By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies of the President’s Promise – Chapter 2 – Happy Part 4
Underlying Basil’s solipsism was his political ambition. He made no bones about the fact that he saw himself as his brother’s successor. Indeed, he had been put into Parliament before the 2010 election, though a resignation of a National List member that was engineered, on the grounds that there had to be a Rajapaksa available for appointment as President if anything untoward happened to the incumbent. And though soon after the election of 2010 Mahinda Rajapaksa introduced a constitutional amendment to remove term limits, so that Basil’s hope of being seen as necessarily the government candidate in the next election was dashed, the President placed no restrictions on him presenting himself as effectively the main decision maker in government.
So, in addition to his work in the North, he set about taking control of developmental projects all over the country. Tourism was brought under the Ministry of Economic Development, which allowed him soon after the government was formed to sell a prime block of land in Colombo to Shangri-La hotels, a crass measure since it made it difficult afterwards to refuse outright ownership to such investors. Fortunately, after a great outcry, the principle that only long leases should be permitted was accepted, but again the move was typical of Basil’s propensity to push through deals quickly, regardless of wider consequences.
While he used to the full his position as patron of international ventures, he also tried to take control of the administration of the country at large. He did this through the Samurdhi programme, the welfare programme that was in place all over the country. Initially started to promote entrepreneurship, it had soon become the main vehicle of government handouts to chosen sections of the population.
Basil decided to use it to expand his empire, with graduates employed in every Division in the country to affirm the primacy of his Ministry. Indeed I was told that there had even been an attempt to appoint Samurdhi officials as Grama Niladharis, the office that was the first point of interaction between people and government. The Ministry of Public Administration staved off this effort, but it meant that for several years Grama Niladhari positions that were vacant were not filled, until finally that Ministry reasserted its control of the position. Indeed a measure of Basil’s unpopularity with his colleagues was the categorical statement, when I told the Minister that he should guard against his responsibilities being encroached upon, that the Ministry of Economic Development was encroaching on everything.
Such encroachment could have been initiated in a civilized manner, since it could be argued that economic development was of the essence in all areas. But clearly with Basil it was power that he sort, rather than coordinated efficiency, for he took no steps to ensure that officials in related fields worked together. Thus there were no clear systems to ensure coordination between the Grama Niladharis and the Samurdhi Development officers, and later the Economic Development officers, who were assigned to each GN Division.
Though obviously they worked together, they did not have guidelines about ensuring consultation of the community and liaising with other government departments. Many of them told me, during the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings I had in the North and East, that they were collecting data, but what this data was for, they seemed to have no idea. They had received very little training before being appointed, and though the Ministry of Defence put on a leadership development programme for some of them which was much appreciated, they were not clear about their terms of reference, nor the way in which they could coordinate work with other government agencies. A programme of preparing reports, and ensuring follow up for recommendations based on people’s needs as well as their suggestions, was not put in place, which was a pity since this was the first occasion on which the over-worked Grama Niladharis had been given qualified support staff to help with developmental work.
One area in which guidelines were laid down formally led to problems which had unfortunate consequences for the country. Amongst the initiatives of Basil’s Ministry was a rural development programme called Divineguma for which he introduced an Act which the Supreme Court ruled was in violation of the Constitution, in that it took away from the financial authority of Parliament. Basil was furious when the judgment was delivered. In fact the Court suggested a simple way of overcoming the constitutional problem, and government realized that the suggestions made sense, and the Act was easily passed as amended. But the bitterness Basil had evinced suggested that he was one of the chief factors in the animosity the government felt towards the Chief Justice, which led to her being impeached.
Given Basil’s undoubted abilities and energy, it was a pity that he saw himself as primarily a politician. Patronage became more important than development, and he reinforced the idea that politicians should decide on priorities, as when for instance the Ministry asked Members of Parliament to recommend disused fields that should be recommissioned. This should more practically have come through consultations at village level, but that would have not won any brownie points, whereas providing financial support to areas chosen by politicians was more beneficial in terms of increasing political capital.
This element became quite preposterous when, in 2014, Basil decided that development projects should be the purview of Members of Parliament. Previously every member of Parliament, including those in the opposition, was allocated what was termed a decentralized budget of Rs 5 million a year. This could be used basically at will, though there were guidelines laid down and approval had to be obtained for proposals from the Ministry of Economic Development.
Then it was decided to give another Rs 30 million to selected government Members. The rationale for leaving others out seemed to be that these individuals chaired what were termed Divisional Development Committees. But in fact, when I brought the matter up at the Consultative Committee on Public Administration Reforms (to the consternation of the Minister, who said I would get him into trouble) it was noted by a government Member that the point was to give them funds for patronage in the entire District in which they would be contesting. This was a consequence of the absurd electoral system we had, whereby contestant, though technically allotted constituencies, had to seek votes throughout the District.
But evidently 30 million each was deemed inadequate, and the next step was to allocate hundreds of millions to select Members. So in Trincomalee one Member go over 600 million, and another over 200 million. Some were given nothing, which led to vociferous protests, which led in turn to the Member who felt most hard done by being made a Deputy Minister, before Provincial Council elections in Uva, for which his support seemed essential.
Whilst some Members did consult the people and think carefully about how these funds should be spent, others simply did what they wanted, and some certainly ensured that they would benefit from commissions on whatever they undertook. Buildings thus became crucial, and little attention was paid to training needs or business development.
But clearly development was seen as secondary to political popularity. And to make things worse, since Basil was in Parliament, and seen as the main political agent of the family, the President entrusted not just development activity to him, but also areas which he did not understand at all. Thus, early in the life of Parliament, he presented proposals to change the electoral system for local bodies, which were utterly incoherent. When suggestions were made for improvement, he declared that decisions had already been made, and the Act would be introduced as drafted. But so many amendments were needed when the Act came before Parliament, that it had to be withdrawn. When it was finally reintroduced several months later, it was with a promise that it would be amended later to get rid of particular absurd provisions. Amongst these for instance was a clause that a particular percentage of candidates might be women or young people. Lumping both groups together, and then not making their involvement mandatory, was typical of an approach that did not see principles as an integral part of politics.
With electoral considerations being his priority, Basil was slow about what was much more important, reform of Local Government structures. This was planned, and a bill was drafted, but it was kept on the back burner. The Secretary to the Ministry, one of the brighter government officials, shared the draft with me after the Minister had consulted me about the electoral amendments. I found then that the consultation with the grass roots that the President had wanted had been perverted to introduce only nominees to the committees that were to be established. Ironically this replicated the colonial mindset, where representatives of the people had been nominated rather than elected. This principle had been opposed by Sri Lankans seeking political reform, so it was sad to see the paternalistic concept being reintroduced.
There was no change in this provision in the next draft I saw, though I was gratified to see that some at least of my suggestions seemed to have been taken up. But that meant nothing since the Bill lay forgotten as government moved into election mode with the decision to advance the date of the Presidential election. The Liberal Party did write to the President suggesting that he not waste the remaining years of his mandate, but instead move on measures he had promised, and which had been in preparation for several years, for instance with regard to Education and Higher Education and Electoral and Local Government Reform. But the appeal fell on deaf years, as Basil started to set up electoral offices, with scant regard for the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which had not been consulted on the matter.
Basil’s wider political role may not be strictly germane to the gradual erosion of the hopes the country had in the Rajapaksa government to promote peace and prosperity, in particular in the former conflict areas. But it needs to be recorded in view of the opportunities lost because of his lack of concern for national priorities. The failure to plan coherently for the North, with particular reference to human resource development, was one of the main reasons for the continuing bitterness of its citizens towards government. And the refusal to consult the people was unbelievably callous in the context of a recently concluded conflict. That demanded assurance as to the primacy of the people of the area in government planning, but Basil had neither the wisdom nor the commitment to provide this.