By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Sri Lanka’s post-war transition has resumed. That transition which was blocked by the neoconservative ‘national security’ fundamentalism has unfrozen with the imminent holding of the Northern Provincial Council election under the 13th amendment as it stands.
If I may immediately qualify that statement, Sri Lanka is undergoing at least two transitions or a transition with two opposite tendencies, which are in a race with each other. One is that towards normalcy and structural reform (which takes the form of the reactivation of the frozen Northern Provincial Council) while the other is a radically conservative counter-reformation which takes the form of cultural and settler-colonial Occupation. The future of Sri Lanka will be determined by which tendency triumphs.
The Northern Provincial Council is an experiment that can go quite well or horribly wrong. It can wrong not only because of the obvious reason of suffocation, sabotage and eventual overthrow by the Sinhala Establishment provoked and supported by the most reactionary currents of Sinhala society, but also because of the decades-long propensity of Tamil nationalism to overshoot the mark of the strategically, structurally and socio-historically realisable.
Consider the Tamil criticisms of the 13th amendment and their implications for the success of the Northern Provincial Council. Instead of the more obviously sensible stance of supporting the 13th amendment and faulting the state and government, if necessary, for non-implementation or tardy implementation, Tamil nationalist discourse takes the a priori view that the 13th amendment is insufficient and therefore unworkable. When one commences with the teleology that the 13th amendment is inherently unworkable and therefore has to be surpassed by a federal solution, then one is hardly likely to strive to make it work or develop the pragmatic patience requisite for that purpose.
There is a far more serious illogic at the heart of Tamil nationalist discourse and strategy. The Tamil teleology that strives for the transcendence of the 13th amendment and recognition of self determination and a federal system ignores a massive fact. India can legitimately be seen to support only the (full) implementation of the 13th amendment and efforts to build on it. The 13th amendment is the indispensable point of legitimate reference for India and the broader international community including the USA. No country has called for anything beyond it nor can be legitimately seen to. Not even the state of Tamil Nadu can credibly do so. The broadest global consensus is for the implementation of devolution in the form of the 13th amendment, not federalism.
It would be one thing to say that the Northern Provincial Council isn’t working because the Government is refusing to devolve the powers vested in it by the 13th amendment as per the Indo-Lanka accord. It is quite another to say that because the Northern Provincial Council isn’t working, it is the 13th amendment that is to blame and that the malfunction of the Council proves the intrinsically dysfunctional character of the 13th amendment and the formula of devolution within a unitary state.
The Tamil nationalist political discourse shapes its project and vice versa. Insofar as the Tamil nationalist political discourse and project hope and strive to supersede the 13th amendment, ‘proving’ it unworkable and proceeding to federalism, it makes two monumental blunders, not just one. It moves beyond the point that it has any significant support in the Southern mainstream, while it simultaneously moves outside the umbrella of the maximal cover that India can provide. I use that term ‘cover’ in both its strategic and ‘insurance’ senses. Outside of the 13th amendment, the Tamil political project has neither its most significant strategic cover nor politico-diplomatic ‘insurance cover’, within the island and outside (leaving it with the flimsy if colourful parasol that the Tamil Diaspora and Messrs Seeman and Vaiko can lend).
While that’s the scenario on the North-South axis of Sri Lankan politics, the South-South dynamic is no less problematic and is arguably far more so. Commentators and editorialists have surfaced the number of ex-UNPers in the ranks of the ruling coalition: sixty two. The implications of this have yet to sink in. Do the math. There are one and half times as many UNPers in Government than in the Opposition or to put it differently, the UNP has lost one and half times its current number to its rival. That depletion has not been exclusively to Mahinda Rajapaksa but commenced under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, which means that the only constant – apart from the fact of exodus—has been the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe. The stark reality is that as a consequence of Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership, or to be more charitable, on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s watch, the UNP has lost one and a half times its present number to the government.
Now introduce the factor of time. At the present rate of depletion, how long will it take for the UNP to be reduced to political irrelevance and marginality? How many seats will the UNP retain at the next general election? How many of those will remain and how many will move across to the Government? What will be the irreducible floor of the UNP’s percentage of the popular vote? How long will the UNP retain Ranil Wickremesinghe as its leader, before it removes him and plugs the haemorrhage which is transforming Sri Lanka into a political monopoly and potential dictatorship by default?