The new cabinet

President Mahinda Rajapaksa named his new cabinet on Friday, with some vacancies remaining to be filled after an investigation of the Nawalapitiya thuggery that delayed the results of the April 8 election is concluded. Meanwhile some political heavyweights of the Kandy district are left kicking their heels wondering what they are going to get. We hope that the investigation will not be a whitewash and that whoever was responsible for the untoward incidents do not escape unpunished whatever their placing in the preference vote league.

Given that 37 cabinet ministers have already been named, along with 39 deputy ministers, there aren’t many important slots left to be filled. It is most unlikely that the president will give up the finance portfolio which he, like his predecessor, Ms. Chandrika Kumaratunga, held; he will certainly continue to hold the defence ministry which all leaders of this country, from the time of Independence, kept to themselves. We do not know what he has in mind about the media ministry, where he named the controversial Mervin Silva who has had a tumultuous relationship with much of the media in his previous avatars, as deputy minister. Whether he was cocking a mischievous snook – in Sinhala the phrase koka pennanawa is most evocative - at his media adversaries or whether the appointment has far reaching implications for the future remains to be seen.

Mr. Thondaman, obviously, did not like whatever ministry that was offered to him. That was very clear because he, unlike those from the Kandy district, was present for the oath taking ceremony in the old parliament on Friday but was not sworn. In fact, he was quoted in one newspaper yesterday saying he had no ``ill feeling’’ and that he hoped he would get a suitable ministry when the Kandy district ministers are sworn later. Given that these appointments have to be made, and there are several important people from Kandy awaiting appointment, the government’s target of limiting it’s previously monster cabinet to below 40 is unlikely to be met. The chances are that the number of cabinet ministers will run a little above that. Despite the cosmetics of the numbers appearing to have been slashed from the previous Guinness Book monstrosity, while the actual number of office-holders will be below a hundred, we will still have over 80 ministers and deputy ministers in the administration. Admittedly, the category of non-cabinet ministers who would have hierarchically been ranked over the deputy ministers, has been scrapped. But economizing on the numbers had not been easy.

The National List has deeply wounded feelings on both sides of the political divide. Unlike President Rajapaksa, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, has had the worst of that one with the various arrangements, agreed to and implied, not being deliverable in the context of the number of seats the UNF won. The result is that Wickremesinghe has been compelled to keep out some of his closest loyalists; and he, poor man, has no bottomless patronage pork barrel out of which he can dish out consolation prizes. Not so the president. The `losers’ from both sides, notably Democratic People’s Front leader Mano Ganesan, have been speaking out without mincing their words. Ganesan seems to think that Ravi Karunanayake had influenced Wickremesinghe to drop him. However that might be, it appears that the effort by the DPF leader to have both himself and his brother in parliament, giving up his relatively safe Colombo seat to try to win one from Kandy, made him an ex-MP. Prof. Viswa Warnapala has been less outspoken from the government side but an interview The Island published yesterday makes his deep disappointment more than obvious. The genteel Prof. Tissa Vitarana has not gone public with his sentiments but the LSSP will not be happy that the CP has been accommodated but not the LSSP which was a greater force than the Communists in the glory days of the old left.

It is true that that the National List which, in our view, is much bigger than it should be, can bring in people of high caliber who either cannot or do not want to get themselves elected to parliament. Notably the late Lakshman Kadirgamar and others of eminence like the UNP’s K.N. Choksy and former Attorney General Tilak Marapone, Prof. G.L. Pieris (who made it from both sides!) and a few others have added to the luster of the legislature. Our first parliament had just six ``appointed’’ MPs representing ``unrepresented interests’’ including the Malays, Burghers and even the British. Remember Mr. Singleton-Salmon of whom Mr. Pieter Keuneman once famously said, ``normally salmon swim in shoals, but this one is a singleton!’’ But now we have a situation of those who have failed in the hustings claiming national list seats and getting quite huffed when their political bosses cannot or will not accommodate them. We must remind ourselves that all things are impermanent (anicca vata sankara) as the Buddha said and even Dr. W. Dahanayaka and Mr. Maitripala Senananayake found themselves dropped from the national lists of their parties. President Premadasa dropped Daha while CBK made Maitripala the Governor of the North Central Province.

While there have been, there are and there will be top class legislators, orators, administrators – the best and the brightest from our society – in the legislature, the popular perception is otherwise. It is now widely accepted that those who can spend the most money, no matter where it came from, engage in thuggery and are hardly suited for high national office get themselves elected. Our folk wisdom has it that a spot of dung spoils the whole pot of milk. As in parliament, President Rajapaksa has a mixed bag in his cabinet and his skill in conducting the orchestra will be seen from the music it produces. Hoping for the ideal will be reaching for the impossible. Let us therefore settle for a satisfactory performance from the new team that will run the country.

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