By Kumar David –
Sobitha thero’s Movement for a Just Society (MJS) inaugurated its campaign to abolish the Executive Presidency (EP) at a meeting at the New Town Hall, Green Path, on 24 July. The event was a notable success and attracted professionals and opinion makers from numerous walks of life (academics and lawyers were prominent), an audience made up of every political party (except the SLFP cowering in trepidation of its shadow, that is its own declared principles), all faiths, and a pack of big shots. It was heartening to see Madam Chandrika, Opposition Leader Ranil, TNA leader Sampanthan, Gen. Fonseka and Chief Justice Shirani in the front row – if Anura Kumara was there, I did not see him. Apart from top leaders there were cohorts of other biggish shots; Aturaliye Ratana thero, Udaya Gamanpila, Ravi Karunanayake, Mangala; I am not sure if Siritunga was there. Bahu, infected by a bout of habitual congenital sectarianism, boycotted the event, but some NSSPers were present. The Dead Left was represented, of course not by the leaders who were cosseting their Cabinet sinecures, but by Polit Bureau members; I met the LSSP’s Wimal Rodrigo and CP’s Nagendra.
The speakers, in addition to Sobitha were Jayampathy Wickremaratne, Deepika Udagama and Victor Ivan. JW’s topic was the Road Map (which I outlined it in the Sunday Island and the Colombo Telegraph website on 13 July). The crucial Road Map (RM) was crafted by the MJS, that is Sobitha’s team, and it binds the president-elect to a step by step procedure. Point 1: The manifesto will contain the draft text of the constitutional amendment; point 2 will explain the new parliamentary system to the public and point 3 will seek a mandate to dissolve the sitting parliament if it shrinks from endorsing the approved constitutional amendment by a two-thirds majority. Therefore the next presidential election will, de facto, be a referendum on the wording of the text of the proposed abolish-EP constitutional amendment and an authorisation of a Road Map implementation procedure. A watertight mandate will therefore be obtained at this de facto referendum.
Two other matters in the Road Map will be affixing dates to milestones and the constituency structure of the new parliament. The milestones, for example, will say: The constitutional amendment will be tabled X days after electoral victory, it will be promulgated in X+Y days, the old parliament will be dissolved on day X+Y+Z, elections for a new one will be held in say another month. Provisions such as these will be enshrined in the election manifesto as a Road Map whose remit will run for six months. If the draft constitutional text and Road Map are approved at this de facto referendum there is no need for delay. RM is procedural and precludes procrastination and cheating as Chandrika and Mahinda have done; twice each. Secondly, parliamentary electoral demarcations and related matters such as how many first past the post, how many PR, how many multi- member electorates, will be outlined in the manifesto.
[Aside: Jayampathy grumbles that I assert exclusive originator status of the Single Issue (SI) and Common Candidate (CC) concepts and reminds me of a conversation he and Mahinda Ratnayake had with me prior to my first strategy paper. I also recall a chat, a week earlier, with Sumanasiri and Mahinda in Peradeniya. If these gentlemen wish to be acknowledged as accomplices and fellow felons in SI-CC fireworks, now a nationwide carnival, I am happy to recognize them as co-conspirators in original sin. Shortcomings, if any, in the final formulation are entirely mine].
Deepika and Victor made valuable, if slightly tangential presentations at the 24 July seminar. What came across from Deepika was first her preference for a whole new constitution and second a belief that constitution making must not be rushed, the public must ingest proposals and arrive at a consensus that society has digested. It has to be a slow process of assimilation and a full consultative mechanism was essential she opined. Sobitha had to intervene immediately after her talk and put things back on track. In so far as opposition to EP is concerned, society and every political colouration in the country has ingested it, digested it and pronounced it an iniquity; it has to go, and it has to go now. Where has Deepika been for the last 30 years? (The thero didn’t say that; that’s my kind of language).
Regarding a brand new, from the bottom up, constitution, as opposed to amendments to abolish EP and put an alternative in place (including the format of the new parliament and a set of checks and balances), the thero thought it infeasible and I firmly agree. Asking that all outstanding constitutional issues be fast-forwarded and fixed right now is plain otherworldly. It is impossible to reach consensus on a whole new constitution within months; society has to mature to where, for example, consensus on devolution can even be imagined. Right now there is consensus to abolish the abominable Executive Presidency; does it have to wait till the year dot, till everything else is agreed upon by everybody? Good generals win battles one at a time.
Victor Ivan undertook a broad discursive presentation. His message was that the government had squandered an opportunity after the war and his point of departure was humanist and the imperative of tolerance all round. I was in agitated anticipation that he would repeat his celebrated critique in Ravaya a fortnight ago naming Gotabaya as the fly in the ointment and the man whose association with Sinhala-Buddhist extremism sparked off commotion. However he studiously avoided it for reasons unknown – the organisers certainly made no such request.
The dumb elephant in the room
I am strongly of the view that current action-strategy must be Single Issue oriented. The abolition of EP and what to put in its place – spelling out the nuts and bolts of the new parliamentary system and drafting a 17th Amendment-like set of checks and balances needed even in a parliamentary system – must be the focus of action. Therefore other constitutional changes, however important in their own right, must not be yanked into the action plan. However, discourse and discussion should be broad and touch on all important constitutional matters that need to be addressed eventually. This was indeed what happened in the seminar presentations of the speakers and during question time; that’s excellent.
Deepika referred to the significance of a chapter on fundamental rights (she wanted SI expanded by its inclusion right now). Two speakers mentioned a socio-economic chapter and noted that the Indian Constitution has provisions directing the state to social and economic goals. Jayampathy emphasised the independence of the judiciary; and so on. But believe it or not; not one person, neither the thero nor any of the speakers or any discussant, touched on or even mentioned the national question! I am in agreement that devolution should not be included in the current amendment package and I endorse a short-term action plan limited to EP abolition (more precisely, I originated the concept). But when a broad and open discussion is undertaken about the collapse of Lankan polity, for every participant to remain dumb on the national question is astounding. It hardly needs mention that, together with crisis of the State, the national question is at the root of why the country collapsed; together they over-determine Lankan polity.
For a seminar such as this to run from 3pm to 5.30pm (when I left) without one mention of this gigantic elephant in the room left me aghast. And add to this, not one word was spoken in Tamil in the entire two and a half-hours. (Jayampathy made a 5 minute summary of his presentation in English; maybe he felt sorry for Sambamthan). It is a little complicated for others that MJS is headed by a monk, but I am fine with it because I trust Sobitha and the MJS organisers on the national question. But the perception of the average Tamil or Muslim may be more cautious. If the organisers arrange events with so little sensitivity to this type of realpolitik imperative they will only add to their worries.
One last grumble and I am done; and I hope the organisers appreciate that my grumbling is motivated by a desire to make this crucial endeavour a success. At least two commentators from the floor and several people sitting near me were asking why the project should have religious overtones. Not Buddhist overtones alone though that was most prominent, an overall religious complexion such as studding the podium with religious dignitaries, making numerous references to faith-based organisations and heads of religions, and starting the symposium by everyone standing palms together respectfully intoning a full recitation of Buddhang Sarananag Gachchami. And gosh, what pretence to get whisky-sipping cigar-chomping old reprobates like me to mumble: Sura-meraya maja-pama-dathana veramani sikkhapadam samadhami. Will abstinence expedite the downfall of the Executive Presidency?
It was all a shade too much like a religious gathering. It’s the first meeting and the organisers are on a steep learning curve. There will be more seminars as the campaign moves on and I have been assured that the format will improve. I was pleased that the members of the audience who grumbled that the religious tone was too prominent were all Sinhala Buddhists. Erasing the Executive Presidency is not a religious task; it would be wiser and more productive to switch the mood and ethos of this very valuable initiative into a wholly secular dimension.