Exactly one year ago, just after the joint opposition picked up the gauntlet thrown by the Yahapalana Government (that of filling Galle Face Green on May Day) and put up an unprecedented show of force, I posted the following comment on Facebook: “pef,akaÊ tlla wjYH kï fukak( tcdmfha fyda cúfm fyda Y%S,xksmfha 2018 uehs Èk fIda tl f.da,a f*aia tfla ;shkak (If you are looking for a challenge, here’s one: let the UNP or SLFP or JVP hold the 2018 May Day rally at Galle Face).
I doubt the good people who lead these parties even heard about this challenge, but the fact is that none of them had the guts to say, ‘We’ll take Galle Face Green.’ No guts or worse still, no numbers. The last, that of declining popularity, is the backdrop against which we have to consider a couple of statements made by the leaders of the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe made some honest observations at Hulftsdorp at a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s assassination. Sirisena said ‘Sri Lanka is currently facing various problems because of the personal agendas of politicians,’ and Wickremesinghe opined, ‘there is no alternative to the national government.’ [Please note that Wickremesinghe was alluding to the idea or concept of a ‘national government’ and not the Yahapalana Regime.]
The entire saga of the Cabinet reshuffle (which was many times announced, partially attempted and re-attempted) speak to and confirm both statements. Let’s start with Wickremesinghe’s contention.
He has not specified who is not offering an alternative to the (idea) ‘national government’. Is he alluding to detractors within the party, those who believe the UNP can go it alone or those few remaining Sirisena-loyalists in the SLFP? It can’t be the JO or the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) or the majority of the voters; they’ve all said in word and vote that the Yahapalanists could go home. He has to be talking about his own regime; well, his and Sirisena’s. They simply don’t have any other option but to go along with the idea of a ‘national government’.
A ‘national government,’ as per the 19th Amendment, is what allows Wickremesinghe to satisfy the ministerial aspirations of more than 30 MPs and thereby keep the detractors within the party at bay. For this he needs the SLFP. It also helps Sirisena retain some vestige of relevance because his loyalists get portfolios.
This brings us to Sirisena’s assertion; that of ‘personal agendas of politicians.’ He may have wanted people to think he’s talking about the JO or the SLPP, but maybe he ought to have given a bit of thought to what he was going to say before he said it. Sirisena ought to know about agendas. Personal agendas. He should know about the personal agendas of his friends or let’s say fellow-travellers or strange bedfellows.
That’s exactly what’s happening even today. Instead of addressing the problem, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, presumably out of their wits over political survival, are trying to make out that the ship has not hit the iceberg
We need not elaborate. What’s more productive would be to talk about the true dilemmas of these two men in the matter of reshuffling. Perhaps the wry observation posted by someone on Facebook captures the situation best: ‘This is like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic to avoid the iceberg.’ Could be worse of course: ‘It’s like shuffling deck chairs after hitting the iceberg’.
President Sirisena’s promise to reshuffle ‘scientifically’ is being lampooned in style right now. It is being ridiculed in terms of the ministry titles and the track-records of those given portfolios. Some of this is wicked, some of it is funny, but most of it is spot on. We need not elaborate.
It’s about competency (or lack thereof), efficiency (or lack thereof) and security, the last referring to the anxieties of regime leaders with respect to political survival. Taking a portfolio from one incompetent and/or corrupt minister and giving him or her another won’t sort out anything. When incompetent and/or corrupt MPs outnumber those who are competent, and when loyalty is also factored in you are not going to see anything radically different to what you’ve already seen. When you don’t have the ‘science’ to understand that all state institutions can be sorted among as few as 10 ministries, you are not going to have a scientific reshuffle.
Around ten years ago Nahil Wijesuriya made a caustic remark about Cabinet portfolios which is as relevant today: ‘When you go to Galle on the Southern Expressway it’s under one minister; when you return it’s another.’ He added this: ‘I understand that politicians need perks, they want certain luxuries. I say, give it to them; only, tell them not to do a stroke of work!’ He was referring to the redundancies, the overlapping and such which compound the problem of inefficiency, incompetence and corruption.
That’s exactly what’s happening even today. Instead of addressing the problem, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, presumably anxious out of their wits over political survival, are trying to make out that the ship has not hit the iceberg. Ok, let’s be generous. They want us to believe that the waters ahead hold no icebergs or sea monsters. The problem is that few are buying their words these days.
They have alienated themselves from the voter. They’ve failed to purchase the trust and backing of the public servants with the Rs 10,000 salary hike. Indeed, they’ve alienated the most honourable and competent among the public servants thanks to their fascination with the politics of patronage, the rewarding of loyalists and punishing of those who will not toe the line. The case of Senior DIG Latheef tells that story well.
At the end of the day, it really boils down to this: if you shuffle incompetence, inefficiency, insecurity, corruption, vindictiveness and such, that’s what you will get at shuffle-end. The incompetent, inefficient, insecure, corrupt and vindictive have moved to different chairs on the deck of a ship that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere in a hurry or worse, appears to be sinking.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org.