In a remarkable display of political courage rarely seen among members of the Rajapaksa Government in recent times,Justice minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem, has protested strongly against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s controversial move to circumscribe devolution by amending the Constitution.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared open a DNA Department with state of the art facility, Pelawatte, Battaramulla on the invitation of SLMC Leader and Minister of Justice Rauff Hakeem on May 10,2013-pic: slmc.lk
The protest lodged by Hakeem at the weekly cabinet meeting held on Thursday June 6th 2013 was overtly backed by National Languages and Social Integration minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara and covertly endorsed by several other cabinet ministers from the Sinhala community while cabinet ministers from the Tamil and Muslim communities remained conspicuously silent.
Although let down badly by ministerial colleagues representing ethnic minority groups the articulate lawyer elected to Parliament from Kandy district expressed his adverse viewpoint concerning the Govt’s hurried move to amend the Constitution ,crossing swords verbally with President Rajapaksa himself in the process.
As a result of Hakeem’s vehement opposition President Rajapaksa beat a tactical retreat by announcing that the cabinet of ministers would decide upon the matter at the next cabinet meeting thereby providing Rauff Hakeem and other ministers a week’s time to study the proposed 19th Constitutional amendment in depth.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had in a sudden move initiated action to present an urgent bill in Parliament to amend the Constitution regarding the substance and unit of devolution without wide or deep consultation with all relevant stakeholders.
The draft bill termed as the 19th Constitutional amendment was twin pronged and proposed to –
1)Remove the safeguards in Article 154(G)(3) of the constitution to permit the centre to pass legislation in relation to subjects in the Provincial Council List by a simple majority provided that a majority of PCs agree to the said legislation.
2) Repeal Article 154(A)(3) which allows Parliament to provide for two or three adjoining provinces to form one administrative unit.
The proposed amendment was criticised vehemently by proponents of devolution such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) who argued that this move would “render the Thirteenth Amendment worthless as a mechanism to devolve legislative power, as the central government at any given time could take away any or all powers vested in the PCs by passing legislation with a simple majority”.
President Rajapaksa convened a meeting of all Political party leaders in the Government on Tueday June 4th 2013 where the issue of the 19th Constitutional amendment was discussed. Apparently there was no dissent among the party leaders represented in the Govt though a few had wanted a little more time to study the proposal and make suggestions if necessary.
President Rajapaksa told the party leaders that the decision to present the 19th amendment in Parliament would be finalised and confirmed at the cabinet meeting on Thursday June 6th 2013.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem was not present at the Govt party leaders meeting as he was away in Jordan at that time in his official capacity as Justice minister.
However when Hakeem heard about the moves to introduce the 19th Constitutional Amendment the SLMC leader cancelled his proposed visit to Palestine from Jordan and returned hastily to Sri Lanka in order to participate in Thursday morning’s cabinet meeting.He was also scheduled to present legislation later in the day to enable displaced persons exercise their franchise rights.
Hakeem surprised President Rajapaksa and several of his cabinet colleagues by expressing his reservations on the proposed bill in a very open manner. With President Rajapaksa intervening directly at one point, the exchange of views took on the form of a verbal confrontation, but the Justice minister to his credit did not back down.
Ratnapura district MP and National Languages minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara also plunged into the discussion and extended solid support to Rauff Hakeem.
Hakeem took up the position that the proposed amendment sought to dilute and circumscribe the powers of devolution provided by the 13th Constitutional amendment and other related Constitutional provisions. The SLMC leader stated that this move had huge implications for his party the Muslim Congress, the Muslim people and the minority ethnicities in general.
The Justice minister pointed out that his party the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress had passed a resolution at the party convention against any further proposals aimed at diluting the powers of devolution provided to the Provincial councils at present.As such he was duty bound to consult his party and obtain their views before deciding on the matter,Hakeem explained.
President Rajapaksa being a seasoned politician gauged the prevalent mood of the cabinet regarding Hakeem’s stance , despite their maintaining the eloquence of silence , except of course for comrade Vasu.The “Machiavelli of Medamulana” realised that a tactical retreat to buy time was required.
With his customary craft ,President Rajapaksa cleverly seized upon a statement made by Hakeem himself. During the course of the discussion Hakeem had said that he had arrived in Sri Lanka only a little while ago and not had sufficient time to study the proposals in detail or consult party stalwarts.
Exploiting that statement by Hakeem to his advantage,President Rajapaksa announced abruptly that the final decision on the Constitutional amendment would be taken at the cabinet meeting next week. Winding up further discussion on the topic ,President Rajapaksa said that the one week gap would provide enough time for Rauff Hakeem and other ministers to study the proposal further and consul their respective parties.
The President’s media machine has also begun spreading the news directly and indirectly that the decision on the amendment has been postponed in deference to a request by Rauff Hakeem for time.
Several ministers who remained tongue-tied in the presence of President Rajapaksa had later discreetly congratulated Hakeem for his bold stance.
Political observers opine that the tactical retreat by President Rajapaksa was a deft manoeuvre to to buy more time. This time they feel would be utilised to pressurise Rauff Hakeem to fall in line through a combination of “carrot and stick” methods.
Hakeem and the SLMC would be persuaded to comply through political concessions in the form of carrots or harsh measures in the form of sticks.
The Muslim Congress has a number of demands that are yet unaddressed.There are also many matters in which pledges made to the party remain unfulfilled. Some forward movement on these matters would be worthwhile carrots to Hakeem and the SLMC.
On the other hand the ruling Rajapaksa regime is also capable of wielding the stick against Hakeem and the SLMC. It is possible to foment another revolt against Hakeem in the party and engineer a defection.It is also possible to encourage non –SLMC Govt Muslim political lackeys to mount a campaign against the Muslim Congress.There is also the final option of removing Hakeem from the cabinet.
Rauff Hakeem also is not a political infant and his highly commendable courageous political stance vis a vis the proposed Constitutional amendment is not one that is entirely based on principle.It is a shrewd and calculated political gamble coloured with pragmatic expediency.
Depending upon the response of the Rajapaksa regime the SLMC could extract a number of concessions from the Govt through a strategy of compliance. If compelled to adopt a stance of defiance that may strengthen the party politically among its chief constituency the North-Eastern Muslims and proponents of devolution both nationally and internationally.
Whether it is compliance or defiance depends upon the allure and impact of the carrot and stick method used and the extent to which Rauff Hakeem can retain his grip upon the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress party reins.
Whatever the ultimate outcome in this issue the defiant posture adopted by Hakeem at present has drawn attention to three important aspects.
Firstly and importantly it proves that there is no unanimity of opinion among cabinet members over the issue of diluting or demolishing devolution as demanded by Sinhala hardliners.
Secondly and more importantly it shows that the active pro-Devolution lobby in the Govt comprising more than thirty Parliamentarians from the Sinhala,Tamil and Muslim communities can – if united,intrepid and determined – provide effective resistance to anti-devolution efforts.
Thirdly and most importantly it demonstrates that the Rajapaksa Government too should adopt caution and restraint in matters concerning devolution. There is a historical background to the process of devolution in the country.The foolish tendency to rush into areas where even angels fear to tread has to be curbed.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa would do well to utilise the time gained through Hakeem’s protest to review the issue carefully, adopt saner counsel and arrive at a just decision that would ensure the country’s interests in the long term rather than appease hawkish appetites in the short term.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at ~ firstname.lastname@example.org