President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sat down together last week at the BMICH to answer questions from the public. It was a good show for the coalition government. But, ironically today people measure their leaders by action not by what they say in public.
Also, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) leader yesterday in parliament reminded the government that they need to get fresh approval from parliament to maintain the current number of cabinet ministers. The present cabinet consists of 48 in number.
In terms of Article 46 (1) (a) and (b) ministers of the cabinet of ministers shall not exceed 30 and ministers who are not members of the cabinet of ministers and deputy ministers shall not, in the aggregate, exceed 40.
Therefore, given that the government is left with less than three years to win the confidence of the public and deliver on the many promises made, this is probably the best time to follow Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s example – in probably the last major reshuffle of the Modi government before the 2019 elections. Nine new ministers were inducted, all ministers of state. Four ministers of state were promoted as cabinet ministers. The portfolios of some ministers were changed.
The most significant change was the promotion of Nirmala Sitharaman as Cabinet Minister with the Defense Ministry. She is a lightweight politician given a heavyweight ministry as a counterweight to Sushma Swaraj, who is External Affairs Minister. Suresh Prabhu’s change of portfolio from Railways to Commerce was expected as there were three accidents in recent days and he had been told to quit.
Twenty five ministers
Today our cabinet has the right men in the wrong places. What we need is the right man in the right place. Currently it seems maximum government and no governance. This was against the ‘Yahapalana’ slogan – “minimum government, maximum governance”.
We have many instances when somebody has been elevated for non-performance. There is nothing on the balance sheet of the current foreign minister to justify his promotion to the next best job in the government after the prime minister. Moreover, he is not elected by the public and therefore, he has no support from the public, while this is no indictment on his professional career as a lawyer.
But what we would have liked to see the president and prime minister do was, a Modi-type reshuffle to bring in fresh talent into the cabinet. For example, the London School of Economics (LSE)-educated Eran Wickremaratne and Dr. Harsha de Silva, who have both sacrificed their professional careers in their prime to be of service to the people, could have been recognized.
Most importantly, there is also now a need for rationalization of the cabinet. This however requires the political will on the part of the president and prime minister to limit the cabinet to 30.
Given the size of our gross domestic product (GDP) and our tragic debt burden, a byproduct of the past, Sri Lanka would ideally need only the following 25 ministers to run this country efficiently. They are: 1) Agriculture and Plantations, 2) Education, 3) Justice, 3) Finance and Planning, 4) Defense, 5) External Affairs, 6) Interior and Media, 7) Health, 8) Trade and Commerce, 9) Industries and SMEs, 10) Science Technology and Innovation, 11) Local Government and Provincial Councils, 12) Public Administration and Home Affairs, 13) Fisheries, 14) Labor and Foreign Employment, 15) Ports, Shipping and Aviation, 16) Transport and Highways, 17) Housing and Urban Development, 18) Land, Environment, Water Resources and Other Resources, 19) Power and Energy, 20) Reconciliation, Rehabilitation and Resettlement 21) Tourism and Investment, 22) Sports and Youth Affairs, 23) Public Enterprises, 24) Religious and Cultural Affairs and 25) Infrastructure and Regional Development.
The United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) without attempting to weaken each other should pay heed to the mood of the electorate. They should be mindful of the potential emergence of a third force like in France, when Macron became France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, a 39-year-old former investment banker, who served for two years as economy minister under the former French President Hollande but had never previously held elected office.
Today, unfortunately, while a section of the government is hell-bent on transferring the executive powers to the office of the prime minister after 2020, another group wants the office of the president to retain the executive powers.
Before an overhaul of the constitution is made, the people want the government to deliver on the many other promises they made. The government should stop itself getting entangled in ‘retail politics’ from now on and focus on a few big wins, where high-profile scandals are investigated fully and offenders are brought to justice and judged according to the law of the land.
The president and prime minister, two outstanding men, certainly have the capability and the will to do the right thing for the sake of the country. In addition, the civic rights groups that ushered in this government need to continue to be the voice of protest, however faint.
(Dinesh Weerakkody is a thought leader)