Photo courtesy of The Hindu

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, approximately a third of the way into his term of office, carried out the most significant mid term cabinet reshuffle in recent Sri Lankan political history. The closest in scale and scope was about 18 years ago when President Chandrika Kumaratunga arrogated to herself the ministries of Defence and Internal Security and inducted Lakshman Kadirgamar as Media Minister into the rather difficult co-habitation government with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, a precursor to the latter’s even more tortuous relationship with another SLFP president, Maithripala Sirisena.

However the SLFP’s effective political successor, the SLPP, has carried out an even more significant political reshuffle. Considering the preceding induction of Basil Rajapakse as Minister of Finance, with the same portfolio being divested from the Prime Minister and the current reshuffle, signifies some changes in government tactics at least, a change in the batting order, if not in the team, and some possible changes in the game plan.

When Covid-19 first made its appearance in Sri Lanka, in March 2020, the new administration elected in November 2019 and facing an unsympathetic lame duck parliament was intent on conducting the general elections and a lockdown was declared only after nominations were received. Similarly, as the latest and most virulent Covid-19 wave surges in the country with record number of daily deaths and infections, the focus of the Administration seems to be on more political rather than public health concerns. However, in the current context, good public pandemic management would be good politics. However, social media seemingly indicates that there is quite a bit of skepticism regarding the Government’s pronouncements and actions especially with regard the real Covid situation in the country.

Taking over the mantle of the Health Ministry is Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, whose claim to fame was as Media Minister during the war years under President Mahinda Rajapaksa where he worked well with the military. Clearly the new Health Minister will continue to be a good spokesman and speak his lines clearly in the military dominated, public health exercise. He could perhaps use the trust he has built up with the military hierarchy to reassert the primacy of the health sector professionals in the fight against the pandemic. After all fighting against viruses requires an altogether different skill set to fighting against terrorists. Hopefully the maiden November budget of Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa would see a shift to public health care and indeed education instead of increasing peace time defense expenditure.

The most significant of the political changes wrought by the cabinet reshuffle, is the inducting of young Namal Rajapaksa as Minister in Charge of Development Coordination and Supervision. If, as the Duke of Wellington famously claimed, the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton, it may well be that at a future date the new Development Coordination Minister would claim that the development battle for Sri Lanka was shaped on the rugby grounds of that school by the sea in Mt. Lavinia. The development challenges facing the young minister are considerable. Poor fiscal policy keeps Sri Lanka at the lowest rung of tax revenue as a percentage of GDP while a loose money policy is fueling inflation and putting enormous pressure on the exchange rate, which cannot be contained by banning imports. A political ideology, which declines American financial grants not loans (MCC) and denies foreign direct investment from India (East Container Terminal/ECT) while we are starved for foreign exchange, does not leave the new minister or indeed his uncle the new finance minister, much scope for action. The shock therapy of the overnight organic fertilizer only policy, six decades after its better-known language equivalent, may well have similar profound effects, this time on Sri Lanka’s still agrarian economy, as yields and production begins to decline.

Foreign policy is another area that shifts to yet another distinguished old Thomian, Professor G.L. Peiris, the devolution package advocate for President Kumaratunga, the former peace negotiator with the LTTE for Ranil Wickremesinghe and of course in his most recent avatar, the chairperson and an ideologue of sorts for the majoritarian ethno nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Perumana (SLPP), the political vehicle of Sri Lanka’s first family. Foreign policy has been, one suspects, largely shaped for the SLPP by the generals, or rather, the admiral running the show at the Republic building; it will be interesting to see if the new minister will seek to remake Sri Lanka’s foreign policy by rebuilding our relations with India, strengthening our traditional non-alignment and improving relations with our largest export markets nations of the West. The as yet unresolved issues of post war reconciliation also find their locus now in the Foreign Ministry, as human rights and reform of the PTA drive the GSP+ process and Sri Lanka continues to be on the UNHRC agenda through our country specific resolution. Engagement, or the absence thereof, with Sri Lanka’s diaspora community is also in the purview of foreign affairs.

The good professor’s predecessor at the Foreign Ministry, Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, takes over education at the time when the school teachers are on strike, demanding the rectification of all their long running salary and service anomalies. It remains to be seen if the scion of the Boralugoda lion can use his vast public service experience and political acumen to resolve the issues faced by teachers, the largest category of public servants by far. Sending the president of the teacher’s union for enforced quarantine is best not repeated. We are still a multi-party democracy governed by the rule of law and not an absolute monarchy nor a military dictatorship. As the courts recently observed, quarantine regulations do not override the constitutional liberties and rights granted under the constitution.

The first SLPP Administration at the end of about a third of its term of office signals some desire for a tactical if not a strategic rethink and an operational regrouping and redeployment. It remains to be seen if the significant personnel changes it has made will translate into policy changes. All Sri Lankans, for our collective well-being, should wish our new ministers every success in their future endeavours.

The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016-17 and can be reached at [email protected]