The Gotabaya case study

Tuesday, 26 November 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Gotabaya Rajapaksa

 Sajith Premadasa


  • A management and marketing win – in retrospect!

Elections are over. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has assumed office. Euphoria continues and will continue for few more days. Winners are celebrating whilst the losers are nursing their wounds. What tomorrow holds is in everyone’s mind. Largely there is an atmosphere of hope in the air in the country. The people voted and now people want action. The stage is set for President Gotabaya to walk the talk!

My attempt here is to keep away from political rhetoric and analyse the President’s win from a management and marketing point of view

‘Project Gotabaya’ achieved the desired or even more than expected results of his camp and the populace by winning 16 out of 22 districts; 6.9 million votes against 5.5 million on rounded figures. 83.7% voter turnout; a 10% plus lead.

I am not privy to the inner expectations of President Gotabaya’s camp which campaigned for his election. There were few predictions of a similar win but not taken seriously. The common sentiments were ‘a close fight’ and if at all a win of a few hundred thousand votes for ‘Gota’. This was the consensus although diehard supporters may have been more optimistic. But I dare say the vast majority did not even dream of a lead over a million votes.

Let’s analyse the case. We experienced one of the most vociferous and ‘mudslinging’ campaigns from the UNP-led ‘Swan front’. Their cry was to shun ‘Gota’ alleging that he is a human rights violator during and after the war and that he was responsible for disappearances and harm caused to journalists. 

He was branded an American citizen and many attempts were made to prevent him running for presidency through legal means. His public speaking skills were ridiculed and his articulation looked down on. Some went to the extent of stating that without a teleprompter he cannot speak at all. His age and health was projected as a disadvantage. He was accused of misusing public funds, and for ‘MiG deals’ the disappearance or loss of a bell on top of Adam’s Peak – imagination and absurdity increasing as D day closed in. 

He was labelled as the saviour of the Rajapaksas and the unkindest cut was trying to attribute the Easter debacle to him whilst concurrently creating a fear in the hearts and minds of Tamils and Muslims that minorities would not be safe with him. The above are only a few of the many allegations and character assassinations levelled by the ‘Swan camp’ at every fora, and by almost everybody supporting Sajith Premadasa.

Oh and then the dramas. The white van and shark circus, jumper threat, diabolical conspiracy theories of the Army man, and despicable personal attacks by a particular vociferous Buddhist priest on stage. The Thenuwara, Viyangoda (lost) saga. Astrologers spelt doom for him. Law suits were filed here and abroad

A mammoth attack on a competitor hitherto unseen in the country was launched nationally and internationally to defeat President Gotabaya. 

President Gotabaya’s and his team’s reply to the above was:

  • No personal attacks on Opposition
  • Focused communication to target groups of every strata of society and also on a mass scale.
  • The tone and flavour of speaking never changed based on audience as one theme and message was maintained
  • Avoided press conferences and gatherings targeted to discredit him but addressed people through different media
  • Focused on future and linked it to proven track record as a ‘completer/finisher’ in MBTI terms (*Myers Briggs personality types)
  • Projected the risk of losing national security internally and externally and promised to stand up against same 
  • Did not get into ‘unsavoury’ alliances with individuals or minority parties. 
  • Stressed that within a Sinhala (not necessarily Buddhist) majority the rest can co habit and have their recognition and aspirations met as Sri Lankans. 
  • Did not compromise the Sinhala Buddhist dominance reality which has stood the test of time 
  • Unity in the camp and displayed it 
  • Communicated well that allegations levelled are not proven and baseless therefore should not be taken seriously
  • Legal wins 

This brought about Rajapaksa’s comprehensive win. People of every social strata from affluent to common man voted for him. UNP stronghold Colombo was won by Pohottuwa or ‘Gota’! Sajith’s electorate was also won by ‘Gota’ resoundingly. Districts such as Colombo, Gampaha and Galle returned unprecedented majorities. As we know simply apart from North, East and Central Provinces Gota won it all.

As common ‘assets’ if one may to call them, both candidates had private media power/loyalty with them and against them equally. Government media backed Premadasa more. Both had ‘enough’ campaign funds. Both had social media pundits and mudslinger fans in abundance. Sajith scored there more as the so-called ‘independent,’ ‘alternate’ and ‘third force’ competitor fans were directly and indirectly attacking Gotabaya’s campaign. He was seen as a common enemy

Yet Gota won because he stuck to the basics of communication and marketing whilst his opponent engaged in hard selling. Further there was absolute resolve, focus and strategy execution which Sajith could not match

1.His message was well focussed and received without clutter

2.Sajith attacked all over thus losing impact and focus mostly misunderstood

3.The ‘Ranil continuity’ phobia worked against Sajith and may be the late start to the campaign as well (but here the burden was more on Gota’s camp to sustain the early start and momentum which his team managed well)

4.Sajith’s gamble on ‘like father like son’ riding on his father was not accepted as personalities are different and he did not come out as a strongman doer like his father

5.Sajith’s approach with minorities rang alarm bells amongst the Sinhala majority

6.Sajith’s presentation of himself and the numerous promises he made were taken as bogus and too good to be true. His personal ‘shabby’ appearance which we know is not him was not a selling point even in the wilderness

7.The new voter totally went against Sajith. Although the mature voter may have understood political rhetoric, to the new voter – pushing buttons, I’m your servant, midnight visits – were an insult to their intelligence. Of course parents did not have any control on the ‘cross’ within the enclosed polling table. And parents had no reason to stop them either as most were of the same mindset

8.Harping on poverty and alleviation of poverty by Sajith was counterproductive as the poverty stricken were constantly reminded of their plight and they knew for a fact that for 71 years no one genuinely got them out of it and he’s not likely to either

9.On the contrary President Gotabaya’s delivery was positive on all fronts and tangibly realistic and ‘positive reinforcement’ works psychologically favourably always

10.The pathetic performance of the last five years and non-action by the so called ‘Good Governance’ rule led by UNP and their internal conflicts was a major loss of votes for Sajith as the entire group had lost credibility

11.Above all people were tired of ‘demo crazy’ democracy and ‘freedom of the wild ass!’ People felt the need for a firm hand, a dictator if you may, but hopefully with benevolence.

  They took a calculated gamble thinking of the country influenced by the regional success stories of development by autocracy. Gota’s track record gave them that comfort.

12.The ridiculing of our valiant forces and those who died for the country by labels such as ‘Ranaviru gaya’ or ‘war hero bubble’ was totally counterproductive to Sajith and advantageous to Gota. People cherished the win over terrorism and they still do and they single out Gotabaya Rajapaksa from others to offer him greater credit for his role in winning the war. 

 Subliminally people were attuned to take on anyone questioning the integrity and freedom of this country and harbouring extremism. In fact ‘Ranaviru gaya’ became a cry and symbol of showing solidarity with the motherland

The aftermath: Now there is a theory that the country has experienced polarisation! The country is divided, etc. Yes there is polarisation but I dare say and propose that it’s not on ethnicity but on two personalities. Yes the ‘fearsome Gotabaya’ created by Sajith’s camp was taken seriously by the minorities. They were misled and they were gullible. But it’s something that President Gotabaya can overcome and negate within few months with focussed action in the north and east. My positive view and hope.

But for the majority here is a man of action who has delivered and who will deliver; and who will secure the country and protect all whilst nation building takes place. That hope brought in a number of people from overseas to vote for their hero

Bottom-line – Perception-based conversion and faith on a proven brand (with ample promise of future potential) winning over a competing product which did not touch the needs of people converting it to a want 

Back in the days a man who can sell a refrigerator to an Eskimo was hailed as a good salesman! But in the modern social context if you sell or try to sell something that a consumer does not need it is deception and bound to fail. Today it is benefit selling and converting needs to specific wants. 

Basic marketing won over cheap selling! Nothing mattered to people but the perceived benefit of product ‘Gota’ over product Sajith. They made a choice to satisfy their need for wholesome action-oriented leadership. Proven.

Now the priority of course is that the brand promise has is delivered and that’s President Gotabaya’s challenge. He must walk the talk. Work on the hearts and minds of people. 

Crush crime with an iron fist; but wear a velvet glove when dealing with the common man. Continue to transform talent, a process which he started using military personnel gainfully during post-war period – from war to nation building. Expand this to other areas. Develop and upskill our human resource; some of the best in the world! Display that there is hope for this country prove that together we can. I am no political wizard, but a simple floating voter. I will have faith

(The writer is a management professional and human resource development specialist with extensive experience in people development and engagement in the corporate and State sector.)

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