Sri Lankan crisis is likely to remain classic illustration for a long time of how “power-holders” can be forced to give in to aggressive command displayed by common people’s “power”. When people decide and choose to exercise their power as they have in Colombo, all “strategies” of curbing the same can burst like bubbles. There is a limit to which rhetoric resting on false promises can convince people frustrated by socio-economic problems troubling them. Of course, the nation-wide protest movement may not have literally succeeded in pushing power-holders out of office if people, rising over ethnic barriers, had not collectively responded to call of active protestors through, reportedly, means of online communication. Socio-economic grievances played a major role in adding to negative image of Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister, their criticism, demand for their resignation and so forth. However hard power-holders try to spread their positive image among people, their attempts carry little significance against communication strategies at play uniting the people as visible in Sri Lanka. What command can a few individuals’ communication-measures have against that of thousands- apparently guided by a specific agenda? Clearly, it may not be wrong to say that when people choose to engage in “war” – without weapons – even the most “powerful” in their country can fall weak against them.
Incidentally, United Kingdom has also witnessed dismissal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson from office though of course without people taking to streets and protesting as they have in Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, what cannot be missed is Johnson being repeatedly targeted by British media for problems faced by people. Be it the Covid-phase, country’s economy, strikes and several other issues, he has been “reportedly” blamed as responsible for these and also not paying due attention to these problems. There seemed to be no end to frequency and a degree of aggressiveness in these. Having sailed through an attempted no-confidence motion against him, Johnson seemed apparently little bothered about these till hit by resignations of some of his cabinet members. He was left with no option but to resign, remaining in office till election of his successor.
Clearly, Johnson and his cabinet could not afford to remain unmoved by criticism showered on their policies by their rivals, people and naturally the media. This also suggests that he and his team kept a close-eye on impact of their moves, the nature of their image – particularly that of Johnson- among people and media-world. Perhaps, Sri Lankan leaders erred on this front.
The tragedy is that leaders – virtually the world over – are known practically to never ever acknowledge the mistakes they may be making, the wrong policies they may be pursuing socially, diplomatically, politically, economically and so forth. Without doubt, even Johnson chose to be unmoved by criticism for considerable period of time and may have still adopted an apparently “casual” approach towards the same if probably intra-party factors prompted his minsters to assert their stand against him.
Johnson has been spared criticism linked with NATO’s ordeal over Ukraine-crisis. However, United States’ President Joe Biden has not been in certain sections of American as well as British media. Perhaps, being President of a Superpower, globally, Biden is well aware of diplomatic advantages on his front. Or maybe he is not in keeping with what his image as head of United States commands him to. This naturally raises several questions in keeping with his political and diplomatic image at home (nationally) and globally. He certainly is not oblivious of his popularity having sunk considerably. Speculations are circulating about him being too “old” to carry on, he should “retire” and so forth.
Unlike Johnson, Biden has not been oblivious of negative news about his sinking image in the air in political circles, media-world and to a degree within his own party. This implies that he has accepted decrease in his popular image, as suggested through such reporting while no such acceptance appears to have come forth from Johnson. Here, some credit must be given to numerous surveys being conducted by various polls in United States with some keeping a close eye on inflated figures being circulated about Biden’s negative image. Some attention has also been paid to his party members not paying needed attention to boost his image. Notwithstanding these deliberations, what perhaps cannot be missed from the global as well as Indian perspective is that both Biden and Johnson have not any taken controversial step, at least reportedly, against “negative news” about their images as well as factors which have led to these. To a considerable degree, media retains its freedom in these countries, at least as this suggests.
There is another angle to it, news about them- whether negative or positive- keeps them in limelight. From this angle, there is a major difference in being almost totally or at least being substantially ignored by media and remaining in the limelight. Chances of this prompting them and their political associates to be on alert for perhaps focusing – whether for right or wrong reasons – on issues which keep media and to a degree nation as well as world’s attention on them cannot be ignored. In other words, be in USA or UK, media still retains a considerable degree of freedom. Leaders here do pay substantial attention to nature of their images- negative and/or positive- spread by media and other outlets of communication. In Sri Lanka, as developments indicate, at present, direct participation of people in Colombo demanding resignation of President Rajapaksa bears its own significance. Till sometime back, President Rajapaksa tried all possible means, including his dress-styles, to identify himself with people. But as indicated, his image-building strategies have been defeated. Besides, if people did not have access to various means of communication, the possibility of their aggressive protest assuming the stage that it has may have been limited.
Be it UK, Sri Lanka or any other place, when socio-economic grievances fail to be appropriately tackled by power-holder, prospects of people raising their voice against them cannot be ignored for too long. Even strategies of curbing means of communication cannot always succeed particularly when people have problems staring at them. When leaders err, chances of their holding reins of power may be viewed as limited. Or people cannot be expected to err repeatedly by supporting the same leaders again and again. It is not without reason that Biden is not expected to contest for the second term; or that British PM and Sri Lankan President have been shown the exit door!
Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).