Same-side goal, yes, considering he is heading a coalition government, but did President Maithripala Sirisena hit a ‘self-destructive’ goal with his early publication of the Central Bank bonds scam probe report? Going by media reports post-publication, the latter too seems truer. In possibly seeking to refurbish his self-styled ‘Mr Clean’ brand-image from Elections-2015, first by ordering the probe when it became unavoidable and releasing the report before it might have ‘leaked’ to the press during the run-up to the nation-wide local government polls, Sirisena might have also shot his own feet, rather than shooting at his political adversaries, standing in front of him and also by the side of him – by his side, may be the apt phrase.
There is no denying the visible advantage for Sirisena, first when he ordered the probe, and now when he did not lose much time in going to the nation with the contents of the commission report. Any other in his place would have taken time for his team to read, comprehend and advise the President, before he could publicise it for the whole nation to know. This way, Sirisena has escaped possible criticism that he was trying to shield the guilty, or delay action at least until the nation-wide local government (LG) polls were over in a month’s time.
Tactically, his action is the better option available to Sirisena the politician than Sirisena the President, who is heading a nervous coalition government, whose major UNP partner is at the receiving end of the bonds scam, probe and the findings. This way, he can tell the nation, when his visible weak ministerial faction of the SLFP is caught in a three-cornered LG poll contest (and four-cornered when you include the JVP), that he still stands by his pre-report commitment of using the sword against those found guilty.
Sirisena needs an electoral victory much more than Prime Minister Ranil and the UNP, and even predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa and his JO. It is unclear if acts such as releasing the probe report would set Kelani Ganga on fire, and let Sirisena and the SLFP sweep the polls. If such was the mood of the public – and as a veteran politician, Sirisena would have known – then, his initiatives on la affaire Avant Garde, Hambantota swap-deal review and a host of other governmental initiatives (read: UNP & Ranil) should have made him many times popular over the past three years in office. That is not necessarily the case.
Truth be acknowledged, the probe report has not said anything that the nation did not know already. Whatever shock was there, the nation has absorbed it all since the scam hit the roof. Whatever after-shocks were there, they were felt when the pent-house problem of then Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake came up before the probe panel.
Otherwise, the exit of Ravi K and the earlier sacking of then CB Governor, Arjun Mahendran, all came only when Ranil & Co could not delay it, and Sirisena could not but force the issue and hope to collect some brownie-points, if at all any. For the nation, the question is now not even about if the wrong-doers would actually be arraigned before law, and if a fast-track mechanism would at all be found, to dispense justice in this case at the very least.
If anything, the nation would be keen, and would trust all those needed trusting, starting with Sirisena, and even Ranil, if and only if all the public moneys re-routed through the scam, and by the scamsters, came back to the Exchequer. Even if it were to happen, it would be even more interesting to learn more about the money-track and where all it, or part of it, got parked and where it ultimately landed, and in what proportion.
No marks for guessing, but the government, which from almost day one has been claiming to have got overseas governmental assistance, say from the US and India, at different points in time, to bring back the billions ‘looted by the Rajapaksa regime’, can add the bonds scam money to the list. Maybe, the ‘Rajapaksa looters’ may have created layers after layers of smoke-screen to misdirect investigators, over the past 13 years, since Mahinda R became President in 2005 and exited in 2015. In comparison, the bonds scam is still young and the layers might not have been covered by as much dust as the dirt, rather the covering of the dirt, demands.
Real source of dirt
If there are no new shocks, surprises or expose, and the probe report is still in the news, not just the political Opposition and media critics, but even the common man on the street would look elsewhere for both the real source of the dirt and some shock accompanying any discovery of the same.
No one is just now pointing any finger at Sirisena, not certainly in anyway denoting that he might have been a point of the scam, and a beneficiary, too. No not at all. But his supporters cannot satisfactorily explain to another probe commission, or a parliamentary committee, as to some of his omissions and commissions that might have facilitated the scam, wily-nily, and possible cover-up, too.
Fair enough, the government is led by the Prime Minister’s party, but then, Sirisena as President has continued to interfere in the daily affairs of governance, and for right reasons on most occasions. The question thus remains how and why the President with his vast and varied experience in government and politics did not ask the obvious question: Why nominate a Singaporean as the Central Bank Governor when equally, if not better qualified, men and women may be available inside the country?
As may be recalled, whoever raised eyebrows at the time of appointment was reminded of Mahendran’s Tamil ethnic background, and how the new government was reaching out to the community so soon after replacing Sinhala ‘hard-liner’ Mahinda R at the helm. If further proof was needed, it came in the form of later-day elevation of Justice K Sripavan, another Tamil, as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court – abiding by the seniority roll-call and not ‘importing’ a non-judicial, legal person to the post.
What is even more jarring is the fast-tracked dissolution of Parliament, when the House was due to vote on a no-confidence motion against Ravi K, who was already Finance Minister under the ‘interim government’, if the period between Sirisena’s election and the parliamentary polls could be terms thus. If anyone thought that it was at best to help the Government avoid embarrassment deriving from the minister’s possible exit at the vote (given the mood of the existing SLFP members at the time), the Opposition now recalls how the second instalment of the bonds scam happened after the dissolution of the House.
Thus, Sirisena, rather than claiming credit for exposing the scamsters and seeking to hold individuals accountable, may have some explanations to offer, himself – be it on his approving Mahendran’s appointment with or without a background check to his satisfaction as President, two allowing the bonds scam to be legitimised on all occasions through approvals by the Cabinet that he heads and at meetings chaired by him.
If it is collective responsibility of the Cabinet, not only PM Ranil, but President Sirisena too has a lot more to explain, rather than explain away. If it is the overbearing supervisory role of the President, which Sirisena is entitled and accountable to do, both as President and as Head of the Cabinet, he will have even more to explain.
Is the Jury hearing it all? Is it asking the right questions, to the right persons, now that the bonds commission has stopped asking all the questions to all the people, and has satisfied itself with asking some questions to some people – though hitting the bull’s eye without fail, all the same!
This commentary originally appeared in The Island.