N Sathiya Moorthy
It is not without reason. As promised at the outset and doused along the line by the very protagonists and propagators, the document has now failed to set Kelani Ganga or any other river in the country on fire. If anything, on most of the controversial issues that have dogged the nation almost from the very day JRJ commended and commanded the Second Republican Constitution exactly three decades ago, it has not provided any workable answers, but only suggestions that the nation still needs to thrash out.
Aside from the commendable fact that the Maithiri-Ranil dual leadership has actually caused the presentation of the Steering Committee’s Draft Report to the Constitutional Assembly, a laParliament, it has as much a long way to go before the nation could see much light, if at all, on this score. The fact that the presentation itself got timed to the UN General Assembly, preceded by what has become the customary, bi-annual Sri Lanka-linked UNHRC session in Geneva, may also seek to impress the international community, which does not know which way to go, the document does not seem to have impressed anyone nearer home.
It all boils down to a document where known positions have either been reiterated, or provisions have been made for those positions to be reiterated when Parliament and the nation commences the customary discourse(s) on the same. If nothing else, the Steering Committee discussions and debates do not seem to have produced evidence that any or all of the stake-holders have revised any of their known positions on contentious issues more than any time in the past.
Great leap of faith
Kudos, however, to the TNA’s parliamentary leadership for taking the first real step for national reconciliation on their own, by declaring that they are no more obsessed with rephrasing the Sri Lankan State as anything but ‘Unitary’ as it exists now. Better still, they are ready to accept the continuance of the ‘Unitary’ terminology with a negotiated conferment of ‘Federal’ characters into the Constitution.
It’s a great leap of faith, and an expression of that great leap of faith in the Sri Lankan State and the State structure. When and how the majority Sinhala society and polity respond to the same will also determine the fate of the new constitutional scheme, with or without a new statute in the place of the existing one. However, even without the latter, there are issues.
Away from status quo
This is the fourth Constitution for Independent Sri Lanka since the days of the Soulbury document. It is fifth, including the Donoughmore Constitution, 1931. This does not exclude the fact that most, if not all, of them did undergo various amendments during their life-time. Yet, every time someone at the helm thought of directing or mis-directing the nation away from the status quo (the latter often unintended, yet real all the same), he thought of a new Constitution, not a new way to work the existing document, which was easier and less problematic.
Another problem with Constitution-making in the country is that every initiator seems wanting to leave behind a great legacy and only that (whatever be his/her limited or expansive meaning and understanding of that esoteric term called ‘legacy’). Or, that is what they believed and wanted the world to believe. But then, they were actually doing the exact opposite, knowingly or otherwise. Worse is the reverse, and that has mostly been the Sri Lankan experience, then and now.
In doing so, they were not leaving behind a future legacy but instant troubles that they were incapable of handling, as all their times and energies had been wedded to the idea of legacy-making, not looking at workable solutions to solvable problems at hand. They created simple-looking solutions which became complex and complicated as it went up on the altar, owing to factors that they had not thought of sorting out beforehand.
There is a need to understand this factor in post-Independence Sri Lankan context. It might sound theoretical and at times wishful, too, at this distance in time, but the repeat of the same old ways, make them look dangerous for the future, too. If nations do not learn from their own mistakes which they have every right to make at infancy, as humans do, they will live only to make more of the same, in tune with the changing times and environment. The temptation for committing hara-kiri gets embedded in the nation’s genes.
It is sad that great leaders do not ask the question, “After me, who?” when they should have asked. Maybe, they have as much of a mission as they have the vision to take the nation to their own goals, but they often forget that democracies have their own ways not to leave them at the helm for the full time they want to be around to convert their inspirations for the nation into aspirations and those aspirations into actionable plans that are workable on the ground, by people who inherit their power, not necessarily their legacy.
The ‘Sinhala Only’ Act was the only way S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike thought that he could retain his left-leaning political constituency, which had voted him onto power in 1956, over economic, not religious-linguistic nationalism. Not only did he fail on the economic front, he also failed on his own very mission and paid for it with his own life.
With that, SWRD also took the nation down with him. He is remembered still, yes, but his legacy has left behind a seep scar that the nation is still fighting to erase. In a way, to SWRD should get the credit for creating conditions for the emergence, not only of militancy JVP, purportedly based on socio-economic inequities, but also putting into them the idea of ‘left-nationalist’, religious-linguistic identity, which was/is otherwise an anathema to the global political left, then and now.
Absolute power, absolute progress?
Despite reservations of every which kind, JRJ thought that his final version of the 13-A was the best for the nation and possibly believed in it too. Unfortunately, he forgot the immediate reality that he would not be around to see it through. Despite Lee Kwan Yew’s lessons on ‘absolute power for absolute progress’, JRJ forgot Sri Lanka was more than a vibrant democracy bordering on the chaotic, and not an autocracy as Lee’s Singapore.
It is anybody’s guess why Ranasinghe Premadasa should have taken the other extreme, ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist line’ for a party that was/is ‘right, liberal otherwise’ and succeeded in doing it too.
It only boils down to two possibilities even at this distant day in time. Either Premadasa believed in what he preached as JRJ did in his time, and the ‘liberal’ UNP has had space for both views as the ‘umbrella organisation’ inherited from the pre-Independence era, or he feared that his SLFP opposition might upstage him in the game in Elections-1989 after having stood out for long when JRJ had almost decimated the party and leadership through popularity and cunning at the same time.
It may beat anyone why if Premadasa was a ‘nationalist’ as he was seen to be, still went ahead and did shady political business with the treacherous LTTE, for which he paid with his dear life, and the nation with its leadership when it was at cross-roads all over again. If his problem was with asking IPKF to leave the country, as promised during elections, he should have known that dealing with States was a easier way out than dealing with non-State actors.
Worse still, on the one hand, Premadasa was continuing to decimate whatever remained of the militant JVP on the Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist front. But on the other, his indulgence of the LTTE at yet another crucial stage in its career meant that after assassinating President Premadasa, they had a free run of the North and the East until Endgame-2009, nearly two decades later.
If the LTTE used the interregnum of political instability offered by the Premadasa assassination (preceded by the IPKF exit) to expand themselves as a conventional force with territory and ‘political administration’ like courts, stamp and post-offices as symbols thereof, their dream ‘state’ did not materialise, not because of the Sri Lankan State but despite the latter. No nation would recognise ‘Eelam state’, then or later. Hence, Sri Lanka escaped the odium of secession at a time when it was possibly least prepared to take on.
Greater legacy, but…
In her time, Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga did her best to leave behind a greater legacy than JRJ, and the ground conditions too were just right for doing it. Where then did she mess up? She possibly did not recognise that she was on the verge of leaving behind a legacy that would be unmatched in South Asian history.
It is anybody’s guess if the UNP under present-day Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe would have accepted the successive ‘CBK Packages’ for a political solution to the ethnic war and violence, but by putting her own political future ahead or along with the very same constitutional package, she gave them a handle to beat not only her but the entire scheme.
To date, none including war-victorious President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has recorded more than CBK’s 62-per cent voter-support in 1994, including a high incidence of Tamil-backing and so very openly. Yet, her dilly-dallying over what to do with that voter-support and the subsequent fear of the ‘UNP unknown’ meant that she also gave political space in the Tamil areas for the LTTE to re-enter the process close to its heart and hijack it all back to war and violence that they were more comfortable with.
Less said about Rajapaksa who was wronged as much as wronged – the former by the TNA, which is now ready to do business with the Maithiri-Ranil duo leadership without pre-conditions of the kind they had laid to the war-victor, who also saw himself as the one. They have no hesitation in joining the Steering Committee process when the international community unthinkingly backed the duo’s even more impractical promise of a new Constitution, post-poll-2015, but would want the Rajapaksa regime to negotiate with them and only with them – whether from within the Tamil polity or the larger Sinhala majority or Muslim minority counterparts.
As it turned out, again, like the rest of them all, Mahinda R was also focussed more on winning a non-existent third term under the existing Constitution than looking at the middle and long terms. If JRJ had a solution without a longer term in office, Rajapaksa had neither. One, he thought he could get, the other he did not possible care, as seriously, for, forgetting that barring Bush Jr, no war-winning world leader has ever won a fresh electoral term, afterwards.
Last laugh, but…
Today, when the nation is looking for a break from the past, and seems to have concluded that the incumbent twin-leadership also implies ‘national consensus’, the latter has come up with a Steering Committee on Constitution-making, which is mostly of proposals and propositions, not any decisions and directions. In a way, it is welcome, yes, as more discourse is required after all in a democracy, but the question arises why the Committee did not attempt to get the all-party representatives on board to come up with their comments and incorporate them, or disagree with them, and thus present a complete document for the nation to understand and take off from there.
Independent of the contradictions that the document has thrown up on specific issues and areas, there is the real differences between the Government and the Rajapaksa-centric Joint Opposition on the one hand, and between the SLFP faction in the Government and the majority UNP partner, which seems per se united at the moment.
There are then the internal differences within the Tamil moderates, both of whom seem united on the ‘federal’ hopes given by the Supreme Court earlier but not substantially covered by the Steering Committee Report. The internal TNA differences are as much ideological as they are personality-driven, and on occasions like this one in the pre-war past, the hard-liners won the day. Neither the Tamils can ignore this fact, nor can the nation ignore this, either.
Within the Government, the SLFP faction wants ‘Executive Presidency’, a contentious issue all the same since creation by and for JRJ. Like all his predecessors, incumbent Maithiripala Sirisena has gone back on the same, but the UNP, it would seem, will have none of it.
Better or worse still, PM Ranil wants to create a legacy that the international community praises him for (whatever the domestic constituencies) may have to say on the same. President Sirisena is yet to react on the Steering Committee Report, nor has any of his identifiable aides and spokesmen said anything substantial. Obviously, as has become his wont in his long political career and much shorter presidential job, he has always let others do the talking all the time, but has had the last laugh, legacy or no legacy!