Corridors of Power

I do not recall the exact moment, but I do remember a time when I was so frustrated with the Rajapaksa regime’s blatant disregard for the constitution that I wondered how best I could communicate a critique of power to even those who would vote for, and loved him. This was after the 18th Amendment, late 2010. I was interested in a way to engage with what I hated to see come about, in full knowledge, at the time, that those opposed to what Mahinda Rajapaksa did were in a minority. I had one relatively successful previous attempt which suggested when instead of presenting a contrasting opinion, which can be variously, violently and immediately dismissed, a way to debate the substance of a contentious issue is created, a rather different timbre of engagement ensues.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected into office for the second time and for his 65th birthday, there was for some unfathomable reason a Guinness World Record breaking attempt to make the largest kiribath.  Photos of the attempt are still easily discoverable online. Instead of merely calling out the former President on this colossal waste at what was the height of his popularity, WFP and UN figures for health and nutrition were used with statistics around thousands of IDPs languishing in camps at the time. Extrapolating from the ingredients the number of calories used, an attempt was made to demonstrate how the record-breaking kiribath could in fact have fed hundreds of families without basic food or nutrition, and for how long. The critique was data-driven from sources that could be independently verified. Instead of pitting disgust and outrage against adulation and adoration, the article resulted in comments that had those who said they voted for the former President say they were appalled at the meaningless waste around this attempt.

Could a similar effort be done around the concentration of power in the Executive after the 18th Amendment? I came up with an idea to flesh-out and clearly communicate the powers defined in a constitution – between citizens and the State, and also between the arms of government – using architecture. From palaces to churches, from mausoleums to entire cities, power – and more precisely, the nature of political authority – has gone on to define the architecture of a period, dynasty, regime, reign or Reich. I wanted to turn this on its head, using architecture to help explore and explain powers in a constitution that were, to the majority of citizens, abstract, complex words that didn’t really have any meaningful impact on their more existential concerns.

I approached two individuals, Asanga Welikala and Channa Daswatta, leading minds on constitutional theory and architecture respectively, with my idea. After Welikala’s initial research into over 40 years of Sri Lanka’s constitutional evolution, Daswatta and I, for close upon a year, met regularly in his office and later on, with his staff as well, to flesh out through architectural drawings, models and schematics the powers, for example between the centre and periphery, or between the legislature and the executive, enshrined in the constitutions of 1972, 1978 and key amendments thereafter. At the time we started on the project, no one could foresee what transpired on 8th January 2015. After the election of Sirisena, the project also embraced discussions around and the subsequent passage of the 19th Amendment. Those leading the drafting of the new constitution, as well as those close to and advising the President spoke during the course of the week the exhibition was held in Colombo, late 2015.

Many, including those who openly identified themselves as supporters of the former regime came up and said that the marriage of constitutional theory and architecture allowed them to see anew the challenges around the centralisation of power, and other aspects of our present constitution, like Article 9, the 13th Amendment and the independence of the judiciary, in a new, critical light. They noted that the exhibition’s appeal was anchored to its interrogation of power, instead of just being a trenchant critique of a particular individual who held the office of Executive President. A severely vision impaired person came up and said, just by carefully touching four models on display, that at the end of it, he could grasp what I had tried to communicate around the unsustainable nature of power as it was configured after the 18th Amendment. Accompanied by his mother, a twelve-year-old, with whom I talked at length based on what he saw and was able to peer into, left with a greater appreciation of the maddening complexity of government. His mother told me later on that the exhibition gave him a perspective around the constitution they would have as parents never been able to give, and school would never have even imagined imparting.

I took ‘Corridors of Power’ to Jaffna, Kandy, Batticaloa and finally to Galle this year. There is a deep, widespread interest in constitutional rule, and by extension, what goes into and what is left out of the new constitution. Apathy and disinterest is easy to come by, but is largely on account of a mainstream media and indeed, a government that for whatever reason, hasn’t the imagination, interest or resources to engage citizens around constitution making outside of episodic stories and consultations. In Batticaloa, we were inundated with questions around power, privilege, periphery-centre relations, religion, identity and devolution. Students from the Eastern University were interested in creating a short skit based on the exhibition, in order to carry on and promote discussions around constitutional rule. In Jaffna, at the historic Public Library were the exhibition was held, groups had animated discussions around what they wanted the new constitution to reflect and represent, going well-beyond the 19th Amendment and indeed, the 13th Amendment as well. In Kandy, at the General Post Office auditorium, I engaged with LSSP members and leftists, who critiqued the constitutional evolution since 1972 from a working-class perspective. In Galle, groups that came said the exhibition helped them think through not just citizenship and the nature of the State, but also the configuration of authority and the delegation of power within their own, large organisations.

Beyond the exhibition, there is a clear thirst across Sri Lanka for on-going engagement on the kind of government, governance and constitution people would like to see. I don’t believe this engagement will stymie complex negotiations around the constitution. I do believe, strongly, that the lack of sustained public engagement will result in an exponentially harder sell of any new constitution. Ultimately, if a small exhibition in just five cities was able to animate so many who didn’t fully realise the importance of constitutionalism, imagine what government and indeed, mainstream media can and arguably should do on a broader, deeper scale.

This is not happening. So, ask yourselves this – who really benefits from ignorance and apathy?

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First published in The Sunday Island, 4 December 2016.

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