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Nations Smaller Than Sri Lanka Have Sustained Themselves Through a Scheme of Devolved Democracy

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

When in doubt about continued popular support, or distracted by further divisions within the ranks, go after the Executive Presidency! That seems to be the accepted norm for the political Opposition in Sri Lanka ever since J. R. Jayewardene wrote in the Executive Presidency as the hallmark of the Second Republican Constitution, the sole purpose of which too seemed to be as much. Down the years and decades since, promising the abolition of the Executive Presidency has become a political past-time for whoever is not in power. Instead, it has become a permanent feature of an Opposition manifesto for every presidential poll.

Like most other manifesto items, this one too is conveniently forgotten when he who is in the Opposition is returned to power. The incumbent does not have such problems. He only has to ensure that his campaign managers do not repeat the same paragraph from the earlier manifesto, sold to the people when the party and the leader were in the Opposition. The fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe, as UNP Prime Minister under SLFP President Chandrika Kumaratunga did not attempt it should be an eye-opener, too. Sure enough, the Government of the day, the President and the Prime Minister included, were busy addressing the ‘ethnic war’ and busier tackling each other.

It is uncharacteristic of any leader of any political party in the country since Independence to be expected to share power with anyone even within his own party. What is good for the party holds good for the nation at large. Or, that is what has been happening. In what has evolved as a compulsive two-party system, holding on to the reins of the party, whatever its electoral prospects at any given time, is more than a tactic. In a nation where anti-incumbency alone is seen as winning and losing elections for the incumbent and the challenger alike, holding on to party power, even while in the Opposition, is possibly the only way one can hope to be elevated to the highest elected office in the land.

Whether it is about the continuance of the Executive Presidency or not, Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans should have taken the job of Constitution-making and Government-formation more seriously than in the past. It should be so in the future, if and when they decide to go ahead with a change-over. There is much more to Statehood and State structures than winning and losing elections, usurping and devolving powers, deploying constitutional means. Or, it should have been so – but is not so. The seed that JRJ sowed has grown into a tree. Nothing can be achieved, blaming either the ever-growing tree, or the seed, or the soil in which it was sowed and where the tree has grown – and continues to do so.

In the first seven years of the Seventies, the nation had had three Constitutions – the existing Soulbury Constitution giving way to the First Republican in 1972, and JRJ’s now infamous Second Republican in 1977. Anyway, two Constitutions in five years, when other democracies hold only periodic elections, was too much for a still evolving nation-State to cope with. The fatigue of Constitution-making, coupled with the purpose-driven political process that governed it meant that the nation has no energy left to have yet another go on the same lines. What it should hence look at, if at all, is to work with the dynamic process of Constitution-making and nation-building that elected democracy entails and provides for, if and when it came to that.

Sri Lankans need not despair. Peel the veneer of western democracy, there is something of the kind lurking in the dark abyss. As nurse-maids of modern democracy, the West knew how to ‘guide’ the process, how to ‘hide’ the dark side. The two-party system is a product of such lateral thinking – to have democracy, and not have too much of it, at the same time. They have done so in the name of democracy – and make their people live in a make-believe world of more democracy or less democracy, than none at all. It is an art-form that the post-colonial Third World democracies failed to acknowledge and assimilate. They took their job too seriously. When they erred, they erred violently, too.

For detractors of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Eighteenth Amendment is an end in itself. Its dilution, if not outright abrogation, again through the constitutional process, would have served a purpose, however limited their perception. Prior to 18-A, they were all champions of 17-A, which was impractical, hence unsustainable, ab initio, in the context of realpolitik. In democracy, realpolitik matters the most. Ideology and concepts are conceived to serve that purpose, which become larger than the basic structure, as with anything structural. The initial inclusion of 13-A, and the off-again-on-again calls for its repeal in political terms should be seen in this context. Majoritarian ideology, national security and the rest are thrown in for effect. Elsewhere, nations smaller than Sri Lanka have sustained themselves through a scheme of devolved democracy. They have also used such devolution to strengthen national security wholesale. It is not the other way around as is often being argued in and by Sri Lanka. Either people are unaware of the possibilities owing to an inherent lack of exposure, or are using stale arguments for political reasons, or both.

From the days of ‘Mahavamsa’

Ethnic-divide apart, Sri Lankans are not tired of relating their politics and political administration to an era chronicled in the ‘Mahavamsa’. For them to adopt western, parliamentary democracy of the Westminster scheme came as a natural progression, as was the case with the rest of the South Asian landmass. It took decades for that system to sustain under the colonial ruler, whose agenda was empire-building and not nation-building. His economic purpose was to sustain another island-nation, far away from Sri Lanka or the rest of South Asia, Arabia and Africa. For him, providing ‘modern education’ or ‘English education’ for the colonised people was a tool on the one hand, and an end in itself, otherwise. It helped in the standardisation of the administrative set up across the vast empire in a world without the present-day communication facilities of the IT era. It helped the East India Company grow, and the British Empire sustain for a time.

Flaws remained, yet co-option of the locals, either by accident or design or otherwise, ensured adequate exposure to working with and within the system. When these flaws became fractures, as naturally would have to be the case, Independence became inevitable. The inherited legacy of nation-building and State structures needed re-crafting to address the unaddressed concerns of a civilisation, which in the first place had caused the flaws and contributed later to the fractures. Yet, a base and basis remained. The super-structure needed a relook – but in ways that the base would sustain itself longer and in ways they were both meant to be.

Whether the First Republican Constitution did that kind of a relook as was required under the circumstances is debatable, considering the additional fractures that post-Independence Ceylon inflicted on itself in terms of ethnic equality and socio-economic equity. Yet, the overnight abandonment of the existing scheme and structures in favour of something that none had any exposure to – and thus had no experience with – was and continues to be the nation’s bane. Those that had worked with and in the two schemes are better qualified than any other to revisit the premises of the change-over era, and prescribe remedies, if any, for taking them forward now.

In doing so, they need to make a honest appraisal of their own positions at the time of change-over, and acknowledge failures, if any, if they have to be read and heard seriously. So should be all those who are calling for an end to the Executive Presidency, as much in times of war as in times of peace. Sarath Fonseka may be a prime example, but he is not the only one. After all, other nations have also won wars of the kind – both internally and externally, and with adequate constitutionally-granted powers for the Executive and/or the Legislature, without having to have an Executive Presidency in place.

Singapore, from whose model Sri Lanka is said to have adapted the Executive Presidency, did not exist as a nation when it crafted the American scheme as its own. The size, as Sri Lanka latter came to believe, did not matter to Singapore, if it were to compare itself with the US or other better known democracies in the West. In Singapore’s case, the nation and the governmental scheme grew up together, accepting and adopting each other. In times they adopted new forms of governance, other nations too had grown up with the scheme. It relates to that time in history when culturally united contiguous political communities came to adopt a common scheme of governance, as in the UK, the US and India, among others.

It could not have been the case with Sri Lanka at the inception of the Executive Presidency. It had a historic baggage from the ‘Mahavamsa’ era, with a succession of colonial models super-imposing them one layer above the other, but over a relatively shorter period. What emerged was an amalgam, yet held together by the colonial tools of limited governance. It meant that the ruler had the jobs and goals cut out for self and the rest. There was enough control for the scheme to sub-serve the limited goals of the colonial master, yet freedom of action at other levels, both inherited and imposed from above, to address the day-to-day concerns of the ruled. When the latter turned topsy-turvy, the colonial master could not stick on any more.

Thereby hangs a tale! The rest, as they say, is history

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