All political struggles in independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka has been over ‘which direction for the country?”. Today the political struggle is over “who will own the country?’ 2017 will be the decisive year in that struggle. It is the year in which the answer will be determined.
2017 will be driven by the contradiction between the Prime Minister’s game plan and the political, social and ideological resistance to it. The game plan is extremely ambitious. Emeritus editor N. Ram of The Hindu, a Sri Lankan watcher if ever there was one, sums it up well in his introduction to his long interview with the PM. It is a “complex game changing project in which the stakes are extremely high” that the PM is “the spearhead of”, observes Ram. (Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe interview with N. Ram, The Hindu, 15 December)
Setting to rest any ambiguity on that score, the PM has reiterated his aim of abolishing the executive presidency. He has offered a choice of three options for a Prime Ministerial system. “We are giving three options for how the Prime Ministerial system should function…In all three options, the President would be a non-executive head of state.”
He has rolled out a scenario in which Mahinda Rajapaksa does not make a comeback because he cannot. In the PM’s assessment that is because of dynamics and demographics, if I may paraphrase him. The dynamic is that once society opts for a change, it does not change back, and if it wants change it opts for a new agency. The demographic is that Mahinda Rajapaksa has lost and is losing the youth vote.
The PM has also spelled out his economic vision. His explicit model is the EU and he is betting on an Asian version of it. Within this overall model he sees the Sri Lankan economic destiny as lying in integration with the South Indian states, starting with Tamil Nadu. He uses the terms “an economic union” and “combination”.
2017 will be a turbulent year because this complex game changing plan of the PM’s is seriously flawed and dangerously fraught. Let’s take each of his key propositions. The reiteration of the objective of abolition of the executive presidency has three drawbacks, two of which are apparent and the third which isn’t to the general public, but should be obvious to the PM. The fact that he is oblivious to the third factor says quite a bit about him, and none of it heartening.
The first issue is that abolition of the executive presidency brings the PM’s project into direct contradiction with the interests of the faction of the SLFP led by President Sirisena. The PM is obviously repeating the wording of his first draft of the 19th Amendment which was blocked by the Supreme Court and heavily diluted by the SLFP. What makes him think that an effort which did not work in 2015-2016 can work in 2017? If he thinks he can count on the tacit support of Mahinda Rajapaksa he has it wrong because the arrogant authoritarianism the PM has displayed in and outside parliament towards the JO and its constituency has left no appetite for cooperation with him on the part of the latter.
More important is the drawback which is hidden from the general public but should be evident to the PM. This is the consequence to the economy of the abolition of the executive presidency. J.R. Jayewardene proposed the radical changeover from the Westminster model to the executive presidential system precisely because the former was dysfunctional for a sustained and rapid economic growth. The executive presidency was meant to be the linchpin of the open economy and high growth. The empirical evidence shows that he was correct. Not only did we maintain a 5% growth rate during a mid-intensity civil war of thirty years duration, we hit 7%-8% growth before and after that war, under the presidential system.
Furthermore, we have experienced relatively low growth with a weakened post-19th amendment executive presidency. Now the PM wants to abolish the Presidential system and restore an upgraded version of the model which JR Jayewardene identified as the main obstacle to sustained high growth because of its inherent flux and potential volatility. What we have to decide is whether we trust JRJ, Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa in their developmental bet on the strong state/stable executive presidency model, or whether we prefer a leap into the unknown/leap back to the much earlier known with the PM’s perspective.
Next comes the politics and the balance of forces; the PM’s prognostication that Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot make a comeback because change is irreversible. The PM has obviously forgotten the lesson that his far more literate and intellectually sophisticated father learned after he successfully masterminded the unseating of Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s coalition government in late 1964, paving the way for the return of the UNP in 1965. After a single term, the centre-left was back, far more radical and broader (with the inclusion of the Communist party at Bogambara in 1968) than the one that was defeated in 1965, but under the very same leader, namely Sirimavo Bandaranaike who had been defeated in 1965.
What makes the PM’s political amnesia still less excusable is the fact that the UNP which his father helped bring back in 1965 was under the same leader who had resigned after the Hartal of August 1953, namely, Dudley Senanayake. What is funniest of all, is that Wickremesinghe himself is the best example that comebacks do happen and are eminently possible. If Ranil can do it, Mahinda Rajapaksa certainly can.
The PM also forgets that just as the UNP of 1988 had a new face, Premadasa, and the SLFP in 1994 put forward CBK and Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and unlike the present day UNP which could not produce a winning presidential candidate for decades and had to outsource to a dissident SLFPer, the JO has a combination of continuity and change, of populism and modernisation, to put forward in 2020: Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya.
The economic project of the PM as rolled out in the N. Ram interview reeks of retro-chic. His model of the EU is already in deep crisis. The US itself has turned away from economic arrangements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership. An Asian variant of the EU would come up against the asymmetries of India and the rest, bilateral issues such as Indo-Pak rivalry and of course the biggie, India-China competition.
Most grotesque is the idea of “the combination” (the PM’s term) of Sri Lanka and the Southern Indian states including Tamil Nadu. Southern India is, for the most part, the “Chola-Pandya-Chera” Greater Dravidistan /Greater Tamilian zone from which this island was repeatedly invaded. In our time Tamil Nadu was rear base for Tamil separatism and the recent memoirs by the former head of the Indian air-force (on air support for IPKF operations) says that new Delhi and the RAW stepped into patronise the Tamil insurgents because the Tamil Nadu State Government was already giving them military training and that Delhi thought this would be seriously destabilising to India itself.
Tamil Nadu remains profoundly hostile to the Sinhalese. It is lunacy to give them any kind of stake in, still less handle over our economic future. It is as if Cuba integrated itself in a common economic space with Florida and gave a handle to the bitterly hostile Miami community. The PM’s economic vision of integration with Tamil Nadu, combined with ETCA, poses nothing less than an existential threat.
Therefore, the ‘complex game changing’ project of the PM, beginning with the new Constitution and ETCA, has to be defeated and dismantled before its implementation results in the dismantling of the country.