by Rajan Philips
No previous Sri Lankan government has been as powerful as the present one. It has an elected Executive assured of tenure for another seven years. It just won a majority in the legislature that is incredible under proportionate representation.
The judiciary is institutionally independent but individually subservient at the highest levels, save for a handful of gutsy female and male judges in the lower courts. Defense is the pampered portfolio continuing to consume the biggest share of government spending even in a belt-tightening budget that is also half-assed without the revenue estimates.
All of this power notwithstanding, the government is hell bent on creating its Achilles Heel by proposing to override Article 31 (2) of the Constitution that disqualifies a person from being elected for more than two terms as President. On the Tamil question, the government is bordering on madness in trying to forge alliances with unelected Tamils who are either Diaspora political nondescripts or have earned significant notoriety. Neither path is inevitable for the government can simply avoid both of them.
The ostensible reason for rescinding Article 31 (2) is to ensure political stability at the end of the second presidential term, but by proposing it now the government is courting instability even before the incumbent’s second term has started (belatedly due in November thanks to the infamous Third Amendment). Rescinding Article 31 (2) will require a two-thirds majority which the government lacks by a mere six votes at present. It should not be a problem in the current parliamentary culture to cause half a dozen UNPers to cross the aisle. But the socialists within the government are threatening to be the proverbial fly in the presidential ointment. And by choosing to dance with the rump of the LTTE, the government is ruling out the support of the TNA for constitutional changes.
The Left and the Constitution
Although now less than a shadow of the formidable force it used to be, the Left within the government, comprised of a handful of MPs who are more nominated than elected, can be the nucleus of discontent against the move to extend the presidential tenure beyond two terms. In fact, directly and/or indirectly they can defeat the move in parliament by denying the two-thirds majority it requires. Such a defeat could be a blessing in disguise for the government, which needs to focus on governing properly now rather than scheming to govern with impropriety seven years from now.
Kumar David, a lifelong Sama Samajist - the Sri Lankan political tradition he perhaps values more than his brilliant international academic career in Electrical Engineering, has put his old comrades now part of the government on the public spot. In a fraternally polemical piece published in the Sunday Island last week, Kumar has reminded the DEWs, Tissas and Vasus, what they really don’t need to be reminded of. There is no way they can support President Rajapakse extending his tenure beyond two elected terms. To do so would be to fly in the face of personal honour and the tradition of their political parties.
In 1976, when Felix Dias tried to read too cleverly the provision in the 1972 Constitution that extended the 1970 parliament by two years – to give his government a further extension, Dr. Colvin R. de Silva publicly savaged the Felixian over-interpretation in an article published in the then Nation. Felix Dias tried another trick – that the truncated United Front government (of the SLFP and the CP, with the LSSP already out of the UF) still had a two-thirds majority to amend the Constitution and extend parliament. It was Pieter Keuneman’s turn to pounce on Felix – correcting his arithmetic and chiding him for taking the Communist Party numbers for granted. More than thirty years later, the Socialist Alliance in the Rajapakse government has no choice but to oppose any move to extend the tenure of President Rajapakse.
It was not only the LSSP and the CP that thwarted Felix’s satanic schemes to prolong parliament in 1976. There were others within the SLFP who were opposed to undemocratically prolonging parliament and who contributed to the eventual dissolution of parliament and the general elections of 1977. The current members of the SLFP ought to sustain the democratic tradition of their Party and advise the President to abandon the idea of extending his term in office. Unlike in 1976, there is no fear of election if the move to extend the presidency is put to rest or defeated. It would enable the President and the government to get back to the business of governing and stop the schemers in his entourage from distracting from the task of governing.
Like Kumar David’s Sunday missive to his political kindreds, the SLFPers too have received a reminder of their obligations from one of their own, Nihal Jayawickrama, legal scholar and academic and who was Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, in the UF government in the 1970s. In a prominent op-ed piece in the same Sunday Island (that carried David’s article), Nihal Jayawickrama has not only warned to stop monkeying with the constitution but also offered enlightened advice about the parameters that should guide future constitutional changes. In particular, he has noted the failure of the 1972 and the 1978 Constitutions to hear or recognize the voice of the Tamils “expressed so clearly and unequivocally in successive general elections”.
The TNA and the Constitution
That brings me to the Tamil question. Rather than listening to Tamil voices expressed through proper channels and engaging the elected representatives of the Tamils, the government is trying to create ventriloquist’s Tamil dummies to parrot its own mantras and run cabinet circuses around the countryside. Take the much ridiculed plan to hold a cabinet meeting in Kilinochchi.
I am not sure if anyone in the government is familiar with the recommendation of the Donoughmore Commission to hold State Council sessions in Provincial capitals – Jaffna, Kandy and Galle. This was one of the federalizing features recommended by the British commissioners but lazily ignored by local political leaders – both Sinhalese (up-country as well as low-country) and Tamils. India’s size and diversity automatically necessitated the federalizing of functions and organization already from the British period. The Donoughmore Commission recognized a federalizing need in Sri Lanka admittedly for less pressing reasons, but primarily to overcome the serious disparities between the Colombo heartland and the provincial hinterlands, as well as to address the demand for a federal set up then touted by the Kandyan Sinhalese.
The political elites, Sinhalese and Tamils, were oblivious to the disparity between Colombo and the villages. Their working lives were based on their Cinnamon Garden bungalows in Colombo with the country homes in their natal villages providing relaxing resorts. National politics in their imagination – except for Bandaranaike and later Chelvanayakam, was seamless and continuous. And the Kandyan Sinhalese fascination for federalism was neutralized by the disenfranchisement of the estate Tamils.
The end of the war may have patched up the physical fissures in the country, but emotional and political scars require not only time but also hard and sincere governmental effort to heal. Taking the cabinet of ministers to Kilinochchi, 80 years after the Donoughmore recommendation, is nothing but a thoughtless gimmick at best or a sign of bankruptcy of thought at worst. The people in the provinces, especially the North and East, are not expecting the government to waste money on a travelling cabinet circus from Colombo but are waiting to have their own small cabinets of ministers for decision making closer to home.
The government may soon give the Tamils a cabinet or two of ministers, comprised not of people whom the Tamils would like to have as their leaders, but people whom the government thinks the Tamils should have as leaders and whom the government can control and manipulate. Fishing for Tamil political lackeys is as old as universal franchise in Sri Lanka. And the choice of lackeys has ranged from “mountain streams ending in mud” to plain hacks and even thugs becoming pointless ministers. The latest fishing expedition is different from anything previous in form and in content.
It is not necessary to go into the details of this expedition, which is more like a crime story than a political story, or the names of individuals who are not worth mentioning in any political analysis. What is necessary to point out is that after defeating the LTTE with disproportionate ferocity and claiming that it was done to liberate the Tamils from the stranglehold of the LTTE, the government is preparing to use a rump of the LTTE to inflict on the Tamils a continuation of the war by other means.
The government is reportedly manipulating the former LTTE gunrunner to assemble a coalition of Diaspora Tamil busybodies representing no one but themselves. Not surprisingly, some of them have come out with revelations that are indicative of the government’s arrogance and highhandedness and not a generous understanding of Tamil politics or sympathy for the plight of the Tamil victims of war. There is no serious method in this madness except native cunning and military intelligence. It might be intended to neutralize the Transnational Government (TNG) sections of the Tamil Diaspora, but it will only backfire. The government schemes and the TNG project will not neutralize one another but only feed each other.
There is speculation that the new LTTE-rump coalition is the government’s counter to the Tamil National Alliance, the major elected Tamil political party, which supposedly has India’s blessing if not backing. If that is so, the government will have to contend with too many ‘counters’ to the TNA. They may all align themselves against the new arrival among lackeys and even align themselves with the TNA. The government’s machinations on the Tamil front are also inconsistent with its plans for the constitution.
The government may be calculating to have a constitutional quid pro quo with the TNA – offering a constitutional political solution in return for TNA’s support to extend the presidential term. But that calculation will not hold if the government alienates the TNA by cultivating the LTTE-rump as a counter to the TNA. The TNA would have been hard put to support an extension of the presidential term even in the best of times, and the government is making it easier for the TNA to reject it now.
While the Leftists in parliament cannot support the extension of the presidential term as a matter of principle and personal honour, the TNA MPs cannot support it as well for reasons of electoral expediency. They too must remember the words of their once revered leader, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, in March 1965, when the Federal Party’s support was solicited by both the UNP and the SLFP: “we might lose everything, but we will have our honour intact.”
There is neither principle nor honour in rescinding Article 31 (2) of the Constitution, or in co-opting former LTTE operatives to do government’s bidding. By proactively protesting against these moves, we could force the government to realize that its proposed actions may not even be expedient. This is hardly the way the President and his government should be starting the second term.