L’etatc’estmoi’ (‘I am the state’)
- Louis XIV
When J.R.Jayewardene, after the landslide victory his party the UNP obtained in the 1977 elections, wanted to introduce the 1978 Constitution to signal a conversion of the Political and Governing Structure of this country from a Westminster Type cabinet democracy to an Executive Presidency, there were two factors he dangled as reasons for such change: rapid economic growth and national security. After a disastrous economic experiment by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike led centre-left government that ruled from 1970 to 1977 which half-starved the population, the lure of rapid economic development was a very catchy tune that JR knew would hold good among the citizenry for the change he was ushering in. The sovereignty and territorial integrity which was being increasingly questioned by the rising Tamil militancy in the North and the suppressed yet simmering unrest among the Sinhala youth of the South, too, made the story of a strong executive tolerable, if not downright palatable to the popular masses.
Self Proclaimed Saviour
After more than forty years, the Present President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who finds himself wing-clipped by the 19th amendment with the checks and balances placed on arbitrary and despotic powers the Executive Presidency had pre-19A, with a strengthened Parliament and a emboldened judiciary, considers all these checks and balances as restrictions, obstacles and nuisances in his self-proclaimed march towards rapid economic development. Every single speech he makes, every visit he pays to a public institution, every tweet he posts makes it unequivocally clear that he alone knows what is best for the country and any dissent in that regard is not welcome. The very recent comment that he made while addressing public grievances at Haldummulla, where the President emphasised that his verbal instructions should have the same authority and effect as written circular, he was expressing in a very concise form what was not that unclear all this time.
"It harkens to a definite and unmistakable paradigm shift that dynamics of political power has undergone during the last decade"
That he was a law unto himself and that is how he wanted the new model of governance to be, is that message. That is what the 20th Amendment is going to usher in for him. The onlookers at Haldummulla were readily pleased and responded with gleeful applause. Among them was the former Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga, who, ironically had known all too well as how costly complying with those verbal orders were when the law dictated otherwise, could be. Yet he too chose to applaud the present President’s demand for unconditional compliance and unbridled power. He is well aware, where the wind is blowing, the veteran civil servant, that Lalith is.
Getting back to the history of the origins and the evolution, if one can ever use that word, to describe a relapse into a system where the rights of the citizen and all the hard won constitutional rights which make democracy meaningful, obsolete, we all seemed to know that the Executive Presidency, since the day J.R. Jayewardene sat on that exalted throne, was the fount of all evils that bedevilled the Sri Lankan body politic. As a youngster and one interested in politics at that, my entire youth was spent being exposed to this never ending mantra of the evils of the Executive Presidency and the need to abolish it if we were to become a decent, vibrant and meaningful democracy. Among the protagonists of that roll call were Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunge, Ranil Wickremesinghe, Bandula Gunawardane, Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva and even G.L. Pieris, who now says, that the 20A is a must for economic growth.
"The lure of rapid economic development was a very catchy tune that JR knew would hold good among the citizenry for the change he was ushering in"
We know Mahinda tasted the honey pot, as did Chandrika. Yet for others in the ruling party and vociferously supporting 20A now, with its attendant relapse in to the one man show that it engenders in the form of an Executive Presidency, sans the restrictions placed by 19A, one could wonder how they ever came to the stand they are taking now, after decades of struggle against the evils that they saw in the system in the Eighties and the Nineties and the abolition of which constituted the mainstay of their political work.
Paradigm shift in power dynamics
The answer lies not only in the fact that they are buoyed by the handouts a powerful President is able to grant on his stooges once the checks and balances of the 19A is removed; it also harkens to a definite and unmistakable paradigm shift that dynamics of political power has undergone during the last decade. A more hegemonic, monolithic society with little tolerance to dissent or for that matter, anything not in line with the majority identity or thinking, does seem to perceive Executive Democracy as the main tool of enforcing, imposing and maintaining that hegemony. Identity politics in place of ideological politics have taken precedence everywhere and with the national security narrative that Gotabaya so conveniently took to when he sought the mandate as President coupled with a euphoric support of doing things the military way, sets the perfect tune for the final triumph of the authoritarianism the President is so fond of.
All the Executive Presidents have been a ‘law unto themselves’ prior to Maithripala Sirisena. The fact that Sirisena was not as despotic as the others does not speak of any magnanimity he showed at the high seat but due to the fact the restraints placed by the 19th Amendment, had put limitations on his power and subjected it to the control of the Parliament and under scrutiny by a potent and independent judiciary not at his mercy.
Direct and Honest
Yet, what puts Gotabaya Rajapaksa apart from his predecessors such as J.R., Premadasa, Chandrika and his own brother Mahinda is that, he makes no effort to conceal the fact that he wants to be a law unto himself. In fact, it could not be clearer, at least now, that he knows nothing of law, period. Unlike most of his predecessors, he has had very little political experience, and the grasp of modern concepts of democracy and structures of governance, still less. He is not feigning to be pluralistic. He makes no effort to embellish what is coming, with any choice words. In a way, he is direct and honest.
Somehow for lesser folks like us, the days of long and tireless struggles against the despotism of the Executive Presidency and the need to do away with it, with the attendant hope of a more pluralistic, transparent and accountable leadership is but a distant memory. The Inspiration of the January 08 mandate by the people that they wanted their sovereignty back, is now, if anything, an embarrassment.
We hardly would have thought that a person who says ‘my word is your law’, will be met with resounding applause by his subjects after 70 years of independence and almost a century of democratic governance, in one of the oldest representative democracies in the world. Yet that is how it is now.
How has it ever come to this?
There are profound answers that await us if we are ready to look beyond merely the politic.