Presidency 17Recently, at a Consultative Committee in Parliament, one of my colleagues remarked that there was no need of any opposition given my own contribution. I had been critical but what my colleague, from the Gampaha District, failed to understand was that I had criticized neither policies nor action. What I had been objecting to was a failure of action, and had the gentleman understood how Parliaments should be conducted, he would have realized that I was actually trying to help. Surely it should be the business of politicians supportive of the government to promote action in accordance with productive policies, not to sit back complacently when there is no progress.

The incident occurred at the 17th meeting of the Consultative Committee on Education, when I wondered what had happened about a matter I had raised at the previous meeting, held 3 months earlier (meetings are supposed to happen every month, but this Standing Order, like almost all others, is observed in the breach). In May I had brought up the question of opening computer laboratories which had, in at least two cases I knew of, been completed and equipped, but were awaiting a ceremonial opening.

The Minister had claimed on that occasion that such a ceremony was needed so that the people would know who had gifted the laboratory. But when I pointed out that these were not gifts, but built with the people’s money, he had granted my point. So, to cite the minute, he ‘stated that the Chairman of the Development Committee of the area should be responsible to utilize them and instructed to take immediate action to open them’.

This time it was reported that some laboratories had been opened already, and that many more would soon be opened in the Uva Province. This caused a lot of giggles, but that did not matter so long as the children were now able to use the equipment. But surely it should have struck my colleagues that, even if the priority was to get brownie points from these computers, the sooner they were in use, the better for the politicians too, as well as the children. For obviously the people would know if there were an unnecessary delay – it was parents and teachers who had kept me informed in areas I am familiar with – while there is also a risk of computers deteriorating if not swiftly put into operation.

 A recently retired official told me at a simple temple function about a ceremony at which awards worth a couple of lakhs had been distributed, with the ceremony itself costing 8 lakhs. The President had been keen to get the benefits through quickly to the people, so he had gone to just one such ceremony, but the arrangements for the other in the same Province had been as elaborate even though he could not attend. But though this suggests the President does not really believe that all these ceremonies increase the popularity of politicians, he is the victim of a culture that increasingly sees show rather than substance as the purpose of politics. So too, in fact on the very day of the Education Consultative Committee, I was told by another official that a plaque on the Southern Highway says that this had been gifted to the people by the President, which is not a formulation he would have thought up himself.

With regard to the President, he scarcely needs all this propaganda, given his achievements and his personal popularity. But unfortunately he is the victim of all the others who know they can only get elected on his coat-tails. And, sadly, given the large number of elections we have to have under this ridiculous constitution, and the large number of candidates who are desperately in need of credit for the achievements of the executive, the process of winning favour by any means to hand has reached impossible levels. And it certainly contributes to unpopularity, as for instance I noted when the military were delaying returning to their owners some boutiques on the main road in Kilinochchi. The very sensible army officer in charge of the area told me after the meeting, at which I had suggested the Chamber of Commerce talk to the army and reach agreement on the buildings, that indeed they had already decided to return them – but they were waiting for a date from Namal Rajapakse to make the presentations.

This was ridiculous, since it was not Namal about whom there was adverse propaganda in the area, but the army. It was the army that needed to get over the criticism they were suffering, and showing that they were not hanging on to land unnecessarily was something they should have concentrated on. Having instead to play politics and arrange ceremonies for outsiders made no sense, and contributed to increasing tensions, of which opposition politicians were taking full advantage.

This I suspect explains the fact that opposition politicians hardly ever come to Consultative Committee meetings. Sajith Premadasa did indeed attend the Education meeting in May (along with the Education Minister who chaired the meeting, two other Ministers including his former Deputy, and myself), but he was missing this time. The opposition was represented only by Sri Ranga, which again underlined the absence of an opposition strategy to use instruments within Parliament to promote reform. They too see politics not as an exercise through which to pursue policies, but rather as a race for votes, and therefore anything that would help the executive to do better should be avoided.

I suppose this is true of politics all over the world, but in other countries there are long intervals in between races so there is time to pursue developmental strategies on their own. In Sri Lanka however we have vast numbers of elections, and we stagger them in such a way that there is always an election round the corner. And, given the popularity of the President, he has to be trotted out to help everyone, so he is left with no time at all to think or to govern. So he leaves governance issues to others, almost all of whom are also concerned with political gain themselves – the Defence Secretary, whom earlier one assumed did what he thought was right regardless of trying to be popular, being the latest casualty of this absurdity.

All this must necessarily lead to disaster. Given the number of candidates, and given the increasing amount of the handouts that are deemed necessary, the cost of elections to the country has escalated astronomically. And there is no doubt that, where individual politicians are expected to foot the bill, they have to find ways and means of reimbursing themselves. But it is also simpler to allow the country to foot the bill direct, by formally sanctioning handouts, as has happened with the latest wheeze thought up by the Ministry of Economic Development to distribute what is termed developmental assistance round the country.

One example of the way such money is used struck me as epitomizing the whole mess we are in. One of my colleagues, and not the least intelligent, was using development funds to finance special classes held after hours in schools, and taught by the teachers who were supposed to teach in those very schools. I don’t think it occurred to him to wonder why government maintained the school and paid those teachers salaries if he was going to supplement the salaries and promote education through tuition after hours.

The President should have before him a reform agenda that will solve many of these problems. It will give executive power to people, whilst strengthening the oversight and policy making functions of politicians. It will reduce the number of elections we have. It will ensure greater care about legislation. But either he has not been told about this, or else it has been misrepresented – doubtless by those who need to cling to his coat-tails, and have grown increasingly heavy over the years – so that he thinks reforms are necessarily a mark of hostility. But if he fails to engage in reforms, even assuming he wins a decent mandate, he will find it increasingly difficult to govern productively.

Ceylon Today 16 Sept 2014

Presidency under threat - 17