By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Blackadder fans will know what I mean when I say that Chandrika and Ranil have come up with a plan of truly Baldrickian cunning. They let it slip while speaking on separate occasions after the formation of the so-called ‘National Government’.
Ranil said that the change that had been initiated, promised to take us back to 1948 or 1951 and reverse what had befallen us since. The uninitiated may wonder what the reference to 1951 was. It is all very simple. That’s the year the SLFP was formed with Chandrika’s and Mahinda’s fathers breaking away from the ‘parent party’ the UNP. So the plan centrally involves the reversal of that breakaway and the re-merger of the UNP and the SLFP under the hegemony of the former.
For her part, Chandrika, speaking at a well-attended meeting graced by Rosy Senanayake, to donate essential nutrients to lactating mothers, said that the new equation would, if it could be made to last twenty years, lay the foundation for irreversible change and progress. De-coded, it is exactly the same message that JR Jayewardene gave in 1982, namely that the “electoral map can be rolled up for ten years”. Chandrika has just got twice as ambitious.
As Peter Cook used to say on Beyond the Fringe, “but there’s a flaw in that theory” (to which Dudley Moore would heckle a loud, long drawn out “yes”). Whatever his motivations, SWRD Bandaranaike made a huge contribution to the liberal democratic market-system by creating a moderate alternative to the conservative, right of center UNP. The SLFP was a left of center party, social democratic in domestic policy, nonaligned/Third Worldist in foreign policy and moderately (Sinhala Buddhist) nationalist in ideology.
In the absence of the SLFP, Sri Lanka would never have had a stable two-party system. Politics and society would have been polarized between the Right and either the trade-union based Left (LSSP-CPSL) or the rather more radical-nationalist Left of the charismatic Philip Gunawardena. (To strike a personal note, I suppose it is symptomatic that having delivered the 36th DA Rajapaksa commemorative lecture at the New Town Hall with CBK in the chair in November 2003, addressed the 20th anniversary public event for President Premadasa in 2013, I shall be delivering the Philip Gunewardene commemorative lecture this year. Ideological ‘triangulation’ would show a clear option for strong populist-patriotic leaders).
In sum, the emergence and existence of the SLFP as the democratic rival of the UNP stabilized the System. Clever girl that she is and has always been, Chandrika has just stuffed her father’s and mother’s party, the SLFP, back into its UNP womb—which is something her brother Anura would have loved to do, under JRJ’s spell.
Partnered by that other scintillating intelligence Ranil, Chandrika has just assisted in and applauded the reversal of the intra-systemic alternative; a reversal she actually hopes will last two decades. She wishes to follow up this re-merger with two, not just one, dramatic structural reforms of the Sri Lankan state, namely the downsizing and near-total dismantling of the executive presidency through the 19th amendment and “resolving” the problem of ethnic reconciliation.
So, two, not just one structural reform of the state, in two directions, on two axial routes, and in relatively rapid sequence, to be undertaken after the safety valves and safety net of the two party system have been just disabled and slashed by Chandrika and Ranil. This bright pair may have just destabilized the systemic platform on which the democratic Establishment stood and indeed took root for over half a century, providing much needed cushioning and most crucially, balance and equilibrium, through the extreme turbulence of protracted crisis and conflict.
The Sri Lankan reading public awoke a day or two back to the deeply disconcerting announcement that ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga will be handling the vexing task of ethnic reconciliation. This is slightly less reassuring than an announcement that M.I.A has been tasked with drawing up a code of conduct for convent schoolgirls or Ayman al Zawahiri has been entrusted the drawing up of a syllabus for teaching of comparative religion.
Chandrika Kumaratunga was a signal failure in the search for political reconciliation when she was a popularly elected president. She had everything going for her. Today she neither has executive power nor popularity. It may of course be argued that she has influence without responsibility, which is a close approximation of the power that a certain profession is said to have enjoyed down the ages. She will have no more success this time around than she did the last, not only because she is less well placed but also because she has not accepted that she erred egregiously in the past and has not rectified the source of her errors.
That said, in another sense she is perhaps the best placed for the job, depending on the job description. If the job description entails (a) the dismantling of the strong, stabilizing centripetal state structure that Sri Lanka has (thanks largely to the late, great, JR Jayewardene) (b) the retrenchment of Sri Lankan state power and (c) the opening up state sovereignty to hegemonic foreign and Diaspora penetration, then CBK is your poster girl. In tandem with Ranil Wickremesinghe whose Ceasefire Agreement marked the most humiliating retreat of national power, CBK and RW are the Dream Team for the roll-back of Sri Lankan state sovereignty and national power.
There is none better than CBK to implement the publicly proclaimed prescription of going “beyond the 13th amendment” towards federalism. This is precisely where CBK started from two decades ago, with her political ‘package’. It envisaged the redefinition of the very basis of the Sri Lankan state as a “union of regions”, which is of course the federal principle, as distinct from the devolution of power within a unitary state.
What would be the consequence if Chandrika Chinthana, which neatly coincides with Sam and Suma’s Song, Wiggie’s Vision and Modi’s Mode—“Beyond 13A, towards Federalism”– were to be implemented? To name but a single upshot, the State and Government of Sri Lanka would be unable to decide on the allocation and utilization of land according to overall national needs, including demographic pressures, because the powers over land – almost two thirds of which lie in the North and East–would be with the Councils, backed up by the power over the Police and internal law and order, as in India.
We may be pardoned for concluding that in terms of intellect, political erudition and sheer political intelligence, Chandrika is to SWRD Bandaranaike what Ranil is to Esmond and Lakshman Wickremesinghe.