By Kumar David –
We must not put cart before horse on constitutional referendum: First trounce the Joint Opposition
Many experts say that if amendments to the constitution live up to what is really needed, they have to be substantial and hence need to be approved at a referendum. If an entirely new constitution is to be enacted it will of course require a referendum. There are different views on whether a referendum can be won; most naysayers are Ministers from the Sirisena-wing of the SLFP; conversely, political radicals seem confident of victory. The point everybody is blind to, however, is that the Joint Opposition (JO) and hate-mongering chauvinists have to be confronted and defeated BEFORE the referendum. This hate-mob has to be shattered now before it goes on the rampage. Once the JO is politically broken the referendum will be plain sailing. On the other if chauvinist “terrorism” runs riot and law and order is undermined it may not even be possible to conduct a referendum. We already see, on every side incitement, disruptions and street actions, some genuine and justified, others JO instigated attempts at sabotage.
Where are Messrs Sirisena and Ranill? This the moment when they must rise to the challenge, come into the open guns blazing so to speak, and mobilise to defeat the JO, even on the streets if need be. Instead, one of them is tied up in knots within his own party’s convolutions, unable to decide about the Executive Presidency, devolution, the structure of state and other fundamentals. The other seems to be hiding under his bed. The crisis now facing constitutional change is a crisis of leadership, or rather the absence of leadership. The void encourages internal forces to pull in many directions. Sirisena has not stamped his imprimatur or made a bold declaration of principles; Ranil is missing in action.
Contrast this with 1972 and 1978 – whether you like or dislike those constitutions is beside the point. Would any ‘onside’ MP or party stalwart have dared to sabotage the Sirima-Colvin or the JR leadership? Firm leadership (and a massive parliamentary majority to boot) ensured that no internal force dared to undermine the process. Today the main battle is not what to write in the constitution but how to get the damned thing passed at all! Ok, the contents are crucial of course; I am making an overstatement to drive home my point that this duumvirate leadership has gone to sleep. The second eleven, not the front line batsman, face the JO’s strike bowlers, its rag-tag chauvinists and its desiccated wattaka.
Defeating the JO politically
What are S&R so frightened of? The JO is a bloated corpse, it is weak and it can be punched and deflated if the other side had guts and strategy. I will give you irrefutable proof how depleted the JO is. I refer to the turnout at the 27 January JO Nugegoda rally where we were promised a sea of 100,000 people. How many turned up? Less than ten thousand! There are many such reports and I did my own semi-scientific checking.
The Island and the Daily Mirror of 28 January carried the same full-frontal picture of the main part of the crowd. I divided the whole picture into one-inch squares, counted the number in each and added. The total is 1860! Impossible it’s too small so jack it up and say there are 3000 in the picture. This is the main part, the full-frontal, so there must have been large numbers on the two sides (very few in the blind-sided back). Even if I make the absurd concession that the number on each the sides was the same as on the full-frontal, the total falls short of 10,000.
The point is not the size of the crowd but my assertion that the JO is weak and cannot mobilise; it can be drawn out and routed. And this must be done now before it expands its network of disruption and mayhem. If S&R are too timid to accept leadership there are others in the wings ready to step in. Civil society movements for one – I was at a seminar on 7 Feb which asserted it would pickup the baton if the leaders were in a funk. Maybe the JVP and the JHU too have ideas.
An economic programme
Citizen Banda or Jane nona may justifiably demur: “I cannot feed my family on constitutions, nor will fundamental rights pay for children’s schooling and clothing”. True, if you fight constitutional battles in isolation, ignoring the far material problems of ordinary folk, it will be too abstract. The Sinhalese especially will be unenergetic about Tamil rights or devolution. Therefore economic issues have to be linked into the mobilisation.
But how can they be related to constitutional matters, you will rightly ask. The answer is at three levels. First the constitution has to be restructured by inserting a missing chapter – directive principles of state policy instructing the state to intervene in the national economy. China under Deng did not need this provision because the Communist Party is supreme, Lee Kwan Yew did not need it either as unquestioned authority gave him the ability to direct and manage the economy. But Lanka needs an enabling constitutional framework that will impose duties on the government.
The second level is that by widening the battle to add economic concerns that enthuse people the fight against reaction, disruption and the JO can be expanded. Plans to open new industries, expand economic activity or enter into partnership agreements with other countries (China and India) are blocked, sabotaged and disrupted by the JO and its political goons. These forces must be defeated in lockstep with the battle for a new or amended constitution. Maybe in the final analysis it will be more an economic battle against reactionary classes than a constitutional battle – that’s fine. If you defeat the JO first you will get a better constitution and greater economic rationality.
Remember the ‘Single Issue Common Candidate’ mobilisation? We did not get everything we wanted; the executive presidency was downgraded, not abolished. But what victories we have scored; removed Rajapaksa, safeguarded democracy and now we have a chance to pursue a constitutional option which may overcome the worst transgressions on the national question. If like then, we get a fairly decent even if not perfect constitution by broadening mobilisation, it would be a big step forward. But to repeat, be warned, unless the JO and its goons are FIRST defeated, we will have no constitutional options at all!
Devolution as a broader concept
The third level is to link economics to devolution. So far devolution has been discussed only in the context of giving Tamil people space to breathe and manage their own affairs. This has been a high pressure issue hence the use of devolution for economic restructuring has been forgotten. I will use my two closing paragraphs to address this lacuna.
The Development (Special Provisions) Bill gazetted on 25 November 2016 can be used as a starting point to kick. I assessed the Bill on 8 January and suggested improvements, but overall I welcomed the effort to link economic planning to devolution. It is not feasible to recapitulate all that here. (The Bill now seems to be stuck in the system and not come before parliament; maybe the privileged classes and their liberal ‘theoreticians’ have stymied it). The Bill’s subtitle, abbreviated, reads: “Facilitate National Policy . . . including Accelerated Economic Development”. The gist is regrouping districts into five Regions, establishing five regional authorities called Regional Development Boards, supplement by a centralised Policy Development Office and an Agency for Development and thereby establishing a national planning mechanism with a decentralised component. The alarming thing about the current constitutional discourse is that it lacks any initiatives like this. Specific mechanisms is a matter for legislation but the constitution must mandate and point in this direction?
I will end as I started; nothing can be achieved on the constitution, economy, law and order, devolution or pacifying the Tamils until and unless the JO, its chauvinists and its goons are subdued. People say Sirisena can mobilise thousands in the NCP, they say despite criticism of their appointment that Ravi and Ranjan could mobilise mass forces, I know that Sudharsa, Britto, Philip and their movement can mobilise some peole from Negombo, and the small left sects can each offer a mini-bus full (say 13 each, so 20 sects equals 260 bodies). The forces to face the JO are there, but no organising leadership.