Kath Noble

The one and only family

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 29, 2012

How Mahinda Rajapaksa is promoting his relatives to consolidate his power

The rise of Basil Rajapaksa has been rapid to say the least. Having spent years out of the country pursuing other interests, his return to support his brother’s presidential campaign was unexpected. Even more surprising was the popular backing he managed to acquire within a very short period in an unfamiliar district – he recorded the highest number of preferences in Gampaha in the 2010 parliamentary election, about as many as the next three candidates combined.

He is projected as a man who gets things done. The idea is that he will do for the economy what Gotabhaya did in terms of security, with Mahinda Rajapaksa being the figurehead who holds it all together.

The family brand is now so strong that people either love them or hate them.

It is perhaps understandable that Mahinda Rajapaksa is so obsessed with his family. Politicians adore power and want to hang onto it for as long as possible, and in this region in particular one means of extending their period of influence is to promote their relatives, lining them up for eventual succession.

Some months ago, Namal Rajapaksa gave a most amusing speech in Delhi at a forum on ‘political dynasties’ in which he claimed that the only real advantage of being the President’s son was that it had been slightly easier to get a nomination to contest elections. He argued that it was then up to the public to decide. This must be one of the most ridiculous statements of 2012. Yes, they have to collect votes, but even if they do so honestly on the basis of their image and not through the abuse of state resources that we all know is rampant in Sri Lanka, their image is only partly reflective of their capabilities. It is far more dependent on the opportunities they are given.

And both Namal and Basil have had a lot of help.

Why does Sri Lanka even have a Ministry of Economic Development? Because after the 2010 parliamentary election, Basil wanted a portfolio that would enable him to get involved in everything that might help to increase the family vote bank while making him responsible for nothing that could jeopardise it.

The Economic Development Ministry undertakes programmes that involve distributing freebies, money and jobs, especially focusing on young people in rural areas. Divi Neguma is an excellent example. Launched in 2011, its first phase involved the creation of one million home gardens. A lot of people were recruited to go around handing out seeds and equipment, or the money to buy them, and the whole exercise was given a lot of publicity. Never mind the impact of an increase in household production on farmers, since their marketing problems are the responsibility of the Minister of Agriculture.

Or is it the Minister of Agrarian Services and Wildlife? Livestock and Rural Community Development? Rural Affairs? Could Divi Neguma be run by the Minister of Food Security?

Does anybody actually remember who is responsible for these subjects?

Mahinda Rajapaksa believes in the centralisation of all useful power in the hands of his family, and the distribution of all useless responsibilities among as many other people as possible, so as to reduce the likelihood of any challenges to his authority from both inside and outside his governing coalition. He is constantly on the lookout for Parliamentarians he can induce to join the Government. Crossovers weaken the Opposition, but they also dilute the influence of each Cabinet Minister – instead of being one of about 20, they are now one of 60.

The resulting confusion obviously creates tremendous wastage and inefficiencies, which people ‘tut tut’ about from time to time.

But wastage and inefficiencies are only really actively opposed in Sri Lanka when they are sins committed by provincial councils. People are ever ready to find reasons to get rid of provincial councils, and their consumption of resources without producing much in the way of improvements to well-being is the issue cited most often as justification.

However, this problem too is created by the Government. Provincial councils don’t get a lot done because the Government doesn’t want them to do a lot.

The Government implements whatever projects it likes, wherever it likes, never mind whether their subjects fall within its purview or within that of the provincial councils. Cabinet Ministers may be given a chance to get involved to stop them feeling too bad about their increasingly powerless situation, but the really important stuff is bound to be given to a member of the Rajapaksa family. Why else would Basil have been put in charge of reawakening the East and bringing spring to the North – as far away from his constituency as one can get while remaining within Sri Lanka’s borders?

It is obviously nonsense to suggest that there are no capable people in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, or that the Chief Ministers couldn’t have done the job with appropriate support from Parliamentarians representing those areas.

There is not even the explanation generally put forward as regards Gotabhaya, that Mahinda Rajapaksa really needed somebody he could trust due to the sensitivity and urgency of the situation during the war.

There was no justification for giving the responsibility to Basil.

I have made the same argument about the recent expansion of the Ministry of Defence to include street cleaning and landscape gardening as surely the world’s only Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (‘The Army’s No-War Games’, The Island, June 20th). Gotabhaya is apparently now spearheading the Rajapaksa family’s popularity drive among the middle class in Colombo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa doesn’t want devolution on anything other than a highly selective basis to people who won’t be in a position to use the power they are given meaningfully.

Divi Neguma is his ideal model. The key actors in the programme are community-based organisations, which operate in just one Grama Niladhari division or indeed in only part of one Grama Niladhari division. This is supposed to be empowering. Indeed it might be if there was a mechanism to enable these community-based organisations to have a say on policy – if the process were actually democratic, in other words. However, this is clearly not what is intended. They are given every opportunity to discuss amongst themselves, in a whole range of different forums at the local and even national level, no doubt involving plenty of wastage and inefficiencies that people won’t mind in the slightest, but all important decisions are taken by somebody else – Basil and officials under the control of Basil.

Provincial councils, which could reasonably expect to be in charge of work to promote home gardens, and more importantly to decide whether promoting home gardens is really the best option to make people in their areas better off, aren’t given the chance. They are not the ones with the money.

Why discuss this now? Because the Government is in the process of further extending and formalising this way of operating by means of a bill that transforms what was once merely a programme into a permanent structure of the Government – the Department of Divi Neguma Development, to be established within the Economic Development Ministry – which will also take over the work of regionally-focused development bodies such as the Udarata Development Authority and the Southern Development Authority, plus the work of the Samurdhi Authority.

The move is being challenged in the Supreme Court this week by a range of different groups, including the JVP.

A particular concern is that money deposited in Samurdhi Banks could be used by the Ministry of Economic Development without oversight, while the bill says that officials will be required to maintain absolute secrecy about their work, which is rather unusual.

However, it is the implications for the coordination of the development process that are most disturbing. Is Sri Lanka really best served by a system in which everything is decided by one, two or at best three people in Colombo?

Even if passage of the bill is blocked as a result of this legal action, it is clear that the real work will still remain to be done – the growth of Basil’s empire will be only slightly affected.

Mahinda Rajapaksa will pay no attention, certainly. He will continue to promote his relatives, in the expectation that being the President’s father will bring plenty of benefits in his dotage, and the space for others to contribute will continue to be closed down.

People may not feel very inclined to care about the fate of politicians, such is the frustration that has built up. The fact that internal democracy is as much of a problem in the SLFP as it is in the UNP doesn’t seem very important. However, it is through political parties that change has to come. The impact of their internal problems is being amply demonstrated by Ranil Wickremasinghe, who is preventing the Opposition from mounting a serious challenge to the Government by refusing to give up the UNP leadership. What Mahinda Rajapaksa is doing to the SLFP should be equally obvious.

Reforms are needed, and soon.

Basil Rajapaksa’s admirers shouldn’t get agitated by this suggestion – if he is as competent as they believe, he can manage without so much assistance from his brother.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 29th August 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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