By Dayan Jayatilleka –
‘India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in a resolution passed on India’s foreign policy, at its ongoing two-day national executive meeting in Bengaluru… said …Modi became “the first Prime Minister of Bharat to visit Jaffna…He invoked his idea of cooperative federalism and stressed upon the 13th Amendment and beyond.”’ (IANS news agency)
The 13th amendment was possible only because of the executive presidency. The system of provincial councils which was mooted by the Donoughmore Commission was never implemented under the Westminster model.
Every time anything came even close, it was rolled back or shut down. That was because of the ethnic outbidding which the first-past the post electoral system and the Westminster model were prone to in a society with the cultural configuration and ethno religious dynamics that we had.
It took the stable overarching framework of the Presidential system to make it sufficiently safe to experiment with an intermediate tier of devolved power and large units.
So what happens when that overarching framework is drastically altered?
When the ceiling is lowered, the Provincial Councils loom larger.
This is more so in the North and East with their ethnic consciousness and dynamics, as well as the proximity to Tamil Nadu and the attendant ideological osmosis.
Thus logically the 13th amendment must be right sized just as the executive Presidency is being reduced in size and scope. Logically we should return to the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact.
However, the dynamics in the north are working in the opposite direction and seek a push beyond the 13th amendment and the unitary framework itself.
This cannot but result in a push back in the South, which will manifest itself in a Westminster model and a first past the post system, in just the manner it did in the past.
If the new power wielders are too clever by half and delay the move beyond the unitary framework to the post-parliamentary election phase, then the blowback is likely to take different, less institutionalized forms.
State repression is likely to be the result, triggering cycles of nationalist resistance and repression, leading to de-legitimation of the regime.
None of this can help either ethnic reconciliation or economic stability.
So why on earth start down that road?
Instead let us retain and reform the status quo.
As the Americans say, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. The Presidential system ain’t broke. Yet the new government is not only trying to fix it; it is going way beyond, by trying to break it and then fix it back in an old shape.
The 13th amendment ain’t broke. It just needs streamlining. So why go beyond the 13th amendment? Why not simply improve upon it?
The experience of Gorbachev led Deng Hsiao Peng to understand that you mustn’t attempt more than one big reform at one time. Why go against that wisdom and try to drastically reform the executive presidency, the 13th amendment and the electoral system all at the same time or in rapid uninterrupted sequence?
What if the whole darn thing goes haywire? What if it all blows up? What will emerge through the fissures of a dismantled state structure?
It is now in the public domain that Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran is at odds with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. He and his Provincial Councilors have absented themselves from events convened by the PM. What does this show?
It has long been said that the maximum that the most moderate of Sinhala politicians is willing to go falls short of the minimum that the most moderate Tamil politicians are satisfied with. This truism has always been thought to demonstrate the obduracy of Sinhala politicians. But what if that’s the opposite of the real lesson to be derived? What if the real lesson is about the immoderation of the moderate mainstream Tamil politicians? What if that immoderation eventually sinks the moderate Sinhala political partners of the Tamil moderates?
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe may not be dove-ish enough for Chef Minister Wigneswaran but he is easily the most dove-ish of frontline Sri Lankan politicians and has been so for almost two decades– so dove-ish that he has been persistently accused of appeasement; of being ready to give away the store; of suffering from a wimp factor when it comes to Tamil nationalism while being a ruthless hawk when it comes to Southern dissent be it nationalist or leftist. And yet, here is the Northern Chief Minister being publicly critical of him for not showing sufficient readiness to give away the store fast enough. Mr. Wigneswaran wants a fire sale. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe isn’t willing to do so, roughly a hundred days before an election. Therefore Mr. Wigneswaran thumbs his nose at the Prime Minister. What does this say of Mr. Wigneswaran?
Mr. Wigneswaran insists that all but a few military camps should be vacated from the North. But who is to decide what’s essential and what’s not: the Northern Chief Minister or those who are professionally competent in making strategic and security assessments, i.e. the Sri Lankan military? Mr. Wigneswaran urges that the army be replaced by the Police in the North. Well, in certain roles and duties, most certainly, but in terms of a physical presence in the north, most certainly not. Which country replaces the army with the Police in a sensitive, porous, vulnerable border area, security perimeter and potential frontline? Which country would do so, just half a decade after the end of a bitter, thirty year secessionist–terrorist war?
It can be credibly argued that Mr. Wigneswaran is more moderate than most TNA politicians and that he therefore has to keep pace with them. After all, Mr. Sritharan, MP, did say just recently, that Prabhakaran remains his Thalaivar (leader) while Indian PM Modi has become his model. That leaves open three questions: is it the role of the Northern Chief Minister or any leader, to stay ahead of the most irresponsibly radical sentiments of his colleagues or to rein them in? If so what can one conclude about the consciousness of the underlying constituency and the likely direction of political developments? And given the combination of the lack of a strong moderate leadership and a radical political consciousness, what should be the constitutional, political and institutional framework that can keep the country secure and united?
There is a more basic question too. This Chief Minister has had a contradiction with the administration of President Rajapaksa as well as the quite different political personality Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. Logic teaches us that if the same phenomenon arises in the presence of two drastically distinct stimuli, then the cause has to be sought in that which is unchanged rather than that which changes.
Furthermore, Mr. Wigneswaran is not the only Northern Chief Minister to have friction with the Government of Sri Lanka. The earlier, first Chief Minister of the area, Vardarajahperumal had a political collision with President Ranasinghe Premadasa, just at the time when the latter was heavily besieged by the ultranationalist, anti-devolution, anti-Indian JVP uprising. With a qurter of a century between them, both Perumal and Wigneswaran criticized the 13th amendment as insufficient even before they took office. The critique of 13A as insufficient was a priori, and entirely without empirical verification.
Of course, both Perumal and Wigneswaran have reasons to give with regard to their contradictions with the Government of the day, and not all of those reasons lack legitimacy, but when a country has had only two Northern Chief Ministers from very different ideological backgrounds (Perumal was a leftist) and they have both developed contradictions with three quite different dispensations in Colombo, in different decades– indeed centuries– and in very different historical contexts, then surely, we have to go by the weight of empirical evidence and the dictum of Einstein who defined lunacy as trying the same experiment over and over again and expecting a different result.
I initially advocated and supported, at very considerable political, social and personal cost, both experiments under the 13th amendment. I cannot be blind to the evidence of Northern political recidivism. At the very least there has to be a freeze on devolution, with no movement beyond or to build upon the 13th amendment. It may even be necessary to dissolve a recalcitrant Council while retaining the 13th amendment if only for pragmatic reasons of geopolitics, and run the North through an interim administration comprising entirely of progressive Tamil political elements whose loyalty to the Sri Lankan State have been proven beyond reasonable doubt. This can be a transition measure until Tamil politics comes to its senses and Colombo can count on a moderate, responsible Tamil (sub) nationalist partner.