By Rajan Philips –
The three Prime Ministers may not have much, even anything, in common. However, the extreme contrasts between them and their situations are quite revelatory of the equally extremely divergent ways in which the political systems of India, the UK and Sri Lanka are currently unfolding in spite of their common origins. Prime Minister Modi is at the pinnacle of power in India, even though the beginning of his second term in office is having rather rough starts in quite a few areas. Boris Johnson is the weakest Prime Minister in British parliamentary history, but its loudest mouth. Known throughout his life more for buffoonery than serious judgement, Mr. Johnson is now seriously threatening to drag Britain from the farce of a referendum to the tragedy of a no-deal Brexit. As for, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, he has once again established his increasing irrelevance in his home country by going to the Maldives to lecture on his constitutional (non) achievements in Sri Lanka.
Back home, the PM’s partner turned nemesis, President Sirisena, is trying to shift gears from personal sulking to political equanimity. He is trying to break away from blaming everyone else to pretending that all is well for the SLFP because it doesn’t have to worry about the presidential election and can focus on winning the parliamentary election. It is the parliament and the Prime Minister that matter now, post 19A, enlightens Mr. Sirisena, and so he doesn’t understand all the fuss about running to be president. Could it be that Sirisena is dreaming of a scenario in which he could be the all-powerful Prime Minister after the next parliamentary elections, with either Gotabaya Rajapaksa or Sajith Premadasa as President and a long list of IOUs to draw from? But Sirisena’s stars could be such that by some bizarre turn of events, which is always possible in Sri Lanka, he might end up as PM to Ranil Wickremesinghe as President. It was reported yesterday, that Mr. Wickremesinghe is still insisting to party insiders that he, and not Sajith Premadasa, should be the UNP’s presidential candidate.
The point about these possibilities is their silliness. Needless to say, they form the burden of much of what goes for political commentary, but they are also the manifestation of the total vacuum of contentious ideas and principled differences among the leading political contenders. Try aligning any of the potential presidential candidates not with so much as a set of distinguishing ideas, but just one solitary idea – anything worthwhile that we might say fell from the lips of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sajith Premadasa, or anyone else. The Sri Lankan situation is so much different from what is transpiring in India and in Britain.
While there are personalities and clashes involved in the political controversies in those two countries with their dramatic effects, the controversies are fundamentally about ideas and issues, about political directions and policy choices. Not so in Sri Lanka. The issues that were in the forefront at the last presidential election, no need to recount them ad nauseum, have all but withered away except for the empty echo by Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister in the Maldivian parliament. In Britain, Brexit has become the be-all and end-all of the kingdom. In India, the controversies keep multiplying even as Modi is matching his assumption of power with popular support.
Modi’s second term
Prime Minister Modi’s second election victory four months ago was not only as spectacular as his first victory five years ago, it was also more substantial than the first win. This time Modi and the BJP extended the geographical reach of their success outside the Hindi heartland, especially in West Bengal that has been for so long the seat of India’s only left-wing state government. Whereas Modi’s first government managed a very smooth transition after ten years of Congress rule under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the beginning of the second term has run into rather rough starters on quite a few fronts. India’s economy is on a definite slowdown despite all the efforts of the government to fudge about it. The auto-sector in particular is in deep trouble. The Kashmir question has bedeviled every Indian government, but the revocation of Article 370, which had helped to contain the crisis, has only aggravated it.
And in somewhat of a soap-operatic move, the former Congress Finance and Home Minister, P. Chidambaram, has been sent to pre-trial jail for alleged foreign exchange fraud and money laundering by the former minister and his swashbuckling son, Karthik Chidambaram. Mr. P. Chidambaram, now a Rajya Sabha Member, has emerged as the most articulate critic of the government from the depleted Congress ranks in parliament. Measured and eloquent, Chidambaram took the government to task over Kashmir and poked fun at the new budget of the BJP’s (and even India’s, if you exclude Prime Minister Indira Gandhi) first female Finance Minister and fellow Tamilian, Nirmala Sitharaman. Chidambaram’s arrest and imprisonment without any charge sheet to facilitate the investigation of alleged financial crimes, have raised accusations of political vendetta, overkill investigations, and conflicting judicial rulings.
More than anything else, it is the slowdown of the economy that will be Modi’s and the BJP government’s biggest challenge. The government has become far more aggressive in pushing its Hindutva agenda after the second term win than it was during Modi’s first term in office. Kashmir, the vendetta against political opponents, the national identity card imposition in Assam are among a long list of precipitous actions by the government. It goes beyond the government. In Delhi’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), emeritus professors over 75 years age are being asked to submit their curriculum vitae to university bureaucrats who will assess their current research work on a case by case basis and determine whether or not their emeritus status should be continued.
One of the retired dons receiving the clerk’s missive is Romila Thapar, the venerated historian of ancient India who is 88 years old. The government and the university authorities would have appeared less stupid and more honest if they had tried to rename the university as Sardar Patel University, not that the late Patel would have countenanced any of this. The fact of the matter is that the BJP is out to dismantle every legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. All of this would have worked if the economy were firing on all cylinders. But a sputtering economy, highlighted by huge job losses and plant shutdowns in the auto sector, is hardly a platform for pushing the Hindutva agenda. The next set of state assembly elections will indicate how the Modi magic is working. Or not working.
Brexit or ditch
“I’d rather be dead in a ditch”, said Prime Minister Johnson to a reporter who asked him if he would go to the EU for another extension of the Brexit deadline now set for October 31. Unlike in India, where there is nothing that can stop Prime Minister Modi from doing what he wants, the British Prime Minister cannot apparently do anything to get the only thing he wants and for which he became Prime Minister – to get the United Kingdom out of the European Union. Mr. Johnson has been repeatedly rebuked and defeated in parliament over the last week. First, a new law has been passed requiring the Prime Minister to ask for another extension of three months till January 31, 2020, to work out a new Brexit deal. Second, parliament also did not give the Prime Minister the two-thirds majority support that is required to force an early election in October. The Queen earlier acceded to the PM’s request for proroguing parliament, but even she cannot prematurely dissolve parliament.
The only hope for the Prime Minister to achieve Brexit without a deal before October 31, is for the EU or any of its members to reject the request for an extension. But that is not likely to happen because of the situation of Ireland, which wants its open border with Northern Ireland to remain and a Brexit without an agreement on the border will result in a hard border. Politically, Mr. Johnson fancies that a general election before October 31 will give him majority government to take Britain out of the EU without a deal. Ironically, if he manages to achieve Brexit without a deal and an election, he would be vilified and most likely defeated in the next general election for doing just that. With both the Conservatives and the Labour internally divided over Brexit, the most likely election outcome, according to most observers, is the emergence of a strong third party, coalescing around the Liberal-Democrats, and a hung parliament with no party having a clear majority.
How does one square the verdict of the Brexit referendum and the working of a hung parliament? This is an unnecessary paradox of democracy because it ignores the need for due deliberations in making complex public decisions. Quite rightly, the Courts held that a cabinet of ministers cannot decide on the terms of Brexit without ratification by parliament. It also ignores the question, who called the referendum and why? Prime Minister Cameron called the referendum that precipitated Brexit, to silence the diehard, Euro-skeptic backbenchers in the Conservative Party. Now, under Boris Johnson, hard Brexiteers have taken control of the Conservative Party and expelled over twenty Tory MPs who voted against the government. The Prime Minister’s own brother and a Tory MP, Jo Johnson, has not only left the Party but has also resigned from parliament. All in the name of a referendum result.
In comparison, the mechanism for checks and balance vis-à-vis the Modi government in India, if at all, should come from the federal system and not the national parliament, especially after this year’s election. A faltering economy will lead to the erosion of the public support Mr. Modi is currently enjoying. In Britain, it is the parliament that has become the real check on Prime Minister Johnson and his threat to go ahead with the Brexit misadventure. And in Sri Lanka, Ranil Wickremesinghe is not satisfied being Prime Minister and is determined to become the next President while insisting that the presidency should be abolished. On the other hand, the incumbent President is insisting that there is no point in anyone trying to become President, because after the 19th Amendment all the powers are with the Prime Minister. Sirisena and Wickremesinghe who checkmated each other in government, are on course to doing that in the upcoming elections as well.