Losing the Steersman
by Rajiva Wijesingha
Many many years ago, some time in the last century, when I was standing for President, I had to put up with a lot of rude remarks. Most of them were deserved. One of them however I took strong exception to. This was the idea that I would not be able to run the country.
Now that may be true, but the competition was so bad that I felt there was no reason to dismiss me out of hand. I mean, Chandrika had proved over several years that she couldnt run the country at all. And though Ranil had a much better track record in this respect, he had allowed Wijetunge to run riot, so there was the Southern Provincial Council debacle, the minorities went over to the PA and the party coffers were emptied while he was Prime Minister. This last was in spite of vast donations, which I dont think the poor man even saw - Ill give you a receipt, he used to say, the story went, so the donors promptly took back the money and rushed off to put it in more receptive hands.
And apart from these considerations, there was also a plus point as far as I was concerned. I had no political debts to pay, so I could choose a team simply on merit. That after all is what a leader should do, namely get the right people for the right jobs. It helps too if he knows before the election what he plans to do, instead of scrambling about in unseemly fashion afterwards, trying to find names to fill up cardinal positions.
My plans were very clear, even though not even I thought they would ever be implemented. I was going to divide the country into three areas, which could roughly be described as administration (where reform was essential), infrastructure (which required development) and finance (which needed planning, targeting and monitoring). I had decided on three people of proven ability to put in charge of each, and had the names all ready.
Ranil this time has done the same in one case. But one Chari does not make a summer. The paucity of other dynamic, honest and efficient decision makers in positions that could made a difference is in a sense startling.
Now it could be argued that Ranil has no one else he can trust absolutely. Chari is said to be a sort of Alsatian, a one man administrator, who will serve no other interests. But that is not quite true. He did a pretty good job in setting up the Janasaviya programme for Premadasa. And the other two people I had in mind, though I dont think either had worked for Ranil previously, had also accomplished a lot under Premadasa, only to be summarily thrown out when Chandrika came to power. One of them was subsequently called back to perform a rescue operation on an institution one of her B team had mucked up, but that is another story.
Neither has been asked by this government to do anything. And there are others, even more committed to the UNP, who have not been made use of. Instead, in a context in which reform is essential, we have the ghosts of Christmas Past to drag us into the 20th century.
It is in this context that the sad death of Gamini Athukorale is even more tragic. I should note that I scarcely knew him but, on the few occasions we met, he struck me as eminently civilized. Unfortunately that is not at all common amongst politicians now. Nor is the honesty and efficiency that seem to have characterized him.
But that alone is not why he will be sorely missed. He was clearly one of the few leaders who had the clout, the position and the drive to move things forward himself. Worried though one was about a plethora of ministers, many of whom have nothing to offer the country, one had to take refuge in the idea that they do not matter much, since decisions are essentially taken by just a few people.
I should add that I dont entirely buy that idea, since the rest dont know they are unimportant, and they will say and do things that turn into government policy. But there was at least some consolation in the fact that the top half dozen decision makers were generally acceptable people. Yet amongst them too we have to note that Choksy and Marapana, though they may be safe pairs of hands, are essentially functionaries rather than politicians. Chari, who would have made an admirable politician had anyone been able to understand a word he said, is too busy trying to organize everything behind the scenes. So that left essentially Ranil and Karu and Gamini Athukorale to provide political inspiration for the many changes the government must initiate and push through. Gamini Athukorales death then reduces further the chances that a positive new political culture will be developed by politicians. Meanwhile, most of the administrators we have in place now have little new or creative to offer either. The burden then on Ranil and Karu and Chari will be immense. I hope therefore that they will start looking for a few more of the same sort, and promote at least a few of the bright young things they must identify soon, so as to hasten and increase the impact of the reforms they should initiate.
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