In the more than a month that passed two years ago between my resigning as State Minister of Higher Education and crossing over to the opposition, I realized how utterly Ranil despised the concepts of good governance that had been a cornerstone of President Sirisena’s manifesto. The failure to amend Standing Orders as promised, the omission of Ministry Secretaries from the purview of the Public Service Commission, the frivolous way in which the Cabinet was appointed and functions distributed, all indicated that he thought it best to muddle along, so long as he was doing the muddling.

But the concepts he brought to bear were also deeply destructive, as I saw in particular with regard to the issue that prompted my resignation. Both he and Kabir Hashim lied like Trojans throughout the problem period, but I detected a difference in the way they thought truth of little importance. Hashim tended to lie about the future, in that he obviously thought any commitment he made a trifling matter, and did nothing to live up to promises (or perhaps he believed that commitments were not promises, and what had to be honoured was the sort of commitment made in the course of bargaining to Rauff Hakeem and Rishard Bathiudeen to win them over, as declared by the leader of his party).

With regard to what happened however I think he was more reliable than Ranil. Hashim told me on several occasions that he had asked the UGC Chairman to resign because of pressures he could not withstand (though here too his letter contained an untruth in that he claimed he made the request on the instructions of the President, which the President denied absolutely).

That there were pressures I knew because I had been sent the minutes of the meeting with FUTA conducted by the Prime Minister, which made it clear that Ranil would do what FUTA wanted. This I should note was in the honeymoon period with Ranjith Devasiri, who was thereafter sacked himself from the Board of the NIE (though to his credit it should be said that that apparently was because he was trying, albeit in his usual blundering way where his personal interests are not involved, to limit abuses there).

Ranil however lied in telling me that the dismissal was nothing to do with pressures, it was in accordance with a principal he claimed he had laid down, that all appointees should accept their appointments from the government in power. What this meant was that he was determined that all those in authority should see themselves as political creatures. Indeed he went so far as to say that, after the UGC was got rid of, I could reappoint whom I wanted (though Hashim I think it was introduced the limitation that I should make these appointments from lists in the Prime Minister’s office). What was important was that those in positions of authority should owe their position to this government rather than the previous one.

That neither believed in ‘independent institutions’ as stressed in the President’s manifesto was clear from the first conversation I had with Hashim, after he had been appointed ‘above’ me as Chandrika Kumaratunga had threatened when I refused to do her bidding and summarily dismiss the UGC Chairman. He told me in Parliament that he had heard there were some vacancies on the UGC and that there were so UNP supporters who should be appointed. I told him direct that I did not think either UNP or SLFP personnel should be appointed, but that it should be people who could contribute to the work of the Commission.

I did not know then that he had been appointed Cabinet Minister of Higher Education on top of (or below, in the UNP book) Highways. But that would have been my answer anyway. I can now reveal that I had already put out feelers to a leading businessman and a leading educationist, the chairman of Hemtours and the Principal of St. John’s Jaffna, since these sectors were not represented at all in the then UGC (and the situation is even worse now, where there is not one person from outside Colombo). I wanted thinking people, who could make the sector more responsive to the country’s needs, not just academics who thought more about guarding their prestige and their privileges than the public interest.

I do not suppose Hashim should be blamed for the current UGC, and the President should be congratulated from at least having changed the original UNP monopoly by appointing a thinking Chairman. But the conceptualization behind such partisan appointments was that of the Prime Minister, and responsibility for the privileging of politicization lies with him. The practice of course was widely accepted and asserted, as could be seen from the unashamed demand of Ajith Perera, at a meeting of the Government Parliamentary Group soon after the change of government, that his supporters be given positions.

What this was really for, as opposed to service to the country, was obvious in that in the very same breath Ajith demanded vehicles too. An immediate mockery was thus made of one reason given for the need for regime change, namely the manner in which the previous government squandered public money on perks. This lot not only wanted the same perks and more, they demanded the latest models. And the tip of the iceberg represented by the supplementary estimates for more cars and better accommodation for Ministers should be seen in the context of what lies beneath too, the perks of office enjoyed by the thousands of political supporters appointed to statutory boards and other agencies.

But I should note that the institutionalization of the practice has led to a shift in emphasis. Given perhaps the lunacy of our political system, elevating political supporters to authority and access to perks and privileges is not enough. They must be personal supporters too. So now, Ministers in the same party, let alone the same government, feel they must and should play musical chairs in any institution under their purview, so that people beholden to them are in place.

In some cases, I should note, there are efforts to promote professionalism, but these are few and far between. One very satisfying instance has occurred recently with regard to the National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority, where professional competence seems to have been the hallmark of recent appointments. This is most welcome in a context in which, before the cabinet reshuffle, I had drawn the attention of the Ministry to what seemed an egregious violation of norms and ethics, though whether it was the appointed Authority or its permanent staff who were responsible I cannot be sure.

But even when such positive developments occur, the guiding principle seems to be my men, not yours. So that even when there are professionals in place, they are moved around. That is one of the main reasons for the failure of this country to move forward, the lack of continuity. Recently I upbraided an ADB team for not drawing attention to this cardinal problem with all projects, namely the relentless change of personnel.

They said, rightly, that it was not the business of lending agencies to dictate personnel to government. I agreed with that, but said that, while recognizing that they were not appointing authorities, they could insist on basic principles of governance, namely that in the event of a change of personnel there were standard procedures for handover and comprehensive briefing regarding the anticipated outcomes of funding that was being deployed. Otherwise there was a tendency to change priorities, to not just reinvent wheels but change tyres, with no shared understanding of where the vehicle was heading.

The need to ensure better understanding of ongoing initiatives and entrench mechanisms for continuity is a larger subject that I should return to later. Meanwhile I should note that the thrust towards personalization, which is even more destructive than politicization, perhaps has its roots in the whole approach of the Prime Minister to politics.

A member of his party was bewailing recently the contrast between his style of governance and that of his two predecessors who introduced much needed changes to the country. Both D S Senanayake and J R Jayewardene headed Cabinets of enormous talent, with people able to take initiatives and carry them through successfully – Bandaranaike and Kotelawala and Ponnambalam and Jayewardene himself in 1947, Premadasa and Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake in 1977.

All Ranil has instead is Malik Samarawickrema and Akila Viraj and Sagala. Even the strong personalities with definite ideas whom he deployed, Mangala and Ravi, were not in the intellectual league of earlier Ministers, and with their interchange it is clear that their ideas are expendable – which is perhaps just as well, since in both cases there has not been much benefit to the country.

Intellect of course was never Ranil’s strong point, but because he is diffident about this he cannot bear people brighter than himself. Neither Senanayake nor Jayewardene had degrees, but they belonged to days when these were not standard requirements, and no one doubted their intelligence nor their capacity to conceptualize. So they were quite comfortable with individuals better qualified than themselves, and knew to use their talents.

Ranil however can cope only with mediocrities, and now their level is declining. Charitha Ratwatte was not in early youth the brightest of students, but he worked hard and got into university and qualified as a lawyer. Malik Samarawickrema, the new right hand man, made no such effort, and is despised by colleagues in a way that was never possible with Charitha. Ravi Karunanayake’s recent onslaught on the singleton black sheep was inconceivable with Charitha who – though sadly now losing his grip and getting more intolerant and dogmatic – always worked in the background and never asserted his influence in the political sphere.

Now that Ranil is weaker – politically, though I hope that physically he will soon be back to his old self – I can see him asserting himself even more willfully than before. The antics he was up to with Anoma Gamage are symptomatic of someone who feels that after him there will be a deluge, and it does not matter who in his party drowns in the process. Sadly I do not see anyone in that party able and willing to stand up to him and try to reverse the personalization that is doing such damage to the country.

Ceylon Today 20 June 17 –