Last Updated : 2019-07-23 11:12:00

Notes for a Manifesto The state

16 August 2018 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Last week I wrote a brief note to presidential hopefuls (if) as they ponder manifestos. I pointed out that there’s been a lot of hot air and little substance when it came to programmes. The basic thrust was that we need to move beyond rhetoric and the easy default option of cannibalizing old texts and slogans. I promised to elaborate on issues I believe that candidates, parties and especially voters should consider seriously. That partial list of issues included ‘the state’.   

There is certainly talk of ‘the state’. It typically happens when constitutional reform is the subject at hand. The ‘nature of the state’ has been reduced, in the discourse, to two things. First, whether it should remain unitary or whether it should be reconstituted as a federal formation. Secondly, there’s debate about the position of religion. Let’s consider these two issues briefly.   

Those who support the unitary formation demonstrate a fear that an alternative (federal) would be precursor to division. The fear partly lies in the gross and historical postulations by the federalists who have superimposed devolution lines on a map drawn by an unknown British cartographer with absolute ignorance of history and geography. In other words, a map of so-called historical homelands based on the strokes of a frivolous pencil. The intent of separation in conjunction with the artful methodology prescribed by one of its founder ideologues, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam (‘A little now, more later’), naturally gave and gives rise to suspicion.   

The federalists draw from history the instances of multiple regimes functioning independently of one another in the island. Suzerainty is not a word they seem to have heard of. When history is long, it makes for selective picking. The federalists and the Unitarians are both aces at this. It is not a subject that should be dismissed out of hand but certainly one that has to be unshackled from the humbuggery it is burdened by.   


Is ‘the state’ a matter that is composed solely by the above two issues? Well, there’s a third matter where ‘the state’ is mentioned


The same goes for the matter of religion. Recently, M.A. Sumanthiran contended that there was a separate Tamil kingdom on this island in order to buttress a devolution argument. He never mentioned boundaries and desisted from obtaining from the long history (as opposed to history - segments of convenience). If we go back to obtain formulation, then we can’t pick and choose. However, if we decide to go back, then we can go to the Kandyan Convention and the status of Buddhism that was agreed upon. Then we shall see the current formulation pertaining to religion as a historical injustice.   

Now, the mischievous, cry in horror at Article 9 (Status of Buddhism) are quiet about its effective negation in Articles 10 and 14(1)(e). Moreover, the secularist call is silent about the long history of privilege enjoyed by certain religious communities, the relevant percentages, the truth of privilege and subjugation in nations where non-Buddhist religious communities dominate and the enormous privileges currently enjoyed by non-Buddhist religious communities right here in Sri Lanka.   

That said, the separation of religion from the state is an issue that needs to be discussed openly and at length, bringing in all relevant histories, numbers and current realities and not corralled into a cul-de-sac of selective reference and prescription without substance.   

Is ‘the state’ a matter that is composed solely by the above two issues? Well, there’s a third matter where ‘the state’ is mentioned. The term that is common is ‘welfarist state’. Welfare is a word that is associated typically with the underprivileged, the peripheral and poor. The role of the state, accordingly, is in part to provide a safety net to catch those who could otherwise fall by the wayside.   

Is this what our state does, though? While welfare measures have boosted access to health and education, for instance, and have produced a lot of statistics that politicians, academics and development experts can brag about, the question is asked, ‘can we really afford it?’ Sometimes it is formulated thus: ‘should we continue with it?’ Blanket subsidies are certainly hard to defend, but neither is complete abolishing an option. That’s something that needs to be discussed.   

However, what is most interesting in all this is the reluctance to see the other element of welfarism in this state; the subsidies extended to capital interests directly and indirectly far outweigh the collective dishing-out to the masses, to put it bluntly. Furthermore, such magnanimity has been marked but cronyism, subjugation to the dictates of big name nations, and utter lack of reason in terms of long-term benefits including economic security to the country.   

An anecdote would perhaps put things in perspective. When Chandrika Kumaratunga came to power vowing to put an end to dhooshanaya (corruption) and bheeshanaya (‘terror’, read it as any kind of coercion), there was a series of strikes. Not too long after assuming power, the lady said ‘I promised freedom but not freedom of the wild ass’. Well, freedom of the wild ass is what capital interests have enjoyed for decades.   


Where are the airtight regulations? Where are the rules that can’t be bent? Where are the mechanisms that stop politicians and officials from bailing out errant corporate thugs? When will candidates and parties start thinking about the role of the state


Where are the airtight regulations? Where are the rules that cannot be bent? Where are the mechanisms that stop politicians and officials from bailing out errant corporate thugs? In short, when will candidates and parties start thinking about the role of the state, what it should and should not do and how?   

There is a common dismissive; it’s the global that dictates. That’s poppycock. There is nothing inexorable about the global. If that were the case all states would be identical, which of course is not the case. There is and therefore there can be contestation. Whereas isolation is obviously not an option, neither is submission to the prescription by multilateral organizations and nations that have mandated themselves to promote capital interests.   

The state has always erred in favour of the commons being robbed. When this is left untouched, everything else is reduced to an argument over crumbs. What we have now is an erroneous characterization of the state and its role and a selective vilification of anything that the state does for those who are short-changed, insulted and humiliated.   

The state, friends, is where ideology is most apparent. It is the one place where few look for ideology, ironically. Leave it intact and all victories in battles fought in its appendages are hollow.   

A word of advice to the voter: treat with suspicion any candidate or party that neglects to offer a cogent elucidation of the state.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance political commentator.

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