By Rajan Philips –
The best post-election comment in my view was in the statement of TNA Leader, R. Sampanthan, wherein he said that “the results of this election offers everyone an opportunity which should be fully utilized in a positive manner.” The principal actors in the utilization of this new opportunity are of course the Rajapaksa government in the south and the newly elected and TNA-led Provincial Council in the north. I am using the terms ‘old south’ and ‘new north’ merely in the context of the UPFA’s now routine victories in the Northwest Province and the Central Province, and the TNA’s overwhelmingly emphatic performance in the Northern Province. The congenital devolution detractors do not have to see any ‘seeds of separation’ in my allusions to new north and old south.
Mr. Sampanthan’s statement has categorically laid to rest the canard that the TNA is still nurturing separatism with the assertion that: “The democratic verdict of the (Tamil) people is clear. Within the framework of a united, undivided country, they want to live in security, safeguarding their self-respect and dignity with adequate self-rule, to be able to fulfill their legitimate political, economic, social and cultural aspirations.” It is time to move on and leave behind those who insist on barking and braying. What is needed is a new political A9 highway allowing the free flow of two way political and administrative traffic between the government in Colombo and the new NPC in Jaffna.
The big question is if the Rajapaksa government will allow the new Northern Provincial Council (NPC) with C.V. Wigneswaran as the electorally mandated Chief Minister, to fulfill its constitutional purpose as a concurrent and co-ordinate arm of the state, created to enable provincial self-rule in an undivided country. The constitutional purpose cannot be clearer, although the contours of that purpose and their extensibility are subject to administrative decisions, judicial interpretation and future political agreements. These could go on forever, but nothing will go ahead unless the Rajapaksa government sincerely and honestly acts according to the constitution and allows the new Provincial Council to take office and function.
Democracy and Elections
Any talk or action of dilution or removing provincial powers at this juncture will be counterproductive nationally, and costly to the government internationally. The Commonwealth summit could be a casualty if the government starts erecting road blocks to the new Northern Council. In such an eventuality, even the genial Commonwealth Secretary General will not be able to save the Rajapaksa regime from international and Commonwealth isolation. Put another way, the government cannot claim that democracy in Sri Lanka is alive and kicking simply because an election was held in the North. The claim will be hollow if the government does not allow the off spring of that election, namely, the Northern Provincial Council to function as it should and under laws as they are.
Talking about democracy and election, the Defence Secretary is continuing to be more longwinded than learned in his political ‘tongue lashings’ targeting the ‘western other’. Reportedly responding to the US Embassy statement that “democracy is not simply about elections …”, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has expressed indignation that “he had never come across an assertion which was as unfair as one which claims democracy was simply not about elections.” Perhaps a little bit of even internet reading should be enough to educate anyone that while elections are a central feature and a celebration of democracy, it is what goes on before, after and between elections that mostly characterizes a democratic society.
In the same tongue lashing, the Secretary could have avoided embarrassing himself by not using German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third term victory to vindicate Sri Lanka’s 18th Amendment that removed the term limits on President Rajapaksa. He was trying to score a point against the US and those European countries who had criticized 18A, to “dare challenge the German Chancellor’s right to lead the country for a third term.” Even a little knowledge could have saved much embarrassment, for in Germany the Federal Chancellor is only the Head of Government and not the Head of State, and is comparable to Prime Ministers in parliamentary democracies (as Sri Lanka was until 1978) who have no term limit but are subject to removal by party or parliament. Germany has a President (Joachim Gauk being the incumbent) who is the Head of State. He is elected by a procedure that is similar to India’s, and cannot serve longer than two consecutive terms. The Rajapksas must either realize or be advised that the way to restore their democratic credibility is by repealing 18A and not by defending it because it is indefensible. On the other hand, repealing or diluting 13A will further ruin their credibility.
Seize the post-election opportunity
At the minimum the government must respect 13A and not only allow the new Northern Provincial Council to be functional, but also develop a positive working relationship with the new Council. In fact, the government could deal at two levels to positively seize the post-election opportunity: administratively with the new Council in the North and politically with the TNA in Colombo. There is no need for grand illusions but even informal discussions between the President and the TNA leadership will help. I have earlier invoked Churchill’s phrase to describe the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (BC) Pact as an exercise in ‘summit diplomacy’, and suffice it to say there is a new opportunity for President Rajapaksa to try that unique method of SWRD Bandaranaike.
I say ‘unique method’ because of all the Sinhalese government leaders, Bandaranaike was the only one who dealt directly and formally with the elected representatives of the Tamils. He may not have needed the famous advice in parliament of the late VA Kandiah, the Colombo Advocate and the first Federal Party MP for Kayts, that the Prime Minister must not try to “by-pass the elected representatives of the Tamils” to address the Tamil problem, but no other Sinhalese leader followed that sound advice. Even Dudley Senanayake, who emulated the BC Pact eight years later, preferred informal, gentlemanly, between-friends understandings to formal agreements. Every other leader tried political cooption and the distribution of cabinet portfolios rather than dealing formally with the ‘four basic demands’ of Tamil politics at that time: citizenship rights of plantation Tamils, language rights, regional autonomy, and to stop state colonization schemes in North and East.
The political landscape is now different in regard to each of those four demands. The citizenship question is now mostly resolved albeit after the expatriation of about half a million of plantation Tamils to Tamil Nadu. Thanks to 13A, Tamil is now recognized as an official language and the regional autonomy has a foundation to build on. Colonization schemes are now an accomplished fact and have transformed the electoral map in the East, while in the North there is a new land problem as a result of the threatened expropriation of private properties in the name of state security. Implicating the land problem and extending beyond is the disproportionate presence of the military as well as the continuing existential problems of the people in postwar conditions.
It would have been infinitely better if an elected Northern Provincial Council had materialized directly as a result of the BC Pact, but there is one now after over fifty years of human blunder and history’s caprice. The new Council presents a positive prospect and need not be turned into a pyrrhic achievement. The way President Rajapaksa could emulate his party’s founder is not by trying to enter into a new formal agreement but by starting to end the now well entrenched practice of political co-option of unaccredited Tamil political tramps and LTTE turncoats, and move towards co-operating with the duly elected new Council in the North. This will require a change of heart, if not mind, on the part of the Rajapaksa brothers. It is not clear if there will be unanimity among the brothers but one would hope that there will at least be a majority push among them for a positive directional change.
The far more difficult task involves institutional culture shifts and adjustments from centralized authority and practices to working with provincial functionaries and initiatives. The existing Provincial Councils function as branch offices of political parties and as outstation offices of the central government. Changing from this status quo to systematically engaging and working with the new Council will require considerable learning as well as personal and organizational adjustments. The way to bring about these changes is by selecting and working on real issues affecting the people on the ground through the mechanism of the new Provincial Council. Put another away, the new Council should not be circumscribed by the experiences of the other Provincial Councils, but should be encouraged to chart its own paths in dealing with its own and unique challenges.
For its part, the TNA leadership should allow the new Provincial Council to function as a genuinely representative forum of the people and not as a puppet of its parliamentary committee. The new Council is best placed to work out its own program of action based on real issues and their priorities. The presence of professionals and experienced administrators among the new Councillors augurs well for a productive inaugural term of provincial governance. Not all of them can be ministers but all the ministers should be people with a degree of expert knowledge and executive experience. This is a new beginning and it would be “fantastic and absurd” to try to solve the age old problems of gender and caste by ministerial appointments alone. Those who are not appointed as ministers should be encouraged to play an active role and contribute in ministerial committees. A Donoughmore-style committee system can be tried out in Jaffna, even though and ironically it was Jaffna that launched the boycott of the Donoughmore Constitution 82 years ago.
The political A9 highway, just like any infrastructure highway, need not be built sequentially from one end to the other. It can be built in different sections at the same time and at different times addressing the specific conditions of each section. In the case of a physical road, the overall alignment, or trace, is functionally determined in advance of the detailed design and construction of different sections. The Thirteenth Amendment provides the overall alignment for the new political highway and it is up to the Rajapaksa government and the Wigneswaran Council to work out and implement the details of different sections.