Cricket matches sometimes end in thrilling finishes. At other times, they end in a tie, such as last Tuesday’s one day international with England, leaving both sides with some degree of satisfaction but deprived of victory. The recent controversy over Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran is somewhat similar.
Mahendran completes his current tenure on June 30, as he was appointed only for the remainder of the period of office of former Governor AjithNivardCabraal. Mahendran has been embroiled in controversy ever since he was first appointed, apparently on the recommendation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
The controversy was over Mahendran’s alleged involvement in the sale of Central Bank treasury bonds through a firm in which his son-in-law held a position. Mahendran has always denied any wrong doing. To add to the hullabaloo, he is also a citizen of Singapore which does not allow dual citizenship.
The Mahendran issue was canvassed heavily by the Mahinda Rajapaksa faction of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) during the August 2015 general election. At stake was not merely the ‘deal’ that the Governor allegedly engaged in, but the new government’s commitment to the principles of good governance.
The United National Front emerged as the single largest party in Parliament after the election but fell short of a simple majority by seven seats. Some analysts suggested the Mahendran controversy cost the UNF at least five seats at the election.
Indeed, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may have missed a trick then. Had he sacrificed Mahendran at the altar of public opinion, he could have not only engaged in damage control, he could have also projected the issue to his advantage and claim that he had dealt with a miscreant in keeping with the tenets of ‘Yahapaalanaya’.
Unfortunately, for Wickremesinghe, as Mahendran’s current tenure is nearing its end, the clamour for him to be relieved of his position came not only from the Rajapaksa led ‘Joint opposition’ but from a section of the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) as well.
Complicating the issue further was the motion of no confidence moved against Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake by the Joint Opposition. The motion was defeated comfortably with the mainstream SLFP MPs voting against it but there was speculation that support for Karunanayake came at a price – the dismissal of Mahendran.
Whatever the merits of such speculation, the crunch came in the form of agitation by civil society groups most of whom had worked tirelessly to oust the Rajapaksa regime. Neither President Maithripala Sirisena nor Premier Wickremesinghe can afford to antagonise these groups. Hence the announcement that Mahendran will be suspended until inquiries into his conduct are over.
However, this raises more questions than answers. Who will conduct the inquiry? Will it be a Parliamentary Select Committee or a judicial process? How long will this take in a country which is yet to successfully prosecute a single person of the former regime? Is Mahendran who is, whatever his faults, a top banking professional, prepared to wait in limbo for as long as it takes to conclude the probe into his conduct? Or, will the wheels of justice move with the speed of greased lightning in this instance?
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, astute politician that he is, has certainly averted a political disaster and bought some time with his most recent decision. But for how long and to what end? Would it not be better if he bowed to the court of public opinion and said adieu to Mahendran? After all, he was happy to accept the resignation of Minister Tilak Marapone, a card carrying member of the UNP unlike Mahendran, over a much less controversial affair.
If the Premier’s wish is that by postponing the issue it would simply go away, that will not happen. What he must realise is that what is at stake here is not Mahendran’s career – it may well be Wickremesinghe’s. The Prime Minister has justly earned a reputation as being incorruptible. If he is to earn a similar standing for his integrity, he can. For that, there is but one course of action: show Mahendran the door.