Every government sans DS, SWRD and Chandrika’s, had a de facto Super Minister in them. What Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attempts is only to legitimize the position. Would this understanding be a therapy for the near-anarchic, twin control state of affairs, that reigns today?
During the reign of George I, the German King who ruled England in 1721, and did not speak English—an appointment of a minister who knew both the languages as interpreter to cabinet became crucial. The term interpreter was too coarse to address a cabinet minister, hence it was agreed that Sir Robert Walpole, the minister [who was proficient in German] be assigned with the task , and to name him the “Prime-Minister”, introducing a new title to global Parliamentary democracy. Over the years gradually the monarch’s powers were vested in the Prime Minister, making the king only a figurehead with PM wielding power in a cabinet of ministers. It is quite natural for the Maithri faction of SLFPers to raise concerns over the proposed ‘Development [special provisions] Bill, fearing the idea as a smart manipulation by astute Wickremasinghe to weaken Executive Presidency through a transfer of powers to a Super-man. Further it could be seen as a remedy to obstacles in constitutional amendments.
“The Bill is not to help create a ‘Super Minister’ as claimed by the opposition”; Minister of Development Strategies and International Trade Malik Samarawickrama speaking to media said on Friday. He added, ‘the Bill is not to create a “Super Minister” and the Government opposes creating such a post.’ We are trying to introduce an agency where the ministries will also be allied to provide the necessary facilities.” According to JO sources a section of this bill says that cases cannot be filed against the officials appointed to these agencies.
The government’s move to create the post of ‘Super Minister’ with omnipotent-like powers could even undermine the authority of President Maithripala Sirisena, the joint opposition said. This post will be vested with legal immunity, as per draft bill; therefore, if something goes wrong or the Super Minister makes an errant judgment, then no one will be able to take legal action against him.
Illegitimate Super-ministers of the past—Felix,
J R and Basil
DS Senanayake 1947-1952 and son Dudley in his two short-lived governments of 1952 and 1953, they did not groom a second-in-command or develop favourites. SWRD Bandaranaike followed in 1956— C P de Silva undisputedly occupied the number two slot, both in the SLFP and in the government, but did not enjoy any special powers.
However, in 1960, Sirimavo being a new-comer to politics obviously needed a trustworthy lieutenant – the ideal person she could not find within the party hierarchy; hence she was compelled to turn to the family. The Prime Minster Sirimavo engaged the services of her own brother Dr. Mackie Rattwatte as her Confidential Secretary and husband’s cousin’s son, young advocate Felix Dias Banaranaike in to her cabinet and entrusted the Finance portfolio. The 29 year old brilliant lawyer remained the invincible ‘Super-Minister’ during both the terms, 1960-64 and again from 1970-1977, wielding power and creating autocratic tendencies that led to the downfall of Sirimavo in 1977.
Sirimavo’s cabinet was more organized and less faction-ridden than SWRD’s, but the chain of command of leadership within it was affected by the prominence enjoyed by Felix Dias, who had no parliamentary experience. Sirimavo’s reliance on Felix stemmed from personal reasons—importance attached to kinship and the fact that he was the only debater of the first rank in the cabinet. The senior members like C P de Silva and Maithripala Senanayake with long record of parliamentary and cabinet experience were offended by the power and influence of Felix. So long as he won the confidence of the PM there was little that they could do to assert their own authority within. In addition to Minister of Finance, he also held the important portfolio of Deputy Minister to Sirimavo’s Defence and External Affairs. Like JRJ in presenting his 1962 budget he proposed a cut in rice subsidy. However opposition from sections within the government led to his resignation as Finance Minister.
J.R. Jayewardene, the undisputed number two and the only contender for leadership demanded the creation of a special ministry called ‘State’ for him with no specifically assigned tasks but with powers to interact/interfere with any ministry. Dudley Senanyake in 1965-1970, focused on agriculture sect, leaving the rest of the administration in the hands of JRJ the ‘Super minister’. Unlike in other two Super-ministers, JRJ enjoyed the luxury of having a close relationship with the head of the state only for a short time. Junius Richard, the orator stunned the world at San Francisco’s Japanese Peace Treaty in September 1951, according to world headlines;
“…the young minister from Ceylon was mobbed by well-wishers who insisted on shaking hands. The voice of free Asia, eloquent, melancholy and strong with the lilt of an Oxford accent, dominated the conference today”—New York Times: Sep 6 1951.
But his loyalty to his leader and sincerity was questionable. JR’s association with Esmond Wickremesinghe made the PM suspicious of his second in command. Dudley thought they were conspiring against him to take over the leadership. JR’s own position within government and his once friendly position with Dudley Senanayake sharply deteriorated. This even led to a cabinet reshuffle in 1968. The PM took away the responsibilities of JR in Broadcasting without even discusing the matter with him and created a separate ministry to deal with the subject. The Super-minister status of JRJ lasted only three and a half years, whereas in the case of Felix and Basil they enjoyed it during the full terms of respective governments.
Basil Rajapaksa, the ‘Super-Minister’
Basil Rajapaksa’s extraordinary ministry did not make an issue with most of the critics of Super Ministry bill. Under the Rajapaksa regime Basil being the Economic development Minister acted as a super-minister interfering with every ministry. He was able to take decisive conclusions regarding the economy. All those who feel for the well-being of the UNP-SLFP unity government and the proponents of yahapalanaya must oppose the Super Ministry bill. If the leaders of it are allowed to indulge in self-aggrandizement, like Rajapaksa regime it will become extremely unpopular and collapse. It will definitely be the ‘kiss of death’ for the alliance. If the powers of the President are going to be betrayed with the appointment of a super-minister, it will create a serious situation. An important responsibility of the Treasury to decide as to which investor should be given tax holidays and which investor should not would come under the Super-minister as per clauses already incorporated in the bill, means it obviously will exceed the authority exercised by Basil in the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.
The only positive factor in it is the official introduction of the position, ‘Super-minister’; perhaps whoever it is, could match the record set by Sir Robert Walpole three centuries ago and Sri Lanka can reserve a folio in Guinness Book of Records!