Never a dull day in Sri Lanka! Some interesting issue crops up, almost daily, causing a sensation. The last two weeks have been of particular interest; we have witnessed a host of issues, the most important one being the passage of the much-delayed National Audit Bill (NAB). There was hardly any public debate on this vital law, which would have been put center stage and subjected to a lengthy public debate in any other country.
The media apparently did not consider the NAB sexy enough to pay it much attention. Instead, they remained focused on The New York Times claim that the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) had donated millions of dollars to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s last presidential election campaign. Their focus was also on State Minister Vijayakala Maheshwaran’s call for reviving the LTTE and the fuel prices hikes. They also gave wide publicity to former Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s visit to his brother, Mahinda’s political office.
The NYT story was not an expose as such in that a state-controlled newspaper, three years ago, reported that the CHEC had funded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign. That, however, does not mean the NYT story should have been glossed over.
A probe is, no doubt, called for into the NYT claim. There is nothing called a free lunch and the CHEC must have got something in return for the money it spent. But the question is why no action was taken as regards that revelation in 2015. This query has gone unasked, and wide publicity has recently been given to a government claim that a probe will be launched into the NYT story.
One may argue that the yahapalana government did not act three years ago, despite the availability of details of the alleged Chinese donations for Rajapaksa’s campaign, because it had no grounds for instituting legal action or it did not want to attract much public attention to the issue as it was planning to lease the Hambantota Port to China.
Govt. in dilemma
The NYT story has landed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration in a dilemma. The process of handing over the Hambantota Port to China reached completion under the current dispensation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had to deny, in Parliament, that his government had not been forced to ‘cough up’ the port. He said it had leased the port for want of a better alternative as it had to repay a huge loan and ships were not calling, in sufficient numbers.
Thus, the government found some parts of the NYT report good and others bad. The Joint Opposition is doing it the other way around; it says the section of the story, detrimental to its interests, is wrong while welcoming other parts which have caused embarrassment to the government.
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and China have vehemently denied the NYT claim, and only a probe will help the public get to the bottom of it. However, it is unlikely that the government will order an investigation lest it should open up a whole can of worms. A probe is very likely to get out of hand with information about the port deal being revealed, which the government is allegedly keeping under wraps.
Din over Vijayakala’s wish
As for Vijayakala’s call at issue, why it stirred up a hornets’ nest defies comprehension in that similar statements she made earlier had not caused even a ripple. On the other hand, she is not alone in wishing for the resurrection of the LTTE. Several politicians, with links to the TNA and smaller parties, have made that wish in public and some have gone to the extent of commemorating the dead Tiger leaders. (They have to be careful what they wish for!)
Vijayakala has had to resign from her ministerial post pending an inquiry, but it is unlikely that she will lose her position. She and her controversial statements will be forgotten before long and she will get her ministry back. Ministers Tilak Marapana and Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa were hounded out of the Cabinet by the members of their own parliamentary group including their ministerial colleagues, but they have become ministers again.
One need not be surprised even if MP Ravi Karunanayake, who is under a cloud, owing to the bond scams, gets a plum ministry. The deeper the government gets into trouble, the higher the number of ministers goes. President Maithripala Sirisena has appointed two more state ministers in a bid to neutralise dissension within the yahapalana ranks.
Meanwhile, the fuel price hikes became an issue because President Maithripala Sirisena scored an own goal in his inimitable style. He, in his wisdom, suspended the petroleum prices increases only to let them be implemented a few days later. But for his betise, people would have come to terms with the additional economic burden caused by the oil price hikes while gnashing their teeth and cursing the government as they usually do. However, the political fallout of the back-to-back fuel prices hikes will be huge as they will have a domino effect across all sectors.
The President may have sought to endear himself to the public by intervening to block the fuel price hikes, but he had to give in under pressure from the Cabinet and in view of the pecuniary difficulties of the government, whose desperation knows no bounds. He has only got exposed once again for indecisiveness.
The National Audit Bill (NAB), which the yahapalana alliance undertook to present to Parliament within the first three and a half months of forming an interim administration in 2015, finally saw the light of day. But a closer look thereat reveals that it is not a shadow of its former self. What was ratified by Parliament last week was a heavily watered down version of the original NAB, and it is being argued, in some quarters, that the new law will serve little purpose in combating corruption.
The critics of the watered down NAB have based their arguments on the surcharge or discretionary powers given to Ministry Secretaries and Department Heads. Interestingly, it was not only the ruling party politicians who took exception to the original text of the Bill which vested adequate powers in the National Audit Commission (NAC); high ranking public officers also raised objections thereto as they felt their powers were being whittled down.
The government exploited the bureaucratic resistance to some provisions of the NAB, to the fullest, to water down the sections related to the surcharge powers meant to recover funds the state loses due to fraud, negligence, misappropriation or corruption. The surcharge powers should ideally be given to the NAC because the political authority can bend the officialdom to its will. Chief Accounting Officers are easy to manipulate, and in most cases they are bureaucratic lackeys of ministers. Some of them are political appointees. The administrative service has been politicised over the decades, and today most public officials do not dare question decisions taken by politicians even if they are illegal.
Another cause of concern for the campaigners for transparency and accountability was the absence of a provision in the NAB to make the NAC financially independent. There was a sensible call for appointing a Parliamentary Select Committee to oversee the NAC and debit the Consolidation Fund for financial needs of the commission so that the government could not starve it of resources in a bid to tame it. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) and all other supposedly independent Commissions are characterised by a chronic lack of resources. The government in power can cripple these outfits by systematically depriving them of resources.
The government claimed in the debate on the NAB in Parliament that it had taken on board the views expressed by the critics of the Bill. But the JVP claims its proposals have not been considered. What the NAC actually contains is difficult to figure out at this stage, because the government has earned notoriety for smuggling sections into Bills. The Provincial Council Elections (Amendment) Act of 2017 is a case in point. It contains more sections surreptitiously incorporated thereunto, at the committee stage, than the original text.
It has now been revealed that under the J. R. Jayewardene government, the constitutional amendment as regards the appointment of the National List MPs was altered on the sly to enable defeated candidates to enter Parliament. As for the 19th Amendment, critics claim there are discrepancies between the Sinhala and English texts.
The deplorable practice of incorporating sections into Bills surreptitiously has led to a severe erosion of public faith in the legislative process. It is only natural that the opponents of the proposed new Constitution have been able to drum up so much of support for their campaign.
Gota in MR’ den
The JO made a big show of former Gotabaya’s first visit to Mahinda’s political office in Battaramulla the other day. Awaiting his arrival was Basil, who is also said to be having presidential ambitions. Gotabaya was given a rousing welcome and a bundle of lotus buds.
There are two schools of thought in the JO as regards the proposed 20th Amendment, which seeks the abolition of the executive presidency. Some JO bigwigs are disposed towards the 20-A, which they consider a godsend as Mahinda cannot contest a presidential election again. If the executive presidency is scrapped, Mahinda can seek a popular mandate to be the Prime Minister. Some others in the JO want Gotabaya to become the President and run the country together with Mahinda.
What if the 20-A comes a cropper? The JO/the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna will have to contest the next presidential election in such an eventuality. Who should be its candidate? Mahinda cannot contest and, therefore, the candidate will have to be either another member of the Rajapaksa family or some other senior JO leader. There are three Rajapaksas who can aspire to the presidency—Gotabaya, Basil and Chamal.
Basil may be a talented organiser, but he lacks charisma and is without any achievements to impress the public with. Chamal has always maintained a very low profile and is not a brand that can be marketed. So, if Gotabaya, who has made a name for himself as a ruthlessly efficient, strong-willed technocrat, who played a key role in the country’s war against the LTTE, is not fielded, then an outsider will have to be nominated. This is a worrisome proposition for the Rajapaksa family.
The Rajapaksas have apparently reached a consensus on fielding Gotabaya as the presidential candidate. Ambitious as Basil may be, he must be capable of assessing himself realistically. His future, too, will be bleak if the SLPP fails to secure the presidency and, therefore, he may have agreed to throw his weight behind his brother, Gotabaya. That may be message the Rajapaksas’ sought to convey to the electorate through Gotabaya’s visit.