Colombo Telegraph

Advising Mahinda Rajapaksa: A Strategic Perspective? 

By Chamindra Weerawardhana

Dr. Chamindra Weerawardhana

The publication of an email, sent by Ambassador Dr Dayan Jayatilleka to Prime Minister Rajapaksa via Vasudeva Nanayakkara MP, in the Colombo Telegraph has triggered much interest among many Sri Lankans and foreign observers. In what follows, my objective is to very briefly reflect upon the role of political advisors and strategists in the political camp of a populist and successful national leader. This is a crucially important area of concern, as problematic counsel, especially in relation to the management of foreign affairs, happened to be a key factor that jeopardised the Rajapaksa administration’s standing on the world stage, and eventually led to the January 2015 scenario. 

What follows is by no means an expression of support to any political leader or party/coalition. Instead, it is penned from a standpoint of strategic thinking in external affairs management. 

Critiquing or condemning Dr Jayatilleka’s advice  is certainly not my objective. Dr Jayatilleka may have had reasons of his own that may indeed justify the advice he provided. I look at the current scenario in Sri Lanka from a standpoint of a Sri Lankan with doctoral, postdoctoral and practitioner expertise in International Politics, direct experience of holding elected responsibility in a political party, and political lobbying experience in several polities and with political leaders representing divergent political ideologies, in the global North as well as in the global South. 

Sri Lanka’s geostrategic position makes the country vulnerable to external interferences in internal affairs, hence the vital necessity of exercising extreme tact in managing foreign policy. We cannot afford, in any way, to strain our relations with our friends in the West. We certainly cannot afford to damage our close ties with China. Most importantly, we need to maintain excellent, workable and preferably mutually beneficial relations with India at all times. There is a dire need to build better partnerships and collaborations with our friends in the global South. Indeed, it goes without saying that balancing a foreign policy of this nature is an extremely challenging task. 

It is here that the Rajapaksa administration, especially in its second mandate, failed spectacularly. The failure was largely due to two reasons: 1) policy lacunae – problems in domestic and foreign policy formulation, policy incoherence and inconsistencies between the domestic and international spheres, and 2) misuse of human resources, or in other words, the non-deployment of the right people for the right job, in managing foreign affairs. 

The result was severe straining of relations with the Obama administration, with the British Government, with the EU and worst of all, with Delhi. 

In truth, winning an election in Sri Lanka is not a problem for Mahinda Rajapaksa, given his tremendous popularity. The foremost challenge he risks facing, however, is ensuring credibility on the world stage. This is where the good counsel of well-meaning advisors comes in. This is also why some aspects of Dr Jayatilleka’s advice to Mr Rajapaksa are questionable. The tone of the entire email is one of galvanising the ongoing effort to consolidate power, and to ‘mount’ opposition to the UNP-led coalition. Dr Jayatilleka’s advice also somewhat tacitly encourages populist politics of grandstanding, a salient feature of Rajapaksa-style politics [e.g. Galle Face 2017]. There is no need for an international affairs expert to galvanise this spirit. This kind of advice would make sense if it comes from another populist leader in the Rajapaksa camp. 

Instead, the international affairs expert ought provide tactful advice, focusing on crisis management. The advice should be intended at diminishing the crisis, restoring normalcy and international credibility. Moreover, and despite my opposition to the coup, it is not untrue that strategically sound advice could still in fact help solidify the power shift. Under the present circumstances, such advice could include, for instance, the following: 

1. Cut down all drifts to violence, and stop claiming space in state depts and corporations for the moment and take all steps to avoid any violent confrontations of any description 

2. Focus on securing the parliamentary majority ASAP 

3. Appoint a PM spokesperson who is young and articulate [preferably from an ethnic minority] and leave all public statements to the spokesperson and lie low until parliamentary majority is formed

4. Appoint a Foreign Affairs Minister who is preferably female, progressive in the truest sense of the term, and preferably aged below 45. [Strategically, this creates the perfect contrast to the geriatric gentlemen in charge of foreign affairs in the Wickremesinghe government, and albeit momentarily presents an image that contradicts the image the West & the neoliberal lobby upholds of MS/MR].

Concerning point 4 above, finding a person corresponding to the aforementioned profile in the current parliamentary composition is nigh impossible. In that case, another temporary way of working around it would be to keep the foreign affairs portfolio under the President, appoint someone corresponding to the aforementioned profile as the President’s Foreign Affairs Advisor (FAA), and enable them to handle things from behind the scenes, with the support of an Expert Committee. FAA has to be the person who handles key meetings with international partners. This arrangement could continue until the government is solidified. 

To conclude, the international affairs advisor, if not political advisor, should advice, especially in a crisis situation, to ‘contain’ the crisis. When working with populist leaders, this is all the more important, as advice that helps inflame populist inclinations and egos in any way is dangerous. Instead, sound advice, especially on managing foreign affairs, should involve a great deal of tact and restraint, the extent of which is somewhat encompassed in a poem by Nayyirah Waheed: “you don’t have to be a fire to every mountain blocking you. you could be a water and soft river your way to freedom too”. 

Post Scriptum: This article was written from a standpoint of political and external affairs strategizing. The content of this article is not, in any way, intended at justifying or accepting the ongoing coup and drift towards a Sri Lankan Bolsonaro moment. This writer stands by her previous writing on the issue, upholding democracy and recognising Ranil Wickremesinghe as the one and only legitimate Prime Minister of Sri Lanka unless and until a parliamentary majority proves otherwise. 

*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is a political analyst. She is the author of Decolonising Peacebuilding: Managing Conflict from Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka and Beyond. 

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