(Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa, describing himself as a generally silent person, says he is doing a silent job stabilizing the country’s economy. In an interview with Ceylon Today’s sister paper Mawbima, he speaks extensively on a range of issues including his electorate Gampaha, his political career, the current state of the Indo-Lanka relations and recalls an incident where the late Editor of Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge had said, whatever he wrote on the minister was not to criticize him, but to reintroduce a man called Basil Rajapaksa to the country).
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: ‘The big brain’ behind the government is somewhat silent these days. Why is that?
A: I am normally a silent person. Media is in some way responsible for my silence. The President has entrusted me with the responsibility of economic development of the country. I am persevering to attain that goal. Initially, I was not a minister. But now I am, with much, responsibility as a minister in-charge of a ministry. I do not seek publicity. It may be the reason why the media is not much interested in me (he laughs).
Q: Don’t you think the government, like a high flying kite, has reached the highest altitude possible and is now left without any more string to make it move?
A: People who lavish praise when we do good things sharply criticize us when we make a small mistake. But we must always try to get the people to trust us. We have not done anything harmful to the people. We have developed our roads, beautified our towns to such an extent, that as in Singapore, there is not even a stray bus ticket on our roads now. Our carpeted roads with white markings are now used by people as landmarks to identify places and addresses.
Q: You could have contested the last election from any constituency in the South. But you opted for Gampaha. What made you to do it, politically speaking?
A: Gampaha is the political heartland of the SLFP. We had to protect it. The President gave that privilege to me. People reposed their trust in me as evidenced by the biggest majority of votes that I got.
Q: Talk among the people is that Mervyn Silva and Sarana Gunawardena have assumed ‘ministers powers’ to enable them to act the way they are doing. Your comments on this?
A: My foremost contention is that I do not protect wrongdoers in any way. They have come to Parliament through popular ballot. Therefore, people have the ultimate power to either elect them or defeat them. Even though, I am District Leader in Gampaha, I have no authority to punish them or reward them. About 12.3% of the country’s population live in Gampaha. Its relative size, as against other districts, sometimes contributes to inflate certain things out of proportion.
Q: People in Gampaha are saying that your wife is involving herself excessively with political work in the District. Your Comments?
A: She shouldered the biggest load of my political work at the last election. Today also, she is actively helping me with my work. Especially, she handles a lot of public relation work. Whatever work I may miss out, she takes care of it. Otherwise, she is not involved in politics, she only helps me.
Q: If the Gampaha people want your wife as an electoral organizer in the district?
A: It will not happen.
Q: There is a rumour that Sunethra Bandaranaike will come forward as an electoral candidate for Gampaha, at the next General Election. How, would the electoral fortunes be decided between Rajapaksas and Badaranaikes then?
A: It will be decided by the electorate. Anybody has a right to contest elections.
Q: Your political opponents stuck a label on you calling you Mr. 10%. What is this allegation?
A: Opposition politicians are no longer attacking me; nor do they use that allegation against me. The late Lasantha Wickrematunga, who churned out reams of papers attacking me, one day gave me a call and said: “I did not criticize you, I only re-introduced a man called Basil Rajapaksa to the Sri Lankan society.” Criticisms are prevalent in society against all and sundry. Especially, it is the main function of the opposition. I am somewhat disheartened they are not doing it much.
Q: Is there a break-down in Indo-Lanka relations?
A: No, our relations are on a strong, sound footing. Some disgruntled elements in the news media have created a non-existent bogey. Every time the President is scheduled to make an official visit to India, the Opposition Leader hurries himself off to India before him, either on a pilgrimage or a kovil visit, and spreads a story that India invited Opposition Leader to India before the President, always a concocted story. We have occasional glitches in our bilateral relations, but when it happens, we manage them quite well. There are certain elements among us who want to create a rift between India and us. They are the persons who use canards, such as missile deployments, land disputes with India.
Q: You mean we have no conflicts in our relations with India?
A: If you refer to the past newspaper editions, you will see how many Indian delegations political, trade and commerce, have visited Sri Lanka during the past few months. Please note, they were high profile delegations representing many areas in the government. Another thing, that India agreed to send the Kapilavastu relics to Sri Lanka for exhibition, even flouting a policy decision not to take them out of India, was purely on the President’s request. It shows how strong our bonds are.
Q: Is winning the forthcoming Provincial Council Election crucial and decisive for the government?
A: Not at all, and we will win them all. People will give their resounding approval for our war victory, economic development, road development, rural electrification, school development and so forth. That is why the President holds elections in a regular pattern so that the people can give their approval to the government.
Q: Some ministers grumble that you, as a Presidential Advisor, are interfering in the affairs of their ministries, your comments?
A: It is somewhat paradoxical when you say I am very silent these days on the one hand and charge me of interfering in the affairs of other ministries on the other hand. I do not interfere with other ministries. However, the nature of the Economic Affairs Ministry is such, that it has no clear boundaries separating it from other ministries. We need to co-operate. There is a thing called collective responsibility, which is enshrined in the constitution too. For instance, take the Education Ministry; examinations and Z-Score workings, they are done by different authorities. They have to act in unison.
Q: You did not intervene to solve the spiralling problems in the Education Ministry, any comments?
A: That will be solved soon.
Q: Your comments on the purportedly leaked Grade V Scholarship Examination question papers?
A: It is a big lie. Anybody can spread such unfounded false stories. But it is certain, there is some conspiracy behind these rumours. Our examination procedures were held in high esteem by world academic bodies. That is why those who have passed our exams could easily get into universities in other countries. But with the spread of blatant lies, recognition of our exams will drop. In our time, if a question paper was tough, we used to criticize those who set the question paper. Now people criticize the minister and the government.
Q: Do you mean that there are no problems in the country?
A: No, what I am saying is there are minor problems in the country as everywhere else. As for example, there was a two-day power outage in India recently creating chaos in the country. One of my friends in America recently told me they were without electricity for three weeks. We too have such minor problems.
Q: Is it true that other than President Rajapaksa, among the Rajapaksa progeny, you are the only member having a Raja Yoga in the horoscope?
A: I think I am now enjoying the benefits of my Raja Yoga. That is why people elected me to Parliament with the highest majority and the President has entrusted me with valuable development work.
Q: Talk about town is of a Cabinet reshuffle after the PC polls, your comments?
A: They are just periodic rumours popping up every December or April mostly. They are all stories. Nothing will happen.
Q: Will you get the Prime Minister post after a future Cabinet reshuffle?
A: Not at all.
Q: Who will the President consult before appointing a Prime Minister?
A: The President has the power given by the constitution to appoint a Prime Minister. He may, if he chooses, consult the party or the ministers, or even the brothers and others of the family. It is his discretion.
Q: Isn’t there any idea in the government to select a Prime Minister democratically, just as J.R. Jayewardene appointed Premadasa?
A: That you have to ask from the President. One thing I know for sure is that the President likes elections.
Q: Won’t there be problems if a non-SLFPer is appointed as Prime Minister?
A: We are all in an alliance and most of us are SLFPers. A non-SLFPer may not be appointed perhaps. However, the President has the constitutional power which he could use at his discretion. In any case, it does not arise because we have a Prime Minister now.
Q: A few months back, there was some talk that the Speaker was to be appointed as Prime Minister. Even receptions were also planned in Hambantota. However, it did not happen, according to rumours, because President’s close family objected to it, any comments?
A: I am totally unaware of it. Whatever the President does under his Constitutional powers cannot be wrong.
Q: Please comment about your absence from most of the official functions?
A: Not only now, even earlier I did not participate in many State functions. After all, there are many who attend them.
Q: Are we going to face further challenges at the next UNHRC sessions in Geneva?
A: Even Rajapaksa namesakes are facing difficulties living in those countries. They can’t even get a housing tenancy in some countries. I have faced it myself. The President too has to be careful when he travels abroad. Most people do not know them.
Q: Gotabhaya Rajapaksa is a public servant not a minister; some accuse him of engaging in politics, any comments?
A: I do not think so. He did some work at the CMC Elections, only that. He always does anything with responsibility. Being a Rajapaksa, people talk about him too. People talk sometimes good of them, sometimes bad of them. That is just natural. But one thing, when one Rajapaksa did politics all of us had to pay a price. Our sister, who is no more, was once transferred from Colombo to Bibile although she was with child at the time, when UNP came to power in 1977, just because she was a Rajapaksa.
Q: Another story doing the rounds is that in the course of time, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will be brought into Parliament from the National List and will be made Deputy Minister of Defence, any comments?
A: I think it is a good thing. But he denies it. These are mere stories created by newspapers. At present, there are 10 Sinhala, seven Tamil and some English Sunday papers in the country. Naturally, they need page filling stories. So they create some stories. That is also one such concocted story.
COURTESY: CEYLON TODAY