Thursday, March 17, 2016

Political suicides one after the other

The Nation
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe must be a disappointed man this week because ministers of his government are trying to commit political suicide, one minister after another, week after week.

Why is the question we have to ask after hearing of the latest antics of the Minister of Higher Education and Highways Lakshman Kiriella followed by the blunders of Education Minister Akila Viraj Kariyawasam. Both Kiriella and Kariyawasam are among the Prime Minister’s trusted loyalists, the former being entrusted with the task of being Leader of the House.
Kiriella took the plunge first, when he was found to have issued a letter to a head of a department at the University of Kelaniya asking him to employ a person “known” to him if he had the required qualifications. The matter turned sour when Kiriella chose to defend what he had done.
In the first instance, Kiriella justified his action citing an irrelevant, all encompassing section of the Universities Act. Then, he went berserk at a journalist who dared to question him, berating him in uncouth language for not being conversant with the provisions of the Universities Act and in the process referring to a vice-chancellor in rather disparaging terms.
While he was doing all that, he also referred to how all the powers at ministers’ disposal were used during former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tenure but how those in the ‘yahapaalanaya’ government didn’t do so, but then went on to defend doing just that!
Kiriella seems to have forgotten that academic departments of universities were one of the few institutions politicians in this country dared not to interfere with, even though they had succeeded in encroaching on the administrative departments of campuses. Kiriella is blatantly doing so now, and invoking the ‘yahapaalanaya’ mantra for good measure! Then, just when we thought it was safe to talk about matters related to education, Kariyawasam pipes up about the controversy surrounding a child who had difficulties staying in a school when his father died after contracting AIDS. The enlightened know-it-all that he is, he announces to the general public that the child’s mother too has the disease and should therefore be separated from the child!
Kariyawasam’s ignorance in matters related to patient confidentiality has evoked howls of protest and led to numerous calls for his resignation. His suggestion that the child could contract AIDS from his mother is unbecoming of a person holding his office. Indeed, the minister has regretted his action and taken measures to find a school for the child concerned. Nevertheless, the minister’s lack of sensitivity and knowledge is appalling.
There are several morals in these two stories. One is that ministers of this government should not resort to ‘your government did the same, so why can’t we?’ argument. The previous government was sent packing contrary to expectations precisely for that reason. And, as Kiriella found out to his detriment, if a minister opts for that line of defence, they are more than likely to end with egg on their faces.
Then, ministers would have also learnt that, unlike during the Rajapaksa regime, the slightest faux pas on their part could lead to a media blitz highlighting their deficiencies. Ironically, that is due in part to the relative freedom enjoyed by the media under the ‘yahapaalanaya’ government. That is a cause for celebration and not an indication to try and shoot the messenger as Kiriella tried to do.
If they were to reflect on these two incidents, the general public would have also learnt that governments may come and governments may go, but the core qualities of politicians remain the same: when they are armed with power they become arrogant and omnipotent and believe they can do no wrong. That might be a harsh verdict on Kariyawasam because he regretted his words of wisdom, but it was certainly the case with Kiriella.
This may be paradise but being a minister in it is no easy task especially in this day and age when they are subjected to microscopic scrutiny by the media and if you are in any doubt about that, just ask yet another minister presently in the spotlight, Champika Ranawaka.  And all we can say to that is, so be it!

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