This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper


Eliot’s conclusion to ‘The Hollow Men’ seems to sum up the general reaction to the Cabinet reshuffle that took place last week. To call it a Cabinet reshuffle is perhaps a misnomer, since there were very few changes.The most significant shuffle was that Ravi Karunanayake and Mangala Samaraweera changed places, the former moving to the Foreign Ministry about which he knows little, and the latter moving to the Ministry of Finance, about which he knows nothing.

As though to prove this, he also takes with him to that Ministry the control of Mass Media. This means that the main loser, as it were, of the reshuffle is the amiable Gayantha Karunatilleke, but to compensate for this he has been given Lands. It was not mentioned in the reports of the reshuffle that John Amaratunga had in fact been deprived of Lands, but this is understandable since it would seem that he did not know this was in his charge, and did nothing about it.

But while the sheer absurdity of, not just the whole exercise, but the previous allocation of responsibilities, is made crystal clear by last week’s gamesmanship, I should note that, if one uses rose coloured spectacles, one can discern something positive about what happened. Though the common view is that the President lost out completely, and has made manifest his weakness, I can argue in his defence that he got his way as to the main reasons for his wanting a change.

First and foremost it was clear that he was dead worried about the way in which Mangala was selling not just the armed forces but the whole country down the river. In that regard, he can feel that Ravi Karunatilleke will not be so callous. Ravi after all believes he has a political future – unlike Mangala who is so firmly tied to the Ranil-Chandrika mast that this is necessarily an Endgame for him – and will make sure that he cannot be characterized as a traitor to the nation. Unlike Mahinda Samarasinghe, whose experience would have allowed him to steer the nation out of the net Mangala had thrown, Ravi will not find his path easy, but I believe he will try.

Meanwhile the main reason for getting rid of Ravi from Finance, asserted forcefully if not by the President by the entirety of the SLFP and the bulk of those in the UNP not tied to Ranil’s apron strings, was that he is perceived to be corrupt. This may not be entirely fair on the man, and I believe Sujeeva Senasinghe who stood up for him with regard to the bond scam, but perceptions are important and Ravi is low on the list as far as those go. Mangala is the converse, and I have not ever heard his name connected with money making. Indeed, if reports are correct, he wants easily the most honest man in the UNP – in terms of facts I think, and certainly in terms of perceptions – as his Deputy, to in fact run the show.

So the President can at least claim that he has dealt to some extent with the corruption question as well as the blatant disregard for Presidential commitments that Mangala engaged in. But this victory, if such it is, has come at a terrible price. First, he had to remove Arjuna Ranatunga from the Ports and Shipping Ministry because he had expressed himself forcefully opposed to the deals Ranil’s minions had proposed. I can only hope that Mahinda Samarasinghe, though he will not emulate Arjuna in rocking the boat with a vengeance, will not allow himself to be rolled over, and will stand up for what the President still evidently believes are SLFP traditions and values.

But in this regard the second sacrifice the President had to make – or perhaps the only one, since Arjuna was a member of the UNP, not the SLFP – was much more humiliating, since he was compelled to remove Chandima Weerakkody from Petroleum. I had not been following the proceedings there closely, so it was only after the event that I realized that Chandima had stood firm against Ranil’s plans to sell off some areas within the Ministry’s purview, with very little being left to Sri Lanka. Chandima had it seems insisted on a majority holding for the country, and this was not to Ranil’s taste.

I was told that he had insisted on the change as the price for allowing interference with UNP ministries, which seems a bit much since he retained his own creatures in both great offices of state. But perhaps the President felt he had no option but to give in, to avoid the embarrassment of there being no reshuffle despite his public pledge regarding this. And perhaps he hopes that Arjuna will prove even more bloody minded, and prevent petroleum too falling into other hands. Certainly, if he decides that, in line with his stand over the ports, he must fight for the nation’s interests, he is capable of embarrassing the Prime Minister much more than the mild Chandima Weerakkody would ever have done.

And Arjuna certainly has reason to kick against the pricks, for perhaps the most significant psychological element in the reshuffle is the total subordination of Chandrika Kumaratunga to Ranil. With this at least I hope the President realizes how utterly useless she is, and that, if he permits his decisions to be governed by her, he will sink to even greater depths of unpopularity.

Tough though she can be in the face of adverse circumstances, she has now sunk for two years and more into the dodol-like state that characterizes her in what she sees as success. Of course she is magnificient in the scope of her delusions, and doubtless believes that she is the most influential person in the country – just as in 2014 she tried desperately to contest the Presidency, even sending her sister to try to persuade her children to lift their prohibition, though they were more sensible than to succumb to blandishments.

Though in persuading Sirisena to take the plunge she presented herself as still having a substantial hold over the SLFP, it was only Duminda Dissanayake and M K D S Gunawardena who still owed her any allegiance. That was clear at the press conference at which Sirisena announced his candidacy, for the others behind her then were Arjuna and Rajitha Senaratne. Vasantha Senanayake and I were there because of Sirisena, which is doubtless why, the minute we had committed ourselves, she treated us like dirt, and even handed Vasantha over on a platter to Ranil and Mangala. Sirisena’s failure to stand up for Vasantha is a mark of his weakness then, and I can only hope that at least now he sees the need to stand up to the dreadful duo.

With M K D S dead – which is how John and now Gayantha got Lands, since those could obviously not be given to Sarath Fonseka who had to be fobbed off with a hollow portfolio – it is now only Duminda Dissanayake whose primary loyalty is to Chandrika. This could be dangerous given that Sirisena made him Secretary of the SLFP, but even Duminda must now realize, given how Arjuna’s longstanding loyalty had been ignored and his head handed on a platter to Ranil, that he should think first of the SLFP, not someone whose parents would be turning over in their graves could they see her subservience to the anti-national wing of the UNP.

So the reshuffle, though sad for the country, has at least helped the SLFP, since it is not clear to all members of that party that they need to stand firm if they are to resist the Ranil-Chandrika juggernaut, even when deprived of Arjuna’s considerable weight. That they have learned the lesson is clear from the manner in which they stood up to Ranil in Parliament last week when he tried to bulldoze his new constitution through.

In 2015 I was the only one who stood up to him at the meeting called by the President to discuss the 19th amendment. That was when Jayampathy Wickremaratne had produced a draft which handed all power to the Prime Minister, but I had to take the lead in resisting it since the others were diffident (which prompted Champika Ranawaka, now sadly totally defanged by Ranil, to congratulate me). Ranil then claimed that Nimal Siripala de Silva had promised to go along with the change, but Nimal simply shook his head, at which Ranil, though not quite bursting into tears, declared that he would have to go and tell Chandrika.

This time I gather Nimal had been more forceful, and having slanged him Ranil will doubtless go to Chandrika, but she like Champika has also been defanged, so Sirisena and the SLFP will I hope stand firm. That they have to, if only to save themselves, is clear, with the Joint Opposition now so confident that the compromises Sirisena was contemplating earlier now seem beyond him.

Still, I do hope that there will be some sort of compromise, for the Joint Opposition must realize that, if they want the whole cake, there will be greater powers than Ranil and Chandrika maneuvering to thwart them. Though the Indian establishment understands the danger of playing with terrorists, some of the more gung-ho elements now in power in India may think they can play games as Indira Gandhi did in the eighties. In any case, given how readily Ranil will fall in with anyone prepared to finance him, they are doubtless laying contingency plans, and all elements of the SLFP must understand that they will need a government of national unity to cope with the different players whom Ranil has brought into the arena with a plethora of expectations.

Fortunately, even if it was not clear before, the general reaction to the reshuffle as well as the despair that has overcome the country after the floods, has made it clear that Ranil and his minions, and Chandrika without hers, are not seen as essential components of national unity. The sensible elements both in and out of government have a great opportunity then to move swiftly to sideline them and set up a government under the President that can deal with both natural and man-made disasters effectively.

Ceylon Today 31 May 2017 –