Having been fed on a staple diet of economic doom and gloom and empty state coffers that had been plundered by the previous regime, Sri Lankans last week woke up to the news that they had to pay for the upkeep of three more ministers.
This has elevated the number of ministers of all types to ninety-two and Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka, reading out the numbers in Parliament quite proudly declared that the numbers might increase even more!
This, from a government that enacted the 19th Constitutional amendment that limited the number of ministers to thirty and deputies and all other assorted types of ministers to forty. Of course, there is nothing irregular here, the government will argue, because the 19th Amendment does provide for these numbers to be expanded in the event of a ‘national’ government which this government claims to be.
It is not so much the legality of the issue that would bother the average citizen; it is the impunity with which a government which decried what former President Mahinda Rajapaksa did – beg, borrow and steal MPs from the Opposition – is doing much the same.
The other issue is the calibre of persons who have been sworn in. A few weeks ago, former Army Commander and presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka was sworn in as an MP and then a minister following the demise of M.K.A.D.S. Gunewardena. Fonseka may not be everyone’s cup of tea but few people complained because it was felt he had a role to play in the legislature.
In contrast, who are the latest ministers? LakshmanSeneviratne, Manusha Nanayakkara, both from the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and PalithaThevarapperuma from the United National Front (UNF), the nominees reading like a who’s who of the unscrupulous among parliamentarians.
Seneviratne, the son of Captain C. P. J. Seneviratne who was a minister in J. R. Jayewardene’s government was a UNPer for most of his life and switched loyalties to the UPFA only when the controversial 18th Amendment was enacted by Rajapaksa. His seat, Mahiyanganaya has been bastion of the UNP. Since the Maithripala Sirisena-Mahnda Rajapaksa dichotomy opened up in the UPFA, Seneviratne has been mostly in the Rajapaksa camp. Now, it seems he has switched sides once again.
Nanayakkara too began his political journey in the UNP, but then switched to the UPFA and during the general election chose every opportunity to lambast President Sirisena saying that without Rajapaksa, both the UPFA and the country would be doomed. Obviously he has since had a change of heart!
Thevarapperuma is no angel either. Soon after the presidential election in January Thevarapperuma allegedly led a mob which attacked local rival Mahinda Samarasinghe’s office at Agalawatte. Known for his strong arm tactics, Thevarapperuma was also notorious for once lunging at party leader RanilWickremesinghe apparently because his son was deprived of nominations to contest the Western Provincial elections.
The new ministers therefore have been appointed not because their individual brilliance is absolutely required to take the country forward. At least in the case of Seneviratne and Nanayakkara, they have been appointed to send a message to the self-proclaimed ‘Joint Opposition’ which supports Rajapaksa that even their most vociferous followers can be bought for as little as a deputy ministerial positions. Thevarapperuma’s appointment, nevertheless, remains baffling.
The strategy is clear, though. Good governance – or yahapaalanaya as they called it during their campaigns –can take a back seat. What is important is political survival in the numbers game: one by one, win over opposition MPs and wean them away from the Rajapaksa camp till they no longer have the numbers to mount a reasonable challenge.
This is nothing new. It is a tried and tested tactic. It was tried and tested and shown to work by Mahinda Rajapaksa. The only difference is that, it is not Mahinda Rajapaksa who does it now. Still, it works, so why not do it over and over again?