Cabinet reshuffle a damp squib


By C. A. Chandraprema

The much spoken of cabinet reshuffle has now been completed and in the end it turned out to be a damp squib. Whether this will help the government to get its act together is highly debatable. As foreign minister, how different will Ravi K be to Mangala Samaraweera? Perhaps Ravi K may not have agreed to the controversial UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 with the same enthusiasm as Samaraweera had he been the foreign minister at that time. But that depends on the extent to which that decision was actually taken by the foreign minister. If the decision not to contest or negotiate the Obama administration’s draft resolution actually came from Colombo as we suspect, Ravi K would have had no option but to fall in line even if he had been holding that portfolio at that time. Ravi K may be less controversial as foreign minister than Samaraweera. But then all the major foreign policy issues have already fallen into certain tracks from which there will be little deviation for the rest of this government’s term and Ravi K will find himself administering what has been bequeathed to him by Samaraweera.

Samaraweera for his part will not get into the same controversies in the financé ministry that Ravi K seemed to always found himself in. But as far as running the economy is concerned, Samaraweera will find himself administering what was bequeathed to him by Ravi K. The latter implemented the yahapalana election pledges of increasing the salaries of government servants, and reducing the taxes on fuel, gas, and some selected foodstuffs so as to win the August 2015 parliamentary election and the country went into a tailspin after that and taxes on cars, liquor, tobacco and the VAT was increased to earn more revenue to meet the election related expenses. With the IMF breathing down Sri Lanka’s neck the government has had no option but to put various assets on sale to meet the shortfall in revenue. Whoever comes into the finance ministry will have to follow through with that programme. Hence there will be little or no difference policy wise in the way the finance ministry functions either.

The removal of Arjuna Ranatunga from ports and shipping portfolio may have been to facilitate the lease of the Hambantota port to the Chinese. Arjuna and his brother Dhammika had been trying to negotiate a better deal for Sri Lanka. If the government thinks that by putting Mahinda Samarasinghe there the lease of the Hambantota port will become easier, that may not turn out to be so because it was not just the Ranatungas who wanted a better deal but the employees of the Ports Authority in general. In fact the removal of Ranatunga may galvanise the Port unions into putting up a stiff resistance the same way the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation workers are opposing the leasing of the Trincomalee oil tank farms to India. The government has been given notice by the CPC unions of a strike without advance warning unless the government shelves all plans to lease the Trinco facility to the Indians.

The CPC has also asked for the bunkering facility in the Hambantota harbour and hey feel that the government was trying to fast track the lease of the Hambantota port to the Chinese by changing the minister in charge, there will be strident calls for tranferring that facility to the CPC immediately. So in the end, what we may end up with may be more trouble rather than less as a result of this cabinet reshuffle. Other than the changes of Karunanayake, Samaraweera and Ranatunga, none of the other changes signify anything. After all the hype over a cabinet reshuffle that had built up for months, by noon on Monday people were already talking of other things and everything was back to business as usual. The government and especially the SLFP component of that government may try to gain some political mileage by making public statements to the fact that they got rid of Ravi K from the finance ministry,

How Ravi K reacts to any SLFP attempts to portray his ouster from the finance ministry is yet to be seen. Over the past two years and more, the SLFP element in the government has been using the UNP as a doormat. They have been telling the public that it is they who had been preventing all the bad things that the UNP has been trying to do to the country and the UNP for its part has more or less been passively accepting this portrayal. Ravi K, who became embroiled in various unpleasant controversies in trying to recover the money spent to implement Maithripala Sirisena’s election pledges was shown by the SLFP group in a bad light and now he has been removed from that ministry by Sirisena himself.

After that removal, President Sirisena has been reported in the press as having said that the cabinet reshuffle will provide new impetus to development. That is an indirect way of saying that ministers like Ravi K and Arjuna were obstacles to development. The truth however was that Ravi K only implemented the economic policy of the yahapalana camp and he tried to manage the fallout from that very policy as best as he could. As for Arjuna, he was trying to protect the interests of the Ports Authority as best as he could. Ravi K has been offered as a sacrifice to placate public opinion but whether the public is impressed is another matter altogether.

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