The Presidential election took place on January 8th, and by dawn of the 9th it was clear that Maithripala Sirisena had won. All sorts of rumours began to circulate in the early hours, when there was a hiatus in the issuing of results, but that passed soon enough.
We were called then to Green Path, to the office of the Leader of the Opposition, to discuss arrangements for the swearing in, the last time it turned out that all those who had come together to support Sirisena were treated with respect. But I am not sure whether I blotted my copybook irredeemably then when I raised an object to Ravi Karunanayake’s proposal that Ranil Wickremesinghe should be sworn in as Prime Minister immediately after the new President had taken his oaths.
Ranil, who was lounging at the head of the table, shot up sharply when I spoke and declared that there was nothing against him being made Prime Minister straight away. I realized then that Ravi had obviously been prompted to speak, but no one else objected, though they did accept my point that Ranil could not become Prime Minister until there was a vacancy. But Ravi said he would speak to Lalith Weeratunge, who had seemed helpful about the handover, and get him to persuade D M Jayaratne to resign.
That did not happen, so when Ranil was sworn in as Prime Minister at Independence Square there was no vacancy. That did not matter much in practice because obviously members of the previous government had accepted the decision. But it seemed to me a bad precedent, and indicated exactly how anxious Ranil was to affirm his position as virtually the equivalent of the President.He need not have worried, because Maithripala Sirisena was I think a trifle overwhelmed at his victory, and left virtually all decisions to Ranil and to Chandrika. I think too that he was disappointed at the fact that no member of the senior leadership of the SLFP had come out in his favour, and he therefore did nothing to ensure that the new government was a partnership of equals.
I realized this when, after the Cabinet had been sworn in, and I found myself not included, I spoke to him to express my disappointment. His manifesto had stated – and this was not something I had had any part in formulating – that the Cabinet would consist of representatives of all parties in Parliament. So as the sole member of the Liberal Party, I had assumed this would apply to me. When I told him this he denied any responsibility for the make up of the Cabinet and said that Ranil had decided on portfolios for the UNP, and Chandrika on portfolios for others.
I told him then that I had accepted the post of State Minister of Higher Education, and would continue to work in that position since it was a subject that interested me, but I felt it necessary to register that I had been badly treated. I told him too at the time that he should have done more for Vasantha Senanayake, who was just a Junior Minister. This was to Naveen Dissanayake, who is amiable enough, but had taken time to decide to come out in support of Sirisena whereas Vasantha had done so unhesitatingly from the start.
Sirisena was laconic as he had been before, and said I should speak to Ranil or Chandrika, but I said I would do nothing of the sort, since my support had been for him, and not for anyone else. That weekend though I realized just how awful Chandrika could be, when she called me up and told me that I should get rid of the Chairman of the University Grants Commission.
This was Kshanika Himburuwegama, whom I had known as a capable Vice Chancellor of Colombo University. I told Chandrika that if there were any complaints against her I would look into them, but I did not think she should be summarily dismissed. Chandrika then told me that we would see who would be put above me, a threat I did not understand at the time.
I was more concerned indeed to argue Vasantha’s case, but Chandrika told me that she had had nothing to do with that since he had joined the UNP. I told her that was not the case, and indeed he had made this clear to her when he realized that he was going to be treated as a mere underling in the UNP. But she then launched into a diatribe against him and said I did not know what he was like, and he had been barging into her house. Remembering how welcome he had been when he turned up to support Sirisena the day the candidature was announced, when none of those who had been thought likely to come over did so, I realized how callous Chandrika could be when she felt herself in a position of power.
I had indeed told her something of the sort on that first day, when I told her that she was great in adversity, but then tended to relax. I had said this because of what had happened when she was President, when she had let the country go to rack and ruin. But she had then fought back singlehanded when, after Ranil won the election she called in 2001, he had been an even greater disaster.
Chandrika I think knew what I meant, and looked at me keenly, but then flashed her brilliant smile and said that this time things would be different. They weren’t, and I believe many of the problems Maithripala Sirisena has faced occurred because he had confidence in her. He thought she would defend the interests of the SLFP, whereas she had alienated herself from its leadership after Mahinda Rajapaksa became President, and no longer cared a damn for the party her father had founded.
I started work immediately at the Ministry of Higher Education, and found an excellent Secretary in the form of Mr Ranepura, plus able officials. Kshanika provided solid support, as did the very capable Vice-Chairman of the UGC, Prof Ranjith Senaratne. I found very capable staff for my private office, and began a programme of regular meetings with students, which were most interesting, and indicated that one could deal with most problems amicably if only one were prepared to listen, and to take swift action.
We also began immediately on a programme of reforms, including the formulation of a new Act, which had been unduly delayed under the previous government. A committee consisting of three able University heads including Ranjith, and also the Professor of Law at Colombo, Sharya Scharagnuivel, was appointed, and we worked extremely hard and had a new Act ready within a couple of months.
But by then I had resigned. The problems started when I was suddenly told that Kabir Hashim had been appointed Cabinet Minister of Higher Education. Not to be in the Cabinet when the manifesto had pledged otherwise, and thus to be unable to contribute to policy, was irritating, but at least one had a free hand to work. Now to be told that there was a Minister to whom one had to report seemed to me unacceptable.
But Kabir reassured me and said that I could work as I wished, since in any case he would be far too busy, as Chairman and Secretary of the UNP, and with an election to fight soon, to devote time to the Ministry. I took him at his word, and ignored his suggestion to me that there were UNP academics who should be appointed to any vacancies in the UGC, one member having resigned.
But I realized that he did not mean what he said, when he suddenly changed gear about also allowing me to look after Vocational Training, which had now been entrusted to this Ministry. I realized then that, for many politicians, having power meant the power to make appointments, and there were many statutory bodies in the Vocational Training sector which he wanted to have at his disposal. This was in fact put clearly at the government group meeting I attended, when Ajith Perera spoke about the need to appoint his supporters to official positions.
Kabir clinging to the Vocational Training sector, even though he clearly did not understand what was needed there, did not however disturb me unduly since, though it made sense for all higher education to be coordinated, I felt I had enough to do in the University sector. But he then started interfering more actively, seeking incriminating evidence about the previous Minister from my Secretary without informing me. I wrote to him to say I thought this was not proper, but that letter was ignored.
The crisis that arose however was my own fault, in that I was abroad when he asked Kshanika to resign, telling her that this was as instructed by the President. I had before the election booked a trip to Uganda, I suppose not really believing that Sirisena would win and I would be in office, and I did not want the money to be wasted. Besides, it was just for a week, which included the Independence Day holiday.
The roaming service on my telephone did not work in Uganda, so it was through email that Kshanika informed me that she had been asked to resign. I inquired whether the President knew of this, and she told me that he seemed to have instructed this. It never occurred to me that Kabir was lying, so I did not ask her to refuse to do as he said.
I might have done so had she waited till I got back, but my flight was delayed, and she had handed in her resignation when I returned to Colombo. Later I gathered that Kabir had tried the same thing when, in 2001, he had been State Minister of Higher Education, but the then Chairman, Ranjith Mendis, had had a thicker skin and just ignored the request. He knew too that the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga at the time, had not countenanced the request, but this time Kabir had claimed he was acting on the President’s authority, so Kshanika had not thought twice about complying.
The President told me that Kabir had lied, when I went to see him to hand in my resignation. He told me that he would not accept this, and would not let me resign, but I told him that I would not withdraw the letter. I was prepared to stay if I were made Cabinet Minister of Higher Education, or else given another portfolio, but it was not acceptable to work under someone who had lied to me.
Kabir rang up and said the President had told him to sort the matter out, and he said he agreed that I should be made Cabinet Minister. But he would have to consult Ranil about this. He did not however treat the matter as urgent, or else Ranil pretended that he knew nothing about the matter, for when the news broke in the papers, he called me and said he would sort the matter out. But he claimed that he had to consult Chandrika, and she was away, and he could not get hold of her. He advocated patience, and that I should read R A B Butler’s ‘The Art of the Possible’. Such fatuousness I found difficult to take, when there was so much to be done – but as one journalist put it, I was the only Minister who seemed to be getting down to work, the rest being more concerned with the election they thought was imminent.