04 August 2014

Democracy is dead!

There’s a song they sing in demonstrations all over the United States of America, especially when war is protested: ‘Blowing in the wind’.  Powerful words no doubt but leaves one feeling a bit short-changed for ’Merica has struggled and struggled but failed to recapture the spirit of the sixties.  That country has let fly missiles far worse than cannon balls in all directions, spewing death and destruction in volumes and ways unthinkable in the sixties.  Forty years later, under a Black man, supposedly an intellectual of sorts, ’Merica is still doing what ’Merica knows best: bombing countries into the middle ages. They’ve stopped counting cannon balls for they’ve stopped making them, I believe. 

The sixties were made of both hope and dope in equal parts and the consumers kidded themselves into believing they were synonyms.  Dope has since left Hope far behind and, one could argue, entered into an unholy agreement of sorts with ‘cannonballs’.  The missiles have flown and are flying and there’s no sign of them being banned.  Well, as long as they are been fired by certain people and not others. 

This is not about hope, dope, cannonballs and banning though. It is about the ditty, the ‘how many times’ part of it at least.  The song came to me a couple of days ago, i.e. the day the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Parliament. It came to me in the form of statements regarding democracy. 

‘Democracy is dead’ some people screamed.  That’s familiar, I thought.  How many times must the cannonballs fly before they are forever banned?  How many times must democracy die before we can confirm its death? 

Democracy died (in my memory) in 1975 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike used Parliamentary numbers to extend the term of the United Front Government by two years. Democracy died in 1978 when J.R. Jayewardene’s constitution was passed in Parliament.  JRJ killed Democracy died when JRJ stripped his principal opponent, Sirimavo of her civic rights.  The dead body was dragged to Jaffna in 1981 and slaughtered on an altar called DDC elections. 

He killed it again when he held a patently undemocratic referendum in 1982 to extend the life of the Parliament by 6 years. Democracy also died when JRJ abused state resources to get re-elected in 1982.  That many-times-killed body was killed yet again the following year when he obtained undated letters of resignation from all UNP MPs in Parliament. The corpse was unearthed in 1987 July and mutilated again with the help of Rajiv Gandhi in a re-murder where Ranil Wickremesinghe presented the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to Parliament carefully leaving out key articles of the text.  JR’s successor, Ranasinghe Premadasa didn’t seem to believe the relevant death certificate was genuine, so he riddled the dead body with some 60,000 bullets between 1988 and 1990.  The rathu sahodarayas of the JVP who ran a self-styled punchi aanduwa (small government) courtesy the galkattas and T-56 strung it up on lamp posts and indulged their own perverted needs to mutilate and insult the ‘dead’. 

Since then there have been many other democracy-dyings in Sri Lanka.  Each time something happens or is made to happen, old placards are cleaned of cobweb and waved at the media.  Black arm bands materialize.  Somber looks are taken from political wardrobes and draped on the faces of people who don’t have the moral authority to lament such deaths, themselves being accessories after the fact of murder more often than not.

The 18th is a democracy-death, some believe. I object.  I am not cheering, no.  Neither am I given to tossing around death certificates at the drop of a hat.  There’s only one difference between the JRJ ‘moment’ of 1978 and the 18th Amendment when it comes to power, power centralization, space for popular participation, insulation of the public from the politician (especially the Executive President) etc: theoretically, the President can remain in power beyond 12 years. In 1978 there were no ‘independent commissions’.  The 18th Amendment effectively rendered the flawed 17th Amendment irrelevant.  When it comes down to the day-to-day the identity of the particular president is not important. What is crucially important is the power vested in that office. It is essentially the same kind of sway that JRJ privileged himself with 1978.  So if we are talking ‘death’ here, we are talking of a corpse that’s been rotting for 32 years. 

This is why I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I got an email urging me to attend a sixties kind of protest on September 8, 2010.  It was titled ‘Light a candle for democracy; stand against the 18th Amendment’.  I’ve stood in other ways, so I didn’t think it made sense to be at this little feel-good ceremony.  A handful of people had attended, I heard.  The most interesting question pertaining to this candle-lit romance was raised by a friend in the following way:

‘Strange that JR's vicious persecution of the Tamil population and his vile referendum, Ranil's secret CFA and Chandrika's latter day shenanigans did not move the people who will be at this 'vigil'. I expect most of them will be of the really, really posh crowd who actually applauded those previous horrendous abuses, which push this one into insignificance. So sad for this country that the UNP was allowed to abuse the public's powerlessness to such a degree that everything others do after them looks innocuous in comparison. People who were disturbed by both those UNP doings and the unseemly haste in the current episode are few - and include me (and you too I imagine). Sadly we have the JVP in the same club!’

It takes a lot to kill democracy. I mean, to really, really kill it. That’s not because people with selective memory stand up and hold candles. It is not because people play relative merits and privilege the consideration of personality over assessment of legislation related to vesting of powers.  It is because a handful of people see beyond warrior and war, personality and personal preference, party colour and politician. 

I don’t think missiles will be outlawed anytime soon. I doubt if democracy gets killed by mere pronouncement and/or lament.  Thankfully.

P.S.  The original title of this article was 'On the alleged death of democracy'.  Only the title has been changed and that's for effect.  It was first published in the Daily News, September 11, 2010.