Constitutional Change and the Moribund Opposition

Constitutional Change and the Moribund Opposition


Sri Lanka’s experience with Constitutions is not a happy tale. The first and best, or at least the one that was preceded by the most extensive consultations, the Soulbury Constitution, proved ineffective in the face of Sinhala Only. The second, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike (or Colvin R de Silva) Constitution, which rightly instituted a republic, was otherwise so unenlightened as to spawn a separatist movement which, in its violent form, drastically damaged the country before destroying itself while leaving an unarmed offshore movement. The third, JRJ Jayewardene’s 1978 Constitution, concentrated and centralised power, partly triggering and partly unable to prevent two civil wars, North and South.

Whatever one may think of it as an idea, President Mahinda Rajapakse is well within his rights to seek the removal of term limits, provided he does by way of a process that is legal, transparent, democratic, Constitutional and peaceful. Let me put it another way. I support President Hugo Chavez’ effort to remove his two term limit by means of a referendum. Chavez failed at first, accepted the verdict and retreated, but returned to the fray and obtained an affirmative vote. So how can I oppose the same effort when made by President Rajapakse, especially when there is no patriotic or (more) progressive alternative in sight? Though they may be better served by a more enlightened and modernist policy mix, the important goals of national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity will be safer in Mahinda Rajapakse’s hands than those of his main opponent, given the options available in actuality.

As for the argument that Mahinda Rajapakse has submitted the economy to IMF conditionality and therefore his commitment to national independence and sovereignty is suspect if not hollow, I cannot but recall Lenin’s stinging rebuttal of the ‘economism’ of Rosa Luxemburg and Nikolai Bukharin who confused political sovereignty (achievable under imperialism) with economic sovereignty (unachievable in an imperialist world economy). Lenin’s willingness to let Western capitalists exploit the goldfields and forest reserves of Siberia under the NEP, in no way meant a compromise on or retreat from the political sovereignty of the state (which is why, in the same period, he broke off talks with the European Social democrats when they objected to the stiff sentences imposed by the Soviet state on its ‘left’ opponents).

Those who object to the Government’s proposed Constitutional change with respect to the two term limit or seek added safeguards, surely can and must petition the Supreme Court. My personal preference is that the idea should go before the people at a peaceful plebiscite as in Venezuela, but that too is a matter for the highest court to rule on.

Allergic as I am to quasi-monarchic ruler-ship (and I had the State’s repressive apparatus on my case for radically rebellious activities during both Mrs Bandaranaike’s and JRJ’s authoritarian stretches), I cannot but recall the most cynical wise-cracker of our revolutionary foco, the ‘Vikalpa Kandayama’, Chinthan de Silva, ex-Thomian son of an Anglican pastor, who used to say “these things happen in the best of circles, DJ”. I have been educated by a riveted reading of In Praise of Our Lords, the lengthy recent autobiography of one of my boyhood intellectual heroes Regis Debray. He observes that the longer the war and the greater the victory, the more the tendency to monarchic martial forms, styles and subcultures of rule. In a work almost two decades before, Critique of Political Reason, he had already observed this tendency in societies which have had a long historical experience of such institutions, and had detailed his amazement at witnessing this ‘throwback’ in places that had undergone a radical revolution. In making this observation more sharply in his autobiography he is referring to exceedingly admirable leaderships he has had close acquaintance with (the very “best of circles”), in more than one part of the world.

Thus, if we want someone to blame for these unsavoury corollaries of the war and its aftermath, let us place it where it is due, on those leaders and supportive social and ideological strata that dithered in winning a winnable war, needlessly prolonging it until a martial Sinhala nationalism became the guiding ideology for an imperative historical task, almost by default. As for myself I can console myself (and prove) that I strove tirelessly for decades to motivate leaders and administrations with a more inclusive, pluralist vision, to finish off the LTTE – but failed.

Speaking of Constitutional change, what could be more pathetic than the sight of the mainline Opposition party, the UNP, proving completely irrelevant to the Government’s search for a two thirds majority – unless of course, one counts the UNP’s contribution in the number of MPs it has generously donated over the years, to the incumbent administration, be it under CBK or MR.

As pathetic was Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya’s rousing call for Opposition unity, just a week before the first response came in, namely the decision of long standing UNP ally and Ranil think-alike Rauf Hakeem, to provide the Government the votes it needs for the change. Notably, the SLMC was preceded by a duo of radical (or militant) Tamil MPs.

Critics and opponents of the incumbent’s attempt at Constitutional change hope for broad opposition agreement to thwart it. While their apprehensions may well be valid, the slogan seems rather like closing the stable door after the horse of parliamentary arithmetic has bolted. What is more, it flies in the face of evidence. The UNP in Opposition didn’t raise a squeak against Sirimavo and Colvin’s Constitution of 1972 and indeed voted for it. A consequential opposition was born a year later, precisely when—and because—there was a new leadership, namely JR Jayewardene, who promptly ‘de-Senanayakised’ the party and together with R Premadasa, make it a modern formation with a populist appeal.

The fact of the matter is of course that today, no sane Opposition party will throw in its lot with a UNP that is determined to sink, owing to its reluctance to dispense with its discredited leadership. Our contemporary political history proves that efforts at unity achieve any kind of success only when there is a new personality at the helm.

I have worn out too many pairs of sneakers, marching in demonstrations of and for left unity, with every possible permutation and combination of Old and New Left/s, not to remember that it was a vain exercise in reshuffling the same deck of cards from 1978 to 1984, until something happened. That was the emergence of Vijaya Kumaratunga, a charismatic new leader, around whom the left converged and enjoyed a renewal until he was murdered by the JVP four years later.

This is true not only of the Left but of the mainstream UNP and SLFP as well. The UNP responded to the Hartal of 1953 by placing Sir John Kotelawela instead of Dudley Senanayake, while reacting to the electoral washout of 1956, by ditching Sir John and restoring Dudley. In short, it was a moving target, unlike today’s UNP. When the SLFP lost the first election of 1960 under the leadership of CP de Silva, it promptly installed SWRD Bandaranaike’s widow Sirimavo and won the next election that year. Again, the lesson is that of a new leadership.

Whatever the combinations of SLFP–led opposition unity (and these included unprincipled blocs with the JVP) the UNP was electorally impregnable for 17 years, so long as Mrs Bandaranaike was the visible leader. The moment that changed and the leadership of the SLFP was taken over by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (who was not only a Bandaranaike of the younger generation, but unlike her brother, also had a progressive profile enhanced by her Kumaratunga tag), the Opposition revived, gathered new forces around it and was a strong contender for power.

It is not entirely fair though, is it, to keep blaming Ranil Wickremesinghe for the plight of the UNP, the Opposition and the country? If a household continues to harbour the kind of receptacles that breed the dengue mosquito, is one to blame the mosquito (which must of course, be exorcised by fumigation) or the householders? Is it not the UNP parliamentarians and office bearers who must take the blame for their unwillingness or inability to do the obviously imperative and overdue thing, i.e. practice political euthanasia to ensure the greater good of the greater number?

/ The 18th Amendment

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