A reader`s letter we carry in today`s issue of this newspaper reflects public opinion, certainly urban middle class public opinion, on the size of the jumbo cabinet that President Mahinda Rajapakse has loaded on the backs of this country`s taxpayers to ensure the stability of his government. The president and his strategists may take comfort from the belief that rural people in the distant countryside are not as infuriated as the urban middle class about such political profligacy. They may be right. But the fact is that nobody anywhere will applaud this kind of circus. Talking to national editors and heads of the electronic media early in the New Year, Rajapakse tried to gloss over the then impending cabinet expansion saying that ministers and MPs are now paid the same and the reshuffle will enable rationalization of subject allocation. Nobody took him seriously when he said, `viyadama aduwenava misak vedi venne ne,` (the expenditure will go down rather than up.)
Unfortunately, it is not only the president who is at fault. The whole legislature, government, opposition, JVP, TNA ? the lot ? voted themselves massive pay increases. The JVP is now making noises about the size of the cabinet. With its feel for the pulse of the people, the Marxist party`s expression of its displeasure is predictable. But this very party which once forced Chandrika Kumaratunga to limit the size of her then much smaller cabinet to 20 members under a `probationary` arrangement closed their eyes to CBK allowing de-throned politicos to keep their perks and privileges even though they lost their titles. The JVP had the muscle to stop the massive pay increases to MPs, with one year`s arrears icing an already loaded cake. If they said a loud `no` and stuck to their guns, their parliamentary colleagues would not have the guts to do what they have done. But they did not. Who can blame the public for reaching the conclusion that the reason for this is self-evident: that the JVP MPs themselves are participants of this rip-off.
The UNP defectors, they are no less than that, made great play about their fidelity to good governance which they said they would enforce through an MOU that was never signed before their entry into the government. Mr. Karu Jayasuriya, Prof. G.L. Peiris et al must now tell the country whether they consider the size of the cabinet they have joined to be a manifestation of good governance of a country of just 20 million plus people. Ours may be one of the world`s biggest cabinet if not the biggest we think. We are fast assuming the features of a banana republic with this kind of antics ballasted by galloping inflation. This compelled the monetary authorities to not so long ago release the new two thousand rupee currency notes that had been long held in the Central Bank vaults. No wonder. It takes two thousand rupees or more to buy what we were able to with a thousand a couple of years ago. Therein lie the secret of the much-vaunted stock market and property boom. Investors naturally prefer to hold good shares or real estate rather than cash in fixed income instruments. There is no reason for anybody with a modicum of common sense to feel good because of such feel good factors tossed out like seeni bola by our rulers who take the people for fools.
A columnist in today`s newspaper put the cabinet score at 52 not out. He placed his finger unerringly on the spot. That poor Muslim Congressman from the Eastern Province who went along with the rest of the bunch of office takers to Temple Trees last week but was doomed to disappointment had been promised by a presidential strategist that he would be `looked after.` What`s an additional minister or two when we already have four non-cabinet ministers of nation building and a cabinet minister of special projects (Mahinda Wijesekera) who wryly admitted a few days ago that even he does not yet know what special projects he will handle. After the first much-publicized swearing of the ministers (both cabinet and non-cabinet) and the deputies, the JHU threw Champika Ranawake`s hat into the ring, with Ven. Omalpe Sobitha paving the way for him by vacating a national list seat in parliament. There`s already been some confusion on the sequence of events. Did the chicken come before the egg? Questions were asked whether Ranawake had been gazetted as an MP before he was sworn as a minister. The word yesterday was that the paper work was in order but this joke is by no means over. The only problem is that the people aren`t laughing.
The antics of SLFP Secretary Mathripala Sirisena who has publicly confessed that the size of the cabinet was obscene but qualified his remarks by adding that an election, the other option to ensure political stability, would be more expensive than what has been done, also deserves comment. Sirisena was followed by non-cabinet minister Sripathi Sooriyarachchi who also criticized the cabinet size without adding the qualifying clause. It may be recalled that when JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe, unfortunately for him because the fires were burning closer home than most people knew, chose to compare the SLFP to a woman of easy virtue, it was this self-same Sirisena who famously spat out `bambuwa` from a political platform. The fact that both Sirisena and Sooriyarachchi (who got himself a non-cabinet ministry by resigning the last time round when he was made a deputy minister) chose to be part of the bloated numbers they condemn makes such criticism smack of hypocrisy. They could, of course, credibly argue that if they resign the vacancies will be filled and the obscenity will get no smaller. But instead of engaging in such an exercise in futility, both of them would have done best to keep their mouths shut while staying put. But then which politician knows how to keep his mouth shut although they are past masters in the art of staying put.