Cabinet reshuffles: No one is holding their breath, not this time! | Sunday Observer

Cabinet reshuffles: No one is holding their breath, not this time!

The nation does not await with bated breath the swearing in of the new Cabinet. Already, it has been several weeks in the making, necessitated by the motion of no-confidence against Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and delayed because President Maithripala Sirisena was overseas, attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting.

There is a sense of déjà vu about Cabinet reshuffles. Remember the recent local government elections? There, the verdict of the people was clear: The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) was the obvious winner, the United National Party (UNP) was a distant second and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was an also ran.

There was a lot of breast-beating after that. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe uttered an uncharacteristic ‘mea culpa’ and promised to turn the searchlight inwards. Reforms in the UNP and a reshuffle was promised.

There was even speculation that Sarath Fonseka, Feld Marshall, war winning Army Commander and bete noire of the Rajapaksas would be appointed Minister of Law and Order. The UNP had identified the lack of progress in investigations against wrongdoers of the previous regime as a major contributory factor to their defeat at the election. And we waited with bated breath then, didn’t we?

A reshuffle did follow. It was a damp squib. All that happened was Lakshman Kiriella and Kabir Hashim swapping the Cabinet portfolios of Public Enterprise and Highways and Higher Education (ah, what an ideal combination the latter was) with each other in much the same way that Ravi Karunanayake and Mangala Samaraweera exchanged their Finance and Foreign Affairs portfolios in a previous ‘reshuffle’.

Coming out of that swearing-in ceremony for the new ministers, UNPer Wasantha Senanayake was heard saying that the reshuffle was the first act in a comedy drama. However, he said he was not certain whether, after watching this drama, the public would laugh, cry or throw stones at the government.

And, oh yes, there was a change in the Law and Order portfolio too. It was dumped on Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Apparently, President Sirisena was under pressure from sections of the SLFP not to appoint Fonseka for the job.

That saga didn’t end well. Soon afterwards, ethnic clashes broke out in Digana and Teldeniya and the need for a designated Minister of Law and Order was acutely felt. Then, Ranjith Madduma Bandara was entrusted with the job.

Madduma Bandara is a senior politician, is much respected and has a good track record. However, he will be the first to admit that he is no Fonseka. Choosing him for the task when it could have been given to Fonseka was like selecting Upul Tharanga in the playing eleven when Kumar Sangakkara is available to play!

Just as Wasantha Senanayake prophesied at the time of the first Cabinet reshuffle, there will now be a second act to the reshuffle drama and the question once again is whether it will make the public happier or whether it will end in tears for all concerned.

This time around, the reshuffle is not merely desirable, it is essential. That is because some sixteen SLFPers including several party seniors have been shown the door after voting against the Prime Minister during the motion of no-confidence. So, their portfolios will need to be re-allocated.

To be fair, President Sirisena is in a dilemma. In the aftermath of the motion of no-confidence which was a disaster for the SLFP, he is left with only twenty-five MPs to call his own in Parliament. That means, most of them will end up with a Cabinet Ministry. So, instead of only the very best getting elevated to Cabinet rank, there is high chance that there will be some mediocre appointments among them.

There has been talk of a ‘scientific’ reallocation of subjects. As far as we are aware, allocation of Cabinet portfolios is not exactly a science. It is more an art of choosing the best man for the job while managing the collective egos of a group of power hungry people.

So, this ‘scientific’ allocation of Cabinet Ministries defies explanation, apart from not combining two obviously disparate subjects. You wouldn’t want a Minister of Health and Fisheries just as much as you wouldn’t want a Minister of Highways and Higher Education.

Nor do professionals related to a Ministry do the best job. We did have a dental surgeon managing the Health Ministry, an accountant managing the Finance Ministry and a President’s Counsel managing the Justice Ministry. The latter two have resigned after making a mess of it and the Health Minister carries on but the entire sector is in crisis because he still hasn’t been able to settle the controversy over a private medical school!

In an interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation while he was in London, President Sirisena has said the new Ministers would have to be acceptable not only locally but to the international community as well. So, now we are appointing Ministers to placate the international community, are we?

There will be an exchange of some portfolios between the SLFP and the UNP, we are told. The Ministry of Samurdhi will pass on to the UNP for the first time ever while the Ministry of Public Administration will be handed over to the SLFP.

We hope those in high places realize that, as far as the public is concerned, it does not matter which party handles which Ministry. What matters is that whoever the Minister is and whatever party they belong to, the job gets done efficiently and the public get a better deal. This is precisely what is lacking right now- and that is why the UNP and the SLFP ended up as runners-up and ‘also rans at the last local government election.

For the public to be satisfied about a reshuffle they will need to see real change, new faces and a renewed commitment to good governance, not merely old wine packed in new bottles with a different label. Will they get that in this reshuffle? Well, no one is holding their breath- not this time, anyway.