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Constitutional Politics
Published Date: 20/11/2017 (Monday)

By Ahilan Kadirgamar

Why is there so little interest about a political solution among the people throughout the country? How is it that the reactionary forces in the South and the North have taken the upper hand in the public domain and gaining ground in rejecting the constitutional
reform process?  

The problem I would argue is the lack of political vision of both the Government leadership and the TNA leadership. Three valuable years after regime change have been wasted without engaging and mobilising the people towards a political solution. Furthermore, the constitutional reform process was delinked from the everyday concerns of the people and their social and economic aspirations.  

Past, present and the future

The call for a political solution came out of our tragic history. Nationalist polarisation and a majoritarian post-colonial state tore apart the country for decades. If our leaders failed to stitch together an inclusive polity in the decades after Independence, the armed uprisings of later generations of youth in the South and the North resulted in immense of loss of life. Such tremendous violence and destruction requires deeper reflection about our past. And a political solution should internalise such self-critical reflection. Furthermore, a political solution can bring those who have lost faith in the democratic possibilities of our society, into meaningful participation with reformed state structures.  
While addressing such a divisive history is crucial, engaging people also requires starting from their current concerns. In this context, throughout the country there is increasing disenchantment about the deteriorating economy. There is little faith in the Government’s neo-liberal pronouncements about economic development and the war-torn regions in particular are trapped in a post-war economic crisis. How will the proposed constitutional reforms address such everyday concerns of the people?   
Those of us who are advocating devolution should link the constitutional debate to the travails of the people including the drought, lack of decent jobs and the rising cost of living. We have to articulate the implications of such constitutional reforms for the contemporary concerns that are topmost in the minds of people. Otherwise, why would the people listen to us, much less join the campaign for a constitutional solution? Therefore, devolution and its implications for regional development and rural rejuvenation have to be at the centre of the constitutional reform debate.  
A new Constitution is about our political future. How do we communicate the importance of a plural and democratic society? In a time, when ethnic polarisation and a majoritarian world view is projected nationally and regionally, the political vision of rebuilding inter-ethnic relations in all parts of the country is an urgent need. The constitutional reform process then has to be part of a larger vision of forging a consensus about rebuilding state and society around pluralism and equality. Such social diversity and economic equality should be emphasised, not just as mere legal enactments, but as central principles determining state policies. In other words, the political solution should address not only the ethnic question, but also class, gender and caste differences in our society.  

Chauvinists to the fore

The failure of those leading the constitutional reform process to articulate a vision that speaks to the people has provided an opportunity for the chauvinists in the country to divert the debate. In fact, the subtle message from the Government and the overt pronouncements from the TNA claim that the importance of such constitutional reforms is to win the confidence of the international actors; including for foreign investment and to relieve pressure in international forums. I would argue, the international actors have little interest in the constitutional reform process in Sri Lanka. In fact, international attention has shifted to other conflicts in other parts of the world, and the public discourse in Sri Lanka places excessive importance on geo-political interests.

The public discourse here is still stuck in the internationalised environment, at the height of the war, of a decade ago. In this context, the chauvinists in the South have made it a debate about sovereignty, international intervention and division of the country. The chauvinists in the North, on the other hand, claim it is about the TNA leadership succumbing to Colombo and betrayed Tamil aspirations by undermining international pressure.   
These chauvinists in the South and the North, even though they seem to be worlds apart, are in fact objective allies in their quest to keep the country polarised. They both either whip up fears through conspiracy theories or deploy grand narratives, about the same issues of separatism and international intervention; issues of little relevance in the post-war context. Furthermore, Sinhala and Tamil chauvinism converge and expose their character when the Muslim question arises. These chauvinists, regardless of their political location, are unashamedly anti-Muslim in their campaigns.   
Attacking the current efforts towards constitutional reform are now the proxy for the nasty political campaigns of the Joint Opposition seeking to mobilise Sinhala Buddhist nationalists and the number of narrow Tamil nationalist groupings now part of the recently formed Tamil Peoples Council. Neither of these forces have any meaningful solutions for the problems of the people, much less a political solution. Rather, their manoeuvres will only disrupt yet another opportunity to address the national question. Such cynical politics has been the curse of our destructive history.  

No easy road ahead

What the legal experts in Sri Lanka who have been involved in drafting new Constitutions have consistently failed to address is the class question, not just in the structure of the Constitution, but also in the broader process of mobilising for it. How do we make a new constitution speak to the mass of working and rural people belonging to the various ethnic communities in the country?  
People all over the country are resentful of the power in Colombo, just as people in the periphery of the North are resentful of the power concentrated in Jaffna. That has to do with a history social exclusion with uneven development as well as class and caste power intertwined with administrative state power. Is this not the basis for dismantling the unitary structure of the state which has concentrated power in Colombo? Such a move away from centralised state power should be coupled with means of protecting the concerns of the numerically smaller minorities and the socially excluded in the regions.   
While the media and our liberal elite are focused on corruption, issues such as uneven development and regional inequalities are rarely considered. Neither those advocating for a constitutional solution nor those opposed to it, have seriously addressed the issue of increasing inequalities in our society.   
The difficult road ahead for the political solution is dependent on engaging the people. For progressives in the North, devolution of power is crucial in order to put to rest Tamil nationalism. The progressives in the South, on the other hand, have to think more about how they can make devolution work for the people in the country rather than as something only important for Tamil aspirations. Regardless of where the constitutional reform process is headed, we have no choice but to engage in this political debate, as it is bound to determine the trajectory of our democratic future. 

Source: Daily Mirror

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