by Vishvanath

Sri Lanka’s presidential aspirants are heard articulating their policies and making various promises these days. They also level very serious allegations against each other.

Entrepreneur cum lawyer Dilith Jayaweera (DJ) of the Derana/Triad/George Steuart fame waxed eloquent on his vision and mission in politics, and made a damning statement about the Rajapaksa family, in an interview with Derana TV on Monday night. He spoke extensively about how he intended to rebuild Sri Lankan in case he achieves his political goal. He wanted to make it clear that he had severed his links with the SLPP and the Rajapaksa family, which is expected to field another entrepreneur, SLPP National List MP Dhammika Perera (DP), as its presidential candidate. But it is obvious that DJ is eyeing the SLPP’s support base, which has eroded but remains a force to be reckoned with.   

Political forces keep realigning as presidential election campaigns of the UNP, the JSB and the NPP gather momentum. A section of the SLPP parliamentary group has already sided with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and signs are that some more government MPs will follow suit. Chief Government Whip and Minister Prasanna Ranatunge has rhetorically asked in public again whether there can be a better presidential candidate than President Wickremesinghe.

The SLPP has launched a party reorganizing drive led by Namal Rajapaksa and its leaders give evasive answers when they are asked who their presidential candidate will be. But they will not be able to go on doing so indefinitely. Since the next presidential election will have to be held in October 2024 (one month before the expiration of the term of the President elected in November 2019), the SLPP will have to reveal the name of its presidential candidate soon.

While DP is awaiting a signal from the SLPP leadership to embark on his presidential election campaign, DJ is presenting himself as an independent entrepreneur and political party leader. He launched the Mawbima Janatha Party (MJP), last year, and resigned from all the posts he held in the companies owned by him. That however does not mean he has given up control over those outfits, but he can argue technically that he is now a full-time entrepreneurial politician.

Having helped Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) become President, DJ, as the owner of a television channel, a radio station, an advertising agency, a newspaper group, and a host of other companies, may have thought if he made a similar effort, he would be able to secure the presidency himself.

DJ is no stranger to Sri Lankan politics. He was involved in politics during his university days as well. Besides, he has carried out several successful high-profile election campaigns for the Rajapaksas, the last being the one that enabled GR to secure the presidency.

How does DJ propose to gain a foothold in national politics? What one has gathered from his answers to questions posed to him in last night’s Derana interview (Jan. 22) is that he is planning to mobilize the same nationalistic forces that propelled Gotabaya Rajapaksa to power while winning over the floating voters who looked forward to a change. He has however stressed the need for inclusivity, claiming that Sri Lanka’s national ethos based on the Sinhala-Buddhist culture is not limited to the majority community; it was common to all ethno-religious groups, he argued. Whether he will be able to sell this idea to the members of ethnic minorities who have their own political parties and leaders remains to be seen.

The current phase of DJ’s campaign is apparently focused on reimaging the brand called Dilith in a positive light. DJ was one President GR’s confidants who have incurred much public opprobrium for the ruination of the economy and causing so much suffering to the people.

DJ makes use of every opportunity he gets in the media to dissociate himself from the Rajapaksa family and the SLPP and project himself as a person engaged in entrepreneurial political activity.

When entrepreneurs are faced with existential threats on the economic front, they tend to involve themselves in involving themselves in politics to influence government policy, but DJ has sought to go beyond that, and capture power himself, and the justification he has provided for his efforts is that his dream is to transform Sri Lanka into an entrepreneurial state and that task cannot be accomplished without political power. He is not alone in having embarked on such a mission. DP has offered something similar.  

Entrepreneurial state is an interesting concept which challenges the minimalist view of economic policy, which is generally espoused by the business community in any country. It is also at variance with neoliberalism, which has become the dominant global economic policy, thanks to the dependence of the developing countries on the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB), etc. controlled by the West.

According to the concept of entrepreneurial state, for economies to flourish governments have to go beyond doing more than just creating the right conditions for growth, and they have a key role to play in developing new technologies, etc., whose potential is not yet understood by the business community. State-funded organizations can be enterprising and innovative and are capable of transforming economies. The proponents of this concept point out that the algorithm behind Google was funded by a public sector National Science Foundation grant in the US.

In the Monday night Derana interview, DJ sought to sound like a person well-versed in economic affairs and capable of reviving the economy. He claimed that he had issued a prescient warning in 2008 that Sri Lanka was heading for an economic crisis, but nobody had taken any notice. He blamed President GR for having ignored the opinion of independent economic experts and done nothing to sort out the economy.

In a bid to repair his image, DJ made it very clear that he had burnt bridges with the Rajapaksa family when he identified what, according to him, had caused the failure of the GR’s presidency and the economic crisis. He said he knew the fate of President GR was sealed when Dr. P. B. Jayasundera was appointed the Secretary to the President and Basil Rajapaksa became the Finance Minister. He claimed he had vehemently opposed the introduction of the 20th Amendment, which, among other things, provided for the entry of dual citizens, including Basil, into the parliament. He said he had come to know of the appointment of Jayasundera as the Secretary to the President from a Derana news alert, and had inquired from President GR why such a decision had been made, but he had not received a direct answer. He said he had warned GR that the Rajapaksa family was trying to gain control over the government—something all those who wanted President GR to succeed did not want.

DJ viewed the current economic crisis as the culmination of a process which had commenced decades ago. Even a small business would be doomed if it did not address cashflow problems, he argued, pointing out that the wrong policies and actions of the SLPP administration had precipitated the crisis, the blame for which he laid at the feet of Basil and Jayasundera.

The impression that DJ gave the Derana viewers on Monday night was that he was on a mission to play a messianic role, revive the economy and create a better country for everyone to live happily, as his heart was heavy with guilt of having brought to power someone who let down 6.9 million voters, especially the youth. He is trying to woo the nationalistic voters who backed GR and the SLPP and are disillusioned and resentful while winning over the floating voters.