29 November 2018

Democracy is alive, ladies and gentlemen

What’s the talk of the town? ‘The town’ of course can be anything from Cinnamon Gardens to Hokandara to Debarawewa. If you are talking about Cinnamon Gardens as the trope that it is for a significant portion of the decision-makers of the United National Party (UNP) and those who balk at power shifting to Debarawewa (or Kebithigollewa or Karandeniya or Kachchativu), then the talk is all about democracy.  

And democracy (or its subversion) was SUDDENLY noticed.....!

Here are some of the low-tone rumbles that are making the rounds in that particular echo chamber: ‘Democracy is under serious threat,’ ‘we need to fight to the last to safeguard democracy for future generations,’ ‘this is not about Ranil, it’s about democracy,’ ‘this is not about us, but about all of us (i.e. the entire nation).’  Well, considering the deafening silence of most of these born-again democrats (the Sinhala term is better, ‘heenen bayavunu prajaathanthravaadeen’ or ‘democrats waking up from a bad dream’) on all anti-democratic moves by the UNP from DS to Ranil and not forgetting JR and Premadasa and in particular the dictatorial party constitution and post January 2015 subversions, we can safely say ‘it’s about you, it is about Ranil, it is about the UNP.’

In their case, it’s a matter of outcome-preferences framing political comment. In the case of the less partisan, the outcome-fears (‘If Mahinda returns, he will bring back the 18th’) overrides all.  And so, they conclude (prematurely) that a) the removal of Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister and the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa in his place was illegal and unconstitutional, and b) the dissolution of Parliament was illegal and unconstitutional. They conclude, therefore, that Speaker Karu Jayasuriya is a hero (never mind that he flouted procedures he was almost worshipping a few months ago).  

The ‘other lot’ is no different. They have their outcome preferences, they have their fears. They will happily conclude that the President was acting constitutionally, never mind the high-handedness, never mind that if the UNP lost mandate and political legitimacy on February 10, 2018, so too did Maithripala Sirisena. 

But let’s focus on democracy.  

Fact: we got a terrible constitution in 1978. Fact: of the 19 Amendments passed since then, 18 were partisan and favored incumbents. Fact: the 19th amendment was flawed. Fact: the architects of the 19th, in particular Jayampathy Wickramaratne, the ardent backers (the UNP and the NGO cheering squad) and the ‘aye-sayers’ including those in the Joint Opposition except for Sarath Weerasekera, are guilty of irresponsibility if not utmost imbecility.  

A polity is not made of a constitution alone. Democracy is not a synonym of either constitution or parliament. In these things, people count. In these things process matters. There are times when limits, especially those couched in vagueness, need to be tested. This is one. Whether Sirisena’s intention was to test limit or otherwise is immaterial. 

At the end of the day, the law-makers appear to be stumped. The President, for all the power-curtailing, has prevailed and in prevailing, at least for now, has thumbed his nose at the architects of the 19th Amendment and its approvers. Hopefully, the courts will offer clarity on all the vagueness that the executive and legislative branches of the state have together inscribed. At the end of the day, also, everyone is learning that constitutions are not cast in stone, that there are no accidental errors (no, not even the discrepancies in Sinhala and English and possibly Tamil versions), and most importantly, the people need not get into fisticuffs on behalf of their so-called representatives. If Parliament is a joke and parliamentarians are jokers, let them do their thing — we can laugh. That seems to be a common enough response.  

Let’s assume this happened in some country in Europe or even some other South Asian ‘democracy’.  There would be riots, it is safe to assume. By and large, Sri Lankans have determined, ‘it’s none of our business’.  It is our business, true, but then it seems more prudent to let the courts have a say before the streets do. Those who are street-bound are essentially a partisan lot; the majority will have none of it. That’s healthy. There’s a time for agitation, this just isn’t that time. The diehards will rally around their leader(s), i.e. either Ranil Wickremesinghe or Mahinda Rajapaksa, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that they are doing this for ‘all of us’ or for ‘democracy’.   

The ‘us’ of it all, is biding time, it seems. ‘Our’ time may or may not come soon, but it will only be at the politically auspicious hour that ‘we’ will speak, it is safe to assume.  Here’s a Facebook post (pruned and edited to capture the essence) that captures some of that ‘us-sentiment’:

‘The people of our country have been behaving exceptionally well. If any other country were had a headless state, life would have been grim, but the lack of a Government has not deterred nor derailed our ppl [people] from their daily paths. Even though the macro environment is worrisome, focus is not lost. It proves we don't need the 225 donkeys to govern and even if they did or didn't no one seems to give two hoots. It proves our people our innately good, have the power to regard or disregard.  Hopefully we will continue to be calm and collected, draw up the courage from our 2500 years plus culture and do what needs to be done to get over this speed bump and put our country back on track.’

So what’s this hullabaloo about democracy then? Perhaps the answer can be found in an insightful observation made at the inauguration of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on September 2, 1951.

SWRD at the inauguration
of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party
‘It will be thus seen that unlike other countries such as India, Pakistan, Burma, Indonesia, Ireland, etc., which advanced to Freedom through the instrumentality of Mass Movements based on clear-cut principles and policies, our Freedom Movement was really one proceeding from the top and cut off to a great extent from the masses (SWRD had previously referred to D.S. Senanayake and his aides getting the Soulbury Constitution amendment to obtain Dominian Status ‘without placing amendment before country or parliament but prepared according to Mr Senanayake’s personal views — hint, hint). It has created a feeling in the minds of some people that our freedom is not something that the people have obtained but one that a few individuals have succeeded in getting, and one therefore that is looked upon to a great extent as the private property of these individuals, the benefits of which should be chiefly enjoyed by them. It is this psychology that is chiefly responsible for the nepotism and cliquism which our rampant today and for the reluctance to deal effectively with the many important problems that face us, a free country today, particularly in the context of the present trend of world affairs.’

SWRD’s own errors and culpabilities notwithstanding, this could be read as a damning account of the born-again democracy-brigade of today. This year marks the 200th anniversary of the 1818 Rebellion and the capture of Keppitipola. Democracy was blood-less and something we owe the D.S. Senanayakes, they believe and/or would have us believe and therefore it is an elite-birthed project for the benefits of political progeny, they seem to think. No wonder that the general public are not inspired by their siren call to save democracy from ‘the yakkos’.  

Well, the masses appear to know what’s what. In retrospect one might conclude that they knew the dangers of electing Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005 and knew the dangers of re-electing Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2015. It is unlikely that they have any illusions about these two individuals or about Maithripala Sirisena. They know better than democracy-experts that democracy was always an unholy creature which didn’t die on October 26, 2018, and moreover has to owe its longevity to the people, who have been patient and have largely refused to purchase all the lies about it. They know what it is and what it is not. They don’t need tuition on the same.  

malindasenevi@gmail.com. www.malindawords.blogspot.com