WALKING WITH THE DINOSAURS PART V - By Dr. Nalaka Godahewa
Continuation of Part IV………..
President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 8th January 2015 election having campaigned for a 3rd term in office. Up to the point that the presidential election was declared on 19th December 2015, it all looked liked a one horse race. But then the unexpected happened. Maithripala Sirisena, the general secretary of the SLFP announced at a media conference on 20th December 2014 that he would run for presidency as the common candidate for opposition. Some one very close to the former defense secretary told me later that the NIB reports showed a significant shift in voter preferences a week after Maithripala Sirisena announced his candidacy. It is not surprising that at every election the ‘promise of change’ has an appeal. What is important in an election campaign is to be smart enough to identify these trends early and react accordingly. That is the reason why candidates need good campaign managers and advisors. But unfortunately for President Rajapaksa, those in charge mishandled the whole campaign from there onwards. They were merely executing an old plan, which was designed for a different opponent.
Though I never had interaction with politicians until 2009, I was always a keen follower of Sri Lankan politics. Mine was a clearly a floating vote as I have voted for different political parties at different elections. But in 2010, I was clearly supporting incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, because I strongly believed that as the leader who liberated the country from terrorism, he deserved another term to lead the country. He was a decisive leader who loved the country. I had hopes that Mahinda Rajapaksa would make a difference in the countries economic development prospects just like he won the war. As expected, president Mahinda Rajapaksa won the 2010 election with a significant margin and got a clear mandate to lead the country.
But unfortunately during this second term, President Mahinda Rajapaksa became too comfortable with his popularity. This was in stark contrast to his behavior during the first term where he did not have the comfort of a stable parliament. During his first term he was hands on. He welcomed and used the skills of so many different and capable people to achieve the national objectives. This approach helped him end the 30 yearlong war. But during this second term I felt he got distanced from most of those who supported him earlier. Instead he was surrounded by a group of close associates who virtually highjacked the government.
That is why despite the unprecedented number of mega development projects that were initiated during his second term, President Mahinda Rajapaksa lost the 2015 election by 449,072 votes. If not for the surprising loss of Gampaha District and the unprecedented shift of minority votes all around the country, he could have still won the election. It was also very clear that vast majority of 1.2 Million first time votes voted against Rajapaksa.
One cannot blame the 6.2 million voters for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s plight at the election. They had enough reasons to be upset. Things, which could have been easily avoided, had grown into big problems. The biggest problem was that the people who were controlling the administration were not listening to grassroots. President who was too comfortable with his personal popularity didn’t take matters serious when others brought the issues to his notice. Those around him controlled access to the president anyway. Ultimately everybody had to pay the price.
I was a fresh invitee to the administrative team. I had no prior political links and didn’t know many people. So as a government official it took a while for me to identify the key players of the Rajapaksa Government. But gradually it became clear to me that it was not the cabinet who ran the country but small group of individuals mostly comprising government officials. But I must emphasize here that except for president J R Jayawardane, none of the other presidents actually depended on the cabinet of ministers to run the country. Their approach was also similar to president Rajapaksa.
Two powerful public officers ran the countries economy. The Secretary to the Treasury, Dr P.B. jayasundera had his hands everywhere and was undoubtedly the most powerful public officer in the Rajapaksa administration. Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal was the other officer who had a direct say in the management of the economy. Basil Rajapaksa was the most powerful politician in the Government and president relied heavily on him for political advice. Though his ministry was called the Ministry of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa used this position primarily for political activities. His main focus was the Divi Naguma program, which eventually failed to make any significant contribution to the economy. All the mega projects such as roads, Airports, Ports, Power Plants etc were handled directly by the President through a few trusted and efficient officials. When I say efficient, I only refer to the speed at which these projects were delivered . I make no judgment about any thing else. The most visible contribution in the administration came from Gotabaya Rajapaksa the secretary of defense who was also in charge of urban development. The transformation he made in the Colombo City within 4 years was highly commendable and I do not believe anyone other than Gotabaya will ever be able to do that within such a short period of time. Sajin Vas Gunawardena ran the external affairs ministry though officially Minsiter G L Peris was in charge. Gamini Senerath the chief of staff to the president influenced all key appointments in the government. Lalith Weeratunge, the secretary to the presidents who had the power to make or break one’s relationship with the president, controlled access to president. Last but not least, presidents elder son Namal was the rising power within the administration and everybody knew that the easiest way to get things done is to be in good books of Namal. So, these were the 8 people whom I saw as the most influential people in the Rajapaksa Administration during the 2010-2014 periods.
I always felt that Nivard Cabraal and P.B. Jayasundera should have reversed their roles given their respective personalities. in my opinion both these officials were clever people though some may not fully agree with me. They both were very hard working individuals too. Both were good public speakers conversant in both languages. The problem with Dr P.B. Jayasundera was that he was an absolute control freak. PB wanted everything to be decided by him self. He never tolerated anyone else’s ideas. Under president Rajapaksa, P.B. had gained so much power that no financial decision was ever taken without consulting him first. This gave Dr Jayasundera the opportunity to oppose any good idea that was coming from a party that he disliked. Only a few government officials like Dr Piyath Wickrama, Chairman of ports Authority, Premasiri Fernando, the secretary to the Ministry of highways and M.M.C. Ferdinando, the secretary to the Ministry of Power and energy could overcome Dr PB’s influence due to their own close association with President. Nivard cabraal was considered equal to PB in hierarchy within the government but he was more accessible. Nivard had a shrewd political mind and a pleasing personality. I saw him as optimistic, forward thinking and strategic. Unlike PB he was more open for new ideas and never ridiculed the views of others. Most of the SEC projects during my tenure as SEC chairman needed the blessings and support of the central bank and we never had any issue in that regard. The only problem with Nivard was his somewhat tarnished image due to several past allegations. Some of these may not be even true but he could never fully recover from this. Despite the brilliant way he handled the 2007 world financial crisis not allowing a single Sri Lankan financial institute to fail, several mistakes related EPF investments during 2010-2011 periods always haunted him. With PB’s understanding of economics and with Nivards ability to lead people, I personally feel PB would have been more effective as the Governor of Central bank where as Nivard would have been a better treasury secretary. While the Rajapaksa government did well to manage inflation, enhanced foreign reserves reduce unemployment and ensure economic growth, the true benefits of the economic development did not filter down to the masses effectively. The biggest reason for this problem was the one-way communication within the administration. As business managers we know the importance of right communication and effect of teamwork in implementing a strategy. Deviations can always occur while executing a plan and one must have a mechanism to identify the reasons for these deviations and take corrective actions. The problem with the economic management team of Rajapaksa Government was that decision-making revolved around a few people who were not supported by a think tank. If there were proper forums for others also to discuss the economic issues with these decision makers the Rajapaksa Government with its decisive leadership at the top would have done much better on the economic front.
You may remember the famous five hub concept in the 2010 Mahinda Chinthana manifesto. These five hubs were repeatedly mentioned at various forums but there was no common program to create these hubs. They should have ensured that well thought through and well-articulated 5-year development plans are in place for each one of these hubs. What’s the point of talking about a 5 hub strategy if no one knows what is the strategy for each hub ? If the Ministry of Economic Development under Minister Basil Rajapaksa understood its role, the first thing he should have done was to commission teams to develop these master plans. Then he could have put in place a proper performance monitoring mechanism to ensure the vision articulated in Mahinda Chinthana was achieved as expected. But unfortunately he did not see this big picture nor was he advised properly by those big shots in the Government. At our level there was a limit that we could influence. For example as Chairman Tourism I soon realized that long term planning is not really something welcome by politicians. When I tried to introduce a 5-year tourism development plan I found no support from the top. My immediate superior then was Dr P.B. Jayasundera in his capacity as the secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development. The Minister in charge was Basil Rajapaksa. They were both indifferent to what I was trying to do while the other officials in the ministry continuously obstructed me. So I was glad when I got an opportunity after two years, to move out of Tourism and head the SEC. Even at SEC, Dr. PBJ was still my immediate superior as the secretary to the Ministry of Finance. But I was given a free hand there, as the Minister in charge was the President him self. I was seen as president’s nominee for the job so no one messed with me unlike in Tourism. That is how I was able to make certain key contribution to the capital market during my 2 ½ year tenure.
In my opinion the biggest obstacle to the functioning of some of the ministries today is overlapping legislations. Apparently during president Chanadrika Bandraranayke’s time no one has paid much attention to the fact line ministers were introducing various bills in the parliament, without checking whether they overlap with the functions of other ministries. So today, when one ministry wants to do some thing they always find some legislation related to another ministry obstructing it. This is the same reason why an investor who comes to our country has to go to minimum of 7-9 line ministries before getting approval for a new project which is highly frustrating. Dr PBJ understood this problem very well and repeatedly spoke about the need to change legislation to overcome this problem. But as I mentioned earlier good ideas are of no use if they are not implemented. Ideally, within the first year or two in office they should have brought the necessary legislation to facilitate the efficient management of the economy and create an environment where local entrepreneurship will flourish and thrive catering to not only local but also regional and global needs. But it was never done. The situation is worst now, as the new government has to go through a fresh learning cycle. The sooner they figure out that they are unable to run the ministries effectively without resolving these legal issues, the better it is for the country.
A progressive government should create a level playing field for both the state sector and the private sector enterprises where efficient management, committed staff and effective delivery of customer needs will determine success in business and thereby increasing the overall productivity of the nation. Unfortunately, there was too much emphasis was on the state sector during president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time as he genuinely believed in the ability of state sector organizations to deliver results. What he perhaps didn’t realize was that in the state sector, a lot depends on the person who heads the institute. When there is a god chairperson, a state sector organization may perform well, but under a different person the same organization could become a disaster.
Nearly 75% of all Sri Lankan enterprises fall under the SME category. They create around 45% of the employment opportunities for people in the country. Usually there are so many ministries and institutes who are responsible for the SME sector development. There is a need for a separate division under one ministry such as ministry of trade or ministry of finance under a very effective minister to drive the SME sector. This is again another area where previous administration missed the bus and the so far the present government has not done anything better.
As chairman SEC I had plans facilitate the growth of the capital market to pave the way for the ordinary people to share corporate wealth, to support the capital raising requirements of the SME sector, to provide solutions to the housing needs of the society and to support the national, regional and rural development projects. These plans are well articulated in the vision 20:20 document of SEC. I sincerely hope that this document is not in the dustbin after a new commission assumed duties.
I strongly believe that infrastructure is key to the development of an economy. When a government builds infrastructure it must be done with a long-term vision. I therefore do not agree with those who feel that that the mega infrastructure development projects undertaken by Rajapaksa Government are a waste. Whether same results could have been achieved for lower cost is a separate debate. Where I saw the limitation in Rajapaksa Administration was not having good people to plan how best these mega projects could be put to best use of the country. For example you shouldn’t ask the same guy who built the port to mange the port, as skills required are different. Same principle applies to the airports. Due to this reason both Hambanthota port and Mattala airport faced with marketing problems after they were constructed. After the change of government we saw further madness with new bosses proposing that these facilities should be shut down to minimize losses. I believe after about two months in office that attitude is changing and the new Government is now looking for ways of utilizing these strategic resources more effectively. Similarly they should prepare master plans to utilize the newly built railways and highways to create an efficient transportation system of goods bringing the costs down for fish, fruits, vegetables and other essential items.
I am sure that the former president now realizes that he should have created more opportunities for the professionals and intellectuals of this country to participate and actively contribute in the policy making and planning process. He should have also paid more attention to the need to ensure an environment where all Sri Lankans can live together as equals with dignity preserving their social, cultural, political, ethnic and religious identities. But we must all admit that without any doubt he created a safe country where people could live without fear of terrorism. We are grateful for that though I am now worried that terrorism may return to the country within the next 10 years if not early. Why I feel so is a separate discussion.
To be continued……
PART I Here: #mce_temp_url#
PART II Here: #mce_temp_url#
PART III Here: #mce_temp_url#
PART IV Here: #mce_temp_url#
Courtesy - http://lbt.lk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=8893:walking-with-the-dinosaurs-part-v-by-dr-nalaka-godahewa&catid=65:expert-advice&Itemid=98