisation. Fame is a drug. The human brands created by the media die when the cameras fail to capture them. Young politicians like Balthazaar are an asset to the country, but, if not appropriately managed, it could be self-destructive. 

The other thing in a culture like Sri Lanka is that many don’t like others rising above them, invoking jealousy, which ends up in misery. In navigating the treacherous waters of political narratives, the JVP’s ordeal serves as a reminder: when the tide turns, the only lifeline is the truth.

Ranil’s chess game

Meanwhile, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political chess game continues to captivate and confound. With the Presidential Election looming in 2024, his deliberate ambiguity and strategic manoeuvres keep the political discourse in constant flux. 

The recent interview with the young Sidhant Sibal of WION News only added layers to the enigma, leaving the question of his candidacy in the air.

Ever since I met Sibal, I have had a personal liking for him. He is a young journalist who keeps evolving with every interview he does. He learns fast, but managing Wickremesinghe is a difficult task. Wickremesinghe will not answer your question; he will tell you what he wants, irrespective of what the question is. He will run circles around the journalist if questions persist. 

Bill Clinton, Netanyahu, Indira Gandhi, the great LKY, and Mandela are some of the leaders who always control the interview. There is a lesson here for every political party to train, especially their young leaders, in storytelling and facing the media. Just because you have the gift of speaking does not mean you are clever enough to represent your organisation, party, or country. Every word you say affects your organisation or the cause. 

The latest example was the Tourism Minister’s speech: “Sri Lanka is part of India.” Sri Lanka is Sri Lanka and I don’t think even Indians consider Sri Lanka as a part of India. Fernando may have made a mistake, maybe unintentional, but the damage was done as social media was in flames over his statement. 

Amidst swirling rumours of electoral schedules, Wickremesinghe’s masterful orchestration of political distractions underscores a broader phenomenon: this saga serves as an ailing case study on the power of strategic ambiguity in political campaigning.

Wickremesinghe’s adept handling of rumours and his campaign’s calculated reconfigurations reveal a sophisticated understanding of political narrative control. It prompts questioning of the veracity of what we hear and issues a challenge to peel back the layers of political orchestration to uncover the real agendas at play. The Parliamentary Election in June, abolishing the Executive Presidency, and a referendum to postpone the Presidential Election are brilliant rumours helping none other than Wickremesinghe.

Constitutionally, the country should have the Presidential Election before 17 October this year. If it does not happen, it will be the most undemocratic move in the history of post-independence Sri Lanka. Wickremesinghe himself has many times mentioned that the Presidential Election will be held on time as per the Constitution. The latest statement was using the President’s Media Division, that the Presidential Election will be held on time and the Parliamentary Election will be held in 2025. 

Many still believe that Wickremesinghe is not running for the presidency once again, but Wickremesinghe’s presidential campaign is ready and activated. The campaign team has been appointed and implementation is underway. Wickremesinghe has avoided saying that he is running, but his proxies are at play spinning the story. The confusion is unpalatable for many in the political circle and in front of microphones people just say what they feel, but little do they know that they are creating fake news which gets amplified by digital media.

A rising young political YouTuber with 35,000 followers provides inner political circles’ conversations and predictions. Little does he know that he is part of the fake news factory. When you predict 100%, the chances are high that you will at least end up with 20% right. The 80% is your reputational damage. There are many who are digital journalists for commercial gain and the fame game, narrating stories, but this will be short-lived when the audience figures out the authenticity of your stories.

Anyone can make mistakes, but you cannot make mistakes every day. There is no accountability for what they report and say. This is why Sri Lanka needs a good media school to train aspiring media personnel on what real journalism is and the power the journalist has in shaping the world. 

Sajith’s journey

On another front, Sajith Premadasa’s political journey unfolds with a blend – nation and vulnerability. In the relentless pursuit of building a formidable alliance for the upcoming Presidential Election, Premadasa’s narrative is one of resilience amidst the treacherous terrain of political affiliations. His story resonates with the loneliness of leadership – a sentiment familiar to any CEO who has navigated the complexities of governance and loyalty. 

Premadasa’s anticipation of betrayal within his ranks echoes the timeless adages of power and loyalty explored by Robert Greene. This narrative is not just about political manoeuvring; it’s a poignant exploration of the human condition within the echelons of power. The betrayals Premadasa foresees underscore a harsh reality: in the quest for political ascendancy, personal interests often eclipse the common good. This tale of perseverance, betrayal, and the relentless pursuit of leadership profoundly reflects the vulnerabilities leaders face in the political arena. 

Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) Chairman Sarath Fonseka is a headache for any leader. He is too strong; he may not agree, but he has an inflated ego. Perhaps his inflated ego and drive for execution could have been the primary factor leading the military to success against the LTTE. 

He does not talk like a politician, but he is still a commander of men and things. He loves control – there’s nothing wrong with it – as a battle-hardened general, a man who survived a brutal suicidal attack at the hands of the LTTE. He is the man who went to prison and did not seek the prison hospital unlike any other VIP. 

The Rajapaksas were the first to identify Fonseka’s trait and they sidelined him after winning the war. Wickremesinghe was the next one to learn of Fonseka’s insatiable desire to lead. Then it was Sirisena. This was the prime reason Fonseka was not given a proper ministry under the ‘Yahapalanaya’ Government to match his expertise and skill. Fonseka ended up with Premadasa. 

Fonseka, in his view, quickly learnt that he is more powerful as a leader than Premadasa. It did not take time for Premadasa to learn that the imminent threat to his leadership was from Fonseka. Premadasa’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa had two Fonsekas around him: Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali. 

Premadasa feared them and both Gamini and Lalith, J.R. Jayewardene protégés in their hearts, could not agree with the fact Ranasinghe Premadasa was their leader. This no doubt led to the impeachment of President Premadasa (which he survived) and the formation of a new party by the Jayewardene protégés, which signalled the erosion of the United National Party. 

It’s déjà vu for Premadasa with Fonseka. Either Fonseka should leave Premadasa or Premadasa should leave Fonseka. But sacking Fonseka, the Chairman of the SJB, is not an easy task and may even lead to a legal battle if not done appropriately. 

Fonseka has three viable options. Side with Wickremesinghe or AKD or bite the bullet and accept Premadasa’s leadership. Fonseka in the JVP will be a great story for the JVP’s anti-corruption narrative, but will Fonseka accept AKD as his leader, probably Harini Amarasuriya as the prime minister, and Vijitha Herath and Sunil Handunnetti as his high command in a possible JVP government?

The last option is for Fonseka to run for the presidency once again like 2010. However, 2024 and 2010 are different terrains from Fonseka’s perspective. Everyone who backed Fonseka in 2010 is either not with him now or not with him in heart. 

How Premadasa is going to manoeuvre the internal conflicts will be a litmus test for his leadership. His inner circle is confident that he has the muscle to navigate the rough terrain and come out as a winner. However, the Wickremesinghe camp is waiting for Premadasa to concede the presidential race to Wickremesinghe. So it could be a Wickremsinghe vs. AKD race. In the same way, the Premadasa camp is waiting for Wickremesinghe to concede, so it could be a Premadasa vs. AKD race.

Dilith, the dreamer

On the other hand, Dilith Jayaweera, the media mogul-turned-presidential aspirant and Mawbima Janatha Party (MJP) Leader, is expecting Wickremesinghe, Premadasa, and AKD to run against him, thinking on the lines of winning the Presidential Election on the second count. Dreams are free, so anyone will dream. 

Jayaweera, in his own words, is a dreamer pursuing a crazy political strategy. Just like Wickremesinghe, only Jayaweera knows what he is doing. For some, Jayaweera is doing Wickremesinghe’s bidding and for others he is the Rajapaksa puppet.

According to Jayaweera, as per the last opinion polling, 63% of voters are yet to decide on their vote. He boasts that he has never got his numbers wrong before. I have written multiple times before on the credibility of opinion polling. Jayaweera’s opinion polling numbers add misery to the opinion polling discussions doing rounds in the country and international waters. 

Siriwardana’s situation

Amidst this political play, recent events had a negative impact on certain public officials. The public officials are being scrutinised severely, especially after the health sector scandal. If wrong has been done, everyone should get penalised equally. The trial by media is hurting everyone. 

Unlike politicians, public officials are not used to reputational damage. Politics is a muddy game and everyone signing up for it, including their respective families, will get attacked mercilessly, irrespective of right or wrong. Public officials don’t sign up for a job for reputational damage. No corporate CEOs get attacked personally, unless they do something radically wrong. The latest victim was Finance Ministry Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana – a humble man from Hawa Eliya, Nuwara Eliya and an alumnus of the University of Kelaniya who trained at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Siriwardana was the pick of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in April 2022 as the secretary of the Finance Ministry when no one wanted to be the finance minister of the country and no one wanted to shoulder its economic mess. Siriwardana and Central Bank Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe were proposed to President Rajapaksa by one person. 

In the US financial debacle of 2008, Hank Paulson, the Goldman Sachs maestro, as the Treasury Secretary, saw the debacle. Timothy Geithner was brought in by President Obama to calm the crisis and resurrect the economy. Siriwardana was the chosen man in Sri Lanka.

In a crisis, you need a man that all can work with. If Dr. P.B. Jayasundera ran the Treasury with an iron fist, Siriwardana was on the other extreme. Many are of the view that Siriwardana is just a central banker, but not many know that from 2010 to 2015 he held powerful positions at the Ministry of Finance as a secondment. Siriwardana was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s appointee and Wickremesinghe, once he took over, continued with Siriwardana. President Wickremsinghe is the Minister of Finance as well. Siriwardana is his most important secretary in the Government machinery. 

The recent statement by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage about the integrity of Siriwardana and Treasury officials did not go down well in the public domain. Aluthgamage may have had a reason to say what he said or he may have been misinformed about the facts and figures. However, Siriwardana is the President’s direct subordinate. If a public official has done any wrong, there should be a due process and the official should be convicted if wrong. The law should be equal. 

Once an allegation is made, the reputational damage is done and most public officials cannot make public statements and defend their actions. When you question the integrity of the Secretary to the Finance Ministry, the man who holds the wallet, it’s an attack on the reputation of the country’s financial system. At least to start with, the Finance Ministry should have a media centre with trained public officials to meet the media to explain the why, what, and how proactively. 

Also, the Finance Ministry should train at least a few journalists on economic policy, fiscal policy, public finance, and public debt management. These are special areas, requiring special skills. While I do have concerns about the recent tax burden on people and businesses, purely given the suffering of stakeholders, I agree that a fair and equitable tax policy is a must. Every policy decision should be scrutinised in good faith. 

Siriwardana, speaking at his alma mater, recently stated that he and his officials were ready for policy scrutiny publicly. Perhaps this is the only way to bring back the glorious age of civil service administration Sri Lanka was once proud of and it’s not too late to correct the wrong.