Mistake of underestimating the influence of cricket
Rarely has the country seen a political showdown of epic proportions such as the ongoing tussle between Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe and President Ranil Wickremesinghe. While it is perhaps more interesting than the hopelessly one-sided games played by Sri Lanka at the World Cup recently, What is more important is, who will win?
Thus far, the contest has been more or less even. Ranasinghe sacked Sri Lanka (SLC) officials led by the obstinate Shammi Silva, Wickremesinghe wanted that revoked, Ranasinghe refused and said ‘sack me if you can’. Silva has succeeded in getting a stay order against his dismissal from the Court of Appeal and convincing the International Cricket Council (ICC) to suspend Sri Lanka but he- and the faction of the government which backs him- have earned the wrath of the public in return.
In making his case before the court of public opinion through interviews on social media, Ranasinghe didn’t hold back. He said he feared for his life and wouldn’t even drink a glass of water from the Presidential Secretariat. He openly questioned the integrity of the President’s Chief of Staff, Sagala Ratnayake. The underlying message was crystal clear: it was President Wickremesinghe who was standing in the way of cleansing up the country’s cricket administration.
At least on this issue, Ranasinghe, a legislator who first entered Parliament in 2010 has outsmarted Wickremesinghe who was first elected to Parliament in 1977. He has embarked on a mission to publicize the alleged misdeeds of SLC, so that if he is sacked, Wickremesinghe will be perceived by the cricket-mad public as shielding Shammi Silva at the expense of the welfare of the game in Sri Lanka.
Confined to a corner by this strategy, Wickremesinghe has engaged in damage control. He has appointed a Cabinet Sub-Committee to oversee the introduction of a new Constitution for SLC, the aim of this being to sideline and marginalize Ranasinghe from overseeing the fate of SLC.
The members of this sub-committee headed by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry are Tiran Alles, Manusha Nanayakkara and Kanchana Wijesekra. This selection of individuals with little or no knowledge of the game betrays the criteria for their inclusion: blind loyalty to Wickremesinghe. As a result, we now have the ridiculous situation where a Cabinet sub-committee without the Minister of Sports is making decisions on cricket and they are tasked with enacting the Constitution drafted by the ‘Chithrasiri committee’ which ironically was endorsed by Minister Ranasinghe but stalled by Shammi Silva, again through a stay order obtained from the Court of Appeal!
A situation has evolved where a sitting President is being accused by a minister of being a mere spectator while his Chief-of-Staff is colluding with the head of SLC, which is accused of being corrupt and in league with betting businessmen with Indian links. Yet, the President has been rendered incompetent and is unable to sack the minister- not yet, anyway. Even if Ranasinghe is sacked now, Wickremesinghe will earn the ire of the public and Ranasinghe will become a martyr who sacrificed his portfolio for the betterment of the game.
The political implications of this battle are remarkable- and the parallels to 2022, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to flee his Presidency are uncanny.
Here is a situation where a Cabinet minister is brazenly challenging the authority of the President and taking on his Chief-of-Staff. The President is unable to do anything about it except ‘appoint a committee’, his favourite ‘go to’ strategy when faced with any kind of problem. This has the effect of projecting Wickremesinghe as firstly, powerless, and secondly, corrupt. Wickremesinghe’s position is further weakened by the fact that Parliament has, in a rare unanimous vote, endorsed the sentiments of the ‘rebel’ minister. To add insult to injury Leader of the House Prasanna Ranatunga is the brother of Arjuna Ranatunga, the person chosen by Ranasinghe to head the Interim Committee to run SLC.
To hark back to 2022, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was forced to resign because of shortages of essentials such as fuel, gas and electricity but also because his administration was perceived as being corrupt to the core and was seen as making no concessions to ease the burdens of the public. When he realized his folly, sacked the other Rajapaksas from the Cabinet and introduced new faces, it was too little, too late. The march to oust him had begun and ended up with mobs baying for his blood at the gates of the President’s House, forcing him into a hasty journey through its backdoor.
The cricket crisis highlights the same weaknesses in Wickremesinghe. He could have intervened early, accepted Ranasinghe’s Interim Committee and banished Shammi Silva and his cronies. Had he done so, even if Silva succeeded in getting the ICC to suspend Sri Lanka (as he has now), the public would have said ‘oh, well, so be it, if that is what it takes to clean up cricket in the country’.
Likewise, Wickremesinghe has chosen instead to side with his sidekick Sagala Ratnayake, as Rajapaksa did when he listened to his advisors instead of sensing the public mood. As time goes on and more of Shammi Silva’s shenanigans come to light and he becomes to be personified as the man who destroyed cricket in the country, Wickremesinghe’s name will also be associated with that.
To make matters worse, Ranasinghe, utilizing parliamentary privilege to the utmost has queried the integrity of the President of the Court of Appeal, Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne, the same judge who delivered a disputed verdict on the Diana Gamage citizenship case. It all adds up to a montage of corruption that seems to favour the government headed by Wickremesinghe and its chosen few.
Wickremesinghe is making the mistake of underestimating the influence of cricket on the Sri Lankan psyche and its current significance as a manifestation of all the other ills -corruption, cronyism, lack of justice, authoritarianism- that afflict the country. These are the same issues that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee. These could be the same issues that bring about Ranil Wickremesinghe’s downfall, not so much by mobs storming his 5th Lane residence- but when they mark that cross at the next presidential election.