By Kumar David –
The moan is common enough that many Members of Parliament are venal, not particularly well educated and unworthy of esteem – not everyone but a sufficiently large number to tar the reputation of the institution. It was not always so; parliaments of Ceylon/Lanka did seat men of the calibre of NM, SWRD, Colvin, Peiter and Suntheralingam. Their contributions were of intellectual merit. Not only were they of impeccable personal integrity immune from any trace of pecuniary misconduct, they also contributed to a robust and democratic polity by the extraordinary courage they displayed at times of crisis. It would be most uncharitable to write off every member of recent parliaments as unworthy, but the common refrain at every street corner is that parliament is degenerate.
The matter of concern to today’s column is that the parliament to be elected on August 5 should be independent, strong, not cowed down by an all-powerful executive. It should be able stand with its head held high and take its place as one of three pillars on which constitutional democracy is founded. But there is reason to be apprehensive that this will not be the case. There is every possibility that a goodly majority of post 5 August MPs will be the puppies responding dog-whistles of an Executive master. In the days of the State Council it was men of the calibre of NM, Phillip and Dr Wicks who made the institutions of the Donoughmore Constitution robust and cleared the way for a meaningful parliament in the 25 years of the Soulbury Constitution.
It is not slander or pessimism to fear that the post August 5 parliament will a lapdog of a strong executive. The SLPP is heading for a clear majority but its candidates are mere creatures of the Paksa Brotherhood. There is not one man or woman in its ranks of the calibre of the great parliamentarians of our past, who will stand up and be counted as a people’s tribune should the need arise. But this personal aspect concerns me less than its constitutional implication; one of the three pillars crumbles into the shadow of another. The legislature morphs into a creature on the leash of the executive. It was not long ago that a parliamentary majority including one-time leftists Tissa, DEW, Vasu and Dinesh danced like harlots and flouted decency to impeach CJ Shirani who had committed no offence; who enacted the deceitful 18-th Amendment. Do you doubt that the next five years will be any different?
The judiciary too does not inspire confidence. The recent judgement of the Supreme Court raised eyebrows. The legal luminaire of lower and higher courts, the AG’s department and a virulently divisive legal “fraternity” is a cacophony. Hence the third pillar of state too is incapacitated; its stature diminished. Months ago, I warned in this column that the road to dictatorship in Sri Lanka will not be a power grab or a coup but a process mediated by the erosion of institutions. Post August 5 we will see this accelerate.
The one institution in the country that rivals our worst MPs is sections of the print and electronic media, mainly but not exclusively Sinhala. The lies and distortions that the media get away with is jaw dropping. Ratnajevan Hoole’s recent expose of brazen character assassination tells it all. That he is a Tamil accounts for the media’s and GLP’s witch hunt. There is no effective mechanism to hold the media to account for its lies. Justly, when you tell friends that you saw or read something on TV or the papers their first contemptuous reaction is ‘oh then it must be a lie’. When so many members of parliament make themselves disreputable the next place the cancer spreads to is the media.
I would have no hesitation in arguing that the NPP of which the JVP is a major constituent does live up to my title today calling for election of MP with “integrity and pluck”. I don’t need to argue the case because everybody, including those angered by the JVP’s 1971 insurrection and its 1989 folly, do concede that in parliament in the last nearly three decades the JVP established for itself a commendable record. The damn funny thing is the ludicrous irrationality of the electorate. Nine out of every ten people I meet declare the SLPP/SLFP and UNP/SJP “corrupt, inept and ignorant”, but eight of that nine will then proceed to vote for one of these cliques anyway! I have never in any other part of the world met such outlandish irrationality. Seven of every ten folks I meet unhesitatingly declares “Of the available lot the JVP is the best”. But how do you explain this – less than one in ten votes for the JVP! There is a disconnect that I have never seen anywhere else in Asia, Africa and the West in all of which places I have lived for years.
One part-credible explanation I have been offered is: “Why don’t those JVP buggers open up and admit that they blundered in 1971 and discuss the genesis of events and frankly discuss how and why they blundered? It was even worse in 1989!” I do know that internally the JVP has acknowledged that it screwed things up in 1971 and 1989, though the roots and causes have not been explored adequately. It would be good to prepare an official history of these two periods and perhaps invite Lionel Bopage to spend a month with the party writing a collaborative history of these two periods. How a party understands, analyses and corrects its mistakes is of utmost importance for its future. This would lay to rest the fears of those who are scared to vote for the NPP for events of three and five decades ago.
Electing persons of political integrity and pluralist values is of significance for furthering the cause of the national minorities. Parliament has been a platform for Tamils for decades. They have long used it to launch campaigns for a political fairness. Unfortunately, the FP/TNA, the TNA’s forerunners and the Tamils have been taken for endless rides by the two main parties in the South. The TNA sems to have been sold a perpetual season-ticket for going on political rides. The NPP is a trustworthy ally as evidenced by its policy document released for the presidential election of 2019. It calls for release of political prisoners, establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, empowering the Commission on the Disappeared to deliver justice to families of victims, it demands release of military occupied lands to owners, terminating ethnic based colonisation anywhere in the country and economic upliftment of war affected areas. Though politically cautious it calls for the devolution of political and administrative power.
These proposals motivate robust dialogue and form the basis for sound constitutional reforms. Against this setting the SLPP/SLFP and UNP/SJP (Sajith) are jointly and severally a motley bunch of political tricksters and slouches in respect of Tamil and Muslim affairs. It is a great pity that in 70 post-independence years, with the brief exception of Pokey Kandiah (Point Pedro Communist MP from 1956-60) no Tamil or Muslim has been elected to parliament from a left party. This is a grave shortcoming in minority politics. And now once again the minorities have the opportunity to rectify this inadequacy by taking their pick from a slew of NPP candidates. Tamils and Muslims need proactive representatives in parliament who also have a standing in trade unions, peasant unions and in socio-economic movements. This is the nexus that liberals like the TNA and conventional Muslim parties lack. Hence I conclude by broadening the scope of my title from “integrity and pluck” to include the need for progressive minority community MPs (leftists to put it bluntly) who will stand up for minority rights in parliament.