The just ended local council elections remind students of politics of an age-old adage: Politics is a continuous and ruthless struggle for power. Those who understand this often grab political power and stay on in power. Even if they lose, they continue their struggle to undermine the government with the intention of overthrowing it as fast as possible.
Politics is not for gentlemen or gentlewomen. Nor is it divine, for moral principles to govern it. It is simply dirty and therefore, one has to be animalistic to survive in politics, which is characterised by eternal vigilance, mutual suspicion, perpetual competitions, cold blooded conflicts, skullduggery, backstabbing, intimidation, assassinations and countermoves.
Man’s pursuit for power only ceases at death, Thomas Hobbes, one of the early proponents of a political power theory, said, echoing what Niccolo Machiavelli said in the medieval era and Kautilya said in ancient India. In Prince, Machiavelli says that with so many people in politics immorally disposed, good men in politics often bring down upon themselves their own destruction. In other words, a ruler who wishes to maintain power should not always be good.
In Sri Lanka’s political laboratory, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna de facto leader Mahinda Rajapaksa is an example of a politician in pursuit of endless power, while United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe appears as a politician being pulled by his commitment to democratic aspirations on the one hand and the requirements of power politics, on the other. In this confusion, he seems to give more weight to political idealism than to political realism. This explains why Wickremesinghe is often caught by surprise in many an election defeat. If only he had been a political animal in the caliber of his opponent, he could have prevented the dissolution of his government of 2001-2003 and would not have lost the all-important presidential race in 2005.
Ranil Wickremesinghe: Missed opportunities
Mahinda Rajapaksa: Understands power politics
Premier Wickremesinghe has proved his capability as an abled party leader. But if he can extend similar skills and strategies, with which he protects his party leadership, to the national level politics, he can certainly emerge as a winning candidate.
In 2005, when Wickremesinghe lost the presidential race to Rajapaksa, a disappointed journalistic colleague, who voted for the UNP, said of the UNP leader: “A man who had power and did not know how to protect that power, does not deserve to be returned to power.” There is much wisdom in his quotable quote. Political power is just like beauty. Those who are not beautiful try to become beautiful, while those who are beautiful protect it and enhance it. They become alarmed even when a negligible black spot or a tiny wart appears on the skin. Similarly those who wield power must go to any extent to retain, protect and enhance that power, while those who are not in power must resort to every trick in the book to capture power.
In this game of throne, the one who is more adept at deception prevails.
Politics is also a game of eternal vigilance. In the movie ‘Enter the Dragon’, Bruce Lee advises his young student that even when you bow to your opponent before the contest, do not take your eyes off him. Power politics requires politicians to spy on their opponents and know their next move.
The behind-the-scenes efforts of the Democratic Party in the United States to link President Donald Trump with a porn star and Russia show that even in the so-called full-fledged democracies, politicians make use of every opportunity to undermine their rivals. Compare this with the UNP’s missed opportunities such as the allegation that the Rajapaksa team paid the LTTE millions to win the 2005 elections. Even now the cases pertaining to the killings of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickremetunga and Sri Lanka rugby player Wasim Thajudeen, the disappearance of cartoonist Pradeep Ekneligoda and the MiG deal could break the spine of the opposition if they could be expedited. The unusually slow progress of these cases gives the impression that Wickremesinghe is protecting his very opponents. This is against real politics rules. On the contrary, his political opponents, if given a half chance, will stab him in the back. This is real politics. Politics is not for crybabies to complain after the defeat that they lost because their opponents resorted to a game of deception.
Not only has the UNP failed to expose the previous regime’s alleged misdeeds, but it has also allowed its opponents to define and defame its leader in whatever way and harmful manner. As a result of this failure on the part of the UNP, the Rajapaksa camp plays victim, with politicians corrupt to the core making statements about corruption, as though they are the paragons of virtue. After all, political charlatans want ordinary people to believe that they have become victims of a witch-hunt.
Power, like beauty, needs to be displayed, too. The ordinary people, who vote politicians into power, usually would like to see power in play. Power is associated with machismo. Britain’s Margaret Thatcher declared war against Argentina. The United States’ former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton bombed Libya. Barack Obama, though portrayed as anti-war, continued the war in Iraq and Afghanistan to send the message to the ordinary Americans that the leader they have elected will not hesitate to use all measures necessary to defend them. This was why Trump dropped the mother of all bombs on Afghanistan. This was why French President Emmanuel Macron this week issued a warning that France would attack Syrian forces if he found proof that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons.
Sri Lanka’s separatist war provided ample opportunity for Rajapaksa to show his machismo. On the contrary, Wickremesinghe came to power in 2001 on the platform of peace and tried to appease the international community rather than his own voter base where any concession to the separatists was seen as treachery.
If he and his party are keen to capture power in 2020, they need to realize that there are votes in rhetoric pregnant with political machismo in defence of the country’s territorial integrity, the Sinhala race and Buddhism. Such machismo also needs to be displayed against politically motivated strikes by state-sector doctors and public servants. Disinclination towards using state power is a sign of weakness that does not win votes. After all, democracy does not mean passivity.
The ugly media also play a dirty role in this whole dirty game of power politics. Although media freedom is expected to be exercised with responsibility, we saw media groups bashing the politicians whom they love to hate; this is not media freedom. Some journalists under the guise of exercising media freedom or carrying out investigative journalism lie for their masters. These media proved they could portray a good candidate as bad and vice versa. If a media group is taking sides, it has the duty to tell its readers, viewers or listeners that it is partial towards a particular candidate.
Power politics is not a holy affair. It involves manipulations, planning, deception, lies and all sorts of sordid things. In a level political field where everyone lies and resorts to deception, the one who has mastered the art of deception wins. The bottom line is the masses are gullible.
But remember real politics also promotes the judicious use of idealistic goals, provided it can win votes to capture or retain power.