By Kumar David –
The State Council and the ‘old’ Parliament were held in high esteem – Why Lanka’s Parliament has declined and decayed
Let me start with a confession. The last two weeks have been consumed rereading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire parts of which deal with the decline and decay of that most august of bodies, the Roman Senate. Those familiar with the first three volumes cannot miss their influence throughout this essay, but in a pint-sized column such as this it is infeasible to always insert quotation marks or add dutiful ibids. I have also taken tiny liberties with a few quotations.
By ‘decline’, in my title, I mean institutional changes, such as anointing Octavian as Augustus, or in our case the executive presidency, which undermined parliament. The ‘decay’ Gibbon pointed to was the decline of the moral and intellectual stature of Roman Senators. I borrow it deliberately, and disparagingly, for the appalling degeneration of Lanka’s legislators in the last four decades. Before getting my teeth in, here are two pickings from Gibbon which structure this essay.
- “The principles of a free constitution are irrevocably lost when the legislative power is nominated by the executive”. (In modern English read ‘dominated’ for “nominated”).
- “Unless public liberty is protected by intrepid and vigilant guardians the authority of a formidable state soon degenerates into despotism”. If we translate into the rough and robust style of today we would say: The servile, grovelling, fawning and odious conduct of our parliamentarians has contributed much to the subversion of a free and democratic Lanka.
A personal anecdote of grovelling relates to the Eighteenth Amendment (Rajapaksa’s shot at eliminating term-limits). At the time I was in the Central and Executive Committees of Vasudeva Nanayakkara’s (VN) DLF party and it was gospel that we loathed the Executive Presidency. Mention of a third term would have made the party puke. Then came the surprise from Rajapaksa toadies (including all Sirisena-SLFP current Cabinet Ministers) that 18A was to be tabled. Much overrated Shirani Bandaranaike, then CJ, gave it an opportunist wink and a nod – not that it did her much good in the end; a lesson Sirisena has still to learn. Next, here is a bit of history that needs to be recorded.
There was hullabaloo in the DLF, noisy argument and the Central Committee was summoned. Of the thirty-odd attendees, shockingly, only three (Lankaloka, Wilegoda and I) called on the party to oppose 18A. The rest expressed strong support; VN grovelled and endorsed 18A in parliament. The LSSP and CP replicated the grovelling. The motive of these “leaders” who desecrated the mantle of NM*, Colvin*, Peiter*, Dr Wicks and Leslie* were posts and perks. The membership drooled for lesser favours in local areas. This was the last straw; I quit the DLF and sank my valuation of VN to just another Mahinda creep. (*I disagreed with these leaders in 1964 and from 1970 onwards; but there never was any distrust; the dispute was about the right and the wrong road to socialism. The four needed no portfolios, which in any case lowered not elevated their stature).
To return to my theme, on the decay of parliament due to institutional change – the executive presidential system – Gibbon has much to say that would make you think he was standing not at Trevi Fountain but on the bund of the Kotte lagoon. The rot of parliament was precipitate and inglorious after the 1978 Constitution. Weak institutions can be hijacked, democracy undone and systems that concentrate power in one man subverted to personal agendas. All visible in the internecine struggles of the second (Premadasa) presidency and full blown in Caligula like proportions in the Rajapaksa era. The reason the cancer has not swelled up much post-2015, is because Sirisena is distrusted within the divided government, and as an individual he has the disposition of an anaemic hamster. He makes it obvious now that he is Mahinda’s point man inside the ‘no-longer unity government’. This shackles him internally. His personal integrity too is not above reproach.
The general control of finances and the absolute control of the military raised Octavian (Augustus) to levels never before enjoyed by any Consul or Praetor, not even the great Julius. The end of the Roman Republic can be traced with exactness to the grant of extraordinary powers by the Senate to Octavian in 27 BC after the defeat of Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium. Still, Augustus was only called Principate (first citizen) not emperor.
In times of emergency a “Dictator would be appointed by the Senate for a term of six months only, constitutional government was suspended and the Dictator would take control of the state. When his term ended, constitutional government would be restored and the Dictator fired. The Romans, smarter than Lankans, gave emergency powers, each time, to a different person and for a short period only. Despite deep suspicion of ambition (Caesar paid dearly for “ambition”), the Republic gradually gave way to Empire with constitutional transitions and the moral flabbiness of Senators. In the next phase the shrewd and balanced Augustus (d.14AD), was followed by less able successors; some were tyrants, two (Caligula 37-41 AD and Nero 54-68 AD) were clinically insane.
It would be inaccurate to describe the successors of JR as clinically insane. But tyrant, an old-fashioned term, fits one of them; the nemesis of democracy, disrupter of the rule of law and enemy of human rights. Furthermore, there was a propensity to servitude in the retinue (think of hilarious Dr Mervyn). No one in the cortege dared tell an emperor that he/she was naked, privates in full view, when the boss acted like a knave – Water’s Edge, Mattala, Lotus Tower to emptiness, Sampur power-plant cock-up, and more. Cowardly silence in the retinue, servile civil-servants, billion-rupee larceny and sil-reddi venality are features of our presidential system. Do you know the collective noun for owls and rooks, like flock for birds and herd for cattle? It’s ‘parliament’! When an executive president roars, hordes of parliamentarians, state officers and hangers-on, grope like half-blind owls and eat carrion like crows.
“Notwithstanding the propensity of mankind to exalt the past and depreciate the present” it is reasonable to assert that the State Council in the 1930s and Parliament in early post-independence decades – both institution and membership – were held in esteem. Now parliament is ridiculed. The booming oratory and prodigious intellect of Colvin marked him, at his peak, as Lanka’s Cicero; what a comedown to today’s clattering brass. Schools brought students from Jaffna on excursions not to watch some ratty Finance Minister read the budget, but a fortnight later to hear NM open the budget debate. I am no fan of SWRD, GG, Dudley, Mrs B, or JR – perish the thought – but even a sceptic must grant that today’s lot “walk under their huge legs and peep about to find themselves dishonourable graves”. (This phrase of course is not Gibbon’s). The difference is not in the water, the air, or the dhal they imbibe; parliament atrophied when the executive presidency arrived and emasculated it. The debate on the 4 April 2018 no-confidence motion, for example, was so hollow.
There is a second factor which has contributed to degeneration; evaporation of racial and religious tolerance. “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by philosophers as equally false; and by the state as equally useful”. (I love philosophers!). Roman pantheism was open minded, religious accommodation a norm. The edifice of power preserved the wisdom of the ages and let Rome set about the more important business of codifying laws, strengthening institutions, building roads and aqueducts, diffusing city freedom with prudent liberality and crafting a civilisation that stood for a thousand years. Roman citizenship was catholic; millions from the provinces, the colonies and municipal towns were eligible and conditions were not onerous; the state was fortified by an open view of citizenship. It is estimated that at the time of Claudius citizenship stood at seven million; add women and children and it reaches 20 million – huge by the standards of the time.
This reminds me of another emigrant nation which reached for greatness by opening its doors to the best and the brightest. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. A small island crowded with 21 million souls is a different ball game from Rome and America, but there are lessons that should kick us in the teeth. Our notion of national identity remains undefined at best, blinkered and bigoted at worst. Parliament now serves as a repository of this plague. As I have taken pains to explain, ever since the all-deciding executive presidency took over, it is jobless. Then the new proportional representation system lowered the bar further. You see, MPs have no real constituency to answer to or be responsible for. Hence the overriding purpose of being an MP is to be re-elected. If an unwieldly multitude of citizens debases the exercise of power, then MPs compete to champion the basest instincts of the mass to ensure re-election. In a word, this is why the well of parliament has become a pit of racist stench.
The wretchedness of the hegemonic political culture of the petty-bourgeois does not reinforce progress or unify the nation, it contradicts them. Anti-secularism, outmoded religious systems, the failures of parliament (and presidency), and anti-modernism have undermined bourgeois democracy in Sri Lanka. After the exit of the Raj the Indians found progressive solutions to problems of state, economy and national consolidation; thus far we have failed.
Parliament has degenerated for a multiplicity of layered reasons. Its power has been debased like counterfeit coin by an all-powerful executive; PR and preference voting, as institutionalised in Sri Lanka, have deracinated MPs from the grassroots – they are no longer tribunes of folks in towns and villages. Then pathological communal hatred has sunk Mother Lanka deeper in misery than other nations afflicted with similar ailments.
This would be too negative a note to end on; what’s the way forward? Annul the executive presidency, legislate harsh penalties for corrupt Ministers and MPs (in China they execute the buggers; bloody good idea), educate the ignorant ones (you will need a large classroom), build institutions and most important, school the people and raise public consciousness. Alas, all easier said than done!