The report of the Steering Committee could be said to be the draft Constitution in embryo and must be understood as such. However unsatisfactorily rendered it addresses two of the oldest, most vital questions in our contemporary history and indeed that of any state. One is the ethno-national question and the other, the question of models: presidentialism vs. parliamentarism. Taken together, the two issues pertain to the nature and structure of the state itself.
One would think that given the stakes involved, the discussion would be honest and serious. Instead, the both the government, led in this instance by the Prime Minister, but not limited to him, and the opposition led by former president Rajapaksa have started off on the wrong foot. The PM has kicked off with the mega-lie that the minority parties have agreed to a unitary state. This is a lie on two counts.
Firstly, even the Tamil word in the UNP submission which is coterminous with the Report, defines the state as “one and indivisible” or “united and indivisible”, NOT as unitary. So the Sinhala word says unitary, the English word unitary appears nowhere and the Tamil word does not mean unitary at all, and says something else instead!
Secondly, the TNA’s document annexed to the Report says that Sri Lanka should be regarded as a union of provinces. When the definition is not that of a single center representing the whole, which shares power downwards and to the periphery to sub-national units, then the name of the game is not devolution within a unitary state. When the definition is of constituent components which form a union and that union is the whole, then that’s the federative principle, not the unitary one.
So the PM, Leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella and Mano Ganeshan among others, are lying through their teeth. That is not an auspicious start for a process of such national consequence.
As for the Opposition, its national leader, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa says that there is an attempt to introduce a secular state. However the Report makes no such recommendation. Only the TNA’s document calls for a secular state. No one else has agreed to it and most call for the retention of the status quo. The UNP-drafted Report entertains two possibilities, one of which is the retention of the status quo while the other envisages a minor amendment so as to introduce the phrase non-discrimination in a multi-religious scenario in which Buddhism still retains primacy of place. Neither formula calls for anything like a secular state.
The Steering Committee report also puts paid to the debate on the unit of devolution. All the parties represented have opted for the province as the unit of devolution with the sole and quite minor exception of the JHU which opts for the district. Thus it is not merely the case that not a single Tamil or Muslim party is willing to accept the district as the unit, nor is any Southern party, except for the JHU!
The TNA of course stands for merger, while no other party does. In an irony of history, and a posthumous triumph for Vijaya Kumaratunga, Daya Pathirana, Nandana Marasinghe and other leftists who were murdered by the JVP in the latter half of the 1980s, the JVP urges that the powers conferred on the provinces should not be taken back. The TNA wants the governor to act on the advice of the Board of Ministers while most parties, including the JVP, do not want the powers of the governor diluted.
To return to the main theme of this article, that of dishonesty, I am unhappy to say that the next large piece of dishonesty comes from the place it should least come from, namely the Left. Representing one wing of the left, Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne says that the left has always stood for the abolition of the executive presidency. The JVP sings the same song. There are two dishonesties involved here. Firstly, Jayampathy ignores the issue of the unitary state except to decry the unitarist mindset of this or that section of society. The JVP seems to consider the danger to the unitary model as far less of a problem than the apparently unadulterated boon of the abolition of the executive presidency.
Jayampathy ignores the fact that the first ever global organization of the working class, namely the First International, split because of the huge fight between Marx on the one hand and the Anarchists led by Mikhail Bakunin on the other, and one of the main lines of demarcation was precisely Bakunin’s advocacy of federalism and Marx’s bitter hostility to it. If there ever was a state centralist it was Karl Marx.
Secondly, the great unitarist in Sri Lankan politics was Dr. Colvin R. de Silva, a literate Marxist and Leninist and the winner of the best prize for History throughout the British Empire. In the debate over Constitution-making in 1972, he made a brilliant exposition, completely devoid of any reference to Sinhala Buddhism, of why Sri Lanka needed a unitary form of state and could not countenance any form of federalism.
Thirdly, at the broadest ingathering of the left on the issue of constitutional and ethnic reform, namely the Political Parties Conference of July 1986, convened by President Jayewardene in response to a letter from Vijaya Kumaratunga, Vijaya, Colvin and Pieter, the giants of the democratic and rational Left, proposed provincial devolution and non-merger, within a unitary state and without advocating any change to the Presidential system.
Worst of all is the stand of the Left on the matter of the executive presidency. If there were no executive presidency in Venezuela today, the pro-US rightwing dominated Parliament would have triumphed. It is in Nicaragua and Venezuela that the two term limit on the executive presidency was abolished. Every left wing government in the world, as well as those who are not left wing but anti-hegemonic and are located in a left wing or progressive political culture and revolutionary heritage, have installed and retain an Executive Presidential system: China, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua, Bolivia, El Salvador, Uruguay and many more, including of course the great legatees of bourgeois and socialist revolutions, France and Russia. Thus the JVP, ex-left civil society freaks and remnants of the old left (such as Jayampathy W, Kumar David and factions of the CPSL and LSSP) which support or tilt towards the UNP, are engaging in the worst intellectual and ideological dishonesty when they advocate as “progressives”, “radicals” or “leftists”, the abolition of the executive presidency and soft-peddle the dilution of the unitary state.
Finally, we have the TNA, which is “betting the farm” as the phrase goes, on a new Constitution beyond 13A and its (negotiated) implementation. You bet all, you stand to lose all. Given the results of the recent German election and the rise of the Alt-Right even in a prosperous and successful country, only a foolish incumbent administration and its nihilistically irresponsible Tamil allies would opt for change that requires a referendum in an economically low growth, inflation-ridden, religio-ethnically polarized Third World society, over a reform that is more modest but much less risky, and can secure a genuinely national/island-wide all-parties consensus (a la the 19th amendment) or be passed by a two thirds majority.