“My party will act on principles and on behalf of the masses until it emerges victorious” – Ranil Wickremasinghe to media persons at Katunayake International Airport upon his return from a tour of India and Nepal in February 2007 during which time 18 UNP dissidents crossed over to join the Rajapakse Government.
The frenzy over the UNP’s seeming volte-face regarding its stance on federalism is a result of a larger malaise – politics without principles. In attempting to convince us that the epithet of federalism is no longer a viable currency to woo voters galvanised by the populist rhetoric and war-mongering of the incumbent regime, the UNP party propaganda was also at pains to strike the right chord with those who looked upon it as a champion of a negotiated settlement to the ethnic conflict. As reported in The Hindu on October 2nd:
The [UNP] party statement said a negotiated political solution must be found, based on renunciation of violence, human rights and democracy. The solution must also accommodate the legitimate aspirations of all communities. The political solution must address the grievances of Tamils, the fears of Muslims in the north-east regarding ethnic cleansing and the concerns of some sections of the Sinhalese that devolution will lead to separatism. On the debate over the unit of devolution, the UNP said the present system (the 13th Amendment) is based on the Provinces and a decision was required whether the Province will be the unit of devolution for the future. The UNP said the co-chairs and India be requested to arrange for cessation of hostilities and resumption of talks.
There is nothing of any significance here. Shaped by the realpolitik and also by significant internal frustration with an ossified party leadership, the UNP seeks to use the language of populism to win over those partial to the Rajapakse administration and also quell strife within the party. It may be that the UNP is still acting “on behalf of the masses” who in the South are increasingly disinclined to believe that negotiations are possible, even desirable, with the LTTE. Fed by a vice grip on the media by the State and thereby unable to countenance any viewpoint that runs contrary to the Government’s line, the Southern Sinhalese voter is today a political animal with little patience for any talk of federalism with the LTTE as part of the equation. It is not a complex socio-political phenomenon and in its simplicity lies the bedrock of legitimacy that propels this government into more bloodshed and pyrrhic military victories in the name of peace. The UNP’s technocratic appeal to reason and a higher intellect of Sinhalese voters rendered it a party increasingly marginalised in the eyes of many in the South. Its social and political agitations were sporadic and short-lived, with stalwart braggadocio trumping any meaningful political agitation that honestly connected with the frustrations of citizens. Though seemingly significant when held in Colombo, the UNP’s “Jana Ralla” (Wave of People) seems to have lost both the people and the sense of outrage at the debacle of governance that fuelled support for it. Couched in the language of patriotism and necessary sacrifice, the Rajapakse administration continues to govern Sri Lanka as it sees fit with scant regard for democracy or the international community’s opprobrium for its actions. The UNP’s singular tragedy is that it can seemingly do nothing about it. This year has already seen a principal architect and exponent of the UNF-LTTE peace process, Prof. G.L. Peiris, now a supine apparatchik of the Rajapakse administration, state that the so-called ‘Oslo Declaration’ was based on constitutional concepts such as federalism that were ‘mere words’ with ‘no clear definition and are indistinct at best’. That his former party too now tacitly concurs is perhaps federalism’s coup de grâce. Or perhaps not. Those who believe the nomenclature of federalism to be too violently emotive and divisive may see that in jettisoning the label, those who agitate for the meaningful devolution of power can forge a new consensus amongst a divided polity and society. This was certainly the argument made by some Tamil nationalists regarding the Oslo Declaration, which they felt fed populist optics at the cost of fostering a meaningful understanding of and support towards the federal idea. And yet, the realpolitik is an inelegant beast with scant regard or patience for a principled approach to the politics of peacemaking. In tethering its political future to populist determination, the UNP irrevocably vitiates its ability to imagine and articulate political mechanisms beyond those that are fashionable in the eyes of voters today. Damningly, it also now hostage to the majoritiarian bias in party politics that has bedevilled conflict transformation in Sri Lanka and is at the heart of violent conflict. Further, it is also a renunciation of the heady idealism that the UNP’s leader himself articulated earlier this year in an impassioned address to Parliament, wherein he stated that “…we will witness in the coming weeks an increase in the violation of human rights, deterioration of good governance, spread of corruption, undermining of democracy, and the rising cost of living.” His prescient comments on the significant deterioration of democratic governance in Sri Lanka must now, ironically, include the descent of his own party, under his leadership, into an ugly morass of parochial opportunism based on a repellent pursuit of absolute power as an end that justifies the sacrifice of all principles. We have lost another opportunity here – the overt abandonment in the party political discourse of the federal idea as a central mechanism of effective and sustainable conflict transformation is ultimately the victory of expedient politics over what is necessary, essential and honest. It is a victory for those who believe and promote that Tamil nationalism and aspirations (often erroneously conflated with the LTTE) can be satiated through the 13th Amendment in the hands of a Sinhala polity still unable to countenance more than one nation in Sri Lanka. The frustrating and tremendously difficult task of envisioning constitutional arrangements and the design of a peace process to accommodate and respond to urgent and legitimate ethnic grievances is not one that finds expression in the Rajapakse administration. The UNP is now no better. In using the language of escapism and nonsense, the UNP no longer articulates any meaningful alternative to the blinkered policies of the Government. Its failure is our own.
This article written for an up-coming issue of Montage, published by Counterpoint. To get in touch with Montage, please email montagesrilanka [at] gmail.com or visit their blog