“Balaya bedanna kalin mey aanduwa petrol tika bedanna oney!”
(“Before this Government shares power, it must share the petrol!”)
–Anonymous, irate citizen in petrol queue, on TV news
With shockingly dangerous irresponsibility or sheer nihilism, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe wants the Constitutional Assembly to loosen the centre’s ties with and hugely augment the autonomy of the Northern and Eastern provinces at the very same time that he wants an elephantine Indian footprint in Trincomalee (the oil tank farm, the Port and the Mannar-Trinco highway).
While his Interim Report envisages exceeding the 13th amendment in the matter of the control of land by the Provincial Councils, his ‘Vision 2025’ wants to change the existing land ceiling so that corporate business can snap up large tracts. This would not only mean unrelieved landlessness (which has reappeared in the old ‘colonies’ through subdivision), it would mean that land in the North and East would be acquired by Tamil Nadu based and Tamil diaspora-driven front companies, apart from larger Indian ones with controlling Tamil Nadu –‘Kollywood’ capital–shareholding. Meanwhile anti-Indianism is rising on the streets over the fiasco of the IOC shipment.
A wealth of historical evidence reveals a pattern, the world over. Four factors prove causative in the rise of majoritarian ethnic/ethno-religious nationalism. One is economic pain and inequity generated by uneven and unequal economic development, often resulting in economic crisis. The second is a perceived threat to the nation or ethnic community concerned and/or an assault on the religio-cultural moorings and ethos of the people. The third is the closure or deferment of democratic openings and distortion of democratic representation. The fourth is the alienation of significant social or political power-centres/players at a time of transition,modernization or globalization.
Sri Lanka has experienced all four factors since 2015. Now it is just past mid-term, and the electoral safety valves are opening up belatedly. This is to the good because the awful explosion of Black July ’83 took place after the shutting off and sealing of electoral safety valves a mere six months before, in December 1982, with the referendum that postponed the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1983.
The lack of social abhorrence at the utterly and unambiguously reprehensible rhetorical exhortations to lethal (murderous)violence against Parliament and “traitors” (audiences cheered, and a few parliamentarians themselves, from Opposition and Government echoed the rhetoric), reveals the seething anger in society against the cosmopolitan-liberal elite Establishment.A touch of TJ (‘Transitional Justice’) from Geneva or overt Indian intrusion into Constitution-making, and this joint is set to blow as in the late 1980s. The holding of Local Authorities elections in January 2018 will come not a day too soon and the belated opening may barely avoid a violent social explosion.
The petrol fiasco and the inability to manage a single shipment makes one wonder what the country’s fate would have been had this government been in office during the last war! The petrol stoppage and the radicalization of the SAITM struggle show that the government is dysfunctional, the System isn’t working, the System is broken. It is hard to imagine the government not taking a heavy electoral hit. The election will be a plebiscite on Yahapalana or the current UNP-driven Yahapalana model,and will probably see an indictment and rejection.
The impact will be felt on the Constitutional project, the morning after. Even UNP MPs will begin to demur,dissent and re-position, viewing the results as a precursor of national elections 2019-2020.It will be one straight run, a single belt of time, from local elections 2018 through Provincial elections, to the national elections of 2019-2020. The entire state system, i.e. officialdom, judiciary, law enforcement and the armed forces, will inch away from the Government.
The larger Chandrika’s campaign profile/role,the more her pathological asides at MR, the more alienated the SLFP organizers will be and the fewer SLFP votes the SLFP-MS will get.The latter’s best bet would be for President Sirisena to campaign while CBK goes back to London or Paris. Whether she is in or out, the official SLFP will be off balance as the results come in, either moving back into the Opposition and re-aligning (not reunifying through fusion) with the JO-SLPP as did the LSSP and CPSL rivals in 1968, or demanding a radical Yahapalana re-set through de-Ranilization (a la 2003) and a re-assertive realignment of forces by President Sirisena, with UNP dissidents and the JO.
This could even happen earlier, in December itself, as a preemptive prelude to January elections–a re-positioning or pivot when the Bond scam report comes in and the UNP-SLFP accord hits its deadline.
Even if a resurgent MR-JO-SLPP decides to work with a cowed UNP on Constitutional change, it will be limited to amendments flattening the executive Presidency so that the playing field is leveled for ex-President Rajapaksa to run for the country’s most empowered post, the Premiership, in 2020, rather than accommodating non-unitary/quasi-federal devolution! As for the next elected government (2020), it will almost certainly be far more majoritarian ethno-populist than this one.
Contrary to government propaganda, the TNA has yet to articulate its willingness to accept a unitary (not an ‘aekeeya/orumiththanadu’) state, as distinct from a ‘united country’. Its leaders failed to do so even in the Constitutional Assembly debate! The Sinhalese have a legitimate existential fear of the centrifugal, wondering just how loosely ‘united’ the country will be, and thus, ultimately divisible it will turn out to be, given the geopolitical pull-factor. If Delhi cannot instruct its powerful Navy to prevent Tamil Nadu piracy in our territorial waters despite a very friendly government ensconced in Colombo, how can we stupidly opt for a non-unitary Constitution, betting on Delhi to stand up to Tamil Nadu-supported irredentism in our North and East, and to protect us from it?
India and the US view our island through the prism of its joint strategy in the vast zone that US strategic planners newly and openly term the “Indo-Pacific”, the theatre in which they hope to push back China in particular and the Eurasian alliance of China-Russia globally. They will carve out a Northeastern Tamil statelet if they see a need and sense an opportunity. While our PM doesn’t care and has invited the Indo-US-Japan axis into Trincomalee, and India into our Deep South, Mattala, 99% of us do care. He represents the 1% that doesn’t. A unitary state, de jure and de facto, is a core strategic and security interest of the Sinhala majority, a red-line for which they must and will fight “by any means necessary”.
The Tamil problem must at least be managed and settled in the interim while President Sirisena is at the head of the table.Only an all-parties consensus will not be de-stabilizing.If one listened closely enough, the keywords that came up in the Constitutional Assembly debate as the least contentious were “13th amendment” and as a variant, “13 Plus”.The calm, sagacious speech of Dr. Sarath Amunugama,a model of equanimity and the non-ideological, prudential approach to politics and problem-solving, was a reasoned argument as to why the full implementation of the 13th amendment, perhaps stretched to mean “the 13th amendment plus a Senate, minus police powers”, is all that is feasible.
But for how long will the parliamentary two-thirds majority be available, and for what? The Yahapalana coalition is hollowing out and has begun a slow-motion implosive collapse. A contentious Constitutional Final Report will blow it up. As the mid-term anti-incumbency mood, irresistible electoral compulsions and mounting three-way competition cut into consensus-building, threatening to capsize the governing coalition, the quantum of devolution that the official SLFP is willing to sign-off on as visible partners of the UNP–TNA is shrinking, and the window of opportunity is swinging shut.