President Maithripala Sirisena was hopeful. He said the Cabinet reshuffle would provide a new impetus to Sri Lanka’s development. Prof G.L. Peiris was generous. He said it was unfair to blame Ravi Karunanayake for the economic failures and fiscal shortcomings of the government because he had operated with clipped wings considering that the Treasury was under the Prime Minister and the the banking sector under Kabir Hashim.
Dullas Alahapperuma was cute. He wondered why the government shifted Karunanayake, just a few months after he had been named the best in the business of ministering finance. He also asked why Mangala Samaraweera who was showered with praise for his diplomacy was removed from the Ministry of External Affairs. Valid points, these.
While we wait on the relevant gazette notification there’s speculation about demands being made for the control of various state institutions. The Development Lotteries Board, SriLankan Airlines, the Colombo Stock Exchange and some sections of the Plantations Ministry have been mentioned in pound-of-flesh terms. Apparently Karunanayake wants these. Of course it would look utterly silly for such institutions to come under the purview of the Ministry of External Affairs and therefore there’s talk of an additional tag being conferred on Karunanayake. It could very well come to pass because all it takes is to come up with some economy-related name and a ‘state minister’ label. Job done.
Let’s leave speculation aside. Let’s go with the real.
Dullas has a point. Prof. Peiris has a point. The President cannot but utter something optimistic. However, as pointed out and not too kindly, booru kuttama mona vidihakata anuvath booruwomai enne. ‘Booruwa’ is Sinhala for donkey (and booruwo would be donkeys) but in the context of the kuttama (deck of cards) it refers to the Jack. The proper transliteration would have ‘joker’ instead of booruwa. Well then, this is how it would go -- whichever way one shuffles a pack of jokers, jokers are what you would get.
It’s a tad harsh but if it points to a certain dilemma. There can be many reasons for a cabinet reshuffle. If there was a loyalty-shift in Parliament and some ministers crossed lines, then of course empty portfolios would need filling. Death also necessitates a shift, depending on the size and importance of the particular ministry. In this instance, the only possible reason is incompetence.
Is the government telling us that Karunanayake did a bad job, as did Samaraweera? What guarantee is there that either would handle a different subject better? If removal from one ministry indicates inability, inefficiency, corruption, etc., then shouldn’t the wise course of action be to appoint better people to these positions? If Karunanayake cannot handle money, why is there talk of offering him some bucks-related institutions? Weren’t there better people?
From the point of view of the political project of this government it is hard to find fault with Samaraweera. One may find the project itself to be sophomoric and even disastrous in terms of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country, but if portfolios are about briefs and delivery, he has got a ‘pass’ mark. Not so Karunanayake. All the indicators add up to an ‘F’, even if one were to give some compensatory brownie points for ‘inheritance’ (i.e. from the previous regime — provided of course that all the horror stories told over and over again are defensible).
If the Finance Manager of a corporate is found to be incompetent would he or she be moved into HR and the HR head be made Finance Manager? No. The Finance Manager would be hoofed out, with or without compensation, depending on whether his ‘incompetence’ included hanky-panky. In this instance, incompetence seems to have been established, but Karunanayake is still a member of the Cabinet and the portfolio he now holds is as important as the one he lost, one can argue. It’s not even a punishment transfer then.
There seems to be the mistaken notion that party seniority or political clout is cause enough to demand portfolios and the control of institutions/sectors. We seem to have developed a political culture where the decision-makers have to make sure that every district, every ethnicity, every religious community, every constituent party in the case of a coalition government and even certain castes have to be represented in Cabinet. Add to this the need for some gender-balance cosmetics and a bit of youthfulness and one cannot envy the task of the President and Prime Minister, especially since they have their own party-problems to sort out at least in part through portfolio-offer.
They cannot complain though. The President and Prime Minister did themselves in when they came up with the 19th Amendment which included a neat escape clause for them to go around the size-limit pertaining to the Cabinet. The kind of horseplay we have witnessed over the past few weeks could have been effectively prevented had they played statesman instead of politician, especially given the yahapalana rhetoric they indulged in and the political momentum they had.
Make no mistake, this side of radical constitutional reform, we will continue to see these kinds of reshuffles by this and subsequent regimes. Whichever way the reshuffling is done, it will smack of pound-of-flesh demands, trying to balance necessity with the need to retain political stability by the purchase of loyalty, and ultimately a musical chairs game among the incompetent, greedy and corrupt except that the number of chairs will be a constant.
Things can be done differently. While conceding that different political formations with different histories and predilections produce different systems, the Swiss example does have some lessons which unfortunately our constitution-makers either ignored or were ignorant of. Switzerland, since 1948, has had just seven ministries which together are broad enough to cover all subjects. The titles of the ministries themselves are enshrined in the constitution.
There are no escape clauses such as those embedded in the 19th Amendment. There are no ministerial goodies to be offered in return for switching political loyalty. The incompetent and corrupt cannot hide, if such be the case. There’s no frenzied shuffling. The competent are known and are appointed. They have to work hard. They can’t pass the buck. They can’t say ‘I couldn’t do it because such and such institutions were not under my control.’ And, if anyone is found to be out of order, he or she will not be accorded the out of switching ministries with a colleague.
We are not Switzerland. However, since there’s a lot of talk about reforms and constitutional amendment, and since the entire cabinet reshuffle has taken the appearance of a circus, the sober thing to do would be for the President and the Prime Minister to revisit the clauses pertaining to the Cabinet. Numbers matter, of course. Subjects however are more important. The reshuffling exercise has established this beyond a shadow of doubt.
Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.malindawords.blogspot.com. Twitter: malindasene