By Rajiva Wijesinha –
My father is 91 years old, but he still has a very clear mind. I was therefore surprised when he suddenly informed me, after lunch I think it was, soon after the Prime Minister returned to Sri Lanka, that it was time Mahinda appointed that young man from Kandy as Prime Minister.
Though he is fond of the Prime Minister, given their long acquaintance, I could understand his view, given his understanding of constitutional proprieties that we need a Prime Minister who can actively contribute to political life. While the appointment in 2010 was a tribute to long service, it is clearly time, given the difficulties the government faces, which I gather have been brought to my father’s attention, that there should be an active Prime Minister.
For a minute however I thought he had lost the plot, since I could not think of any young man from Kandy who was fit to be made Prime Minister. But when he said he was talking of that Civil Servant, I realized that, at his age, Sarath Amunugama still seemed young.
But I realized too then that my father actually followed politics with more perspicacity than most, and had understood the significance of the recent appointment of Sarath Amunugama to be Deputy Minister of Finance, something that had passed me and other political commentators by.
I had been bemused in 2010 when Sarath – if I may call him that, after one of his young Kandy colleagues indicated he thought I was of the same age – was not made a Minister, but it seems he had graciously withdrawn his name from consideration. He could see that the President was under pressure, given that he had barely been elected and that, ever since the fatal delay in announcing the results of that election, there had been pressures for a formulaic approach to appointing Ministers. Doing well in the preferential vote was seen as an important criterion, and indeed we have seen this principle asserted recently too, when some of those who had done brilliantly at the election were supposed to have staked their claims to office.
Merit was clearly not a criterion at all, and so perhaps the brightest, and most rounded, intellect in Parliament was restricted to a Deputy Minister’s post. But worse was to come barely six months later, when an even more absurd formula was adopted, and several older Members of Parliament were made Senior Ministers.
Initially I hoped this meant a system to develop policies coherently, and indeed the Consultative Committee of the Ministry for Public Administration Reforms decided to set up a Sub-Committee to recommend areas in which coordination would be helpful. But that effort was stymied, and we find that, except for Mr Gunasekara, who has produced a comprehensive Human Resources Development policy paper, Senior Ministers have not made any significant contribution. Indeed the report of their Secretariat, which was submitted for the Budget Debate, is a profoundly sad document.
Sarath was an exception, not as a Senior Minister, but in actively, with his superb communication skills, and the confidence he commands, promoting international monetary cooperation. But evidently he is needed to do more, and so recently was once again made Deputy Minister of Finance.
This seems unusual, but the fact that at last we have a merit based appointment is tremendously significant. More on these lines is not likely, and I am certainly not in a position to comment on the various candidates who have offered themselves as possible Prime Ministers and to compare them with the young man from Kandy. But I hope that my father’s perceptive understanding of the confidence the President has placed in Sarath will be shared more widely, and lead to better use being made of other Senior Ministers such as D E W Gunasekara, who also command national and international confidence and are seen as models of integrity.