By Dayan Jayatilleka –
In Parliament on Thursday 19th July, something happened which overshadowed the debate on the extraordinarily lengthy but more than slightly underwhelming New York Times story. What happened was signaled and preceded by a news story in the English language press about a furor in the Constitutional Steering Committee where it was alleged that participants, comprising of members of parliament, independent academics and officials had reacted vehemently against a perceived attempt by two personalities, both prominent MPs to manipulate the process.
The news story was the smoke signal, but the fire burst into the open the next day in Parliament when SLFP rebel MP Dayasiri Jayasekara, backed by a resolute JO parliamentary leader Dinesh Gunawardena and JO MP Mahindananda Aluthgamage named names and alleged a Constitutional coup plot against the President and indeed the Presidency itself. (‘Dayasiri warns of constitutional coup to oust President’, The Island July 20th 2018, page one lead story)
The allegation was that TNA MP, Mr. MA Sumanthiran and the UNF’s Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne, both darlings of liberal-comprador civil society, had attempted to strong-arm the experts who were drafting a paper to be submitted to the Steering Committee. The allegation went beyond strong-arming, as if that weren’t bad enough, to insinuations of impropriety and malfeasance in the gathering of signatures.
The leader of the 70 strong Joint Opposition Group in Parliament, Dinesh Gunawardena, made it clear that the Prime Minister and the Government Chief Whip do not know what is going on behind the scenes of the Constitution drafting process. In other words he said that the front-benchers of the Government and the main governing party the UNP, were not aware of the conspiracy. The finger of accusation was pointed clearly at Sumanthiran and Jayampathy Wickremaratne.
That was not only about the distortion of process. What was worse was the substance of what was sought to be pushed through.
What the whole thing reminded one of was the Central Bank bond scam and the moment that Arjuna Mahendran bulldozed decisions through, overriding the officials. However, some of them were courageous enough to record their dissent and later, to blow the whistle. Much the same happened here, except things were better. There had been a prolonged attempt by two members of the Committee to browbeat the officials and independent experts, but at the Steering Committee they stood up and resisted the smuggling into the draft of material that had not been agreed upon. Thus they fought for the integrity of the process. The point is who was the Arjuna Mahendran of the Constitution drafting process and what was the Constitutional equivalent of the Central Bank bond scam he was trying to perpetrate?
The charge leveled in Parliament, telecast on prime time news, and which as far as I could tell, went unanswered –though the two personalities accused could have refuted the charges then and there—was a serious one. It was alleged that the attempt was to smuggle in a provision that a troika of the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the Speaker, could remove the President.
What is even more important is the larger picture. The allegation is of downright bad faith. Bad faith is a serious charge in most matters, but it is devastating in a matter of Constitution-making. More: it is potentially calamitous in the case of ethnically sensitive Constitution-making. Thus in his truly evangelical haste at securing a new Constitution, Mr. Sumanthiran and his partner in crime Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne may have crippled, if not wrecked the process.
It was fraught anyway. With an utterly decisive election slightly under one and half years away, or to put it differently, with next year being a most crucial election year, the collective psyche changes. Especially with Provincial election stoppered up, any chance to vote, such as at a nationwide referendum, becomes an opportunity to register a protest at economic hardship. Politicians and political parties are aware of this.
The more mainstream a party is, the more aware it is of the risks. Thus the UNP and SLFP is likely to be wary of a rush to a new Constitution. At the very least, these parties could experience rebellion if a nationally emotive issue arises against the backdrop of economic disaffection. The issue of a new Constitution with national elections on the horizon is a tailor-made opportunity for potential rebels to wrap themselves up in the flag.
In such a context even a hint of subterfuge in the process itself can trigger not merely resistance as it has already done, but a more serious backlash. In any country whatsoever, Constitution-making or even Constitutional reform through amendment requires patient pragmatism and trust-building, creating a conducive atmosphere, construction of cross-party alliances, reaching out to foes, mutual trade-offs. It requires a soft-sell. Why then would Messrs. Sumanthiran and Wickremaratne try a hard–sell?
One answer is simply, temperament and mentality. Mr. Sumanthiran is rash and brash; certainly no Neelan Tiruchelvam who was an affable and cerebral master of dialogic politics. He neither has Neelan’s engaging charm, patience, diplomatic finesse nor the respect that everyone in politics in this town had for him because of his intellect and broad culture. And yet, Sumanthiran charges in, blissfully unaware of his limitations– and does so whatever the issue, whoever the person he is offending and however delicate the situation or high the price of clumsy, abrasive intervention. The basic qualities he so conspicuously lacks is the very qualities that any exercise in Constitutional change, be it reform or transformation, needs—namely, sensitivity, diplomatic negotiating skills and realism.
Why then is he partnered in his reckless effrontery by Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne? Jayampathy has no mass base, mass appeal or mass audience. Therefore he has no responsibility. He has a small circle of ex-leftists encysted within the UNF, with few sympathizers in the UNP. His nexus is with a former President who has enlightened but lopsided and unrealistic views on North-South ethnic reconciliation. The other prong of Jayampathy’s alliance is the civil society crowd.
Going by the news reports of July 19-20, and the accusatory disclosures in Parliament, Sumanthiran and Jayampathy are ably assisted by a faction of the JVP, which seems to be divided between the more socially rooted faction identified with KD Lal Kantha and Sunil Handunetti, and a dominant ‘Right deviationist’ faction comprising Anura Kumara Dissanaike, Bimal Ratnaike and Vijitha Herath, which is widely believed to enjoy patronage from elsewhere.
The late leader of the JVP Somawansa Amarasinghe, who had been the last survivor in active politics of the old Rohana Wijeweera Politburo of 1971, had publicly accused this faction of being manipulated by the neoliberal elite Establishment; perhaps even on the take. He called them “lap dogs”, “poodles”—his actual term in Sinhala, translates as “lap puppies” (“odokku kukko”). The material which has now spilled over into the public domain from parliament suggests that the usually hyper-vocal JVP members of the Steering Committee remained mum when the others were fighting back against the Suma-Jayampathy intrigue intended to push through a draft document.
From a political scientist’s point of view, what is most important is the unintended scan report as it were, of current Sri Lankan politics that is emerging. The mass-based mainstream political parties including the UNP, and the proper institutional and legislative processes, are being bypassed and subverted by (I) unaccountable networks consisting of a motley crew of individuals, elements /factions of parties e.g. Suma, Jayampathy, the JVP’s rightwing, ‘civil society’ organizations and (II) the method of functioning of caucuses and lobbies, rather than of Parliament.
These elements of the TNA, UNF and JVP are working with a civil society cabal so as to subvert the Constitutional process and pull off a political coup which will transfer State power to those interests that they are a proxy for and represent. As the blow-up in the Steering Committee as reported in the media and subsequently in Parliament (the latter was beamed into the nation’s drawing rooms by TV newscasts) demonstrated, these intrigues will simply not work and are being exposed and reacted against.
The Sumanthiran- JVP alliance represents the Fake Opposition (FO) of 16 (TNA) plus 5 (JVP), which is hugely outnumbered by the very real Joint Opposition (JO), led in parliament by Dinesh Gunawardena, which now has 70 MPs. The Fake Opposition (FO) parties work hand-in-glove. They are more hostile to the critics of the government than is the Government itself.
Sumanthiran could have been a brand ambassador for democratic Tamil politics and minority politics in general. In the alternative he could have been a brand ambassador for the Tamil elite. He had several roles models he could draw from. He has chosen not to do any of this. Lakshman Kadirgmar was on first name terms with Colin Powell and Neelan Tiruchelvam was respected in the best intellectual and scholarly circles globally, yet both knew that their international stature was no substitute for their national social base and political coalition-building skills-set. MHM Ashraff was a firebrand as a young politician, but also a warm human being who built cross-party coalitions. Kethesh Loganathan had a penetrating analytical intelligence as befitted his Georgetown education, and he was well regarded in Delhi as well as among left movements overseas. He was also dedicated to progressive causes larger than himself and therefore succeeded in building coalitions in and with the South.
Neelan was a father figure or avuncular patron of the civil society intelligentsia but he never thought that constituency more important than the political mainstream. He was also such an authentic intellectual and cultured gentleman that he would never have been rude to officials and independent experts—rather he would have carried them along by dint of persuasive civility, and they would have been convinced. Sumanthiran’s confrontational, bullying behavior in the Steering Committee process and backstage, which was resisted by the officials and experts, shows that he is no Neelan Tiruchelvam. Worse still, if this is a democratic Tamil moderate ‘star’, and he cannot reconcile with those officials and experts who are committed, nay, dedicated, to a new Constitution, then one despairs about the emergence of a Tamil politics which can build bridges and effect North-South reconciliation which involves engagement with those who are opposed to a new Constitution. Certainly this man cannot appeal to and win over the (suspicious) Sinhala voters at large.
Neelan, Ashraff, Kadirgamar, and Kethesh: all of them understood the primacy of national political processes, parties and political alliances. All of them were realists. None thought their very real international connections were substitutes for national opinion-making, national audiences and appeal, and solid national and social bases and blocs. All of them were transparent and trustworthy. None were slippery and duplicitous—and certainly none were accused of such in Parliament, without any contradiction! Where all of them had intellectual confidence, Sumanthiran has a misplaced cockiness deriving from contacts with a few embassies, Western capitals and Colombo’s civil society.
Sumanthiran is the best example in Tamil politics of why there is a backlash against neoliberal cosmopolitan globalism the world over. Sumanthiran personifies that ideology, political culture and style in Tamil politics today. The way he was deporting himself, he was bound to skid and crash—and he has just done so, right into the process he was seeking to pilot. The shenanigans of Sumanthiran are discrediting the distinguished veteran Mr. Sampanthan and damaging a valuable, fragile process of dialogue which can yield necessary reform, even if a total Constitutional change should be eschewed at this sensitive time of discontent and transition.