The appointment of Basil Rajapaksa as Finance Minister last week was overshadowed by the situation arising from the use of regulations purportedly under the Quarantine Ordinance to prevent demonstrations and protests from taking place.
Several trade unions and political parties defied the Police orders and held protests resulting in many of them being arrested and produced in Courts. Adding to the controversy were the steps taken to quarantine suspects who were bailed out by magistrates, even though PCR tests or antigen tests were not conducted.
During the past two weeks there was a political and media build up about Basil Rajapaksa returning from the United States, to enter Parliament and take over a portfolio relating to the economy.
Eventually he was sworn in last week as a National List Parliamentarian and appointed as the Finance Minister.
His appointment as Finance Minister and the hype surrounding his taking over the critical portfolio at a time when the economy is in bad shape, according to independent analysts and even some Government politicos, is consistent with the logic of the SLPP where it places its entire trust in one individual rather than a team or system.
The Presidential election campaign of November 2019 was based on the ‘rata hadana ape viruwa’ slogan which held out Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the saviour who would rescue the country from its ills. Additionally the Government sought and obtained a two third majority at the general elections to strengthen the President.
Thereafter the Government went even further and replaced the 19th Amendment with the 20th Amendment and restored all the authoritarian characteristics and more of the 1978 Constitution to vest even more powers in Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The experience of the past one and a half years however, has showed that the over dependence on one individual has failed to produce the desired results.
Vesting all the powers relating to the management of the economy in Basil Rajapaksa is therefore in line with SLPP thinking. But whether putting all the economic eggs in the Basil Rajapaksa basket will yield results remains to be seen. Relying on one individual alone without a system and a capable team does not give much hope for success.
As Opposition spokesmen have claimed the appointment of Basil Rajapaksa amounts to an admission that the management of the economy under Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Mahinda Rajapaksa has failed. The SLPP led Government has now been reduced once again to relying on one individual to pull the chestnuts out of the economic fire.
Some SLPP parliamentarians have claimed that if Basil Rajapaksa was in charge the fuel prices would not have been increased clearly missing the point that the decision to do so was a decision made by the Cabinet subcommittee on the cost of living. Clearly there is an expectation within the Government ranks that he will take some action in this regard.
However if Basil Rajapaksa is to make some impact as Finance Minister, apart from making prudent financial decisions he must put in place systems to root out corruption and ensure a zero corruption policy in the management of the economy. One time Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel once said that one third of the aid that was received for the Mahaweli Development Project in the late seventies went into private pockets.
Today the extent of corruption and its impact on the economy and therefore on the people is far greater. The case of the Sugar Scam where the loss is said to be Rs. 16 billion is a case in point.
When the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government was defeated in 2015, Basil Rajapaksa making a show of taking responsibility for the defeat left to the United States. He returned several months later and played a large part in the successes of the SLPP at the various elections.
After heading two task forces including one on economic matters related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Basil Rajapaksa went back to the United States on a private visit for several weeks.
His return to Sri Lanka to enter Parliament and taking over the finance portfolio can be described as Basil Rajapaksa’s second coming and has several political implications.
SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam, came out with a stinging attack of Minister Udaya Gammanpila, through a statement with the letter head of the SLPP, when the fuel price hike took place. The fact that no action has been taken against him despite his controversial statement and the fact that he has now been entrusted with the additional responsibilities of SLPP Deputy National Organiser suggests that he has powerful backers who may have set him up to make such criticisms of Mr. Gammanpila.
Basil Rajapaksa himself is the SLPP National Organiser and with his added ministerial responsibilities, Mr. Rajapaksa will increasingly rely on Mr. Kariyawasam to shoulder political responsibilities in the SLPP. All this suggests that cracks are beginning to appear in the political alliance led by the SLPP.
Basil Rajapaksa is a dual citizen who holds US citizenship. While the controversy about Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship was raging in the country, Basil Rajapaksa said on several occasions that he would not give up his dual citizenship. The question arises therefore as to how long Basil Rajapaksa will remain as Finance Minister. When the 20th Amendment was being discussed, Wimal Weerawansa and others who requested that a clause be included in the Amendment prohibiting dual citizens from holding high office were told by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that such a clause would be included when the new Constitution was drafted. After his talks with the President, Weerawansa announced that since the President was emotional about the issue they consented to retaining the clause permitting dual citizens to hold office in the 20th Amendment on the condition that it is removed from the new Constitution.
If this promise is kept, Basil Rajapaksa may not have a long tenure as Finance Minister.
The other issue that arises is the appropriateness of a dual citizen holding a ministerial portfolio that places the Central Bank, the commercial banks and a host of other financial institutions under it. The SLPP continuously berated the Yahapalana Government for appointing a dual citizen, Arjuna Mahendran, to head the Central Bank. They cited the difficulties encountered to call Mr Mahendran to account for his actions as Governor when he escaped abroad.
In the light of the above the Government will find it hard put to justify placing a dual citizen in charge of the entire economy of the country.
An interesting revelation was made by Jayantha Ketagoda who resigned from his Parliamentary seat to make room for Basil Rajapaksa. Following his resignation, Mr Ketagoda said Basil Rajapaksa would contest the next Presidential elections. Mr. Ketagoda is clearly a Basil Rajapaksa loyalist and his words on this subject have to be taken seriously.
Does this mean that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is constitutionally entitled to make another bid for the Executive Presidency, has already decided to throw in the towel? Only time will tell. ([email protected])
Disclaimer: The second coming of Basil Rajapaksa by Javid Yusuf - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view