Rajitha Senaratne was neither the first nor the most important ‘Yahapalana’ political figure to make a pitch for federalism. The first and most significant was ex-President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga two years ago. The second was Mangala Samaraweera who keeps saying “what’s wrong with federalism? It is not separation”. The fact that Rajitha chose to make an even stronger pitch for federalism two years later when the political situation is changing, is significant.
When he endorsed and advocated federalism in his SJV Chelvanayakam memorial lecture this year, Rajitha was not speaking in his capacity as Cabinet spokesperson. But what is important is that we have for the first time, a Cabinet spokesperson who is a federalist, just as we have for the first time, a Foreign Minister who is a federalist, and a former President who is also in charge of reconciliation, who is a federalist.
One cannot fault the TNA or the organizers of the SJV Chelvanayakam memorial lecture for having cherry-picked CBK and Rajitha, for this speaking slot. One can however fault the speakers concerned. More important than fault-finding though, is to understand what their common stand signifies.
Chandrika belongs to the SLFP, and Rajitha and Mangala to the UNP. The first two named also belonged, as I did, to the SLMP of which Vijaya Kumaratunga (martyred by JVP assassins) was the iconic founder-leader, and the United Socialist Alliance (USA), a broad Left front of which the SLMP was the largest party.
What is striking is that federalism was never and is not now, the stand of either the SLFP or the UNP, to which these personalities belong. Yet, they chose to espouse that cause.
If one is to tend towards charity and claim that this stand is a throwback, nostalgic or otherwise, to shared progressive past, that would also be inaccurate, or simply put, a lie. Neither Vijaya nor the SLMP nor the United Socialist Alliance (USA) ever stood for federalism. Vijaya and the SLMP as well as the USA were for devolution, which is the transfer of power downwards and outwards, from center to the provincial periphery. Vijaya supported the Bandaranaike-Chelvanakayam Pact of 1957 and the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 (though he was opposed to the merger).
As was made clear by Vijaya in a lecture delivered at the Center for Society and Religion (CSR) about a year before he died, Vijaya relied mainly on a social rather than a political solution to the ethnic question, though he certainly did advocate provincial devolution.
His faith resided mainly in encouraging as a matter of policy the growing interaction between the youth of North and South, dismaying the more bookishly dogmatic young student activists in the CSR audience by saying only half-jokingly, that Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Burgher youngsters meeting, getting to know each other, falling in love, getting married and having children would be the best guarantee of national integration.
In its entire history the Ceylonese/Sri Lankan Left supported federalism only once and that was fleetingly, in the 1940s when it presented its views to the Soulbury Commission. When SJV Chelvanayakam raised the banner of federalism, the Left was unambiguous in its rejection and none were so sharp and sustained in their criticism of federalism than the Tamil Marxists of the Communist party and the LSSP. Of these, N Sanmugathasan stood out for his polemical vehemence.
The Marxist left was so allergic to federalism and suspicious of the Federal Party that it did not actively support even the non-federal B-C Pact in 1957, when arguably it should have.
Therefore, when CBK, Rajitha and their few fellow-travelers attempt to cover up their federalism in a red, pink or purple cloak, they are being deceitful and hypocritical.
To move from the orthodox or traditional Marxists to the democratic New Left that Vijaya pioneered, or, to the put it more accurately, to understand the common stand taken by the Left of both ‘Old’ and ‘New’ streams, one only has to look at the voluminous document presented by them and accepted by the Political Parties conference convened by President Jayewardene in June 1986, in response to a letter from Vijaya Kumaratunga.
The Left was represented at the Conference by Vijaya, Pieter Keuneman, Dr. Colvin R de Silva, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, DEW Gunasekara et al. It was the ‘A Team’ of the anti-chauvinist Left movement. The document they produced, which Vijaya subsequently summarized and defended in a superb performance on TV when interviewed by Prof Tilak Ratnakara, and was published in full by the Government Press, had no mention whatsoever of either federalism or the abolition of the executive presidency—the two pillars of the current proposal for a new Constitution, supposedly aimed at politically solving the ethno-national issue. In fact the Left’s stand did not support the merger of the North and East. The proposal was a detailed working out of a scheme of devolution to nine provinces.
Thus, if the federalist stand is not that of the UNP, SLFP or the Left, but is articulated by those who belong to and often claim to speak on behalf those formations (or once did), then who and what are these individuals representing? Whose stand is it really?
Apart from the TNA of course, the three mainstream politicians who make a plug for federalism—Chandrika, Mangala and Rajitha—have something in common. What is common to them, apart from their federalism, is CBK herself. They are old ‘Sudu Nelum’ and ‘Package’ operators, belonging to a faction and ideology that hardcore SLFPers in the CBK administration like Anuruddha Ratwatte and Ratnasiri Wickremanayake detested.
Mangala and Rajitha are CBK loyalists more than they are UNP or she is SLFP. This troika acts as a lobby or pressure group, pushing for a federal new Constitution on two flanks i.e. within the UNP and the SLFP. This is of course the line, not only of the TNA, but of the Tamil Diaspora, the international NGOs, the West, and tacitly India.
Their federalism does not stem from any progressive thinking but precisely from the ideology they really adhere to and are practitioners of, namely neoliberal globalization. Their commitment is not to Sri Lanka but to the neoliberal world order. Their federalism is part of their neoliberalism.
The federalist lobby of CBK-Mangala-Rajitha has no mandate to canvass the cause of federalism. This federalist caucus is operating as a Fifth Column behind UNP and SLFP lines, causing grave social, political and electoral harm to both parties, the stability of the Government in general and the interests of the President in particular.