The incident he faced as State Minister of Higher Education regarding the removal of the UGC Head and Faizer Mustapha’s resignation as State Minister of Aviation will not negatively impact the 100-day program but is a wakeup call for the whole alliance to realise that it needs to be more serious, says Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Daily FT, he also noted that the alliance gave a specific deadline to the people and there were very important pledges that it had done nothing about. “People are expecting us to fulfil these within the mentioned deadlines. We are here to respond to people and we must do so quickly,” he added.
However, Wijesinha emphasised that the pledge of abolishing the executive presidency shouldn’t be fulfilled since it was something that required a lot of consideration and it was important to ensure that what was put in its place would be acceptable to the people at large.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What is the conflict between you and Higher Education Minister Kabir Hashim?
A: Kabir took some action while I was away which I thought was totally inappropriate. I think Kabir should have consulted me. However, he has been very gracious about expressing the error involved. But the bottom line is that I know that this will go on.
If ‘A’ doesn’t give the right answer, they go to ‘B’. If one person is clearly in charge and then there is another person is also there, anyone who doesn’t get a good answer from ‘A’ will go to ‘B’. If technically ‘A’ is under ‘B,’ it is impossible for ‘A’ to actually carry out his work. I have told Kabir that this cannot go on like this. He too agreed and said that he would tell the Prime Minister to appoint me as a Cabinet minister. That would make a lot of sense and I hope that it will happen.
Q: Are you saying your action was not against the removal of the UGC Chairman but was purely based on error in protocol?
A: We are going to engage in what we call good governance. You must not do things that are contrary to every single principle of good governance. People ask me why I am defending the UGC Chairman. It is not a question of my defending her. It is a question of two fundamental principles of governance being breached.
The first is, very simply, Kabir should not have taken any decision affecting my work without telling me. The second fact is that, if they wanted to respond to allegations against the UGC Chairman, there should have been an investigation with due process. Rather interestingly Kabir told me there was lot of pressure from FUTA and that is why he went ahead with it. I told Kabir that he should not give into pressure. One of our biggest complaints against the UGC Chairman was that she had given into pressure. If we are going to do things simply because there is immense pressure from other parties, how are we any better than what we claim she was?
A: I know nothing about such a condition. Don’t forget that I translated the manifesto and there was nothing of that sort there. In any case, if you are going to remove anyone, you need to do it through due process.
Let me give you an example; they now claim that I know what the allegations are. But no one has given me any of the allegations except one professor who wrote a long email to me in which he basically mentioned all kinds of negative things about the UGC Head, such as she is the worst person in the system and a strong supporter of President Rajapaksa. I wrote back asking to send me those allegations systematically because I cannot carry out an investigations based on an email with someone’s own private grievances. He didn’t come back to me. How can anyone expect me to carry out any investigations without a proper complaint?
Q: Are you certain that Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama is fit to head the UGC?
A: I think she is basically as good as the previous chairpersons. According to my standards, I don’t think any of them were ideal for that position. Ever since Arjuna Aluvihare, we have had a tremendous lacuna in the system.
The UGC chairman is appointed by the President. One may or may not like Mahinda Rajapaksa, but if he is the President, he has the right to appoint people. The really sad thing for me, and I find this really abhorrent, is that there are people who are sending me lists and asking me to appoint people on political reasons.
Two Ministers sent me lists telling me to appoint a particular person to the Jaffna Council. I said these are not political appointments and these are meant to be on merit. The second fact is that one of them actually told me ‘you give me half and give the TNA half’. Can you see the ridiculous situation we are in because we don’t have a system? You need a system in order to stop people making claims like this which they think is right. They simply don’t have an understanding that these are not appropriate.
Q: Is this a sign of a breakdown within the Government?
A: Absolutely not. This is a coalition government. In any coalition government people will have different perspectives and different points of view. The main thing is that we have agreed on the essential ideals that we want to perceive.
Kabir told that he acted under pressure from FUTA. But Ranil Wickremesinghe said that it had nothing to do with pressure but they have taken a decision to ask everybody to resign. If that’s the case, why did Kabir tell me otherwise? If they think Prof. Kshanika Hirimburegama should not be in the UGC chair, then we should get rid of her in accordance with due process and in a way that doesn’t embarrass her.
They say she politicised the system. I told Kabir this whole process of politicising was started by the UNP. Kabir is too young to remember these things. It was the UNP that started this disgusting process of politicisation in the ’80s.
Q: Why did you threaten to resign from your portfolio?
A: No, I never threatened to resign. Now people say I threatened to resign under Mahinda Rajapaksa but I never resigned. I never threatened to leave under Mahinda Rajapaksa; I didn’t even have a position. All I did was that I gave President Rajapaksa some advice but he never took the advice. He must have now realised that he should have listen to us at that time.
I never threatened. I pointed out to President Maithripala Sirisena that I am finding it very difficult to work under these circumstances. The President instead of making any decision himself asked Hashim to deal with this matter. Hashim after discussing and acknowledging his mistake said he would recommend to the Prime Minister to make me the Minister of Higher Education, which seems to be the most sensible and acceptable solution. But having said that, he told me that he would call the Prime Minster that evening. But when he later said the Prime Minister had not answered the phone call, it transpired that Kabir had not called the Prime Minister.
One of the Prime Minister’s close advisors called me and said Wickremesinghe was out of the town for couple of days because he was not feeling well. He said Wickremesinghe was not aware of the situation. He promised that he would talk to Wickremesinghe. That evening Wickremesinghe called me and said he had no idea what was going on but he would deal with it immediately. But he said he had to consult Chandrika Kumaratunga. She was in England. Although Wickremesinghe said he would call me the next day, he never did. I really don’t know what is happening.
Q: If you are made the Minister of Higher Education, would you come to a settlement? Is that what this uproar was all about?
A: The point I made to the President was that I cannot work if I am being the second guest all the time. There cannot have a situation where ‘A’ is supposed to be in charge where people go to ‘B’ for whatever reason. I think Kabir has realised this. He has told the media that he is willing to hand over the post of Minister of Higher Education. But nobody told me anything. There is lack of communication and as a result there is a lot of confusion.
Wickremesinghe looks after the UNP people and Chandrika Kumaratunga looks after the SLFP people. But Chandrika has been out of touch with the SLFP for a long time. The result is that while she made sure Duminda Dissanayake and Gunawardena got portfolios that they well deserved, Kumaratunga has completely forgotten there is a UPFA.
Although the campaign manifesto clearly says the Cabinet should consist of representatives of all political parties in Parliament both Radhakrishnanan and I were left out. Unfortunately, when I pointed this out to Wickremesinghe, he asked whether Kumaratunga made me a promise. I asked whether he has not read his own manifesto, basically which I assume is what any politician should read before they start an election. Ranil Wickremesinghe has not read it very clearly.
When Ranil Wickremesinghe is asked why he is giving portfolios to certain people, his excuse is that it was promised. People came over for money. Some were promised portfolios. But to assume that everybody is like that is not right. People like Wasantha Senanayake and myself had absolutely no question about asking for rewards when we came over. I don’t think for a moment that Ranil should think we are all like each other.
Q: Do you agree that incidents like yours and resignation of Minister Faizer Mustapha will have a negative impact on your 100-day program?
A: I don’t think it should. I think this is a wakeup call for the whole alliance to realise that we need to be a bit more serious. Let me put it very bluntly; Wickremesinghe said that although we are a day or two late, we are carrying out the work. In one sense he is correct, but this is not what he told the people. We gave a specific deadline to the people. There are very important pledges that we have done nothing about. People are expecting us to fulfil these within the mentioned deadlines. We are here to respond to people and we must do so quickly.
Q: Are you satisfied with the work so far carried out under the 100-day program?
A: If we have failed to do what we have pledged to the people, we have to explain why we haven’t done it. You do have an obligation to tell the people why you haven’t done it. That is even more important in a context like this, where we have made some solid pledges to the people and it looks like we are not actually fulfilling them quite quickly and energetic as we would like to.
Q: You sound disappointed and frustrated?
A: No, I am not disappointed. Given the difficulties of this type of government, it’s understandable. But I think we really need to focus a bit better and I hope very much that this is a good wake-up call for us that a promise is a promise.
When Parliament first met, no one was interested in amending Standing Orders. Then I pointed out to Minister Lakshman Kiriella that I have actually tabled the motion to amend the Standing Orders. Minister Kiriella took it up immediately. That now is our way of fulfilling the pledge. It was passed last week and the committee is now meeting. But next thing I heard is that Wickremesinghe had told the Parliamentary Committee doesn’t call the meeting; let us consult all the party leaders to see what they have to say first.
I sent Wickremesinghe a strong letter saying this is exactly what the Speaker did last time. I don’t know whether Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa was asked to dodge this because he asked all the Parliamentarians to give their opinion on this. Actually only Janaka Bandara and I actually answered that letter. I told Wickremesinghe that there is clearly no interest in this. I suggested that the Standing Committee should meet and we will discuss it. I am glad this has happened and the committee is meeting next week.
Q: Do you feel that Prime Minister and his Cabinet are not putting their best effort to fulfil the pledges they made?
A: Rev. Sobitha Thera on Wednesday very clearly said that it is unnecessary to have election immediacy because people are now concentrating on the election. It is very necessary for us to realise that the election is not what people elected us for. The most important thing we have to do is the reforms that we promised. Rev. Sobitha Thera is saying very clearly ‘please fulfil the pledges first and then have your election’.
Q: You openly criticise Ranil Wickremesinghe and Karu Jayasuriya. Why?
A: I do not criticise Karu Jayasuriya. He thought the culture is not suitable at the moment. But my simple answer to him was that’s why we should reform the culture. I think Karu Jayasuriya is the best person to do it. And we all need to strengthen him to make sure that go ahead with the task which he is given.
One of the most vital things right now is economic reforms. I think the UNP is better equipped for doing things for the economy. They have wonderful younger people like Eran Wickramaratne and Harsha de Silva. But they should also realise that they can’t do everything. One of Wickremesinghe’s problems is that he is trying to run everything. Look at his portfolios. You think any human being can do all that? This is exactly what happened in 2001. If he repeats the same mistakes, he will be playing straight into the hands of the Opposition. I think Wickremesinghe has difficulty in trusting able people.
Q: What are your remarks about the upcoming election?
A: I fully agree with Rev. Sobitha Thera. I can see a lot of intellectual corruption taking place because people are stressing on the election and not the reforms. If we don’t push ahead manfully with the reforms now, I think people will be very disappointed.
Q: Do you believe pledges such as abolishing the executive presidency will be fulfilled at all?
A: It shouldn’t be fulfilled for the simple reason that the abolition of the executive presidency is something that requires a lot of consideration and we have to make sure that what we put in its place is acceptable to the people at large. As far as I can make out we are in a situation where people are very nervous that if we abolish the executive presidency and the prime minister who ever comes after the election may not be the most suitable prime minister for the country. I think we really need to be very careful about that. Don’t you think it might be safer now to actually make sure that the powers of the president still remain reasonably to prevent any danger? The excessive powers of the president should be got rid of immediately but I think we should make sure that the residual powers that remain are still fairly strong. That can be done immediately because no one will disagree.
Q: But that is not what you promised to the people?
A: But if that is not practical and if we find that the democracy will be in greater danger, I don’t think we should then say we made a pledge. The first thing would be to reduce the excessive powers of the president. That is absolutely right. The president now has far too many powers and those must be reduced. My second point was the reduction of the Cabinet. I am really sorry that none of you have focused on the fact that there is a suggestion the Cabinet should have up to 100 people after the next election. Do you think that is acceptable? I find that wholly unacceptable. We must really do what we promised with much more commitment than we seem to be doing. Everyone seems to be doing what they think is the most important thing.
Q: What actions should be taken to rectify this situation?
A: The much clearer perspective on where we are heading and why, much more understanding of the need to concentrate on the pledges and much more consultation. I actually found it horrifying that the pledges we have given were actually not discussed entirely with all the parties concerned.
Q: What are your thoughts about the massive crowd that participated at a rally held early this week in support of Mahinda Rajapaksa?
A: This shows what I have already suggested clearly. Unless Wickremesinghe does much more consultation, he will be playing straight into Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands.
We do not have a proper coalition. One of the problems was that although Chandrika Kumaratunga was entrusted with the SLFP, she did not know enough about it. So the result is that the representation for the SLFP in the Government is limited. Another simple example; Faizer Mustapha was not made a minister. But an individual whom we have never heard of was made the Minister of Muslim Affairs. I am not accusing Wickremesinghe, but he is rightly assuming to make sure that the UNP gets the maximum power in the coalition. But I think the result is that the SLFP members don’t really have much clout and therefore it’s quite possible when Mahinda Rajapaksa says people should rally around him, people will definitely go to him. I don’t think this is a genuine coalition. I don’t think anyone has realised the implications that are going on.