By Kumar David –
This column will argue today that the opposition to the current regime – political parties, trade unions, religious institutions and non-governmental organisations – should collaborate in a unified action plan to stall, pushback and defeat the authoritarian project, and it will dispute efforts to foster or formulate common-programmes for an alternative (future) government, yet. Let’s focus on the first and eschew the latter; that’s my refrain. Before getting my teeth into this I wish to suggest that the regime seems to have retreated a little. There has been some mobilisation; not formally but on the trade union side and on the streets. Protest movements are more numerous than the formal media cares to report. Be it farmers’ fertiliser anguish, protests against the Kotelawala Academy Bill, piloerection at elevation of prodigal Duminda into the stratosphere, nurses’ defiance, anger of the Catholic Church and petitions against the persecution of Muslims by the state, these manifestations of public ire have thrown the would-be Palace Junta on the back foot. Or so it seems to me. And the big ones are yet to come – widespread mass unrest about shortages and prices and the final showdown, a General Strike. The expression of outrage by all opposition entities (except pissu-Sira’s SLFP) against authoritarianism and abuse of power has been a big help to protesters. That’s the good news for now; I need to go on.
There are indeed powwows among the likeminded – the Left, Sajith-Champika-Ranil-TNA like Liberals, NPP (including the JVP) arranged discussions, trade unions and reformist confessional bodies. These are either limited pandemic-restricted gatherings or by Zoom. There is however a disjuncture between the objectives of the different gatherings, or within them. If you strip to the core, the disjuncture is in three categories: Are we talking of (a) a programme/manifesto for the next or a future government, or (b) planning to pull together in common actions for defending democracy. And (c), in either case what are the terms on which we do (a) or (b), as the case may be. I will argue that (a) is counterproductive and will obstruct progress when the right opportunity arrives; (b) even on a limited scale has shown results and we must persist with it. So the more fruitful discussion is what are the does-and-don’ts, what are the (c)s, in respect of (b). Sectarian attacks against each other or within any of the aforementioned groupings at this time is stupid; let us focus on the common enemy.
Infeasible Alternative-Government Manifesto
Let me explain why doing (a) now will be a flop. Every one of us has been privy to one or other discussion or media report about some demand, suggestion, video or Zoom meeting. Consider what we have seen and also read between the lines. Some leaders, Champika and Sajith for example, are actually advancing the case why they should be the Next Great Leader. They are quite entitled to put forward their CVs, that’s their right; but let’s face it, nobody else is going to climb down and accept another’s CV right now. What is emerging in some forums about objective (a) is plain shadow boxing. Each one says this or that but the hidden agenda is “Anoint me! Anoint me!” This renders ostensible programmatic discussions numinous. People talk through each other but the real show is in the corridors where back-biting flourishes. A stark recent example is Champika’s demand in an interview with Kelum Bandara that “The JVP should give up its ideology and team up with us”. Meaning bugger your philosophy and identity, back me for the top-job. I take this opportunity to say: “Ranawaka why not you discard your hard-earned racist credentials and team up with the NPP to advocate devolution and power sharing with Muslims and Tamils?” Strategy (a) will make no progress at this time since Champika, Sajith, even emasculated Ranil and voiceless SF will not lie down and play dead. All of them daydream. This is opposite to the serendipitous conjuncture in the 1970 United Front where it was incontestable that in the event of victory Sirima would be PM. The same was true of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in India’s 2019 election.
The more serious obstacle to (a) is not the greed of putative starry-eyed leaders/presidents. It is that the systemic obstacles to a joint Manifesto are insuperable. Yesterday I tuned into a Zoom presentation on Tik Tok on HiruNews. Sumanthiran held forth: “I have the backing of all Tamil parties to say that while we stand with the opposition against contraventions of democracy, the opposition when it comes to office cheats us. We have been cheated repeatedly. Unless you make a clear articulation of your position on the Tamil question and you tell it openly to the Sinhala people, we cannot travel far with you. Our people are willing to come on the streets for democratic rights and face the consequences, but unless you tell the country ‘This is our solution to the National Question’, count us out as long-term partners”. Will Champika, Sajith, Ranil or SF ever come before the Sinhala Buddhist masses and say “Devolution”? The sun will rise in the West before that day dawns. A common opposition governmental manifesto-programme is a chimera. Forget it for now. Maybe later, after restructuring the institutions of state power it can happen.
The National Question is not the only insuperable obstacle to a Common Manifesto. Another big one is the Executive Presidency (EP) and with it the writing of a new or substantially amended constitution. Neither Champika nor Sajith can subdue their greed for securing an all-powerful EP. Notwithstanding proclamations of fealty to Buddhism they are slaves to thanha. That’s OK, as someone who disregards religion I don’t really care. My point lies elsewhere, it is that abolishing EP is another point on which agreement will not be possible until someone is chosen as leader; then all the rejected sour-grapes cases will come on board!
I have so far not mentioned the most intractable stumbling block, the socio-economic content of a presumed common programme. There are those who desire socialism but will compromise at social-democracy, there are the champions of free-market capitalism, entrepreneurial export-oriented enterprises and labour-market reforms (that is putting the working classes in their place) and there are dreamers hankering after an idyllic society akin to the long-gone village. How do you persuade Karl, Adam and Friedrich Hayek to sit round the same table and decide on a menu? Come on get real! Let’s pull together to do what can feasibly be done together, and that too is just what urgently needs to be done.
The intelligence to focus on what can be done
Citizens have the right to resist attempts to nullify the
Constitution when other remedies to do so are infeasible
(Article 20 of the German Constitution – A rough translation)
The common minimal plan that I believe the whole opposition (and a goodly part of government supporters and parliamentarians when the government splits) can agree on, consists of a few basics. Let me have a go at enumerating them. The dimension that will weld every decent activist into a united force is the need to constrain the Powers of the State. That is to resist excesses that reach beyond the rule of law. Closely allied to this is the protection of Fundamental Rights from infringement by the Paksa regime and by the police and armed forces. Maintenance of Order and Security are vital, but this is a two-edged sword. It is in the name of order and security that the state and the establishment carry out the most egregious violations of human and democratic rights. Hence vigilance and intelligence must be exercised in monitoring the state.
Action must ensure that the next election cycle is held on schedule. I am not in a hurry to advance it for the somewhat perverse reason that that the Paksas are so adept at hanging themselves that I would like to give them rope and time to finish the job. The worry of course is that the integrity of future elections may be corrupted. A comment that I frequently encounter is that the regime will fix future elections and that fraud, bureaucratic, physical or digital will be rampant. The Elections Commission is already embroiled in controversial transfers. The danger is most real but it can be overcome; best done by sharpening public vigilance right from now and paying closer attention to domestic and international monitoring mechanisms. I guess this falls between Regulatory Enforcement and Civil Justice. The other major item for an action plan to concern itself with is the judiciary; preserving judicial independence in respect of Criminal Justice and Civil Justice.
I will not ask for more, I am a realist. So long as the Rajapaksa-clan regime stays in office I am not asking for the moon. Eliminating Corruption, winning transparency and Openness in Government and creating traditions of Informal Justice, that is a fair society, is too much to hope for in these times. No one can guarantee that the next government will be a bunch of angels, but right now the urgency is to stop repression. We cannot wait till a perfect option arrives to take steps to avert looming disaster. This is the minimal, if nothing else that January 2015 achieved. When a house is on fire, pull the entrapped children out first!