The government is openly divided over President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pick for the post of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India. Milinda Moragoda, a Sri Lankan-American former Minister, former Mayor of Colombo, a negotiator of the Norwegian brokered Sri Lanka-LTTE peace talks and the head of the Pathfinder Foundation, has now been called it all.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa can nominate a person of his choice to head his foreign policy agenda. He is the head of state, government, and cabinet. Alarms bells went off within government circles when news made the rounds that Moragoda will be conferred cabinet ranking – that is he would not need approval from Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardene or the Foreign Secretary Dr. Jayanath Colombage to decide on matters of importance between India and Sri Lanka. It would be in Moragoda’s best interest to keep hands-on President Rajapaksa apprised of his moves in India. More importantly, Morgaoda is accountable to the people of Sri Lanka who will pay for his existence in India. His Indian abode, vehicle, fuel, recreation cost etc. will all be paid for by the Sri Lankan public who provided even President Rajapaksa the ‘country first’ mandate.
Morgaoda’s Cabinet ranking is a first in history, so the tension within the government is no surprise. Moragoda will rank higher than Foreign Secretary Colombage – Sri Lanka’s top diplomat. This reversal of reporting structures is one Moragoda may be familiar with. Then US President Barack Obama appointed Samantha Power as the US Ambassador to the United Nations in New York with a direct reporting line to him which enabled her to by-pass Secretary of State John Kerry – US’ top diplomat. However, this was no green light for Power to do as she pleased. The US Congress, the equivalent of Sri Lanka’s parliament, could summon Power and Kerry at any time for testimonies where members of Congress could grill the diplomats on what they get up to under the guise of putting US interest first.
Sri Lanka’s Cabinet can do exactly the same. The President could have Moragoda engage in Cabinet meetings periodically so Sri Lanka’s top legislators know how the nation’s point man in India is putting Sri Lankan interest first. The mudslinging including by some Cabinet members has not served public interest so far. Such gallery stunts are also an indicator of the disdain dissenting MPs have for the Sri Lanka citizen’s right to answers. We vote legislators in to keep public servants on their toes, not to drag them through the mud courtesy the propaganda factory. Voters also expect public servants to hold the legislators to account. It is a matter of debate that neither mechanism has not worked for Sri Lanka.
Moragoda is reportedly close to the highest echelons of power in India. A closeness with India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval who made a surprise visit to Sri Lanka for top level consultations in January this year, is not a privilege that Moragoda’s predecessors have enjoyed before taking up Sri Lanka’s reigns in India. India has also wanted a dedicated Indo-SL envoy for a while. In this light, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s pick of Moragoda kills two birds with one stone.
Moragoda is familiar with multiple facets of the Indo-SL nexus, thanks to the research Pathfinder has done over the years, but that doesn’t justify being given a free pass. He, in his capacity as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India, is a public servant. He is accountable to every Sri Lankan. The legislators are bound to hold Sri Lanka’s envoys abroad to account on putting Sri Lankan interests first, but that they choose mudslinging instead is not the best way to put the country first either.