Less than a fortnight after the event, the nation has forgotten President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mini-reshuffle of his Cabinet. Rather, the changes never registered in the first place as Sri Lankans were preoccupied with the pandemic even more. Both the formal and informal media too had traded most of the changes as they happened later.
Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarachchi may have been upset by her shunt to Transport, as she alone seems to feel. Justified or not, it was long since seen as a fait accompli for the government’s inability to contain the pandemic. The blame should lie elsewhere as her ministry at no point seemed to be in charge of implementation and enforcement of Covid protocol. But there are holy cows and holy cows, and sacrificial goats and more of the same…
In the prevailing circumstances, swapping the places of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Education’s G L Peiris was the right thing to do for both ministries and ministers. It could not have been otherwise even when Gota planned out his ministry-making when being elected President in 2019.
Yes, Gota tried out a rare thing, or entrusting weak allies with strong portfolios – like Gunawardena for the all-important Foreign Affairs, Wimal Weerawansa for Industries (as against Housing or such other less important portfolios as used to be the case), Udaya Gammanpilla for Energy and Vasudeva Nanayakara for Water Supply (as always).
If the idea was to send out a strong message to the international community at UNHRC and elsewhere that his choice of a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist’ as his Foreign Minister, it has not worked. The government leadership seems to have now learnt that it needs a more conciliatory face to present the world. How conciliatory Prof Peiris is from the way the West especially looks at it all is a questionable proposition all the same.
Looking back, Peiris too does not seem to fit in to any other ministry other than Foreign Affairs, his forte, so to say. He may have been a leading academic in legal studies and might have also been a successful vice-chancellor of the prestigious Colombo University. That was a don’s job, not that of a politician, a minister.
Gunawardena as an equally successful union leader and public personality in his hey days knew the moods and methods of trade unions in particular. Given President Gota’s social agenda and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s budgetary priorities when he presented the budget for the year (now it is another brother Basil R who is in charge), skill development requires political direction even more.
There are academics and academic boards to design syllabi and teaching methods for Gunawardena to fall back upon. But there are jobs that only a political leader could do – leading from the front and pushing from the back and the sides.
Hidden agenda or what
Looking back, the reshuffle exercise has produced only one clear-cut result. Whether intended or otherwise, the additional responsibilities given to young Namal Rajapaksa, a third-term MP from Hambantota district, very clearly establishes that the First Family is preparing him to take greater responsibilities, now or later. If nothing else, he will not lack the kind of experience and exposure to political administration that his prime minister father and three uncles, including President Gota, lacked when stepping into high office.
If in his time, he is pitted against rival SJB’s Sajith Premadasa for the presidency under the prevailing constitutional scheme, he can boast of greater exposure to political administration than the other. When a young Premadasa began challenging parent UNP veteran Ranil Wickremesinghe for party leadership and candidacy for prime ministerial and presidential jobs, he only had limited experience as a deputy minister.
When he grew in stature under the predecessor Government of National Unity (?), he settled for the grassroots-connect Housing Ministry. He did a good job of it, yes, but that would not have been enough for him to run the Covid-centric government any better than incumbent Gota. His popularity as Housing Minister did not even get enough votes in the Sinhala South, where his ministerial and electoral campaigns focussed.
Only time will prove if Namal’s greater exposure to political administration is going to help him win future elections to key offices, including the presidency. These are qualifications once in office, but winning elections is a product of political environment and administrative circumstances.
It depends on what he inherits from his family elders – or challenges from rivals, if any or all of them together unseat the Rajapaksas for another time, as in 2015. The hidden agenda to promote Namal now can thus go only thus far. As father Mahinda R was known to muse, political management from within the party and government is one thing, winning the voter-confidence is another.
Namal was already Minister for Youth and Sports. It was supposed to be an out-reach opportunity for the 35-year-old rugger. Whether it worked or not with the young among the voters, the greying generation does not take ‘playful’ youth as serious politicians, especially political masters. Not in Sri Lanka, thus far. They have their role, like cricketer Arjuna Ranatunga, but it stops there.
The add-on Ministry of Development Coordination and Monitoring, specially created for Namal through the current reshuffle, thus provides for him to have a finger in every governmental pie. In the new position, he has an over-arching command over most ministries as uncle Basil Rajapaksa, now Finance Minister, had as Economic Development Minister under brother Mahinda, now PM, under latter’s second term as President (2010-15).
According to reports, Namal will oversee the allocation and distribution of LKR 7 trillion in budget-funding. Then there may be a share (a huge share) from the upcoming Chinese loan of RNB 2 billion, translating as LKR 61 billion, for him to distribute among ministries, regions and projects, if the President so chose to allocate it – and outside of the budget.
Development Coordination and Monitoring were thus far under the care of technocrat State Minister, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, as Gota thought it wise at ministry-formation. Now, the leadership seems to have realised that there is more to development coordination than professional administration, say, politics and out-reach, requiring a younger blood, which can benefit the family through a reverse osmosis process on the voter-side.
Critics, both politicians and civil society types, that had criticised the Rajapaksas, for controlling close to 90 per cent of the budget through the ministerial positions they held under the second Mahinda regime, are now silent. They seemed to have resigned to their inadequacies, whatever that be. For young Namal, it is an opportunity to reach out to people across the country and endear himself, yes. But it is a greater challenge to win them over and also prove his mettle at work. They are two different jobs and achievements.
At least some of them hope and hope that over-exposure for the Rajapaksas is the best thing that can happen to the demoralised Opposition. Their prayer is that the senior Rajapaksas fail, and with that whatever good or bad Namal can achieve also fails him, in his own hour of electoral need.
There are of course others who seek a divine intervention (as with the pandemic now) to arrest the Rajapaksa dominance of electoral politics, and hence political administration in the country. With the inclusion of the senior-most Rajapaksa in government, namely, Chamal, and his own 45-year-old son Shasheendra, too, holding ministerial portfolios, the Covid management or mismanagement has already exposed the First Family to avoidable charges of incompetence, beginning with Covid management but including financial management, even more.
Shasheendra has since said, as if speaking for the President, that there would be more reshuffles of the kind, at least once a year, to ensure that the Cabinet remains fighting-fit. Covid apart, the wag still hopes that the Rajapaksa government going to the IMF with bent knees for funding may be the only way that the First Family, including Namal, could be reined in, in the name of economic and administrative restructuring. Amen!
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: email@example.com)