Crisis of Governance
is now fully six months since the fifty-something ministers of the UNF
government began warming their seats. Eight percent of the
administration's maximum term of six years is already past: make that
fifty percent, if Chandrika Kumaratunga has anything to do with it. For
the most part, the ministers have chosen to echo the dictum popularised
by Pope Alexander VII: 'God has given us the papacy: let us enjoy it.'
They have settled into their seats and begun having their way.
precious little is happening. Prime Minister and Minister of Policy
Development and Implementation, Ranil Wickremesinghe is busy engaging
with the government and private sectors in drawing up plans. Six months
into the government's term however, these plans are yet to be
communicated to line ministries, or even communicated to the ministers
whose job it will be to supervise their implementation. Given the
Treasury's bankruptcy, there is precious little money with which to
implement the plethora of new ideas that keep emerging. And the foreign
aid process is so slow that few projects now being developed will see
implementation commence before 2004.
UNF (or at any rate, the UNP) had a full seven years in opposition
during which to think about what it would do when it finally came to
power. When asked about how he came to acquire his prodigious knowledge
of local and global affairs, Wickremesinghe's stock reply is that he had
seven years in opposition in which to read. The prime minister is among
the best-informed and well-read politicians one is likely to meet in the
Asian region. He is also given to making quick decisions in the manner
popularised by his advisor, former Finance Secretary R. Paskaralingam.
Why then, is there no action?
of the reason seems to be Wickremesinghe's 'hands-off' style of
government, providing his ministers with absolute freedom, little
direction and almost no monitoring. Six months into its term, one would
have thought the ministers would have been equipped with the necessary
policy framework, a list of manifesto goals and a set of action plans.
No such luck: all this is still in the pot, waiting to be dished out.
a lack of political direction, the bureaucracy has now taken over. The
public service, on which Wickremesinghe has chosen heavily to rely, has
gone into slumber mode. Visionary thinking has long since been abandoned
and ministries are merely ticking over at idle speed. Bold government
action is not even dreamt of, and the review process, whereby the prime
minister evaluates the performance and progress of the various
ministries, is yet to get started. With apologies for the mixed
metaphor, the UNF is set to miss the bus hook, line and sinker.
the case of the coal-fired power plant. Everyone knows the country needs
one, and right quickly, too. The plant has been in the Power and Energy
Ministry's planning process for the past 10 years. Soon after the UNF
took office, Wickremesinghe made it known that the earlier site planned
at Norochcholai would be abandoned; that was the result of the Catholic
Church flexing its muscle. (We have discussed in the past the inability
of modern-day church leaders to distinguish between God and mammon, and
will not labour the point once more.) Given that such a plant has a
lead-time of at least five years, one would have thought that an
alternative site would have been announced six months ago, at the very
outset of the UNF government. After all, two potential sites, at
Trincomalee and at Hambantota, had been identified years ago.
was only last week however, after six months of deep thought that Energy
Minister Karu Jayasuriya took up in cabinet his recommendation to site
this plant at Trincomalee. The basis of the advice upon which Jayasuriya
acted is not known, but whatever it was, we will say here and now that
it was mistaken.
decades ago, J. R. Jayewardene, replete with a five-sixths majority in
parliament and as firm a grip on the ship of state as any leader has had
since independence, decided to site a coal-fired power plant at
Clappenburg Bay in Trincomalee. The Asian Development Bank was
approached to fund it. The resulting outcry from environmentalists
however, stopped the all-powerful government in its tracks.
was well known that while Karu Jayasuriya, egged on no doubt by his
secretary K.K.Y.W. Perera, wanted the plant to be based in Trincomalee,
Wickremesinghe wanted it in Hambantota, a noncontroversial site. The
prime minister however, has been loath to exert his authority on the
issue because of Jayasuriya's childish sensitivity and his disposition
to personalise any matter on which others disagree with him. It is time
Wickremesinghe took charge, setting the government's agenda and
precipitating decisive management.
shall not live by peace alone. Empty stomachs and a sense of
hopelessness will not deliver a contented nation. The prime minister
must take charge, identify clear targets and plans for each of the
ministries, supervise their implementation and monitor their progress.
That does not make for a textbook example of cabinet government. But in
a cabinet where only a handful of ministers are doing a meaningful day's
work, there is no alternative. Most important of all, the government
must be seen to be active, so as to build public confidence in it and in
the nation's future.
nation's patience is fast running out, and Wickremesinghe must take
charge right quickly or lasting harm will be done. There is an
expectation on the part of the public, as unrealistic as it is
justifiable, that the UNF of 2002 would bring about an economic
revolution on the lines of the UNP's revolution of 1977. However, the
vision, dynamism and leadership of 1977 are totally lacking today. There
is a massive crisis of governance. The tragedy is that Wickremesinghe
knows full well what must be done: what he must realise now is that
unless he rides roughshod over the sensitivities of the obstructionist
elements in his party, he and his government will be doomed to failure.
And should that happen, the baby of peace will go out with the bathwater
of poor governance.
prime minister has a responsibility that transcends social niceties to
the dimmer wits in his cabinet. He must shoulder that responsibility and
deliver on his obligations to the nation no matter whose toes are
trampled in the process. There simply is no other way.