Rajan Philips on the NPC Elections and Political Paths

Rajan Philips

I. “Provincial Council Elections: Rajapaksa Economics and TNA Politics,” in Sunday Island, 21 Sept 2013

wigneswaranThe voting is over in the three Provincial Council elections that concluded yesterday. The news over the coming days and weeks and even months will be saturated with election results analyses and commentaries, especially the results of the Northern Provincial Council election. If predictions hold, the UPFA will triumph as usual in the North Western Province and the Central Province, but it is the TNA that is expected to topple the UPFA cart in the Northern Province. So there will be one part of the country where the Rajapaksa regime will not be in total control. After trying everything to cancel the Northern PC election and to dilute PC powers pre-emptively, government leaders, i.e. Rajapaksa brothers and their inner circles, seem to have conceded the North to the TNA.

With defeat staring at them, the government cheer leaders led by the President himself, went on the attack against the TNA. The President even played the other North-South card, i.e. the Jaffna Tamil vs Colombo Tamil card, poking mock fun at the TNA leadership for inflicting a Colombo Tamil, Justice Wigneswaran, on the hapless Jaffna Tamil voters. Aren’t there good enough people in Jaffna, he has asked, clearly enjoying holding the wooden spoon to stir the Jaffna pot. Good for him, but it would be better for the Tamils if President Rajapaksa would similarly be concerned about the Sri Lankan State’s inflictions on Jaffna and everywhere else in the North and East.

To wit, the President cannot find suitable Tamils, Muslims, or even civilian Sinhalese, to be Governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. He is either unaware of or does not care about the continuing military intrusions in the lives of ordinary people in the two Provinces. A President who can fire his Chief Justice has shown no willingness to step in and address the basic request of the people of Jaffna to get their homes and properties back. They have to go to the court instead. And the Tamils of the North and East are not to be given a civilian police force with whom they can talk without translation.

The election dynamic and rhetoric were different in the North Western Province and the Central Province. The fight, physical and political, was internal, pitting the UPFA candidates themselves against one another over preferential votes and rivalries for Chief Minister posts. There were attacks on opposition candidates as well. In Puttalam, Government goons have attacked Mohamed Fairoos, the leading candidate for the Nationalities Unity Organization, an opposition alliance including the NSSP. Mr. Fairoos is a brother of the Puttalam Mayor and was targeted for attack while he was campaigning with the NSSP leader Vickramabahu Karunarathne. The police were helpful after the attack but were not powerful enough to prevent the attack or apprehend the attackers. Violence and election law violations are now facts of Lanka’s political life. They have spawned a monitoring industry but there is no prospect of a behavioural change. The principal political leaders, starting with the President himself, take no responsibility to stop the violence and the violations of the election rules.

Not about the Economy: There is another aspect to this election, especially in the North, and that is what this election was not about. It was not about the economy and that lacuna has its own political meanings. Tamil politics has never been about the economy, even though the fear and the fact of loss of government jobs were the main political triggers in the heyday of Tamil parliamentary politics between 40 and 80 years ago. Tamil nativism was such that there was always greater emphasis on everyday economics rather than political debate. A political rally before sunset was unheard of unless someone from the south was in town to talk politics at ten o’clock in the morning. Few people attended such morning rallies as people were working in the fields or elsewhere. Now things might be different with little land to farm and less opportunities for work.

Whether practical or not, Tamil politics was never formulated in economic terms. Ideologically, as the late AJ Wilson used to say, the foremost Tamil leaders of that time, GG Ponnambalam and SJV Chelvanyakam were “to the right of JR” (Jayewardene). Ponnambalam never missed an opportunity to boast that he was the “unrepentant opponent of Marxism”, and SJV Chelvanyakam saw “seeds of communism” in Philip Gunawardene’s Paddy Lands legislation. Never mind that the father of Marxism was practically the only Sinhalese leader who supported both the Bandaranaike-Chelvanyakam Pact and the Dudley-Chelvanayakam Pact. Even though pseudo Marxism would later embellish portions of Tamil separatist rhetoric, the rhetoric itself was never informed by serious economic arguments.

On the other hand, Southern politics was heavily influenced by the economic argument, with the political division between the Left and the Right being the determining dynamic at critical moments of southern politics until the 1980s. Now it is neither about the Left nor the Right, but about “Rajapaksa economics”, as Kumar David described last Sunday the economic regime the country is under. Kath Noble has called it hotchpotch, and thanks to her reference I was able to read an interesting (Australian National University) Working Paper on “Economic Policy Shifts in Sri Lanka: The Post-conflict Development Challenge”, by two Australian academics of Sri Lankan origin, Prema-chandra Athukorala and Sisira Jayasuriya.

A notable aspect of their paper is that it provides the economic context to the National, if not the Tamil, Question – the context, that is, to the eruption of the war and the continuing politics after the war, in addition to critiquing the regime’s wrongheaded policies. And Peradeniya academic Milton Rajaratne has ridiculed the Rajapaksa economic theory of “Five Hubs” (i.e. turning Sri Lanka into a GLOBAL knowledge hub, energy hub, shipping hub, aviation hub, and commercial hub) as a chimeric myth. If it all Sri Lanka will become a South Asian casino hub!

Without labouring over the political past let us focus on what is happening after the war. The government’s boast is that it is rebuilding and building infrastructure in the North and East like never before. The boast is not unjustified because there has not been so much public investment in the two ‘deficit provinces’ (Chelvanayakm’s description) until now in all the years after the establishment of three government factories – KKS Cement, Paranthan Chemicals and Valaichchenai Paper Mill. Those factories were built soon after independence when GG Ponnambalam was Minister of Industries. Yet, the Rajapaksa government has not been able to translate this infrastructure investment into political support in the North and East, the way it has been able to consolidate even much larger investment in Hambantota into seemingly impregnable political support. How so?

The obvious political reason is that there is a specific political problem as well as a humanitarian problem in the North and East unlike in Hambantota or anywhere else in the south. The government cannot hide these problems under new roads and bridges, and without addressing those problems the government cannot even get the ears of the people, let alone their support. How does it benefit someone to have the road in front of his property carpeted when he or she is denied access to that property on the pretext of state security? How does that property benefit from a road reconstruction if the road is raised above the property and the drainage from the property runs to the property and not the other way around? What benefits are there to the local people and entrepreneurs when they are excluded from the immediate spin-offs from infrastructure investment and construction, such as jobs and contracts? The not so obvious factors are the government’s motivations in undertaking this investment programme and the manner in which the programme is implemented. The selection of contractors and suppliers and the network of kickbacks have bred cynicism among the people rather than any appreciation for the infrastructure invasion. These factors invariably make political sales job all the more difficult for government apologists and campaigners.

Not surprisingly, the TNA, in its now controverted manifesto, did not make it a point to highlight the shortcomings and the inappropriateness of the government’s economic initiatives in the North and East. Nor did it present an alternative economic approach that will correspond to its political objectives and provide the road map for systematically addressing the pressing needs of the people. If it wins the election and is ‘allowed’ to form a new Provincial Administration in the North, the TNA will have to quickly change gears from empty rhetoric to meaningful action. There are enough people living in the North affiliated and unaffiliated to the University who have insight and empirical understanding of the potentials for and the challenges of undertaking economic development in the North. It will be up to the TNA to harness their knowledge and ideas and formulate a new program of action that is more productive than the election manifesto.


II. “Political A9 highway to connect the old South and the new North” in Sunday Island, 28 Sept 2013

The best post-election comment in my view was in the statement  of TNA Leader, R. Sampanthan, wherein he said that “the results of this election  offer everyone an opportunity which should be fully utilized in a positive  manner.” The principal actors in the utilization of this new opportunity are of  course the Rajapaksa government in the south and the newly elected and TNA-led  Provincial Council in the north. I am using the terms ‘old south’ and ‘new  north’ merely in the context of the UPFA’s now routine victories in the  Northwestern Province and the Central Province, and the TNA’s overwhelmingly  emphatic performance in the Northern Province. The congenital devolution  detractors do not have to see any ‘seeds of separation’ in my allusions to new  north and old south.

Mr. Sampanthan’s statement has categorically laid to rest the  canard that the TNA is still nurturing separatism with the assertion that: “The  democratic verdict of the (Tamil) people is clear. Within the framework of a  united, undivided country, they want to live in security, safeguarding their  self-respect and dignity with adequate self-rule, to be able to fulfill their  legitimate political, economic, social and cultural aspirations.” It is time to  move on and leave behind those who insist on barking and braying. What is needed  is a new political A9 highway allowing the free flow of two way political and  administrative traffic between the government in Colombo and the new NPC in  Jaffna.

The big question is if the Rajapaksa government will allow the  new Northern Provincial Council (NPC) with C.V. Wigneswaran as the electorally  mandated Chief Minister, to fulfill its constitutional purpose as a concurrent  and co-ordinate arm of the state created to enable provincial self-rule in an  undivided country. The constitutional purpose cannot be clearer, although the  contours of that purpose and their extensibility are subject to administrative  decisions, judicial interpretation and future political agreements. These could  go on forever, but nothing will go ahead unless the Rajapaksa government  sincerely and honestly acts according to the constitution and allows the new  Provincial Council to take office and function.

Democracy and Elections: Any talk or action of dilution or removing provincial powers at  this juncture will be counterproductive nationally, and costly to the government  internationally. The Commonwealth summit could be a casualty if the government  starts erecting road blocks to the new Northern Council. In such an eventuality,  even the genial Commonwealth Secretary General will not be able to save the  international and Commonwealth isolation of the Rajapaksa regime. Put another  way, the government cannot claim that democracy in Sri Lanka is alive and  kicking simply because an election was held in the North. The claim will be  hollow if the government does not allow the off spring of that election, namely,  the Northern Provincial Council to function as it should and under laws as they  are.

Talking about democracy and election, the Defence Secretary is  continuing to be more longwinded than learned in his political ‘tongue lashings’  targeting the ‘western other’. Reportedly responding to the US Embassy statement  that “democracy is not simply about elections …”, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has  expressed indignation that “he had never come across an assertion which was as  unfair as one which claims democracy was simply not about elections.” Perhaps a  little bit of even internet reading should be enough to educate anyone that  while elections are a central feature and a celebration of democracy, it is what  goes on before, after and between elections that mostly characterizes a  democratic society.

In the same tongue lashing, the Secretary could have avoided  embarrassing himself by not using German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third term  victory as a vindication of Sri Lanka’s 18th Amendment that removed the term  limits on President Rajapaksa. He was trying to score a point against the US and  those European countries who had criticized 18A to “dare challenge the German  Chancellor’s right to lead the country for a third term.” Even a little  knowledge could have saved much embarrassment, for in Germany the Federal  Chancellor is only the Head of Government and not the Head of State, and is  comparable to Prime Ministers in parliamentary democracies (as Sri Lanka was  until 1978) who have no term limit but are subject to removal by party or  parliament. Germany has a President (Joachim Gauk being the incumbent) who is  the Head of State. He is elected by a procedure that is similar to India’s, and  cannot serve longer than two consecutive terms. The Rajapksas must either  realize or be advised that the way to restore their democratic credibility is by  repealing 18A and not by defending it because it is indefensible. On the other  hand, repealing or diluting 13A will further ruin their credibility.

Seize the post-election opportunity: At the minimum the government must respect 13A and not only  allow the new Northern Provincial Council to be functional, but also develop a  positive working relationship with the new Council. In fact, the government  could deal at two levels to positively seize the post-election opportunity:  administratively with the new Council in the North and politically with the TNA  in Colombo. There is no need for grand illusions but even informal discussions  between the President and the TNA leadership will help. I have earlier invoked  Churchill’s phrase to describe the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam (BC) Pact as  an exercise in ‘summit diplomacy’, and suffice it to say there is a new  opportunity for President Rajapaksa to try that unique method of SWRD  Bandaranaike.

I say ‘unique method’ because of all the Sinhalese government  leaders, Bandaranaike was the only one who dealt directly and formally with the  elected representatives of the Tamils. He may not have needed the famous advice  in parliament of the late VA Kandiah, the Colombo Advocate and the first Federal  Party MP for Kayts, that the Prime Minister must not try to “by-pass the elected  representatives of the Tamils” to address the Tamil problem, but no other  Sinhalese leader followed that sound advice. Even though Dudley Senanayake  emulated the BC Pact eight years later, his stated preference was for informal,  gentlemanly, between-friends understandings rather than formal agreements. Every  other leader tried political cooption and the distribution of cabinet portfolios  rather than dealing formally with the ‘four basic demands’ of Tamil politics at  that time: citizenship rights of plantation Tamils, language rights, regional  autonomy, and to stop state colonization schemes in North and East.

The political landscape is now different in regard to each of  those four demands. The citizenship question is now mostly resolved albeit after  the expatriation of about half a million of plantation Tamils to Tamil Nadu.  Thanks to 13A, Tamil is now recognized as an official language and the regional  autonomy has a foundation to build on. Colonization schemes are now an  accomplished fact and have transformed the electoral map in the East, while in  the North there is a new land problem as a result of the threatened  expropriation of private properties in the name of state security. Implicating  the land problem and extending beyond is the disproportionate presence of the  military as well as the continuing existential problems of the people in postwar  conditions.

It would have been infinitely better if an elected Northern  Provincial Council had materialized directly as a result of the BC Pact, but  there is one now after over fifty years of human blunder and history’s caprice.  The new Council presents a positive prospect and need not be turned into a  pyrrhic achievement. The way President Rajapaksa could emulate his party’s  founder is not by trying to enter into a new formal agreement but by starting to  end the now well entrenched practice of political co-option of unaccredited  Tamils politicians and LTTE turncoats, and move towards co-operating with the  duly elected new Council in the North. This will require a change of heart, if  not mind, on the part of the Rajapaksa brotherhood. It is not clear if there  will be unanimity among the brothers but one would hope that there will at least  be a majority push among them for a positive directional change.

The far more difficult task involves institutional culture  shifts and adjustments from centralized authority and practices to working with  provincial functionaries and initiatives. The existing Provincial Councils  function as branch offices of political parties and as outstation offices of the  central government. Changing from this status quo to systematically engaging and  working with the new Council will require considerable learning as well as  personal and organizational adjustments. The way to bring about these changes is  by selecting and working on real issues affecting the people on the ground  through the mechanism of the new Provincial Council. Put another away, the new  Council should not be circumscribed by the experiences of the other Provincial  Councils, but should be encouraged to chart its own paths in dealing with its  own and unique challenges.

For its part, the TNA leadership should allow the new Provincial  Council to function as a representative forum of the people and not as a puppet  of its parliamentary committee. The new Council is best placed to work out its  own program of action based on real issues and their priorities. The presence of  professionals and experienced administrators among the new Councillors augurs  well for a productive term of provincial governance. Not all of them can be  ministers but all the ministers should be people with a degree of expert  knowledge and executive experience. This is a new beginning and it would be  unrealistic and counterproductive to try to solve the age old problems of gender  and caste by ministerial appointments alone. Those who are not appointed as  ministers should be encouraged to play an active role and contribute in  ministerial committees. A Donoughmore-style committee system can be tried out in  Jaffna, even though and ironically it was Jaffna that launched the boycott of  the Donoughmore Constitution 82 years ago.

The political A9 highway, just like any infrastructure highway, need not be  built sequentially from one end to the other. It can be built in different  sections at the same time and at different times addressing the specific  conditions of each section. In the case of a physical road, the overall  alignment, or trace, is functionally determined in advance of the detailed  design and construction of different sections. The Thirteenth Amendment provides  the overall alignment for the new political highway and it is up to the  Rajapaksa government and the Wigneswaran Council to work out the details of  different sections.


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