By Vishwamithra –
Good governance, however much it looks easy to shout about on platform and introduce, is incredibly hard to sustain even for a short period of time. The present government is proving it. With each passing week and month, the level of trust and confidence and the enormous expectations the people placed on the incoming government are evaporating. And they are evaporating fast, albeit the forced resignation of Ravi Karunanayake, the former Minister of Finance and the firing of Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the former Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana. The people are opening their eyes. They thought that they displaced a regime of corruption and nepotism and it does not seem to be so. At the beginning itself, the incoming government made many strategic blunders:
1. Not holding the General Elections immediately after the Presidential Elections.
2. Making a Cabinet of Ministers look like an inflated body of massive and unworkable committee. The present Cabinet consists of 48 in number!
3. Absence of a macro economic plan
4. Continuance of the Presidential System. Instead of an overhaul of the Constitution, the passage of the 19th Amendment has paved the way for a confusing state of governance.
Let’s take these one by one.
Not holding General Elections immediately after the Presidential Elections
The new government of Maithripala Sirisena lost all its sheen and sense of urgency with which the Rajapaksas were rejected at the elections when much awaited General Elections were not held immediately after the Presidential Elections. The electoral advantage that the incoming new Administration would have had was given away by this imprudent decision. It was certainly a political one. Whether it was taken by new President Sirisena alone or a combined one arrived at with the consent of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the then Leader of the Opposition, soon to become the Prime Minister of the new government, is not publicly known. Yet that decision cost a great deal of lead time and the political momentum the new government would have gathered was lost. But one reality was known to everyone interested in politics. That was the fate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and that of Maithripala Sirisena as its de jure leader.
New President, Maithripala Sirisena must have calculated that, had the General Elections were called immediately after the Presidential Elections, the SLFP would have suffered an immense loss. Had that happened, Maithripala Sirisena would not have liked to be the person under whose watch the SLFP disintegrated. From the point of view of the SLFP and Sirisena personally, the calculus was right; but in the long term interest of the country, it was a terrible decision. He could have reached an agreement with the UNP leader, even if the SLFP were to lose badly in the General Elections, a coalition government between the two parties, UNP and SLFP, was possible. The advantage Mahinda Rajapaksa obtained as a result of the postponement of General Elections paved the way for the emergence of a formidable Joint Opposition made up of some senior SLFPers who were no longer Minsters and Deputy Ministers etc. A coalition need not be between two strong parties. In the 1965 Dudley Senanayake coalition, the then Federal Party which had only about 14 parliamentary seats was an integral partner of the coalition. Demosthenes a Greek statesman and orator of ancient Athens once said thus: “small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises”. Both Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe missed that opportunity owing to their own shortsightedness. This was a self-inflicted wound and the country is now paying the price. And that was a tremendous strategic blunder of the current coalition.
Size of the Cabinet
The size of the current Cabinet of Ministers, 48 in numbers, is beyond sustenance. Mahinda Rajapaksa had a Cabinet even larger than this and within the main Cabinet, he governed the country through an inner Cabinet that consisted of himself, his two brothers Basil Rajapaksa and Defense Secretary (although not in parliament, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had more powers than a Cabinet Minister) and his Secretary of Finance (once again, not in parliament but as powerful as a Cabinet member).
The current Cabinet comprises of 48 Ministers. That is an unbelievable number for a small country such as ours. And it is unwieldy, to say the least. Being a coalition government and having to please everyone is no excuse. Follow the the various compositions of Sri Lanka’s Cabinet since 1947:
D S Senanayake’s Cabinet in 1947 – fourteen (14)
Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet in 1952 – fourteen (14)
Sir John’s Cabinet in ‘53 – fourteen (14)
S W R D’s Cabinet in ‘56 – eighteen (18)
Mrs. Sirimavo B’s Cabinet in ’60 – sixteen (16)
Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet in ’65 – eighteen (18)
Sirimavo’s Cabinet in ’70 – twenty two (22)
J R’s Cabinet ’77– eighteen (18) to twenty one (21)
Mahinda Rajapaksa made a mockery of both the Cabinet size and its composition. Collective Responsibility, a lofty ideal of the traditional parliamentary system was thrown out the window. Scant respect was paid to routine matters such as meeting on one particular day of each week at one particular time. The usual Wednesday morning Cabinet Meeting changed at the whims and fancy of the President. Cabinet secrets were available in the open marketplace for sale. The nation’s highest decision-making body became a mass meeting! All these historical facts may be boring to the curious reader, but it is vital that it is placed on record so that future governments are made aware of these unpalatable facts and figures. India, a county that has 1.2 billion population has only twenty Ministers, including Prime Minister. Sri Lanka which has 22 million people has forty eight (48). That is not including those so-called State Ministers. It’s the height of absurdity! All credibility is gone. Those in power never realize how much the masses hate to see these bigwig politicians roam about the country in Mercedes and BMW cars. Hate and jealousy are extremely destructive emotions.
Lack of Macro Economic Plan
Apart from the ‘One Hundred Day Program’ which was unfurled at the Presidential Election campaign, the government did not spell out a macro-economic plan for the country. Nor did they look to have one the way in which they got about. A lot of tactical political moves were made just to satisfy some unhealthy elements in the SLFP. Other than the Megapolis and Western Development Ministry, which of course does not seem to be having any accelerated tone into the work of the outfit, no scheme, program or visible development is taking place in the country in any sector. Expansion or development of highways as was done during the Rajapaksa regime is no new development.
The advantage any government would have in developing highways is that it is one part that is visible to the public. Mahinda Rajapaksa realized it and chose to invest heavily in that type of economic development. Our highway infrastructure was developed but hardly any townships emerged along these highways which aspect of development that might have been able to sustain those highways in the future. Mahinda Chinthana was a load of crap filled with political slogans and pseudo-patriotic rhetoric. It was not a strategic approach to economic development. The current rulers must, even late in the day, produce a plan that is a well-thought out and researched economic plan that would indicate a strategic slant to the country’s economic welfare.
Abrogation of the Presidential system of government was one of the key components of the ‘One Hundred Day Program’ the current rulers promulgated at the Hustings. Yet they seem to be quite comfortable with a mere Nineteenth Amendment and its somewhat easy passage in parliament. This is a very complicated issue especially in the context of the very diverse and convoluted minds inside the coalition, particularly those who identify with the SLFP. It would have been not so complicated, nor mind-grueling to have proposed an amendment to the constitution with the current President being named as the succeeding Prime Minister, had a total annulment of the Executive Presidency. We do have constitutional and legal luminaries among our judicial ranks who could have helped the government had they so chosen to seek them out.
Instead of adopting a strategic approach to the country’s burning problems and issues the government became entangled in ‘retail politics’. That is a sure way to lackadaisical governing style. The government seems to be bogged down in a constant crisis-management mode.
On the positive side, the very ouster of the Rajapaksas from power was a tremendous leap for a nation that was increasingly becoming accustomed to a grossly warped and corrupt culture. We have not got over it and signs of getting over it are not on the horizon either, yet a consistent clamoring from outside forces should not stop. Forced resignations of two leading Ministers won’t be enough.
*The writer can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org