It’s Old Wine, but Post-Aragalaya Hope is the New Bottle

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Truth be acknowledged, there is nothing exceptionally different in President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s maiden ‘Throne Speech’ than what he has been enunciating and enumerating from his sixth term as Prime Minister, once again short-lived. That includes his expressing gratitude, personal and national, to the Indian neighbour, for ‘breathing life’ into Sri Lanka, when it needed oxygen of a different kind than what it had rushed in shiploads at the height of the Covid pandemic.

It is thus that the new President has presented a bottle of old wine, but that bottle is one of new, though inexplicable hope and commitment, like he told the Nation that he was now the President of all the people even though he was elected (only) by a parliamentary majority (and not all members), and that “it is my duty to light even one lamp for the country rather than cursing the darkness” having taken over the “country in disaster.”

Yet, his speech rather indicated without specifying that he is here to stay until Presidential Polls are due by the fourth quarter of 2024, and not any time sooner. He did not indicate early elections to Parliament, as sought both by the political Opposition and the Aragalaya protesters, but an All-Party Government, or a government by consensus would ensure that there is something for everyone in the political spectrum – by way of responsibility, that is – and pulling it through until poll time in mid-2025 is a greater possibility than otherwise.

Recovery, reformative

The President has promised a National Assembly of political party leaders and a People’s Assembly with public representation, where the Government would only be a facilitator, can be problematic. Both ideas, he readily acknowledged, to the National Movement for Social Justice of former Speaker Karu Jayasurya, who has friends in every political party and social grouping, to get them going.

It can be assumed that the National Assembly will have representation also for political parties with no parliamentary representation. It may be a welcome takeoff from the ‘Proportional Representation’ (PR) scheme of elections. But will not the parties represented in Parliament be repeating their work, delaying decisions that much more than already? If non-parliamentary representation is the idea, then a via media could be found by having a parliamentary panel interact with those parties and groups, constantly and with due publicity.

The other concept of a People’s Assembly can have consequences. Leave aside the fact that it prima facie resembles the ‘people’s councils’ that Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) leader Premakumar Gunaratnam (too) enunciated after claiming near-sole ownership of the Aragayala struggle minus the violent parts, the committee and its members could get frustrated if either the Executive or Parliament vetoes their recommendations, for reasons that are justifiable and otherwise.

In turn, Parliament might be apprehensive about the outbreak of another Aragalaya-like struggle if the People’s Assembly’s views are not respected, in total or in parts, based on the issues and the persona involved on either side.

There would still be a difference. Between now and when the economy and polity shift gears and the former is on the recovery mode and the latter, reformative mood, the tendency for the present-day youth, who would still be in that age group and mindset, willing to return to the Aragalaya mode, more vigorously than already, having learnt their lessons in every which way. This is so, as the President’s address pointed out how the past months of economic hardships had shrunk the Nation’s middle class and added to the number of poor and jobless.

President Wickremesinghe should keep this reality in mind while making and implementing policies to open up the economy for foreign investment. He should acknowledge that his UNP’s economic reforms of the late seventies was as much as disaster as its socialist predecessor. Not just him, but the entire polity should acknowledge it, and take the message as much to the elite as to the poor, so as to strike a balanced approach to economic policymaking.

Without reference to the JVP, which has since been mainstreamed, it should be admitted that the failure of the ‘First Insurgency’ in 1971 did not lead to the end of the violent movement. Instead, a more determined leadership that had also learnt its tricks and lessons, broad-based what essentially was a socioeconomic movement, by adding the key societal element of ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism,’ but without adopting the Buddha’s teachings of peace and non-violence.  The Nation conspired to make the ‘Second Insurgency’ possible, longer, wider and more violent.

National consensus

In the midst of all this, Parliament and the public (National/ People’s Assembly?) may be tying itself up in knots over the abolition of the Executive Presidency. While the Government did it right by piloting the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in Parliament, curtailing the President’s Executive Powers, Wickremesinghe’s speech was circumspect at best. He said they should decide which was the best way out, implying a more serious debate.

The same applies to the ‘national problem’ on the ethnic front. On both, as Prime Minister under President Maithripala Sirisena, Wickremesinghe had worked out a first draft, so to state, for a new Constitution – where solutions to multiple other issues, including the Executive Presidency, too, were believed to have been addressed. He can take off from where they had left with the hope and commitment, but to which his present-day underwriters in the Rajapaksa-centric SLPP was not a party but needs to be brought around. It’s not only about the required two-thirds majority, but more about arriving at a national consensus.

The Government has to be commended for acting on Wickremesinghe’s parliamentary commitment/ declaration, to support peaceful protests and act against violence, both of the past Aragalaya kind, and the future one, promised for 9 August. Thankfully, no one has owned it up, especially after the Opposition SJB distanced itself from Party Chairman Sarath Fonseka’s expression of support and involvement!

About the writer:

The writer is a policy analyst and commentator, based in Chennai, India. Email: [email protected]

By N. Sathiya Moorthy