Ranil’s Disastrous Government

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 18 2021
Columns Ranil’s Disastrous Government

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

Before I go on to look at the contribution of Tilak Marapana as Minister of Defence to the obloquy in which Ranil’s Government was held, I should look at other elements in what proved a bizarre effort to govern. He had little faith in other politicians, and indeed claimed at one stage that he was concentrating on improving the economy and had no time to look at other vital matters such as education. And he added that there was no one else capable of carrying through the reforms he registered were essential there too.

His style was to rely on his personal confidantes, such as the Minister mentioned earlier. But since he could not put all his acolytes into Parliament, he empowered them as public servants brought into Government with considerable powers.

Chief of these, and in an official positions, was his close friend and confidante, Charitha Ratwatte, who had been Secretary to the first Ministry he had presided over, in the late seventies. He was made Secretary of the Treasury, with a brief to cut Government spending and exercise tight discipline. He was generally considered honest, but as a Supreme Court judgment found, he too was guilty of irregularities in not holding Choksy to what he claimed were his own high standards. The charitable view is that he found himself undermined by his leader’s selective indulgences but he was certainly guilty of double standards in that, while he complained about everyone else, he failed to register that the rot had started at the top.

For instance, he was scathing about the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry when totally unqualified young men were sent as drivers to various embassies. The papers had blamed the Minister of Foreign Affairs for giving jobs to youths in his electorate, but in fact Wickremesinghe too had got into the act, sending one of his security officers to New York, where he was later promoted from driver to Public Relations Officer. Ratwatte insisted that the Foreign Secretary should have stopped all this, ignoring the fact that the new Representative at the United Nations, a former diplomat turned UNP politician, was indebted to Wickremesinghe and could make appointments that the Foreign Secretary could not prevent.

 Influential positions 

Less innocent than in the case of Ratwatte was Wickremesinghe’s elevation to influential positions of persons he himself had good reasons to worry about. Premadasa’s former confidante, the experienced Civil Servant Paskaralingam, who was also thought to have been an accomplished fund-raiser, was brought back to an advisory position in the Treasury, where he presided over various deals that Ratwatte on his own might not have made. Paskaralingam however could have been considered a loyal supporter of the section of the UNP to which Wickremesinghe himself had belonged. More surprisingly, Wickremesinghe appointed to advisory positions at the Central Bank as well as the Ministry of Higher Education, where a well funded World Bank Project was on line, Wickrama Weerasooriya, who was Gamini Dissanayake’s brother-in-law. A brilliant propagandist, and the brains behind some of the more vicious assaults on the Bandaranaike’s at the 1977 General Election, he was thought to have been responsible also for some entertaining assaults on Wickremesinghe’s private life at the time the DUNF had been created but Wickremesinghe alone of elite politicians had stuck with Premadasa.

Tara de Mel who had been Secretary of Education previously had negotiated a project with the World Bank to improve the relevance and quality of University Education. This IRQUE Project became a joke over the next few years, so that there have been several similar projects since while in fact the quality of education has declined. And one essential element in the original project, a Labour Market Observatory, was hived off from the project and handed over to a firm headed by Weerasooriya’s son. Its results were never known by the University Grants Commission which was supposed to be in charge of the project.

Wickremesinghe’s reliance on people such as this, who raised hackles amongst his more high-principled supporters, was readily understandable, in a context in which he had been shattered by his repudiation by the UNP in 1994, in favour of Dissanayake. Unable to accept that Dissanayake was by far the more accomplished politician, he put it down to the money that Dissanayake had had so readily at his disposal. Scrupulous as he had been previously not to profit personally from the offices he held, as leader of the UNP he had no qualms about raising money for the party, which he could of course then dispose of as he wished. In such a situation, the solidity of Charitha Ratwatte was insufficient, and he needed also the worldly experience of Paskaralingam and Weerasooriya and their ilk. Given such needs, Wickremesinghe could not afford to keep in mind the danger that he should have recalled from Wijetunge’s time, that funds intended for party coffers could also be diverted to private uses when transparency and accountability were considered impractical.

 Idiosyncratic treatment of Education 

The way in which he treated Education was indeed symptomatic of Wickremesinghe’s idiosyncratic and highly personalised style of management. Apart from leaving Higher Education to the tender mercies of Weerasooriya, he virtually destroyed the Ministry of Education. That had been an area of deep concern to President Kumaratunga, but with her usual lack of concentration she had allowed things to slide during her first years in office. In 2000 however, realising that concerted action was essential to promote the reforms that had been proposed, she appointed as Secretary to the Ministry her close confidante Tara de Mel, who immediately began to move things forward. She was assisted in this by her senior Additional Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, who was one of the brightest career Civil Servants. Having worked initially for Mrs Bandaranaike when she was Prime Minister, he had gone on to the Ministry of Youth Affairs under Wickremesinghe and Ratwatte, to whom he paid tribute for encouraging efficiency and initiative.

Unfortunately he had upset Wickremesinghe, who was not one to forgive lightly. When the Government changed, it was understandable though unfortunate that Tara de Mel was not reappointed Secretary, since she was seen as a personal friend of the President. Ratwatte however thought Weeratunga would be a good choice as Secretary, and a number of senior Civil Servants, who were advising Wickremesinghe on such appointments, actually recommended him.

Personal grudges however took precedence, and instead Wickremesinghe appointed a retired Civil Servant who, as Premadasa’s former Secretary K H J Wijeyadasa put it, spent hours looking up Administrative and Financial Regulations so he could explain why he could not do what he had been asked to do. Weeratunga, knowing that whatever he recommended would not be followed through unless there were several other signatures in support, took leave of absence to pursue a doctorate. With neither leadership nor commitment, the bureaucracy at the Ministry took a downward dive from which it never really recovered. Wickremesinghe’s response, when told that the Ministry was in a mess, was that he knew this, but had no time to attend to it. It was then that, with a pompousness that was doubtless fuelled by his sycophants, he announced that during the first couple of years he had to concentrate on the economy, and it was only after he had settled that that he could turn his attention to other matters such as education.

Refusal to take things forward

But underlying the refusal to let his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, take things forward as he best could was a dislike of the man, explained by one of his recent political confidantes as due to the suspicion that Kodituwakku had been thinking of crossing over to Kumaratunga’s side when constitutional changes had been proposed in the middle of 2000. This suspicion had survived despite Kodituwakku’s adherence at the time Athukorale was trying to replace Wickremesinghe with Jayasuriya. As a result perhaps, Wickremesinghe, in forming his cabinet in 2001, had left Kodituwakku out, though he was Minister of ‘Human Resources Development, Education and Cultural Affairs’. He had also appointed, as Ministers of School Education and of Tertiary and Vocational Education, two absolute loyalists, who had promptly taken advantage of the theoretical parity of status to establish their own empires.

Wickremesinghe cavalierly claimed, a couple of weeks later, that the omission had been a mistake, and that it would be shortly corrected. However it was only in March 2002 that Kodituwakku became a Cabinet Minister, and by then his position had been totally undermined. The job descriptions in the gazette were unclear, since it seemed he had no responsibility for higher education even though the youthful Kabir Hashim’s brief noted that he would assist the Minister of Human Resources Development etc. Given the close connection between Wickremesinghe and Hashim as well those between Wickremesinghe and Suranimala Rajapaksa, the Minister of School Education who had been one of Wickremesinghe’s henchmen in his youth, and also the clear allegiance of the Secretary to the Prime Minister rather than the Minister, Kodituwakku felt himself powerless and indeed spent much of his time in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.

Though he could be faulted for not asserting himself, he was in a totally unenviable position. And he did act once at least, when he did not allow the dismissal of a Vice-Chancellor Weerasooriya claimed the Prime Minister wanted removed for having signed a petition in support of Kumaratunga during the election. The fact that most senior university administrators had signed this petition, a practice introduced in Jayewardene’s time, was ignored in the light of Wickremesinghe’s purported directive.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 18 2021

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