By N Sathiya Moorthy
The way 20-A got passed through Parliament has three main lessons for the stake-holders. And these are three defining, rather, re-defining moments in the nation’s 21st century history, on the domestic political front.
First, it is to the ruling Rajapaksas. That the war was joined and won a light year earlier, and that they cannot take the allies for granted. True, the Wimal Weerawansas, Udaya Gammanpillas and Vasudeva Nanaykaras might have required their popularity and personalised vote-banks to win their parliamentary seats. That does not mean that they are signed in as their SLPP members. If so, they do not have to hold on to the mirage of leading separate political parties, with closer ideological identification with the Rajapaksas – but not complete.
Two, the message is to the civil society busy-bodies, who looked the other way when the Sirisena-Wickremesighe duo trampled upon the Constitution in the name of the preceding 19-A, whose main purpose was to place legal hurdles in the way of even a Rajapaksa child in the womb coming to power – in his or her time. Looking at their own conduct dispassionately, at least now, the civil society, NGOs and INGOs should agree that the personal obsession for the Rajapaksas to reverse 19-A wholesale owed to the way 19-A was conceptualised and packaged – as much for Parliament as for the people to be able to welcome it.
Thus, one side of 19-A was for the Sirisenas and Wickremesighes to ensure that either or both of them would be able to sleep well for five years and win another elections without having to have electoral nightmares about the Rajapaksas’ return. They assumed that removing the hurdle from their path or putting hurdles in the path of the Rajapaksas would suffice and was a guarantee for them to fight their lil’ scuffles.
For the people, that was enough. So were they for the Zaharans of the world. Both understood that President Maithripala Sirisena anda Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had no time for the nation, and no time for the tasks for which they sought and obtained twin-mandates in 2015. The people could only despair. The Zaharans could design.
It is still anybody’s guess how Zaharan could plot with gay abandon, as if they had all the confidence that the twine shall never meet. This is what made them confident that they could count on the nation’s celebrated security forces, police and intelligence agencies would be inadequately informed and improperly prepared to stop a dastardly act like the ‘Easer Sunday serial blasts’.
No one failed the Zaharans. If they lost their lives in the process, it owed to their own plot to make them suicide-blasts. It is ow tempting to imagine if the perpetrators of the Easter blasts would have been tempted to stop with a remote-control device of some such thing, and plot their escape, also. In all likelihood, they might have succeeded, after all.
Govern, not amend
The third lesson is for the Sri Lankan voter, especially the majority Sinhala-Buddhist voters. They gave such a huge mandate to govern, not amend – or, to make governance their main priority and not amend the Constitution, in its place. In 2015, they voted President Mahinda Rajapaksa less and his SLFP, led by Sirisena, equally so – to send out a message. That in the company of the Tamils, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils, they could draw the line for the rulers, who were still living in the war-victory past.
Then, as now, the voter had not found a way to convey to the elected, what their mandate is all about. The voter aspiration is one thing, but the ruler’s understanding was another. This time, presidential candidate Gota Rajapaksa talked only about a 20-A in his campaign speeches. But the voter voted him for good governance after the years of mess inflicted by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe, and with a straight face, both.
To the voter, good governance was based on twin factors associated with to Mahinda’s two terms in office, 2005-15, namely, law and order and relatively boom in the economy even during war-time. Post-Easter blasts, law and order situation in the country was in doldrums. The voter expected the Rajapaksas to re-inject the kind of morale that the police and the security forces got under them during the years of the decisive Eelam War IV, or even a year earlier.
This, the Rajapaksas, especially President Gota, the war-time Defence Secretary, injected in amble measure. Hence, the security forces could handle the first phase of covid-management as no other country, especially in these parts, had done. If there is a second phase of the pandemic, it can be argue to have owed its origins to less army control over people’s movement (purely from a pandemic view) after the parliamentary polls of August.
Then, there was the economy. Blaming it all on the ‘China deb-trap’ inflicted on the nation by the Mahinda regime, Wickremsinghe in particular took the lead in making the mess that the economy was when the Rajapaksas inherited it. This is what the voter hoped for the Rajapaksas, a tough-talking Gotabaya especially to mend – and not amend the Constitution, post haste.
In this, the voter’s prescription was straight and simple: “You wanted an absolulte majority, by which you do not have beg, borrow and steal – all the time worrying about parliamentary majority. We gave you, still you want to formalise our faith through 20-A, and expended all your energies, that too in the face of Covid’s return, to winning the vote on 20-A, and nothing else.”
Does it mean that the voter would have given the SLPP combine fewer seats had he known he cannot change the stripe of the tiger, or curl the mane of the lion, and would remain obsessed with its own first priorities. In such a case, at least the nation would have a more vocal Opposition than at present. Whether or not the Rajapaksa and the Premadasas are thinking about it, somewhere in the corner of the voter’s mind, such thoughts are bound to cross…
About form and content
Where does it leave the nation? First and foremost, the message from the allies is clear. That the Rajapaksa, or anyone in their place, can from now on produce their crucial political decisions as if out a magician’s hat expect them only to clap and cheer. The basic reservations of the allies, is not initially about the content of 20-A but about the form in which it was presented to the Cabinet and/or to the nation.
Recall, how SJB combine’s Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa was unilaterally declaring support for the 20-A even before knowing its content, and how he could change tack when it was bulldozed into the public domain. Once Sajith began making noise from the outside, the allies could not but protest –if only they were not to be told later on that you merge your parties in the SLPP.
Today, when the Government is talking about a new Constitution, either it makes the consultative process a serious affair, and not otherwise. No, the issue is not about 13-A or the Tamil support, even for the majority Sinhala support, they need to make the new Constitution acceptable to a large section of the rest of the nation’s population and polity. The choice for this reason and others is to slow down the Constitution-making process, without a unilateral one-year deadline.
In between, try and set the economy and administration straight. Or, be seen as making earnest attempts to this end – and certainly not let the situation on both fronts deteriorate. Even on the diplomatic front, Sri Lanka’s options are getting increasingly limited, when the economy demands it can do with all the help from wherever – starting with an untagged arrangement with Chinese investment firms that all their jobs with go only to Sri Lankan locals, and at market wages and salaries.
The fact that the Rajapaksas were not ready to risk a referendum on the controversial clauses in 20-A for which the Supreme Court determined a referendum was needed should imply that they are a sobered lot, after their sweeping parliamentary poll victory, when even Mahinda did not get in the post-war 2010 parliamentary polls. He could manage a two-thirds majority only with defectors, yet wasted it only on an even more controversial 18-A and even more unacceptable measures like the unprecedented impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake.
The voter had the last laugh, in Elections-2015. That was again the Sinhala-Buddhist voter, who mostly comprised the 47-per cent votes for incumbent Mahinda at the time, but still give the presidency only to his opponent, Sirisnea, his friend and colleague, both in the party and the government, almost until he last minute. Today, the Rajapaksas may be even more weary to trust outsiders like Srisiena, but then they cannot hope to run the nation only through intra-family discussions and debates, with more numbers now, possibly adding to the cacophony.
(The writer is Distinguished Fellow and Head-Chennai Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)