Political Column
By a Special Correspondent

Anura goes for Ravi's jugular
President Chandrika Kumaratunga is go ing hammer and tongs these days attacking a selected band of Cabinet Ministers who are questioning or harassing her on various deals.

The President has become a seasoned fighter who can handle single-handedly 32 hostile ministers of the UNF government at cabinet meetings and yet go with the principles of cohabitation politics. But the controversy over the handbag appears to have dealt a serious blow to the cohabitation politics.

While the President reiterates that Minister Ravi Karunanayake made the allegation at a cabinet meeting that she carried a bomb in her handbag, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe says Minister Karunanayake did not refer to a bomb.

Ministerial colleagues of Mr. Karunanayake also say that the minister only expressed concern over a handbag fitted with ultra modern video equipment. The dispute over the superspy handbag deepened when the President and the Prime Minister exchanged letters on the eve of the latter's visit to the United States.

The President in her second letter said the Constitution gave her unfettered discretion to sack any minister.

"I am advised that the relevant provision applicable to the removal of a minister of the cabinet is article 47 or article 44 (3) as the case may be and the President has unfettered discretion in that matter," the President said.

She rejected Mr. Wickremesinghe's claim that since the UNF cabinet was constituted in consultation with the Prime Minister, the removal of a minister also should be done in the same manner.

"I wish to state categorically that there was no agreement arrived at between us concerning the interpretation you now seek to place on article 44 (1) (B) of the constitution.

"When I appointed your nominees to the cabinet of ministers on December 12, 2001, consequent to the UNP victory at the Parliamentary elections, there was no discussion as to the principle pertaining to the act of selecting and appointing cabinet ministers," the President said.

Though some hardline UNPers do not agree with the position taken by the President regarding the removal of a minister, most of the UNPers think that the executive president is vested with enormous power and her power in this regard is unlimited and unquestionable.

The campaign against Minister Karunanayake is being spearheaded by Anura Bandaranaike, the President's brother and advisor.

Mr. Bandaranaike, who has been in the opposition virtually throughout his 25-year political career (The exception was when he was a minister for a year or so in the last UNP regime), is getting closer to President Kumaratunga, his one-time political rival, prompting critics to say that he was trying to be the next presidential candidate.

Mr. Bandaranaike has announced that he would be the PA's next presidential candidate, causing ripples in the PA top order. One PA top runger who does not fancy Mr. Bandaranaike as the presidential candidate told this column that the President's estranged brother could not fit into the SLFP and the best place for him was the UNP.

Mr. Bandaranaike was for a short period in the UNP. He could not make a mark as a UNP frontrunner due to various factors. His appointment as Speaker of Parliament was one such factor.

Political observers believed that the UNP consented to a proposal from the PA to make Mr. Bandaranaike the Speaker largely because most UNPers saw it as an opportunity to sideline him politically, but Mr. Bandaranaike himself was known to have coveted the post.

The proposal came after Mr. Bandaranaike's two sisters, Chandrika and Sunethra, got together to bring back the "naughty boy" back to the family fold and decided to make him the Speaker.

Ever since he became Speaker, Mr. Bandaranaike has been at logger heads with Mr. Karunanayake. He wanted to take Mr. Karunanayake to task for remarks he made to the press regarding the conduct of the Speaker, but the PA government slipped into a serious crisis before Mr. Bandaranaike could take any action. The political battle between Mr. Bandaranaike and Mr. Karunanayake has been raging since then.

At a recent meeting in Ampara , an angry Mr. Bandaranaike lambasted Mr. Karunanayake for the remarks he allegedly made.

"If I was there in the cabinet, I would have stuffed it (the bomb) in his mouth," Mr. Bandaranaike said, charging that all this was part of a plan to force her to leave the presidency. But he said the Bandaranaikes would not run away. His remark was also apparently aimed at his rivals in the PA.

Within the PA, there is a running battle between Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapakse and Mr. Bandaranaike for the candidacy at the next presidential elections which is to be held in 2005.

Most of the back benchers are rallying round Mr. Rajapakse who represents a seat from the backwoods of the country.

Mr. Bandaranaike is banking on his sister and the anti-Rajapakse lobby in the party. The President's close allies such as Mangala Samaraweera will definitely support the nomination of Mr. Bandaranaike.

Mr. Samaraweera is buoyant these days after the Bribery and Corruption Commission cleared him of the allegations made against him by Minister Rajitha Senaratne.

However, Mr. Samaraweera is still not totally out of trouble. He is facing charges relating to a shooting incident in Akuressa during the last general elections. The Attorney General is now finalising papers to file indictment in the High Court.

At the SLFP Central Committee meeting presided over by President Kumaratunga on Tuesday, Mr. Rajapakse asked about the party's position with regard to other opposition parties, especially the JVP. His grouse was that there was no clear-cut policy in the party with regard to JVP protests with some members attending them and some avoiding them. President Kumaratunga proposed a committee should be set up to formulate a policy in this regard. Accordingly a committee was appointed headed by Mr. Rajapakse. Other members of the committee are party secretary Maithripala Sirisena, Mangala Samaraweera, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Susil Premajayantha and Shantha Premaratne. The committee is expected to submit its report within a month.

The Central Committee also discussed the protest campaign scheduled for August 12 and a proposal to erect a statue of former Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike at the BMICH.

Mr. Bandaranaike told the Central Committee that some media groups were trying to create disputes in the party by claiming there was a dispute in the party over the presidential candidate.

He tabled a copy of a letter he sent to a Sunday vernacular newspaper denying a report that he would be the next presidential candidate of the PA.

While the SLFP is still struggling to put its house in order, it has also intensified its campaign against the UNF government.

It appears to be gunning for ministers Ravi Karunanayake, Rajitha Senaratne S. B. Dissanayake and G. L. Peiris.

Mr. Samaraweera recently filed a petition in the Court of Appeal, asking the court to unseat Minister Peiris over a land transaction he entered into with the Lands Reform Commission in 1984.

In the meantime the controversy over the import of luxury cars by the Presidential Secretariat took a new turn when Presidential Secretary K. Balapatabendi wrote to Finance Minister Choksy saying the vehicles in question could be examined by a team of competent officials as promised by him.

The letter said:
"…the inspection was to be conducted on Friday, the 19th July 2002. You have agreed to send a list of "qualified officials" who would undertake this exercise.

"On the directive of the President, I wish to bring to your notice that up to date no such viewing/inspection has taken place nor has the Secretariat been informed of the list of "qualified officials". The President wishes to inform you that this decision was taken in view of your request with regard to the allegation made by you, about 13 missing vehicles purchased by the President's Office, in your letter dated 26th June 2002.

"The President insists that you send her the list of "qualified officials", as promised by you even at this late stage in order that I may arrange without any further delay the viewing/inspection of the vehicles in accordance with the Cabinet decision."

The letter appears to have disturbed Minister Choksy. He immediately fired out a letter which said:

"I refer to your letter dated 25th July, 2002. There was no Cabinet decision or any agreement that the inspection of the vehicles was to be conducted on Friday, 19th July, 2002. Whilst the President requested this, myself and other members of the Cabinet Sub-Committee who were present at the Cabinet Meeting, stated clearly that it would not be possible to make all the arrangements involved in identifying competent persons from five different institutions to conduct the inspection, obtaining the President's agreement on such persons, and arranging for them to be present together and conduct the inspection on Friday 19th July 2002, i.e. within 48 hours.

"The Cabinet therefore did not fix Friday 19th July 2002, as the deadline. The draft minutes of the cabinet meeting bears me out.

"The suggestion to appoint a team of qualified officials was not at my request, as incorrectly stated in your letter under reply. The President was not present at the cabinet meeting on 10th July 2002, when the cabinet took the decision to do so, and so is not in a position to speak to what took place at the meeting.

"No "allegation" was made by me about 13 missing vehicles, as stated by you. The letter dated 26th June 2002 written by me with the concurrence of the other members of the Sub-Committee requested the President's observations/clarification on the question of 13 vehicles in as much as the list of vehicles submitted by the President to the Cabinet dated 19th June 2002, showed the importation of only 35 vehicles during the relevant period, whilst documents available to the Cabinet Sub-Committee including documents that had emanated from the President's Office (copies of which were forwarded to the "President) showed the importation of 48 vehicles during that period. This matter was accordingly brought to the President's notice as quite logical as clarification of the numbers was required to enable the Cabinet Sub-Committee to make its report to Cabinet.

"The Sub-Committee has only been executing its mandate of collecting material for submission to the Cabinet. It has made no "allegation" against anyone during this process. The Sub-Committee has conducted itself with responsibility and decorum right through.

"In regard to the question of inspecting the vehicles, the Sub-Committee has submitted a note to the cabinet for its meeting on 31st July 2002."

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