By Rajan Philips –
The TNA’s choice of retired Supreme Court Judge C.V. Wigneswaran as candidate for Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council is a good political example of that trite management phrase: ‘thinking outside the box’. If all goes according to plan, Justice Wigneswaran will be literally landing from outside the box into Lanka’s political fray. The choice and its anticipated outcome throws open a wide range of possibilities. I think this is the first time a retired Supreme Court Judge will be running for an elected office in Sri Lanka. This is also the first time a high-profile candidate would be contesting a Provincial Council election after Chandrika Kumaratunga’s successful venture in the 1994 Southern Provincial Council election.
The TNA made another choice last week. It chose not to participate in the government’s latest parliamentary select committee exercise. If someone did not understand the meaning of the maxim that one cannot fool all the people all the time, the PSC is a good example of it. The example also shows that those who try to fool others all the time ultimately end up fooling themselves. President Rajapaksa has exhausted everyone with his ‘shape koraladanne’ politics and parliamentary select committee mechanism. He was knavishly expecting the TNA to naively become party to a PSC process that has been ‘exclusively set up’ to manufacture ‘consensus’ for either severely diluting or totally repealing the 13th Amendment. The TNA like everyone else who has listened to the President’s promises was not going to be fooled anymore.
The President made his usual appeal to New Delhi to persuade the TNA to join the PSC and even managed to briefly meet with TNA leader, R. Sambanthan, after standing him up for almost over an year. The TNA politely said, ‘no, thank you,’ and made the counter but positive move of its own by nominating Justice Wigneswaran for the Northern Provincial Council election. Regardless of the electoral considerations, the choice is objectively positive on a number of counts.
Representation and Provincial Councils
Wigneswaran’s candidacy and a potential victory will be a great boost to the much maligned, centrally abused, power-starved and resource-starved Provincial Council system. Provincial Councils were initially intended mostly for the Northern and Eastern Provinces to mitigate the power imbalance at the centre between the representatives of the Sinhalese, on the one hand, and the Muslim and Tamil representatives, on the other. No one, as far as I know, has articulated this imbalance better than Justice Wigneswaran. Said he, in his ceremonial acceptance speech in March 2001, upon being appointed to the Supreme Court by the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga: “The vast majority of the denizens of the north and east seek the restoration of their rights and not devolution of power. These are the rights which were snatched away from them by virtue of a mathematical innovation where the majority in the two provinces were added to the majority in the seven provinces and thus made a minority in the nine provinces.”
The core of the Tamil political fears, grievances and demands has always been ‘representation’, although manifested differently in different political generation – as equal representation, communal representation, fifty-fifty, citizenship rights of upcountry Tamils, federalism, regional/district councils, outright separation and, finally, Provincial Councils. The devolution of power, as implied in Justice Wigneswaran’s acceptance speech, is not an end in itself but the means to an end – restoration of rights. And the rights themselves have varied in emphasis and articulation through different political generations: jobs, citizenship, land, language, basic human rights, and currently even religion. As well, what began as restive ‘Ceylon Tamil’ politics now encompasses all Sri Lankan Tamil speaking people – the Muslims, the upcountry Tamils, and Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces regardless of where they live. And the state sponsored organizations like the JHU, the BBS, the NFF and even the MEP are targeting, attacking and alienating the Muslims and Christian Sinhalese.
After winning the war, the government is leading the retreat to the troubled past. Simultaneously, it is nose-diving the national economy to the pits by neglect and incompetence. It has unnecessarily created a division over the 13th Amendment, dividing in the process its own governing coalition. The clamour for repealing the 13th Amendment is the new Sinhala only and the push-back to keep 13A intact is the new version of the old ‘parity-of-status’ (for Sinhala and Tamil) insistence. Ironically, no one bothers to note that one of the singular achievements of 13A is making Tamil also an official language and English the ‘link language. The slightly encouraging political difference between today and the linguistically troubled 1950s is that there is greater effective national opposition to removing 13A today than there was to making Sinhalese the only official language in 1956. Put another way, there is greater support for retaining 13A today than there was for implementing parity of status in 1956. Put still differently, the SLFP founder and then Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike had the correct the vision but lacked the power and support to carry through his vision. In contrast, the present SLFP leader and President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has all the power in the world and the necessary support to consolidate 13A and even improve on it, but he seems to have opted to rely on wrongheaded advice and follow an outdated vision.
As I said earlier, Provincial Councils were initially considered primarily for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. President Jayewardene with unwarranted anxiety not to be seen as doing some special favour to Tamils, extended the system to all the Provinces. In the end and for so long, the PC system operated only in the seven Provinces where they were not needed and not in the Provinces where they were expected to be implemented and are needed. The Eastern Province now has a council with a government-manufactured majority that is not doing anything. The PC experience in the other seven provinces has been a disaster not because of any fundamental shortcoming in the system but because of its abuse by the government and the two main political parties, the SLFP and the UNP. The PCs are being run as party branches by party hacks who are running amok as violent criminals. The Pradeshiya Sabhas are in the hands of even worse scums.
The Provincial Governors in the seven provinces do nothing to control the rampant Provincial Councillors there, but the two Governors in the Northern and Eastern Provinces are acting like rampant viceroys in those provinces. As I have written earlier, Lakshman Marasinghe has compared the status and powers of Provincial Governors to those of the British Governors in Colonial Ceylon. I would say that it is a stark comparison only for the Northern and Eastern Provinces but immaterial everywhere else. To add insult to injury, the Northern Province has a Governor on payroll and an army on the prowl, but it has no Council. Historians have described the Portuguese as primitive and exploitative colonialists while the British were modernizing and relatively benevolent. Politically speaking, the Rajapaksa regime has been pushing postwar North back into Portuguese era. The building of roads and other infrastructure are modern inevitabilities but they do not answer the ever present political question.
The regime would have obviously wanted to continue with this status quo – criminal councils in seven provinces, a stalemated council in the east and only the Governor and the army in the North. The President’s decision to call the first ever election to the Northern Provincial Council election could hardly be described as strategic. If at all it was a decision made under self-inflicted duress. The cost of not calling the election would have been far higher than the benefit of satisfying 13A detractors cheered on by Presidential sibling and Secretary of Defence.
Looked at it another way, for the government, the Wigneswaran candidacy and potential election could be the unintended benefit of calling the NPC elections. Justice Wigneswsaran would bring special strengths and resources to his new tasks. His judicial background and social capital should compensate for his lack of political experience. But traditional political experience is irrelevant to the huge challenges that a postwar, nascent Provincial Council will face. Ideally, the Northern Provincial Council under Wigneswaran could set the tone and the template for other Provincial Councils to follow. However, this cannot be done unilaterally, but only with the new Provincial Council acting in co-ordination with Colombo. Will Colombo co-operate or obstruct? President Rajapaksa has a great opportunity to chart a new course for his government and save his faltering presidency from total failure. Will he take the tide and show statesmanship, or shy away from it to please his darker supporters?