Prof. Kumar David
Just as everyone thought 20A was a done deal the President and PM seem to have got cold feet about mounting opposition. On board seemed to be not only the SLPP but also the Dead-Left – a one-time firebrand seeking Cabinet perks, a nephew who defiles the memory of his illustrious uncle and a nondescript ex-Stalinist. Do you remember jellyfish GL who in 1994 said: “The PA Govt. has received an overwhelming mandate for the abolition of the Executive Presidency”? But inside in recent weeks there has been much hand wringing about how deplorable the draft is. But I should not waste words on the unceremonious reburial of these lumpen elements; this piece is about other things.
The reprehensible features of 20A have been widely discussed. An excellent summary by Bimal Ratnayake can be found here:
It is a pity that video does not include contributions by Lal Wijenayake and Harini Amarasuriya at the same event. A critique by Jayampathy Wickramaratne’s argues that 20A requires a referendum. The Island Editorial “Machiavellism” of 9 September is hard hitting, spares nobody and is short and easy to read as editorials need be.
A point form enumeration of the worst in 20A is as follows.
1. Division of powers between Executive, Legislature and Judiciary will become a fiasco
2. Powers of the Executive Presidency are strengthened beyond the powers JR abused.
3. Presidential immunity is enhanced beyond what JR harboured.
4. The judiciary, not admired in any case now, will be snivelling on a firm short leash.
5. President-PM-Parliament will be in a position to misuse and abuse public monies.
6. Friends, jokers and clowns will be appointed to high places and diplomatic posts.
7. Chillingly, trenchant critics of GR, MR and the State will be expeditiously disposed of.
Specific erosions: The Constitutional Council, Attorney General, Auditor General, Audit Commission, Procurement Commission, Bribery Commission, and the appointment of CJ and SC Judges have been messed around with despoiling their independence, clipping their wings and making them beholden to the Executive President. All will be extensions of an elected autocrat and we will have government without accountability. The appointment of car salesmen and property vendors from LA as diplomats and Cook’s Tour operators from the same town as airline chairmen has not gone unnoticed. Some Viyathmaga dunces have been made State Ministers or corporate chairmen. In the context of (b) the Army “orientation-training programme” for 50,000 graduates newly recruited to the public sector could well be the groundwork for recruiting fascistic Brown Shirt brigades.
Both (a) and (b) have been explored in the media and I need only emphasise that the Gotabhaya presidency is also a sponsor of militarisation unlike JR who was his own master; nor was JR a patron of a family clan based ruling dynasty. The GR-MR regime is transitioning to a Gota-Kamal Gunaratna regime; this makes it more dangerous. JR was unquestioned leader of bourgeoisie and elite; he was Yanie Dickie, you know what that meant. Gota carries no such rank. In the mass mind he shares the stratosphere with Mahinda; parliament despite being more menial than in JR’s time is not his; his ideological footstool is semi-educated Viyathmaga of self-important plebs, he is not on the inside track of the true-blue domestic bourgeoisie, the West, China or India. Hence Gota’s Administration needed one more footstool – retired and active Brass. Hence his is an administration with dangerous proclivities, but one that can be challenged if it fails to keep step with Mahinda, Cabinet, the SLPP trash-bag and with mass expectations re costs and living standards.
Convicted murderer Premalal Jayasekera has been sworn in by the Speaker on whose instructions we know not, but with a nod from the courts. A convicted murderer of seven Tamils including little children whose appeal was dismissed by a panel of five judges has been pardoned by you know who. Recent SC decisions on fundamental rights challenging the President’s powers in election matters and use of public monies are gravely flawed. Like it or not is the way things will go for the next five or worst case ten years. Those who oppose dictatorship or the regime will get short shrift from cops and judges. We have to plan and strategize in full knowledge of this.
There is strength in size. Though the government secured two-thirds the other one-third, if it unites and organises, is also strong. If the economy is in distress, if grumblings that some in the SLPP-SLFP, the lumpen Dead-Left and pro-government Tamils and Muslims are worried that 20A goes too far is correct, if trade-unions and the liberal middle classes are energised and if, and this is a big if, the judiciary sprouts the semblance of a backbone, then the regime will come under challenge. Though even in the best scenario the combined opposition is weak the balance may float in time. The regime’s strength is mass faith “Gota will do something” – “janadhipathi mokak hari kerala dei”. There was desperation in the voice of one youngish professional who said to me, in Sinhala, “If this time also it does not work out, we are finished”. It is when confidence declines that splits become manifest. Anti-authoritarianism discontent will surface in the near-term only if the economy deteriorates fast and if 20A is challenged on the streets.
I am making no predictions, only pointing out that a dicey economy, inability to address Muslim and Tamil concerns, the unmitigated mess in arranging return of 60,000 Lankans stranded overseas enraging their relatives, and universal condemnation of the political motives of 20A, are the downside facing an apparently strong regime. I have on a few previous occasions presented the view that there is a psychological manifold embracing the Rajapaksa ethos and the Sinhalese mass. Behaviourally it manifests as political consciousness (explicit support) and in voting patterns, in the subconscious it is a deeper bond such as we have seen in history at other times in other places. Most interesting for this essay is the subliminal slice of this embrace; a willingness to overlook and forgive, corruption, crime and crudeness. Analysts can wait to see how this pans out; political activists can’t. The need is to get down to work now, not after the ship of state starts sinking. It is the subliminal that will fracture first if there is turmoil in the economic domain.
Let me divert to science for a moment. Martin Hairer, a University of Geneva PhD and currently an Imperial College professor, won the Fermat Prize (2013) and the Fields Medal (2014) the highest prize for a mathematician. He has just secured the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in maths. His field, stochastic partial differential equations, examines how randomness throws process into disorder; fluctuations throw what was intended into chaos. Two examples, not Hairer’s, are wind turbulence and politics in “interesting times”. Hairer showed how his equations could be “reframed and tamed”. Good mathematics but not enough for real world politics; quantitively we remain stalled.
I had a brush with similar matters from an engineering perspective in the 1980s with a few Proc. IEE papers on stochastic sources (wind and solar) and a three-month graduate course I taught at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm. An engineer wants to add the output of several hundred wind or solar units together. The point is that the outputs though correlated are not simply summable because wind and sun fluctuate randomly across a 500- or 1000-acre energy farm. A method to sum correlated random variables was the answer, but in politics this is tough. How to model Sajith, Ranil and Ruwan, as corelated random variables? Or the TNA, Vigy and Gajendran? They are correlated, but the complexity is excessive and discourse remains qualitative. This is why I stopped my thoughts about mass psyche and the Rajapaksa phenomenon where I did.
We need to turn to proposals for action. A coalition of diverse forces is the urgent and common-sense starting point. A huge mistake would be to imagine 20A can be defeated in parliament, or at a referendum if one is granted. The perspective has to be a durable campaign against attacks on democracy and people’s rights; a campaign that has to be sustained for years after 20A is enacted. The priority is to nurture broad multi-class and multi-party alliances. Separately or jointly, oppose the common enemy. Unconditional defence of 19A is unwarranted, its defects arising from conflicts in the Sirisena-Ranil government must be critiqued. En passant however, I need to add that the epitaph of most creeps in this Parliament will read “This skunk voted for the 17-th, 18-th, 19-th and 20-th Amendments. Phew!”
18A reversed the gist of 17A; 19A repealed 18A deeming it an abomination. Now 20A emasculates 17A and 19A. Scores of opportunistic MPs supported all four! To call them skunks would be unfair by these relatively harmless stink badgers. The gist of the four amendments are:
17A: Created the Constitutional Council and some Independent Commissions (IC)
18A: Removed Presidential term-limits.
19A: Repealed 18A, created more ICs, trimmed Presidential executive powers.
20A: Goes back to the JR Executive Presidential system and worse.
Autocatalysis in chemistry is when two processes support each other and together gain in strength and momentum; in engineering it is called positive feedback. Gota’s victory catalysed the general election victory, parliament is autocatalyzing more power to Gota via 20A, in turn there will be more ministerships and opportunities for enrichment which will bind these beneficiaries and Gota tightly. But politics, like ecosystems – unlike chemistry in a test-tube – is an open system where energy and influences flow in and out from the surroundings. What may break this incestuous arrangement will have to be from the outside; protests against rising costs (economy), awakening sensitivity to the perils of 20A (politics), anger at the shameful neglect of refugees quarantined in appalling conditions overseas (crisis subsequent to Covid-19 successes), unified opposition militancy (organisation), or foreign meddling (not serious). It is fusing of a two or three of these impositions that may implode the innards of the autocatalytic cauldron. To this extent I should amend my previous remark that we are stuck with autocracy for the next five or ten years.