Needed: New Narratives

By N Sathiya Moorthy

In eastern Ampara over the weekend, ‘Leader of the Opposition’ Mahinda Rajapaksa has reiterated their resolve “not to allow anyone to divide the country” through a new Constitution. In doing so, the former President also claimed rightful credit for “rescuing the nation from the LTTE”.

The reference of course was to the ongoing Constitution-making process. In particular, Rajapaksa was obviously referring to media reports attributing the imminent presentation of a draft to Parliament acting as the ‘Constitution Assembly’. At the height of the ‘constitutional crises’, media reports have quoted some TNA leaders that the draft would be presented on Independence Day, 4 February.

In Ampara, media reports claimed, Rajapaksa was sure that the new Constitution would pave the way to divide the country. It was not possible to bring it in ‘forcibly’, he was reported to have said further. It is obvious as the Government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe just does not have the two-thirds majority, the required minimum for the purpose. This is so even if certain provisions of the draft may otherwise require a national referendum, as mandated in the existing, Second Republican Constitution of 1978.

‘National question’

Rajapaksa reportedly said that the ‘national question’ could not be resolved through a Constitution, which would incite hatred among the communities. Instead, it should be a “Constitution agreeable to all communities of Sinhala, Muslim and Tami”, he said.

“We managed to rescue the country, when the LTTE was trying to divide it. It will be silly to think that we will allow the country to be divided through a Constitution,” Rajapaksa, recalled his own glorious days. In a way, it was a glorious day for the Sri Lankan State, too, as the LTTE was seen as the most dreaded terror group in the world with conventional military capabilities, and other symbols of a ‘nation State’, like population, territory, etc, etc.

All of it became a joke, yes, when the LTTE began spreading its wares thin, started running police stations and courts, post offices and banks, with separate postage stamps, which no one anyway could use. The Sri Lankan State’s equal success on the non-military front included diplomatic efforts to ensure that no other nation-State recognised by the UN granted ‘recognition’ to the LTTE’s ‘Tamil Eelam’.

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To the extent a draft Constitution seeks to confer ‘federal powers’ to the Tamils, lesser are the chances that the Rajapaksa camp would support it in Parliament. The chances of such passage is even less what with President Maithripala Sirisena-led SLFP-UPFA crossing over to Opposition camp, whether or not they oppose the new draft, clause by clause.

Place for Buddhism

In Ampara, Rajapaksa said that it was ‘questionable’ whether the Government ensured the due place and respect to Buddhism, whereas it claimed that due place and respect were given to Buddhism in the Constitution. As reports last indicated, before Sirisena unleashed the avoidable ‘constitutional crises’, there seemed to be no change in the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist position on this issue.

Time was when some TNA leaders also publicly acknowledged the ‘supremacy’ of Buddhism in the country, thereby ending one of the two major sore-points in the ethnicity-centric constitutional discourse, over the past decades. The other of course was the ‘unitary State’. Here, going by what TNA leaders had said earlier, their problem will be in marketing their own new phraseology to their own people, nearer home and overseas.

On both issues, the troubles, Team Wickremesinghe seemed to hope, would be less for them on the Sinhala-Buddhist majority front. If true, by climbing down a rung or a half, the TNA might help the UNP leadership to present a ‘winner’ to their own Sinhala-Buddhist constituency, whether ‘nationalist or not in the narrow sense of the term.

‘Tripitaka’ discourse

There now comes into the political discourse, as different from the constitutional discussions, President Sirisena’s current declaration, making the ‘Tripitaka’, a ‘National Heritage’ of Sri Lanka. At a ceremony at the Aluvihare Buddhist temple in Matale, Sirisena also announced that he would work towards having the Tripitaka declared as a ‘World Heritage’.

According to a Wikipedia entry, “The Tripiṭaka (Sanskrit /trɪˈpɪtəkə/), or Tipiṭaka (Pali /tɪˈpɪtəkə/), is the traditional term for the Buddhist scriptures. The version canonical to Theravada Buddhism is generally referred to in English as the ‘Pali Canon’. Mahayana Buddhism also holds the Tripitaka to be authoritative but, unlike Theravadins, it also includes in its canon various derivative literature and commentaries that were composed much later.” Sri Lanka follows Theravada Buddhism, and President Sirisena’s reference, of course, was to the Tripitaka in the Theravadan context.

Sirisena said that the ‘historic task’ of declaring the Tripitaka as a ‘National Heritage’ would save it from distorted interpretations and provide legal protection. “From here, no one is allowed to use the translation, conversion, or misuse of the Tripitaka or issue any text without approval from the Government. Now, the Tripitaka can be translated and edited only by a statutory academic council. In this way, the government intervened to prevent any attempt to damage or distort the Tripitaka,” he said.

The President said that he decided on ‘National Heritage’ with the expectations and the guidance of Maha Sangha, the Buddhist high priests in the country. He also reiterated his ‘heartfelt respect and love for the Buddhist order’. In his words, Sirisena “considers this a great privilege for him to accomplish this virtuous deed within his tenure” and gain ‘merits’ — a Sri Lankan Buddhist term for God’s blessings.

More Buddhism, not less

Independent of the religiosity involved, Sirisena’s initiative, more than Rajapaksa’s opposition to a constitutional draft, has its own political side, whether he had intended or not. In an election year, with religious interpretation of the new Constitution being at the centre of the national discourse on the ‘national question’, he has taken it all to the next level.

In administrative terms, involving the Government and Government-appointed councils in the interpretation of the Tripitaka means that there is more Buddhism in Sri Lankan State affairs, if only in a small way – but definitely less, as the Tamils would want to believe. That the President could do it through a seemingly unilateral Executive initiative without involving his Prime Minister or Cabinet may have its own constitutional story to narrate.

Yet, the MS-MR combo, whether they stay united or not in the presidential polls need to look at the possibility of a ‘shrinking Buddhist-nationalist constituency’ in the country. Nothing has been proved yet, but going by the continuing public mood in the Sinhala South, the chances of the traditionally ‘Buddhist nationalist’ constituency may have lost some of its edge, post-LTTE. It is also the natural thing to expect, and act upon.

Yes, there is continuing Sinhala-Buddhist constituency support for Rajapaksa as the ‘war victor’, not necessarily against all Tamils but against ‘LTTE terrorism’. It owed to the instilled fear and apprehension in the minds of ordinary Sinhala population (who also happen to be Buddhists) on possible terror-attacks on their persons and those of their dear ones, as on their religious places, big and small.

To confuse both, a full decade after the exit of the LTTE, and act politically on such calculations, could end up being more adversarial to their electoral calculations than those of their rivals. In this context, it could well mean Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and his UNP-UNF combine.

New narratives

Anyway, the UNP-UNF combine is ‘multi-ethnic’ than the MS-MR combo. The confusion is in the UNP’s inability to convince itself that there is a new and emerging constituency, whose constituents were possibly unaware of the ‘LTTE horrors’. Rajapaksa may have done it for him, but then they cannot relate to whatever they were not born into, or unaware of as ‘young children’.

Whatever memories that they may retain from those days of alternating horror and celebrations (at LTTE’s exit), may be confused at best – consistent, it may not be. How to reach out to them, even while retaining their parental constituency, would be the real political problem for the MS-MR combo in an election year, not their conventional thinking that most Sinhala-Buddhists are still with them, now and forever!

In the interim, however, the electoral honours may still be divided on the Sinhala-Buddhist front, with other ethnicities thus holding the decisive card(s) in their hands, in yet another round of national elections. It could become different, or even extinct, if only over a period. If however, this time round, there is greater Sinhala-Buddhist support against Team Wickremesinghe, it would owe to ‘governance issues’ like economy and prices than to religious and ethnic issues. The latter would however score in the case of the Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, as well – if only over the short-term. For future politics and elections, their leaderships too should begin looking elsewhere for a sustainable political agenda, which could still keep shifting from election to the next.

It may escape the coming year’s electoral contests, both to the presidency and Parliament. The impact could be more – or, less – in the multiple Provincial Council (PC) elections, which the Wickremesinghe leadership is still shy of facing. But over the medium and long-terms, it may well be that all electoral stake-holders may have to come up with new political narratives, taking off from the ethnic issue and terror-past, not get stuck there and still hope to win over the GenNext voters!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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