Presidency 19When I began this series, over four months ago, the title may have seemed excessive. And even my good friend Dayan Jayatilleka thought I was being unduly pessimistic about the President’s pulling power when I said that the UNP would poll at least 40% in Badulla. But the results there have shown that the threat is even more serious than I had thought.

Over the next few weeks I will explore how the threat might be averted. But I suspect that that will serve no purpose, for Basil Rajapaksa, who may be the only one of the decision makers who reads what I write, would by then have dragooned the President into having an early election. He did this in 2009 when, as the President then put it to me – with a hint of contempt I think for what he deemed the amateur nature of our advice – only Gota and I told him not to have the Presidential election so soon.

That haste, to entrench not the President, whose popularity was unrivalled at the time, but his rent seeking friends and relations in power, has been the root of the evils we have suffered. Contrariwise, Mahinda Rajapaksa, if left to himself, would I think have gone ahead with the reforms he had promised. And he can still save himself, and his legacy, if he works on reforms such as those so helpfully suggested by Vasantha Senanayake, which aim at strengthening the effectiveness of the Executive, not its power. But even now, understanding that having the Presidential election soon would be unwise, the rent seekers are trying to precipitate an early Parliamentary election. They ignore the fact that Parliament has a year and a half to go, and the President more than two years, ample time for the pluralist Mahinda Rajapaksa to recreate himself, free of the baggage he has been compelled to carry.

But can he do this? Does he have the will and the ability to assert himself again? Sadly, the way in which he has allowed little things to get out of control, through a combination of indulgence and lethargy, suggests that the will is weakening, even if his abilities are still in good order. I will illustrate this in my column this week by exploring the sort of embarrassment to which he allows himself to be subjected, when he forgets that the leader of a country should not let himself get involved in trivialities or in criminal activities.

A horrifying example of what can happen through indulgence is the case of the present Bishop of Kurunagala, who is under investigation for having drawn for many years the pension of his dead mother in law. That something fraudulent took place, and that he even himself cashed cheques on the account into which the monies in effect stolen from the state were coming in, is not in doubt. But the Bishop sanguinely announced that he had been assured by the President that, if he paid back the monies, criminal charges would not be pressed.

I could not believe that the President had given such an assurance but, when the case was last heard, the police indeed tried to have it laid by. Fortunately the magistrate was more professional and stopped this, but it was horrifying that the police should have been influenced so blatantly. And though I am sorry that a man for whom generally I have the greatest admiration, the Inspector General of Police, should allow such things to happen, I realized when I spoke to him that, for once, he was being shifty in his answers.

But this is not the first time the President seems to have interfered in matters of Law and Order. Over five years ago, he seems to have ordered the expulsion of the then Principal of Trinity College, even though the head of the Terrorist Investigation Unit assured me at the time that he had been cleared of all charges. There had been several attempts to connect him with the LTTE, but the police knew perfectly well that this was nonsense. And the President too knew this, for he told me when I asked him that the problem was nothing to do with terrorism, but was simply an internal dispute between factions of Trinity. But nevertheless I was told that the order to cancel the visa had come from the very top.

Why does he indulge those with destructive private agendas? The Secretary of Defence, I should note, is made of sterner stuff, for he is reported to have told the Central Province Governor, a strong supporter of the current Principal, who is actively propagating the old canard about the LTTE, that the case of the Bishop was a can of worms and he should not get involved. But despite this, we had the appalling weakness of the police, even though they have enough evidence to press charges.

Now, in order to obfuscate the issue, the story about the LTTE is being resurrected, with claims that a forensic audit reveals that over 200 million rupees has been paid to the LTTE. The audit says nothing of the sort, but because the Bishop violated all norms and allowed the report to be presented in court before it had been discussed by the Board, or the Finance Advisory Committee, or the respected firms of auditors which had earlier investigated the matter, rumours have been permitted to spread – or have perhaps been encouraged by those seeking to cover up their own peculations.

Fortunately again the judiciary has been more sensible and ordered that the Report should be discussed by those with knowledge of the facts. Earlier an error of the firm chosen by the Bishop and the Principal – who have been fulsomely thanked for the honour – was pointed out at a Board meeting. But these amateurs were allowed to proceed, and have reached conclusions about missing monies that are at variance with those provided by Price Waterhouse Cooper and two other firms on high repute.

But even the unknown outfit in Kandy selected by the Bishop and Principal has not claimed that monies its simplistic approach could not trace were handed over to the LTTE. Sadly the old boys determined to undermine the current structure at Trinity have decided to actively misrepresent the position, to pursue their own nefarious agenda – in which they have the support, for other reasons, of the Bishop and the Principal. Ironically, the latter had to leave the army under shadowy circumstances, and was reverted to his rank of Colonel, even though he masquerades as a Brigadier, something the then Army Commander made clear was not acceptable. And the current Army Commander confirmed that he was not fit to have a position of authority. I gathered that it was only his hasty resignation that prevented investigation into allegations at the time of dealings with the LTTE.

It is clear then that the shadowy clique of old boys who are flying the LTTE kite have no real patriotic feeling, given that their chosen instruments are a man without proper qualifications who was revealed as having lied repeatedly about them, and a Bishop who countermanded Board decisions in order to keep this fraudster on. What they both gain from this is well known by those who seek admission for their children to Trinity without any clear rationale, and who succeed through a discretion exercised by the Bishop which is not explained to the Board despite promises to do this.

Why does the President continue to support a Bishop whom his own clergy called Pachaya, and a man who left the army under a cloud? The answer lies in his failure to apply any principles when he is asked for favours. And because he likes to provide instant gratification, he picks up the phone and issues orders without thinking of the consequences. Knowing this, those who have learned to manipulate him press the buttons of prejudice, with words like LTTE, unethical conversions, foreign interference, being deployed ruthlessly. And when he is told that a Tamil Bishop is willing to sing his praises, he assumed that effusive interviews in the state media will swing votes.

Uva has shown that the strategy of polarization and sycophancy simply will not work. But what this will lead to is even more pressure on the President to perform on public stages, since those who are benefiting from the current policies of the government know that he is the only popular figure left in authority on the government side. The assumption that cement and handouts are enough to win votes is absurd, and to pour in more cement and hand out more will encourage contempt not support.

But in the absence of thinking and planning skills, it is likely that we will simply have the mixture as before. The failure to implement a Human Resources Development policy coherently, the failure to encourage investment with priority given to productivity rather than commissions, the failure to work on systems that will ensure better and more equitable delivery of services, are all coming home to roost.

Adjustments would be simple. But they require consultation and this is not to the taste of the few people who now make decisions. The confusion this leads to was apparent at the last Parliamentary Group meeting, when much criticism was made of Bills government had brought before Parliament. This has happened before, and a couple of Bills had to be withdrawn. But the intensity this time, which has led to cancellation on two days of the government business scheduled, indicates that even Ministers will be more outspoken now, given the worries caused by Uva about the current style of decision making. I can only hope then that enough of what I term the traditional SLFP, which continues with the moderate approach of that party which Mahinda Rajapaksa embodied for so long, will make their voice heard in promoting the reforms we so desperately need.

Ceylon Today 30 Sept 2014

Presidency Under Threat - 19