By Dayan jayatilleka –
“The correctness or incorrectness of the political line decides everything”– Mao (1971)
As a former student of Mao Ze Dong thought, the genial Maithripala Sirisena may recall Mao’s point that “the correctness or incorrectness of the political line decides everything”. He must also hope that Mao was wrong, because the Sirisena campaign has so far, not got its political line correct, to put it mildly. This may sound like the quibble of a political scientist from the Marxian traition, but it isn’t. The incorrectness of Mr. Sirisena’s political line or rather, the political line drawn up for Mr. Sirisena which he has adopted, can provide a dangerous opening for the Establishment –‘The Brotherhood’—to launch a counterreformation which can choke off the valuable political space which has opened up with Maithripala’s courageous rebellion, and roll-back its potential.
The most strategically serious of the errors of the Opposition candidate’s political line is the promise of the fast track abolition of the executive presidency. There are two ways to reform or abolish a constitution. One is the constitutional way and the other is extra-constitutional. Maithripala’s hundred day project is outside the framework of the Constitutional process for constitutional change. It is extra-constitutional; indeed unconstitutional. The constitutional path for the abolition of the executive presidency requires a two thirds majority in the legislature, the consent of the Supreme Court and a Referendum. Any attempt to move against the existing Constitution in unconstitutional ways can trigger a challenge in the Supreme Court, orchestrated street demonstrations a la Pakistan, culminating in a call for the military to intervene in “defense of the Constitution”. Even the meanest intellect can identify the potential Caesar figure, or more accurately, Sisi figure in the Sri Lankan state—and it sure isn’t one of our current or former Service chiefs.
It may appear that Dr. Colvin R de Silva successfully made the case for radical discontinuity– a ‘rupture’– rather than Constitutional change in terms of a pre-existing Constitution. But that argument was wholly different from the one being made by the current joint opposition. Dr. de Silva placed his argument on the basis of a re-founding moment. While debatable, his argument was a fairly solid one. The Soulbury Constitution was not the product of a wholly national process, but a colonial (if consultative and transitional) construct and therefore ‘alien’. Therefore, it was legitimate to break with it and found an ‘autochthonous’ constitution, which moreover, would be a republic. That was sound argumentation.
Mr. Sirisena’s hundred day abolitionist promise is nowhere as sound. It is a somersault in the air, without a trapeze partner at the other end and a safety-net beneath. It does not propose a fundamental shift to a republic (which has already been accomplished) and it is not a rebellion against an externally imposed Constitution. The Jayewardene Constitution was far more rooted and legitimate than the Soulbury Constitution. Therefore the joint opposition’s fast-track abolition of the executive presidency would be ultra vires the Constitution. With a less than robustly independent Supreme Court—which was recomposed by means of the impeachment of the Chief Justice for precisely such contingencies—this constitutional adventurism could get Common Candidate No 2 into the same ghastly confines that the war hero Gen. Sarath Fonseka found himself in for quite a while. The real architect of the abortive “constitutional Revolution” will, in the meanwhile, be back safely in London or in that picturesque place way outside of Paris.
The hair-brained 100 day abolitionist plan and Mr. Sirisena’s political platform clearly appear to be designed by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and her zany pseudo-intellectual cronies. What Colombo’s chattering classes do not realize is that Chandrika and Ranil, singly or together, are no great shakes as shrewd political minds, in comparison with their opponents, the ruling Brotherhood. How did Chandrika become the President? Firstly she wrested the party founded by her father, from her aged, wheel-chair bound mother. How difficult is that? Secondly and more importantly, her main opponent in the race for the presidency at the time, Gamini Dissanayake, was blown up by a Tiger suicide bomber. CBK would never have won the presidency had the formidable Gamini Dissanayake remained in the race. Instead Prabhakaran’s suicide bomber intervened and CBK faced Gamini’s widow Srima, a non-political lawyer, who was not even a member of the UNP when pressed into service as candidate. As president, CBK lasted two terms because the UNP was reeling from the wave of assassinations that had de-capitated it and was led by Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe.
As for Mr. Wickremesinghe, he didn’t become the UNP and opposition leader because of the usual rise in the ranks and inner-party struggle, as did Mahinda Rajapaksa. He too owes his present and long standing political post to the serial assassinations by Velupillai Prabhakaran of the UNP leadership—Premadasa, Gamini, Lalith, Ranjan.
By contrast, Mahinda Rajapaksa did the hard yards needed to make it to the top, and once there, his achievement of defeating a hugely formidable and ferocious foe dwarfed that of these two accidental leaders from the old Colombo elite. Mahinda Rajapaksa understands and speaks to the psyche of the people. He reads the contours of the public psyche. He still succeeds in striking the right chords. Maithripala Sirisena could have done the same. He still can. At least he can commence that Long March. But he must not be tripped up and stumble into a legal-constitutional minefield, due to the follies, greed and eccentricities of a failed ex-President and ex-PM. It is these two vastly overrated politicians who have crafted the strategy and political platform for Mr. Maithripala Sirisena. Mr. Sirisena, a son of the soil and a rare man of integrity, reminds me of yet another Maithripala from the North Central Province, Maithripala Senanayake, a fine, moderately progressive Prime Minister or President that Sri Lanka never had, thanks entirely to the Bandaranaikes.
I belong to the ’68 generation of the Prague Spring and I do not want Mr. Sirisena to end up another Alexander Dubcek—or his Chinese equivalent two decades later, former Prime Minister, Zhao Zhiyang. Mr. Sirisena must not be sacrificed.
Maithripala must re-strategize, re-position, re-orient and re-configure, before Nomination Day, December 8th. He must tap into his own roots; be true to himself; speak in his own authentic voice. Chandrika facilitated his entry into Opposition politics and candidacy, but he must now leave the feudal midwife behind and walk his own path; be manifestly his own man. A man of the people, Maithripala Sirisena must offer a new Sri Lanka of the people, by the people and for the people.