Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The state of our polity: A state in disarray

Pier Paolo Pasolini, the most controversial filmmaker to emerge from post-war Italy, had an interesting comment to make about protestors. Apparently he’d observed the May 1968 protests in France and the tussles which University students and the police had waded through against each other. Now Pasolini was not wont to political correctness and he spoke his mind whether or not those he criticised were his ideological comrades. That is why he was controversial and that is why his analyses of public affairs were unconventional.

Upon seeing the protestors and the protests, he had therefore disparaged the students. He had also sided with the police. Given that the former were fighting against the (capitalist) System and the latter were instruments of that same System, this had jolted some. When asked to elaborate on his stance, he had been blunt: the students came from privileged families, who had the luxury of comfort they could resort to after the protests were done. The police, on the other hand, were underpaid and overworked, the true proletarians. They did not understand why they were asked to teargas and baton charge. That was what paid their rent. What sustained their meagre lives.

The lesson here is that it all depends on how you look at things. A protest, a fast-unto-death, a nationalist campaign, and even a bheeshanaya are often birthed by idealists who lose track of their idealism with time. That is why there are turncoats and why there are fringe movements, the latter of which are currently in the vogue given our disenchantment with the Establishment. Were Pasolini alive today (he died a most ambiguous death, characteristically), he wouldn’t have let anyone off the hook: not the System which fermented revolution and not the revolution which subsisted on limousine turncoats.

This week’s column is not only about the anti-SAITM protests or the politics of those protesting against private (medical) education, but about how the state of disarray in this country, more pertinently the state of disarray in our polity, relates to all these fringe incidents. Which begs the question, naturally: what is the state of our polity in the first place?

The de-legitimising misers

Let’s get straight to the point. The government is doing a good job of de-legitimising itself. With a dormant section of the Opposition that does little to nothing other than mouth its concerns about just ONE collective (the North) and another section that is being disparaged by the same regime it supported during the 2015 elections (the JVP), the government is also repudiating itself in policy statement after policy statement. The 100-day campaign has turned into 650+ days, some of the policies it promised it would realise have become empty words, and it now appears to be more concerned about downplaying the accusations of the Joint Opposition than rectifying itself.

Even the most perfectly steered ship has cracks and this regime is no exception. The SLFP and the UNP, as commentators have pointed out, do not linger on with each other for long. They are held together only because of the mutual understanding of certain key representatives in both and they are breaking apart because of the diatribes that certain other party members are aiming at each other.

Susil Premajayantha, for instance, in an interview with this paper on January 29, made the position of these members in the SLFP quite clear: the UNP is not handling the economy well, the economic stances it stands for (capitalist, neoliberal) are opposed to the SLFP, and the statement of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, that there is no point in disparaging the debts he (allegedly) raked up if the government is not servicing them efficiently, is correct. Premajayantha may or may not know that his contention about economic stances is misconceived (the SLFP, after all, can be considered “socialist” only insofar as rhetoric is concerned), but he is correct about the way the economy is being handled, never mind what those who script our policy statements write and promise.

More on the SAITM mess

This is old news though. Since of late, the biggest thorns on the government’s side have been the protests against SAITM and the New Constitution. Of these, the former has become a mess: while the GMOA and the SLMC have not openly come out against private education with respect to SAITM, the convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) Lahiru Weerasekara has openly denied the legitimacy of such institutions. “We are not against SAITM because of its lack of standards, but because we are against private education!” is what he is saying, even as the Medical Faculty Students' Union contend that they are against the former, not the latter.

There is nothing more confusing for a government than ambiguity from the opposition, for the simple reason that with these contradictory statements by the anti-SAITM bandwagon, the government is having enough trouble sorting out the mess it never opted to get into. Let’s not forget, after all, that despite the opposition against the very idea of a private medical hospital and a private teaching hospital by the GMOA and Professor Carlo Fonseka (the president of the SLMC), it was the previous regime which permitted the establishment of both. Given this simple fact, isn’t it rather jarring to come across representatives of that same regime contending that should they get to power, they will get rid of the institute?

The protestors have had their day. They have made it to the headlines and they have articulated their concerns eloquently. Their arguments may be hollow, and some of them may be impractical, but in their commitment to a freer education system they have won both sides of the political divide. In other words, they have transformed a politically partisan issue into an issue that cuts across every political and economic divide. Among those protestors and those supporting the protests, we hence come across supporters of the government and supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

That is why it was encouraging to see the fiercely nationalist Yuthukam Sanwada Kawaya organise a seminar on the SAITM issue last Thursday (February 16) at the Colombo Public Library Auditorium. Why do I say this? While the nationalists affiliated to the YSK are not as opposed to private medical institutes as their counterparts in the radical Left, they are nevertheless concerned about the role the government has played in aggravating the problem. Put simply, they are put off by the Court of Appeal ruling not because they are against SAITM, but because (in their opinion) it unfairly clamps down on the SLMC, which unlike the GMOA and the IUSF is a regulatory body.

The nationalist aspect to the issue, in other words, stems from what they feel to be an overt but dangerous erosion of the SLMC (the “National Body”) facilitated by a judiciary that they believe has conceded ground to privatisation and de-nationalisation. That is what has unearthed the nationalist aspect to this whole, veritable hodgepodge, and not because of a (largely non-existent) link between the nationalist resurgence and leftist student politics.

At this crucial juncture, the nationalists have hence sided with the radical Left. Because of that (and also of the political benefits it will bring about) the Joint Opposition has voiced its concerns about private medical education. Of course, it comes to no surprise that certain members of this nationalist movement against SAITM themselves indulge in a privileged and by no means “leftist” lifestyle in other respects. Pasolini would have had a field day lambasting them, I am sure.

The New Consitution and Gevindu Cumaratunga’s points

The other issue is more pertinent. The SAITM fiasco has brought about an uneasy alliance between the JVP and the Joint Opposition, even though they don’t see eye to eye in Parliament. The fracas relating to the new Constitution, however, is another ball-game altogether.

To be sure, the proposed Constitution has been written and rewritten by both sides of the political divide so much that it’s difficult to ascertain whether the government will enact it in the first place. Rumours that the privileged status accorded to Buddhism and the Buddha Sasana would be done away with have been dispelled by a regime that has stated its commitment to these provisions. Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne, who continues to play a part in the Constitution-making process, has moreover denied all allegations made by the Joint Opposition with respect to the regime’s stance on Buddhism. Does that belittle the nationalist’s concern though?

I for one think not. Gevindu Cumaratunga in an essay titled “Can a contorted Parliament give birth to a wonderful Constitution?” contends that the government opted to preserve the privileges of the Buddhists BECAUSE OF and not DESPITE the protests made by the nationalist movement (of which he is a key constituent). Because Gevindu’s arguments merit more than a second glance, they should be assessed more closely. So here they are.

Two arguments, two causes for worry

His first argument is quite simple: why did the government bring about an entire Constitutional amendment to reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers? He rejects the contention that an Amendment was needed for two reasons: one, that an amendment was NOT needed to achieve what it purported to achieve, and two, that despite its passage, it was not enough (as of now, there are more than 45 Cabinet Ministers, well above the 30 we were promised).

He ends his argument with a pertinent observation: “The request made by the people to reduce the number of Cabinet Ministers was not made merely to prevent corruption, but to prevent the abuse of the people’s mandate that the vast swathes of perks, privileges, and emoluments made to those same Ministers facilitated.” This observation presages a more pressing worry for him: if as simple a request as this was transformed into a contorted, virtually useless amendment, what’s to say that the amendment for a NEW Constitution will be less disastrous and useless?

Which brings me to Argument Number Two. If one peruses history, implies Gevindu, one comes across instances where the majority community was bullied into pacts and agreements which were not demanded via the democratic process. He quotes S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s rejoinder to S. J. V. Chelvanayakam over the protests against the “Sri” license plates. “It is a problem which I can solve” was what the Prime Minister said then, to which he added (quite reasonably, some contend) that Tamil politicians and extremists were creating unnecessary problems in the North over a mere letter in the license plate. Gevindu essentially argues that this culture of overreaction has characterised Tamil politicians who have since followed Chelvanayakam.

Given this, it comes to no surprise that Tamil politicians today, in particular those spouting federal rhetoric, are ambiguous over their own stance on the matter. “Do they want the government to give back the land to the Tamil people or do they want the military to leave the North?” Gevindu asks, clearly implying an Either/Or dichotomy between these two. In other words, one can EITHER restore land to the Tamil people and leave the military as it is, OR leave the land as it is and ask the military to go. The one assumes the rejection of the other (and vice-versa).

Whether or not you agree with his premise, his argument seems to make sense. And why? Because the mainstream Tamil politician still panders to federalism. Whether you vouch for it on equitable grounds or not, there is no denying that handing more powers over to the political and ethnic periphery doesn’t make sense economically (especially in OUR economy, messed up as it is). Moreover, for the likes of Nalin de Silva and Gunadasa Amarasekara federalism is a mere byword for separatism, with a caveat: while the latter directly subverts the Constitution, the former does not (at least within the confines of 13A). “When federalists talk against the unitary state,” Gevindu therefore asks, “is it not reasonable for us to be worried?” An apt question, I believe.

Of war crimes and policy ambiguity

Added to that apt question are two other problems: the point that the nationalist movement in itself is housed by those same articulators of federalism and mild separatism, and the point that the government’s ambiguity with respect to the New Constitution is making matters worse. Of these the second is easier to comprehend, so I will sketch it out first.

I mentioned earlier that what is turning the SAITM issue into a headache for the government is the ambiguity with which those opposed to the institution continue to articulate their stances. The IUSF is saying one thing while the Medical Faculty Students’ Union is saying another thing. With regard to the New Constitution, however, what’s aggravating an already confusing mess is the ambiguity of the government itself. To put it simply, certain representatives of this regime have come out, at different times and in different places, to voice their commitment to the unitary character of the State and (concurrently and paradoxically) its ability to cohabit with 13-plus. What is to be affirmed and who is to be believed, one wonders.

The President has argued for a domestic mechanism for trying out those accused of war crimes. The Prime Minister has not spoken a word about it but several members of his party have more or less contradicted the President’s stance in an effort to placate the international community. As Dayan Jayatilleka observed not too long ago, the Foreign Minister’s position on war crimes tribunals seems to have gone even beyond this: now it’s no longer “We insist because they (the international community) insist” but rather “We insist even if they don’t insist.”

The rift between calls for federalism and calls for (internationalised) war crimes tribunals, in other words, has ceased to be a rift: as Jayatilleka put it, “the government’s agenda is not ‘quasi-federalism OR Special Courts on war crimes’, but ‘quasi-federalism AND Special Courts’.” Whether or not you agree with the man, you have to concede ground to his observation. Coupled with the government’s Heckle-and-Jeckle attitude to the matter, and you can understand how worried the average nationalist is: not because the government is clear, but because it is NOT clear.

The first problem, on the other hand, is harder to resolve and hence more complex. While it is true that the government is housed by those who are championing federalism, it is also true that political differences have caused other, as articulate champions of federalism (those who support going beyond 13A) to flock to the nationalist resurgence. I probably shouldn’t mention names, so I won’t, but I do know that the members of the resurgence have voiced their concern about this. I noticed it, for instance, at the launch of Manohara de Silva’s book “The Methods of the Separatists” last month, in both the absence of certain people affiliated to the Joint Opposition and those who were lambasted openly as dangerous mavericks by key speakers.

While this is an anomaly we have seen in previous years (after all even Mrs Bandaranaike cohabited with the same Old Left that repudiated her position on the national question), it has become more discernible because the government, in its attempt to belittle the Joint Opposition, is making use of the stances on that same national question articulated by these “mavericks” earlier, which are diametrically against the stances articulated by the JO. That merely adds to Gevindu’s argument for a complete overhaul of the political system, a purge not just without but also within.

Concluding remarks

Two issues, two causes for worry: the SAITM mess and the New Constitution have become a headache for the government. I am not complaining, of course, because for all the rhetoric the regime spouted in their quest to eradicate corruption, they didn’t budge one bit with respect to the allegations against their own Ministers. If the original sin was to take in these Ministers in a bid to get rid of those aligned with Mahinda Rajapaksa who won in August 2015, it would seem that the Joint Opposition is having a field day letting the government de-legitimise itself over those two issues. So no, I am not complaining.

One more thing. I don’t cut any slack for either the incumbent or the Opposition, but I do know that if push comes to shove, and if the quality of the arguments and protests supported by the fringe Opposition increases, not because of the integrity of those resident in it but because of the increasingly confused moves made by the incumbent, I will pick on a side. Not only because of my sympathies with the belittled nationalist, but also because I value policy consistency above anything else, whether in this government or in the governments that follow it.

Written for: Ceylon Today, February 21 2017