By Kumar David –
Leaders of mobilisation should stamp authority on Constitution’s content; People’s power drives Constitution
The government had no option but to throw Ravi Karunanayake under the bus. Even if one accepts the version that his wife and daughter, in cahoots with Perpetual Treasuries, were the parties to the penthouse deal and that he had no knowledge thereof, formal propriety demanded his removal. It also removes a thorn since allegations of corruption are an obstacle to enacting a new constitution. Loss of confidence in the government on corruption and economy harms the constitutional project. In politics each thing has knock on effects on others.
January 8 (2015) had three objectives; Rajapaksa’s march to dictatorship had to be halted, the new government must end corruption, and a democratic constitution abolishing the executive presidency must be enacted. Where do we stand today? The first has been achieved and democracy seems assured for the foreseeable future. As for the second, maybe incidents of big time theft and the amounts stolen by this government’s cronies fall short of the records set by Rajapaksa era gangsters, but public perception is “ung okkoma horu” (they are all rogues). The third item, the constitution, is what this piece is about.
Who is taking the constitution forward?
It has become clear that the Sirisena-Ranil (S&R) combo does not have the spunk, the gall and the balls to lead mass mobilisation subduing impediments to the constitution. So new actors have pushed them aside and taken matters into their hands. From civil society we have the Just Society Movement founded by the reverend Sobitha now guided by Sisira Jayamaha and a string of distinguished persons, and Purawasi Balaya (People’s Power) where Gamini Viyangoda, Janaranjana and Chandragupta Mauriya are those I am familiar with. There is Rights-Now whose firebrand is Philip Dissanayake and cheerful leader, Sudharshan Gunda. I give names because with the milquetoast duumvirate S&R scooting into the shadows and as others coming forward to take up the 8 January mandate, the public needs to know who they are.
Another force accepting the challenge is a grouping of parties and personalities. Prominent are those who spoke at a “Respect the January 8 Mandate” forum on 3 August; DEW Gunasekara, leader of the Communist Party, the JVP’s Vijitha Herath, Athauda Seneviratne an SLFPer with an LSSP background, the ULF’s Jayampathy Wickramaratna and the UNP’s Ajith Perera. The TNA has thrown its weight into the constitution making process. Its spokesman Madiyaparanam Sumanthiran (மதியாபரணம் சுமந்திரன்) also addressed the forum. Enough is enough; no more concealing Tamil involvement in the constitution. Let us defy bigots in the sangha, racists in the Joint Opposition, hunched professors and English-literate, bogus-Marxist mouthpieces. Let openly declare: “This is a democratic, plural, non-divisive constitution carried on the shoulders of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people. Damn racists, damn peddlers of religious opium and damn opportunists!”
Frontline leaders must call the tune
Those who put their neck on the line earn the right to call the shots. If the national leaders take fright and hide under the bed while others take the fight on their shoulders, then they earn the right to influence the constitution’s contents. Furthermore they must not allow themselves to be used to push provisions that are not acceptable to the people’s movements.
Let me illustrate. If you tease the drafters “Hey comrades, where is your constitution?” they squirm “Once those rats up there make up their minds on key points like structure of state and devolution, we drafters can get it out in weeks”. It is time to go further. The parties and persons who lead the battle in the public arena should not allow themselves to be at the beck and call of the rats. Those who lead have the right to insist that the prize is worth the sweat. Though some compromises are unavoidable, they must, on the whole, ensure that it is not merely a contract handed out by R&S, but that the contents make up an acceptable charter. Note this well DEW, Vijitha, Jayampathy and Sumanthiran!
He who pays the piper calls the tune; in politics paying the piper means leading the fight. I make no bones about it; I am instigating civil society groups and parties in effective mass leadership to impose their stamp on content. Am I inciting a no-compromise deadlock? No, there is a need for compromises with the sloppy side and the catatonic R&S duumvirate so as to get two-thirds in parliament and to win a referendum. But let’s not make the mistake Colvin, the LSSP and the CP made in 1972. Let us not hide from the people and from our cadres the imperfections issuing from such compromises; let constitution making be a learning process for the people.
“Unto the breach dear friends”
A breach has opened. The Rajapaksa-JO game plan has no content other than racist snarls and religious bigotry. What is the JO-gang’s socio-economic programme? What its constitutional agenda? Zilch, nothing, bugger all! Aside from this chasm, there is another void, state leaders reluctant to fight and content with stillness and modest humility. On 15 August the next step to set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit to full height, was kick started. The people of Lanka will dishonour not their mothers and attest that those whom they call fathers did beget them. Or to descend from poetry to prose: OK Rajapaksa, ok JO, the fight is on, the plebs will show you the mettle of their pasture. (The little romps in this para are stolen from Henry V).
The objective of the satyagraha is to pressure the government to live up to the mandate on which it has been backsliding; a poor show in bringing the corrupt – previous and current – to book, hither and thither uncertainty on the constitution, and an inability to inspire confidence about good governance. The last matter, in part, is inability to discipline its own ranks, e.g. the Karunanayake incident, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe courting racists, and the bond scam. In part it is incompetence, e.g. cancelling Sampoor coal power station, the corrupt coal purchase contract, and worries of sleaze in the award of the proposed LNG power station contract. More worrying is the government’s reluctance to confront disruptors head-on, defeat trouble makers like the GMOA and student hooligans, and its unwillingness to smash thugs who attack Muslim institutions and monks who incite the thugs. Good governance is getting one’s house in order but it also entails crushing reaction, hooliganism and thuggery.
The satyagraha was supported by several organisations and an encouraging first step in an island wide campaign to continue till the government wakes up to its pledges. Some elements in the sangha, following the JO’s lead, are attempting to undermine the new constitution. The reply of the people’s movement on 15 August to these reactionaries was clear: “Go fly a kite!”
To digress for a moment we must commend the strength and spontaneity of American direct democracy in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week. White supremacist and neo-Nazis armed with torches, staves and weapons were confronted by thousands of Americans, young, old, mostly white. One women was killed and 19 injured when a car driven by a racist rammed into protesters. President Trump first made an SWRD in 1958, JR in 1983, type of address to the nation only to fan the flames instead of stopping the mob. Two days later even Trump, under intense pressure, did condemn the white racist thugs. Unfortunately, SWRD, JR and their respective cabinets, could never rise above their depravity. The American protesters did not back off till the racist mobs dispersed. What a difference from Lanka where in 1958, 1977, 1983 and many other occasions, the Sinhala-Buddhist public, with few exceptions, did not lift a finger to staunch the carnage. I wish I could understand the reason.
Direct democracy in America is supplemented by strong institutional instruments of democracy; for example Congressional inquiries and Special Counsel (Bob Mueller) whose probe is expected to dig deep. All this bears witness to strong institutional frameworks underpinning democracy. I understand the reason for the difference with our sham institutional framework, the Acting AG and his department included, but a quote first.
Here is Rajan Hoole in Colombo Telegraph on 11 August 2017:
“A particular instance that concerns Mr. Yasantha Kodagoda is the 2007 – 2009 Presidential Commission proceedings into the murder by the security forces, and home guards under their direction, of 17 aid workers serving Action Contre la Faim (ACF). The following describes the role of Yasantha Kodagoda who was supposed to lead the evidence before the Commission: The Government’s control of the CoI through the role played by Deputy Solicitor General Kodagoda and the complicity of some of the Commissioners, has allowed the extraordinary attempts at cover up described above to take place as well as an obvious and deliberate failure to pursue questioning and investigation that could implicate the Government. See our Special Report No.33 of 2009.”
This is only an example. However, without implying any excuse for sham artists in government, law enforcement, military and the legal-judicial system, I believe that one reason for relative concavity in our institutions is that democracy is young in our country. And unlike India, sans a multi-cultural and plural social bedrock and without a secular polity, it will take us longer to come up to spec.