So what if 19-A has to go…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

President Maithripala Sirisena may go down the history of world democracy as a leader who had no hesitation to acknowledge his own constitutional wrongs and seek correctives! If someone though it’s about the twin crises of October last, it’s not to be. Instead, he has now confessed (!) that the 19th Amendment, which was the key element of his presidential poll campaign for 2015, and which he helped write into the Constitution, has pushed the nation into a more ungovernable mess than it was earlier… So what if 19-A has to go?

The contents of 19-A, namely, division of powers between the President and the Prime Minister, the latter representing Parliament and the people more than used to be the case, was questionable and contestable by anyone without political bias and personal glory to flaunt. The polity, the ‘international community’ (read: West) and certain political analysts in Colombo, wanted incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa out, for their own reasons.

Against this, Sirisena wanted to be ‘in’, so did the UNP and present-day Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, too, albeit through proxies like Sirisena. They were convinced that Wickremesinghe could not win the presidency for the party, in a nation-wide ballot. But they could not have another UNP leader, challenging his authority. It was easier for them to control a proxy from outside the UNP than a competitor from inside.

The interests of other divergent sections of the polity and personalities were even more divided otherwise. But they wanted Rajapaksa out, and 19-A concept was the only unifying point, for them to garner votes. For instance, the West wanted less of China in Sri Lanka. Post-Rajapaksa regime, there is more of China, not less. It means that 19-A paradigm-shift has proved to be anything but that….

It’s here Sirisena is right. He himself had waited, by confession of another kind, for four decades, as a rank and file worker of the SLFP. If patience and perseverance could pay for Rajapaksa, who was not one of those ‘Colombo Seven’ elites, who alone were ‘born to rule’, why not Sirisena, who was cut out in the near-similar mould? There was/is a difference.

Rajapaksa combined patience with perseverance. Sirisena changed the combination to ‘patience and cunning’. So at the birth of his presidency, he was standing on the UNP crutches, which Wickremesinghe or anyone else in his place, could pull out at will. They kept tilting and dancing the same every now and again, as if to remind Sirisena that would was the real boss.

Too tired and even more impatient and unsuited to pull along a coalition, even if to stay on in power, Sirisena threw out the crutches in October last, and unceremoniously so. Truth be acknowledged, he did not act as much unconstitutionally as the West and the rest wanted the nation and the world wanted them to believe.

Sirisena-led SLFP-UPFA withdrew support for PM Wickremesinghe. The Government did not have a majority in Parliament, and President Sirisena swore in Rajapaksa, who purportedly commanded a majority in the House at the time. Sirisena’s real sin was not in his sacking Wickremesinghe, but in swearing in Rajapaksa, who failed to prove his majority, whatever the machinations, and by whoever…

‘No single leader’

The 19-A “has triggered instability. There is no single leader,” Sirisena told a meeting in Colombo. “People believe that the President and Prime Minister are pulling in different directions.” Even Sirisena could not have spoken a truer word. It is anybody’s guess how with his four decades long political experience, exposure and expertise, Sirisena could guess that it would have worked in the first place.

Historically, the UNP and breakaway SLFP (circa 1951) are ideological poles apart. Barring a select few, including the Bandaranaike founder-family of the SLFP, heir leaderships came from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. In a nation where a successful cricketing captain of the future could be derisively dismissed as, ‘This thing can speak English’, or some such thing, the socio-economic distinctions continue to make a difference.

Democracy is the great leveller, and it is this divide that electoral democracy sought to bridge through universal adult suffrage. That’s how a Ranasinghe Premadasa from the UNP, and a Rajapaksa or Sirisena could end up becoming President. But the difference between Sirisena and the other two was/is that he mounted the wrong horse, to reach there…. Reach there, he did but then the horse also promptly sought to dislodge him. The rest is history.

Indian experience

Neighbouring India is not only the world’s largest democracy. It is also a successful democracy. The former is an accident of history and geography, the latter is the product of a conscious and conscientious process, though with occasional aberrations and correctives.

What Sirisena may be referring to in the Sri Lankan context may be an ‘aberration-correction’ course but then, it is not as simple as repealing 19-A, or at least the ‘power-centre’ parts of it. Such a course would restore Executive Presidency in all its glory, to which there was/is genuine reservations and apprehensions.

The fact is that whether Executive President or a Westminster system of Prime Minister-centric Cabinet form of Government, it all owes to the strength of the personality involved, and his/her ability to win elections for the party/alliance. The nation had witnessed strong PMs before JRJ made it Executive Presidency.

The Executive Presidency was meant to sub-serve JRJ’s own unfounded fears about his ability to carry the party, people and Parliament together, until he was ready to shed the weight. Possibly, this was the only ‘democratic nation’, where the form of governance was decided through a new Constitution (1978), to sub-serve the personal and personality interests of an individual. So, the nation could not but pay for the sin of supporting it then…. long after JRJ is dead and gone.

A post-19-A constitutional amendment, if and when it came to that, should be based on a closer study of the Indian scheme, its own successes and pitfalls, and make it suitable to Sri Lankan realities. Basically, a Prime Minister elected through Parliament, and a President, too, elected likewise, may be the answer, but there is a difference.

To ensure that there is a possibility of change, if not challenge, the Indian scheme ensures that Members of the State Assemblies (Provincial Councils in the Sri Lankan context) form a part of the ‘electoral college’ for the presidential polls. To ensure that the electors in such a scheme are seen as representing the nation’s population, separate values are assigned to each State/Province, so that it is the multiples of the votes polled against each ‘vote value’ that is the deciding factor.

Yet, the Indian Constitution, after the 42nd Amendment, passed during the unwelcome Emergency under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, made the crucial distinction. It meant that the President would have to aid and act according to the wishes of the Council of Ministers, headed by the Prime Minister. The President can return a Bill or resolution to Parliament or the Cabinet for reconsideration, but cannot veto it a second time.

Yet, experience has shown that a vibrant media did ensure that a President-PM clash of ideas or of personalities did trigger a national debate through media exposure – not just on the individuals but more on the issues flagged. The decision went in favour of the public mood…

It sill requires a free media, not the kind of one PM Wickremesinghe’s Government now promises to strangulate through new rules and regulations, citing the social media mischief during successive periods of national crises in the past five years. Yes, communal mischief has to be curbed, but then it could also be used by the powers-that-be, to curtail information and campaigns on the ‘bonds scam’ and worse!

(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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