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Home > Tamil National ForumSelected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha > Chandrika's Three Ring Circus 25 October 2000

 Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha

Chandrika's Three Ring Circus

25 October  2000

That irreverent wit George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) once wrote, 

"Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few." 

50 years have passed since Shaw left us. If only he is amongst us now, one wonders how much he would have relished to comment on this month's exercise of 'stage-managed democracy' in Sri Lanka. Not only Shaw, even humorist and business seer Northcote Parkinson (1909-1993) would have been amused about President Chandrika Kumaratunga's lead exercise on cabinet selection. She had to sacrifice the much needed efficiency for political expediency.

Chandrika is a busy lady and I'm certain that she wouldn't have read Parkinson's classic work, Parkinson's Law (1957), on the futility of appointing a Cabinet with over 20 members. She should! For her benefit, I provide relevant excerpts of what Parkinson had written on this theme four decades ago. Stinging wit of Parkinson is a delight to enjoy, even for those who are not faced with the situation of Chandrika.

According to Parkinson,

"When first examined under the microscope, the cabinet council usually appears to consist ideally of five. With that number the plant is viable, allowing for two members to be absent or sick at any one time. Five members are easy to collect and, when collected, can act with competence, secrecy and speed. Of these original members, four may well be versed, respectively, in finance, foreign policy, defense and law. The fifth, who has failed to master any of these subjects, usually becomes the chairman or prime minister.

"Whatever the apparent convenience might be of restricting the membership to five, however we discover by observation that the total number soon rises to seven or nine. The usual excuse given for this increase, which is almost invariable, is the need for special knowledge on more than four topics....There are cabinets in the world which have remained in this second stage - that is, have restricted their membership to nine. These remain, however, a small minority.

"Elsewhere and in large territories cabinets have generally been subject to a law of growth. Other members come to be admitted, some with a claim to special knowledge but more because of their nuisance value when excluded. Their opposition can be silenced only by implicating them in every decision that is made. As they are brought in (and placated) one after another, the total membership rises from ten toward twenty. In this third stage of cabinets, there are already considerable drawbacks."

Parkinson notes on these drawbacks as follows:

"The most immediately obvious of these disadvantages is the difficulty of assembling people at the same place, date and time....But that is only the beginning of the trouble....Relatively few were chosen from any idea that they are or could be or have been useful. A majority perhaps were brought in merely to conciliate some outside group. Their tendency is therefore to report what happens to the group they represent. All secrecy is lost....But the more these merely representative members assert themselves, the more loudly do other outside groups clamor for representation....The total of twenty is reached and passed. And thereby, quite suddenly, the cabinet enters the fourth and final stage of its history."

Parkinson continues,

"For at this point of cabinet development (between 20 and 22 members) the whole committee suffers an abrupt organic or chemical change. The nature of this change is easy to trace and comprehend. In the first place, the five members who matter will have taken to meeting beforehand. With decisions reached, little remains for the nominal executive to do....With the doors wide open, membership rises from 20 to 30, from 30 to 40. There may soon be an instance of such a membership reaching the thousand mark. But this does not matter. For the cabinet has already ceased to be a real cabinet...."

Then, Parkinson presents his inference.

"The coefficient of inefficiency [for a Cabinet] must lie between 19 and 22....It is known that with over 20 members present, a meeting begins to change character. Conversations develop separately at either end of the table. To make himself heard, the member has therefore to rise. Once on his feat, he cannot help making a speech, if only from force of habit....Amid all this drivel the useful men present, if there are any, exchange little notes that read, 'Lunch with me tomorrow - we'll fix it then'. What else they can do?"

In summary, Parkinson concludes, that for an efficient Cabinet, 

"somewhere between the number of 3 (when a quorum is impossible to collect) and approximately 21 (when the whole organism begins to perish), there lies the golden number."

Stimulated by Parkinson's thoughts, I tabulated the cabinet members in the American history, and surprisingly it has followed Parkinson's rule since George Washington's times. 

Washington's cabinet (between 1789 and 1797) had five members; secretary of state, secretary of treasury, secretary of war, attorney general and postmaster general. 72 years later, in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet (between 1861 and 1865), the number increased to 7, with two new posts added. These were, secretary of navy and secretary of interior. Then, 72 years later, Franklin Roosevelt's cabinet (1933-1945) had 10 members, with the inclusion of three additional members; secretary of agriculture, secretary of commerce and secretary of labor.

60 years later, Bill Clinton's cabinet (since 1993) has 14 members - well within, Parkinson's range of 'golden number'. It is notable to mention that from Washington's period to Harry Truman's time, the current position - euphemistically tagged as 'secretary of defense' was exactly designated as 'secretary of war'.

I guess that the currently functioning 'shadow cabinet' of Eelam also has adhered well to Parkinson's dictum of Washington's and Lincoln's eras. But Chandrika's new cabinet is not. It has to be given a new name. 

Among my choices, the phrase 'three ring circus' seems appropriate. The American Heritage Dictionary provides two definitions for this beautiful phrase. The formal one is, "a circus having simultaneous performances in three separate rings." The informal one is, "a situation characterized by confusing, engrossing or amusing activity." Both definitions fit well for Chandrika's new team. Chandrika plays the role of juggler. The hawkish prime minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake is the new ring master. And there are more than 40 clowns (archaic, old, new, masked and unmasked types) competing with each other for attention.

I'm also sure that, in the near future, Chandrika will have the urge to expand the Cabinet number to reach 50. In this case, she will have a tough time, splitting the existing ministries. 

One of my suggestions is that the ministry of energy needs a multi-split. In high school physics, we learnt that energy exists in many forms, such as heat, light, sound, electricity and magnetism. Thus, Chandrika can create separate ministries for heat energy, light energy, sound (noise!) energy, electricity energy and magnetic energy. 

I also noticed a preponderance of ministries with the suffix tag 'Affairs'. How about creating a new ministry for 'Love Affairs', which in turn can be split into three such as - Ministry of Pre-marital Love Affairs, Ministry of Post-marital Love Affairs and Ministry of Extra-Marital Love Affairs'? 

During the recent election season, there was some publicity for two (including one, made at a post-event conference of Sydney Olympics) of Chandrika's cabinet ministers displaying their expertise in these affairs. Thus, each of these three ministries on Love Affairs can be further divided, if occasion demands, into [Men] and [Women]!


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