Minister of City Planning and Water Supply Rauff Hakeem during an interview with the Daily mirror spoke about the present political situation in the island. Mr. Hakeem who is the Leader of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) also spelt out his aspirations with regard to the next Presidential Elections. Excerpts:
QToday, we read reports about a feud between the President and the Prime Minister. There is indecision within the Government. How do you see them?
As a National Government comprising two parties with different ideologies, it is bound to be hit by convulsions occasionally. On political issues, there can be some divergence. What is important is not to have a conflict when it comes to the economic and financial management of the state. The President and the Prime Minister are answerable to their party men. It is inevitable that disagreements occur when it comes to issues regarding infrastructure development and so on. That is in sharing the credit. We had the same experience when we had the Cohabitation Government under former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga between 2002 and 2004. That was quite different. The United National Party (UNP) managed to have the majority in Parliament.
For this Government, after the setback at the Local Government Elections, there appears to be a new tendency. There are many fathers connected to the victory, but the loss is an orphan. Politicians try to distance themselves from the electoral setback. All these have compounded the present crisis. We need a more mature approach to governance.
Q Actually, the Tamil and Muslim parties worked hard to unseat the previous rule. In retrospect, what do you feel about your action as a leader of a Muslim party?
In one aspect, we feel vindicated. That is the aspect related to our security. True enough, the incidents in Ampara and Digana dented that feeling about security. That was of course a colossal failure of the law and order machinery. It was a failure of our intelligence agencies to take timely action. As for the past regime, it was a deliberate disregard. That is what angered the minorities more during that period. In the afterglow of war victory, the former establishment went on to create a feeling of insecurity among the majority by bringing in unfounded fear on various issues. Then, the minorities felt that there were continual threats to the places of religious worship. There were sustained attacks on the places of religious worship, orchestrated by xenophobic forces.
Q Does it mean that the present Government, albeit its shortcomings, is still better than the former regime?
Yes, of course. You cannot deny that. At least we have a say. When we raise something, the leaders at least listen to us. They want swift action. True enough, it is somewhat late. The law enforcement is more vigorous. They are fearlessly implementing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and containing hate speech. Hate crime and hate speech did not have that kind of response in the past. The state machinery has to be more robust in handling hate crimes. If you try to handle it with velvet gloves, it will not do. The former Government handled it with velvet gloves. That was the fault in
Q But, you warned about the present Government at a party meeting. If you are happy with the Government, why are you issuing warnings against it?
I was critical of the issues regarding minority interests being taken for granted in matters like electoral reforms. My attack on the Government came about because of the mixed electoral reforms being forced on us. After the results of the February 10 elections, everybody realised that the mixed model has complicated the entire system. Still, a section of the Government insists that they must retain the new system. The UNP and the Joint Opposition want to return to the old system. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is insisting that they must retain the new system. Such issues have disappointed us. We have been talking about it quite openly.
Q In case the Government does not listen to you, what would be your next move?
I have not got the feeling that the Government would not listen to me. I am pretty certain that everybody realises that the new electoral system is fraught with so many contradictions and that they cannot sustain this. Motivation is not to retain the system. There is a lack of confidence at the moment in going for elections. That is a foolhardy thing in my opinion.
QThere are talks about an Interim Government. Do you fear that the current Government will be toppled?
Not at all. From the outset I felt that it was not a move which would succeed. I was privy to certain sections in the Joint Opposition not wanting to rock the boat. We were quite certain that it was not going to happen. They wanted to create certain convulsions. They wanted to expose some people who were sitting on the fence. That was a gain for them.
Nobody should be in a haste or hurry. Even former Minister Basil Rajapaksa said that he was not in favour of forming a Government merely through the manoeuvre of the MPs from one side to another. It is easier to form Governments through defections. It is more prudent to go for a popular movement to topple the Government. There is a sharp difference of opinion within the opposition ranks.
Q You are seen as a political leader who senses the direction of political winds. What direction is the political wind blowing in at the moment?
(Laughs) You need not be a prophet to forecast issues in the country. What is more important is to try and market what you have done for the people. The failure to market what you are doing sufficiently has caused most of the setbacks for this Government. We have failed in this aspect. At the same time, we are criticising each other.
QWhat are the things you have done, but failed to market properly?
In my Ministry alone, we have now implemented a large number of projects. They are not getting the due publicity. People prefer sensational news. The media too is looking for sensationalism. When they see some infighting and bickering, they put a spin and blow it out of proportion.
For instance, look at the amount of legislations we have made in favour of good governance or the way the power of executive presidency is pruned. It is good for governance.
- Present Govt. is better than former rule as far as security is concerned
- UNP should revive itself
- Of course, Gotabaya is a popular candidate
- The state machinery has to be more robust in handling hate crimes
- You need not be a prophet to forecast issues in the country
Q What direction is the political wind blowing in?
The Government still has time for course correction. We need to do some tangible work at the grassroots level. The programmes such as Gamperaliya, Enterprise Sri Lanka and Grama Sakthi are trying to take development to the grassroots level. It is the right way to go. It is a bottom up approach. Job creation in the state sector is not the answer for unemployment. It is my observation that the UNP-led Governments are always wary of this matter. It was quite different during the former rule, though. They were doling out state sector employments. Rural people sometimes see it as the strength of the Government. We need to increase the efficiency of the state sector. This Government has to resort to certain unpopular measures. Initially, they tried to reform the pension scheme. They have put it on hold due to resistance. You ambitiously start something and withdraw from it suddenly. If you need to improve efficiency, certain reforms should be done. You cannot be fidgeting with reforms. You need to have strong political will to go through it. Though it is a National Government, there is uneasy cohabitation. It fails to live up to the expectations of a National Government.
Q What’s your opinion of the next presidential election?
Some have already thrown their hats into the ring. But, there is so much uncertainty. Everybody expected that the constitutional reform process would become a reality. They thought that the Executive Presidency would be replaced with the Westminster model. Constitutional reforms cannot be a piecemeal exercise. We have done it once.
The 19th Amendment is a limited exercise. It has been an achievement. We who represent the minority communities expect an overhaul change of
Q Is the Constitution making process realistic?
If any constitution making process is not completed within six months or one year, it will get embroiled in a crisis.
Q Some say that the parties and the political forces that were together during the last election in 2015 should continue to be under one umbrella. Do you agree with this view?
We too are of the same opinion. We should be able to achieve our objectives. We should have a clear direction. We should not change focus just because some of the moves are being opposed by the so called nationalist forces. We need to have substantial political reforms in order to address grievances. We should not live with the false hope that development will make people forget their rights issues. Rights issues are very potent.
Q If the Presidential Elections are held, whom would you support?
We believe the same forces should be there. The President and the Prime Minister must find a way to stay together if we are to remain relevant in the present day politics. The UNP, with a strong candidacy, can challenge anyone at any time. It may be a little too early for us to make a prediction. At a nation-wide election, you need to instill enthusiasm among your rank and file. The UNP should revive itself.
Q What do you think of the possible candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa representing the other side?
Gotabaya is a poplar candidate. There is no doubt about it. But, he is not as popular as Mahinda Rajapaksa. Of course, he carries some baggage.
We have to see whether he is genuinely prepared to shed this baggage.