Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What the JHU is driving at

The Jathika Hela Urumaya have stated that they won't support Mahinda Rajapaksa unless he does away completely with the Executive Presidency. They have convened meetings, talked with the President, and stood by this decision. "That's politics", some may quip. A crass generalisation though that is, it's quite obvious that the JHU aren't doing this suddenly. It's an acknowledged fact that they, more than any other part of the government-led coalition, expressed their dissatisfaction with the Executive Presidency a long time back, and warned rightly that if their calls weren't heeded to, they'd take action. Even against the President. That's what they have done now, but the fact is that extrapolating this by way of claiming that the JHU are moving away from the government is at best conjecture and nothing else.

The 18th Amendment is flawed. Badly. It injects incumbency-edge into the voting public and aggravates the "known devil" factor that Mahinda Rajapaksa is enjoying currently. He's clearly going to stay for quite some time, though not indefinitely. There have been cases in other countries where long periods of rule have deteriorated into bloody revolution. Part of this deterioration, of course, has been owing to government-toppling and regime-change tactics by foreign agency, but the truth is that the longer a dictator (or would-be dictator, as Rajapaksa is perceived to be) stays in power, the bloodier that toppling of him is going to be. Regime-fatigue, after all, doesn't get better as the years go by. It gets worse. That's obvious enough.

This is why the JHU need to be commended for what they're doing. There are some commentators who claim that they have become anti-regime. That's as ridiculous a claim as the anti-Ranil sentiments the state-run media are attributing to them. The JHU are for neither the one nor the other, this much everyone should know. It's after all a fact conceded grudgingly by those opposed to them that they (in particular Champika Ranawaka) are the cleanest and "corruption-free" part of the government. They have in no uncertain terms come out in their condemnation of Mervyn Silva, of the Casino Bill, and have made it clear that they stick to the government's development and postwar moves so long as they conduct themselves "cleanly".

Frank Capra's film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is about a naive senator (played by James Stewart) who tries to go against his own patron (Claude Rains) when he discovers the latter's corrupt practices. Almost immediately, Rains and his band begin a smear campaign against Stewart, a situation worsened by the fact of his being a highly respected senator and Stewart's record in the Senate being minimal and erasable. I have come to regard Capra as being more of a didactic political/social commentator than a filmmaker, and in Mr. Smith he makes clear his optimism with regard to American democracy. After an intensive, all but completely hopeless campaign conducted by his supporters outside the Senate, Stewart finally wins. The victory, however, is at the cost of Stewart's disillusionment with the lesser defects of democracy.

The point in this story is this: incumbents want to stay. There may be talk of "all-inclusive" cabinets and parliaments, but the truth is that political pluralism is a limited concept and also presupposes deference on everybody's part to the man at the top. This is what's happening in Sri Lanka, unfortunately, and I don't think it'll take much time for the government to begin its own smear campaign against the JHU.

Come to think of it, I think this campaign began just the other day. Patali Champika Ranawaka, praised by nearly everybody in the government as the cleanest politician they or anyone else could boast of, was "attacked" by Pavithra Wanniarachchi.

Briefly put, Wanniarachchi, answering a question put forward by UNP MP Harsha de Silva, said that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) was looking into allegations of sabotage and corruption committed at the Ministry of Power and Energy. No two points for guessing that a) it was during her predecessor's time and b) the predecessor was Ranawaka. The latter lashed back some time later, saying in effect that those acts of fraud had been committed without the knowledge of his ministry.

There are some points to be gained here. Pavithra Wanniarachchi clearly forgot that, being at a parliamentary session, she had a collective ministerial responsibility not to reveal an investigation concerning a minister in her own government. She had no reason to implicate Ranawaka. Moreover the timing of this move on her part, i.e. when the JHU led by Ranawaka and Udaya Gammanpila are making clear their stance on the Executive Presidency, is dubious: it indicates Wanniarachchi's political antipathies and also points at the "rift" between the UPFA and the JHU. Why didn't she reveal this before? Why now? These are questions that don't help an already tense situation. The move spells "anti-corruption" but reeks of "expediency".

The second and more relevant point is where the President himself figures in all this. He hasn't, naturally enough, agreed to the JHU's proposals. He has expressed his displeasure to the architect of this anti-Executive Presidency campaign, Athureliya Rathana Thero. He has refused to listen to them. The JHU, meanwhile, have remained undeterred, commendably. Closing parliamentary doors would be the last option the President will consider to shut them out, but in the (unlikely) event that he does, that will be the beginning of the end as far as the EP and the current regime go. The point is that, though no one has publicly stated this, the opinion of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s main electorate base (i.e. the Sinhala-Buddhist voter) is decided on and "made" (not "manufactured") by the JHU.

Few, for instance, can deny that it was the JHU and not the Left that actively emphasised the need for a military solution to the war. Athuraliye Rathana Thero and Omalpe Sobitha Thero shaped key policy shifts, as evidenced by the former's statements at the Sri Lanka Development Forum in Kandy (which turned out to a gathering of like-minded spokespersons for capital, as events later transpired) and the latter's denunciation of the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) which, again as events transpired, turned out to be pro-LTTE. It was the JHU (jointly with the Old and New Left parties) which put Rajapaksa to power. The JHU supported the man throughout the war and postwar campaign he spearheaded, and although due credit hasn't really being given to them it remains obvious as to who really was aiding the man in power during those difficult years.

Democracy can get naive at times. It's all too easy to assume that governments are reflective of those who elect them. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are those in power and there are those who help them keep that power, legitimately of course. "2005" didn't just happen. There were facts that counted in the equation somewhere. The war effort as such wasn't a government "act" alone. There were mentalities that needed to be changed, opinions that needed to be shifted.

Both the JHU and the "Jathika Chinthanaya" school, spearheaded by Nalin de Silva, managed to suppress and overwhelm the massive anti-war propaganda shoved down our throats by various foreign agencies (and their local proxies). Despite the "ඕන ගොනෙකුට යුද්දේ කරන්න පුළුවන්" ("any donkey can conduct a war") rhetoric of the opposition, both groups managed to get their message across to ensure government victory.

This is why it would be inadvisable for the government to ignore calls made by Athuraliye Rathana Thero to abolish the Executive Presidency. One can validly dismiss his claim on the grounds that the 18th Amendment was in itself a mere continuation of the democracy-deficit that was the legacy of J. R.'s notorious 1978 constitution, but for the sake of argument let's lay aside the cause-and-effect side to the story. Even despite this, Rathana Thero's argument is valid. Some say that he has become "fed up" with the President. This isn't a personal issue. Rathana Thero doesn't hold any vendetta against Rajapaksa, and you don't need to keep a tab on the state media to realise this.

The 18th Amendment will keep Rajapaksa in power for some time. My only worry, and this is genuine by the way, is about what will happen if a) he loses power, and b) someone who clearly doesn't have EP-abolishment in his priority-list is elected. The 1978 constitution as Malinda Seneviratne has correctly written is "made to make dictators". Going by this, Mahinda Rajapaksa is a dictator. But this is extrapolating too much.

It doesn't take a pro-regimist, for one thing, to realise that for all the allegations of media censorship, white-vanning, and forced disappearances, the acts of omission and commission made by this government haven't yet dwarfed what Rajapaksa's predecessors, from Jayawardena to Premadasa to Kumaratunge, committed. Strangely enough, those who vouch the "absolute dictator" label for Rajapaksa don't seem to be bothered about what those who represented (and represent) their party colours did when they were in power. That's politics, sadly.

This is why I think Rathana Thero's (and the JHU's) calls should be heeded to. The JHU are not interested in switching party loyalties. Anyone who thinks otherwise has some reading to do. They have stood up for what they felt to have been the country's best interests, reflected usually though not always so by the party they allied themselves with. They will not ally themselves with the UNP. This much is clear, at least until that party rids itself of the anti-Sinhala, anti-Buddhist tags its critics have identified it with.

Let's put things into perspective here. Rathana Thero does not want Rajapaksa out. He wants to abolish the Executive Presidency. This isn't because of the man in power, but because of a) the abuses committed by those who head top posts in his government, and b) the possibility of the 18th Amendment electing an absolute dictator in power in the forseeable future. This is why Pavithra Wanniarachchi's moves should be seen with disfavour. She clearly has her motives, though they're not there for everyone to see.

There's a song demonstrators love to sing and go to whenever war is being protested: Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind". It has some powerful lyrics, quite meaningful in whatever context whether in wars or elsewhere. If it's about the 18th Amendment and the Executive Presidency, there can be no better words than these:

Yes, and how many years can a mountain exist,
Before it's washed to the sea?

The metaphor is clear. The JHU clearly aren't concerned about what the mountain is. They're more rightly concerned about when this mountain will wash off to the sea, and whether in this act of washing away we'll get swept off into a bloodbath as well. That's a valid argument, one which I think the government might do well to concede to.