By Kumar David –
“Any fool can state ultimate goals – Wisdom is getting the next step right”
It was in the 1960s at a meeting in the Colombo Town Hall grounds that I heard Colvin say this; he attributed it to Lenin. I have searched for the original quote but never could locate it. Perhaps he was not quoting, only describing Lenin’s unerring genius for getting it right each step of the way. Any damn fool leftist will tell you that socialism is the ideal, or chant “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs”, but what step to take next in a concrete conjuncture, neither sectarians nor party bosses who can’t think on their feet, can get right. Any Bishop can tell you about the Kingdom of Heaven but it takes an intelligent Christian to choose to pull the trigger when a drunk with a knife approaches a child, or to hold a nerve of steel. Lenin was master of the concrete conjuncture. His genius was making the right decision at each moment; when to stand firm and when to compromise, to accept or to reject, be flexible or rigid, and all the while teach his cadres and educate the people along the way.
I don’t want to overdo it, but I think there is a mild analogy with C.V. Wigneswaran’s (CV) strategic flexibility. Nor do I want to give offence to the good Justice by suggesting that he would ever knowingly copy a hardcore communist. Oh dear no! But CV has had a startling impact; his rise from a nobody judge to a star in the political firmament has been meteoric – sorry about the mixed metaphor. When one reflects on why, the following answer takes shape: Invariably, CV has got the next step right; the man is an unconscious Leninist in matters of strategy. I hope he also has the stamina and the staying power that is needed.
The correct handling of contradictions between the Chief Minister and the President – or the Provincial Administration and the Centre, which is the same thing – should achieve three things. First it should unremittingly press the demand that the powers vested in the PC and the CM be respected and implemented, second the regime’s intransigence should be used to expose the authoritarianism of the state, and third the CM must, step by step, take his people through a learning curve. CV quite clearly is making a good job of the first task and showing relentless tenacity. Next, the government’s calculated efforts to undermine the province stand out like a sore thumb for all to see – that is to say the failure of the state in Lanka has been exposed to domestic and international view. The impending setback in Geneva is proof of the latter. Thirdly this is an unfolding case study, a model laboratory in which the Tamil people get invaluable political education with the potential to raise people’s consciousness.
It is against this background that I will use the rest of this essay to develop a few ideas.
A Wigneswaran in every province
CV is a shot in the arm for enthusiasts of devolution; he has proved that devolution can work if the Chief Minister has integrity, commitment and intelligence. Who in his right mind would assert that potential CMs with like qualities cannot be found in other provinces? There are quality leaders in all provinces and communities but the uses and abuses of Gota–Mahinda state power encourages knaves to climb and buries Sinhalese Wigneswarans. I have political differences with Vasu and they are many, but imagine if he was the Chief Minister of the South or Sabaragamuwa, instead of wasting away warming a chair in a lame duck ministry, how much he could achieve. Can’t he do for a southern province as much as CV for the north? That is if he were not blocked every step of the way, and if the Divinaguma Act, which strips provinces of financial resources to bestow on one of the Rajapakse siblings the status of a super-Tsar gaming with public money, were abolished.
Let me drive home the point at the cost of annoying you by repetition; no one has put it across clearly and emphatically enough yet. The lesson to be learnt from the NPC is that if able and honest leaders were to take charge of the provinces, Lanka could be a shining example of flourishing devolution. CV has not been allowed to function, but what he has shown is a tantalising glimpse of what devolution can offer. We must first get rid of incumbent joker CMs and administrations in other provinces and put decent people and institutions in place. The point has to be driven home; devolution has never been given a chance in Lanka, now we have a glimpse of what it might achieve. The message of the NPC experience is for the Sinhala people: ‘Kick out the crooks in provincial administrations! Give devolution a chance!’
Tamils at the cross-roads, again
A poser born of hardly six months of NPC experience is the possibility of either a decisive shift in Tamil politics to a new paradigm or its return to the old one. If devolution works and the NPC delivers, Tamils will seal the contract they initiated with the TNA in September 2013. Hope of a way forward within a united Lanka will take root and they will turn their energies towards nurturing a healthy society in their homelands. Of course one must not be complacent, there are a multitude of challenges; education and health on the social side; people centred development (not Basil style concrete pouring), fisheries (phew India again!) and agriculture on the development side, and halting a slide among youth to alcohol, promiscuity and idleness. And then, money matters (and money does matter); devolution cannot work till Divinaguma is repealed.
Yes, the challenges are formidable, but people know it. When some years down the road they read the NPC’s report-card, they will make allowances. If, despite this obstructionist and dim-witted regime, CV has tangible achievements to show, Tamil alienation will whither and confidence in living together will mature.
The regime however persists with negativity; it bends over to hinder, not to collaborate. Madness; given a post-war scenario and the special needs of the North, one would expect the government to go out on a limb to mend fences. It will never get a chance as good as this to make ethnic collaboration work. If the regime blows it again this time, the country may never get another opportunity.
If extremists gain ground in the post-Geneva rage and the regime plays electoral Sinhala-Buddhism and fans xenophobia, then the relationship with the North will collapse. If tensions ratchet up, if sanctions even mild ones are introduced, if mobs get on the streets, at that point Rajapakse is not the leader with guts or morals to stand up. Even a witch hunt may start and the NPC may be dissolved. A regime that can imprison General Fonseka, a so-called war hero on trumped up charges, will have no compunction about putting a Tamil Chief Minister behind bars and throwing away the keys. Sinhalese public opinion and the international community can stop these trends. They must!
To sum up, the second option, god forbid is that the Tamils are pushed to a point where they say: “They took even this away from us; they will never give us a chance; there is no hope for us in Sinhala desam”. Then, what happens? Which avatar of Parbaharan will be reborn? Over to you Mr Gotabaya and Mr Mahinda what say you, what is your game plan with CV?
The JVP needs to grow up
CV is probably old enough to be Anura Kumara’s grandfather, but as with most granddads and grandkids they have a lot in common. For starters, both are fresh faces and fresh minds. AK has said the JVP is prepared to review its attitude to the Tamils and its stand on the national question. Nothing has happened so far; if anything the signs are that the JVP is sliding back to its outdated nationalistic stand. It is forty years since the last serious discussion on the national question in the JVP – the prison debates of the Bopage-Wijeweera era. The JVP majority still swallows the myth that devolution is a chink through which imperialism will creep in and stymie the revolution. These guys live on planet Mars; it is time to rethink the national question from bottom up. The world has changed in the last half century.
CV for his part has shown refreshing tactical realism. He has told the TNA: ‘What you need to do as the leading Tamil party to get a political settlement on the national question, you go ahead and do; the minimum I need as Chief Minister to get my job done, is a subset; just 13A’. There is no contradiction though the media is trying to manufacture one. To return to the new faces on the block, CV has shown strategic flexibility but the JVP has not shown any yet despite early hope after Anura Kumara took over. This makes a principled understanding difficult. Let’s hope they make some progress soon.