The Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance has to be challenged on principles of democracy and pluralism
Over the past fortnight, Sri Lanka has witnessed an escalating political crisis, with a standoff between President Maithripala Sirisena and the Parliament. After the shocking and undemocratic appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister, the suspension of Parliament, and then its dissolution on November 9, Mr. Sirisena announced snap elections.
The court’s intervention
Significantly, the Supreme Court on Tuesday suspended the dissolution of Parliament until December 7. While the power struggle will continue, it is to the credit of the democratic regime change in January 2015, ironically led by Mr. Sirisena, that Sri Lanka’s governing institutions have resisted the authoritarian power inherent in the executive presidency.
Looking back, Sri Lanka’s liberal democratic turn in January 2015 was too good to be true, particularly when authoritarian populist regimes were steadily rising the world over. Mr. Rajapaksa, who further entrenched the executive presidency including by removing its two-term limit and later manoeuvred the impeachment of a Supreme Court Chief Justice, was dislodged by a broad array of political forces. That major democratic victory for Sri Lanka, in turn for the West, India and Japan, was met with relief over the removal of the China-leaning Rajapaksa and the normalisation of foreign relations.
In this context, Mr. Sirisena re-joining Mr. Rajapaksa has once again sparked the reductive analysis of power play over Sri Lanka involving China, India and the U.S. in the Indian Ocean. Such lazy analysis fails to consider the political consequences of prolonged and flawed neoliberal policies and political-economic changes. Moreover, feeding into the frenzy of the international media seeing developments through a hollow geopolitical lens, the Sirisena-Rajapksa camp claims that the sale of Sri Lanka’s assets to China and India and the Free Trade Agreement with Singapore over the last few years by the United National Party (UNP) led by ousted Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have undermined sovereignty and triggered an economic crisis.
For some time the Rajapaksa loyalists have been stoking fears of international intervention — this xenophobia has been mobilised to consolidate power. In 2015, Mr. Sirisena claimed his major achievement was rebuilding global relations severed by Mr. Rajapaksa’s 10-year tenure. Today, Mr. Sirisena is loudly echoing strident nationalists, over protecting Sri Lanka from international agendas.
The UNP claims to have a monopoly on Western friendship and bringing in foreign investors. It paints a picture of international isolation and a Western aid strike if Mr. Rajapaksa returns, but does not reflect on how its own policies have led the country here.
This trend plays out differently within Tamil politics. Narrow Tamil nationalists in Jaffna and the Tamil diaspora see the emergence of an anti-West government as an opportunity to mobilise international opprobrium. They continue to dream of international intervention, ignoring local realities and political dynamics.
These fears of external intervention and trust in international support are more for ideological manoeuvring. In reality, it is national politics, power consolidation and negotiations with external actors which have determined Sri Lanka’s international relations.
Sri Lanka’s tensions with external powers — except for the Indian debacle in the 1980s — have rarely led to punitive measures and damaging sanctions. Nevertheless, confrontational rhetoric has helped nationalist governments mobilise popular support.
The country’s decade-long contentious engagement, on war-time abuses, at the UN Human Rights Council is a case in point. While the U.S. mobilised resolutions to rein in Mr. Rajapaksa, who was tilting towards China and Iran, he politically gained from the condemnation in Geneva, projecting himself as a defender of war heroes from international bullies.
Sri Lanka’s deteriorating balance of payments and external debt problems are also pertinent. While there is much talk of the debt trap by China, in reality, only 10% of Sri Lanka’s foreign loans are from China.
Close to 40% of external debt is from the international markets, including sovereign bonds, of which an unprecedented $4.2 billion in debt payments are due next year. Here the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) vocal position in relation to its agreement with Sri Lanka from June 2016, and the rating agencies’ projections on Sri Lanka are crucial to roll over loans. Ultimately, the flows of such capital have little do with diplomatic relations, but depend on national stability and strength, including the political will to ensure budget cuts and debt repayment.
During his earlier stint in power, Mr. Rajapaksa called the bluff of international economic isolation after a most horrendous war. Despite Western opposition, with authoritarian stability, he had few problems mobilising loans from the global markets and international agencies such as the World Bank, and for that matter an IMF Stand-By Arrangement.
Sri Lanka’s economy is not immune from global forces. However, changes to the global economic order, rather than the instrumental moves of any one global power, are what trouble the island nation.
Declining global trade with increasing protectionism has foreclosed possibilities of export-led development. And that reality has completely escaped Sri Lanka’s neoliberal policymakers, whether from the UNP, or earlier under Mr. Rajapaksa.
Next, while the U.S. Federal Reserve for some years has been preparing to increase interest rates resulting in Western capital from emerging markets flowing back to the metropolis, measures to contain capital flight were not taken.
It is no coincidence that the political troubles escalated with the deteriorating economic situation a few months ago. It is only after the mounting balance of payments problems that restricting imports — taboo for Sri Lanka’s economic establishment — became a reality, and even ideas of restricting capital flows were considered. The economic crisis, once acknowledged by the government, brought to the fore long-simmering concerns over neglect of the rural economy, particularly in the context of a protracted drought. The political fallout of restricting fertiliser subsidies to farmers, policies of market pricing of fuel and the rising cost of living delegitimised the government.
The backlash against neoliberalism coming to the fore with the global economic crisis of 2008, and the emergence of authoritarian populist regimes shaping global politics were bound to affect Sri Lanka. The dangerous rise of a strongman leader such as Mr. Rajapaksa has little to do with the manoeuvres of external powers. Rather, the political ground of Mr. Rajapaksa’s popular appeal is shaped by the systematic dispossession of people with cycles of neoliberal crises.
While many of Sri Lanka’s neoliberal policies, including trade liberalisation, privatising medical education, sale of sovereign bonds and the controversial port city-cum-international financial centre in Colombo, were products of the Rajapaksa government, today the Rajapaksa camp claims to guard Sri Lanka from a neoliberal attack on sovereignty. While Mr. Wickremesinghe was shameless in promoting free markets and finance capital, the economic vision of Mr. Rajapaksa is of a populist variety with the same substance.
It is credible economic alternatives with a democratic vision that will arrest the slide towards authoritarian populism. During this time of crisis, the prevalent discourse of international interests deflects such alternatives. The UNP and its allies should be challenged on their blunders with the economy and failure to find a constitutional-political solution, including the abolition of the executive presidency. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa alliance, which is likely to peddle again the war victory and international conspiracies with Sinhala Buddhist majoritarian mobilisations, has to be challenged on principles of democracy and pluralism. The debate in Sri Lanka limited to personalities, corruption and geopolitics needs to shift with the public putting forward powerful demands of democratisation and economic justice. Otherwise, the thin wall of defence provided by the Parliament and the courts could crumble, and the deepening political and economic crisis may pave the way for authoritarian consolidation.
A reality check on cooperative federalism
It is yet to be tested on issues related to the Goods and Services Tax
Since at least 1974, when the Supreme Court commented on the Constitution envisaging a cooperative federal structure, federalism has come a long way in India. In relation to the imposition of President’s rule under Article 356 of the Constitution, federalism is far more mature. Between 1947 and 1977, there were 44 instances when the power to impose President’s rule was exercised.
Between 1977 and 1996, the power was exercised almost 59 times. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s cabinet resorted to the power an estimated 50 times in her 14 years. The fact that it includes 15 instances between 1980 and 1984 after the Supreme Court held federalism a basic feature of the Constitution is quite telling. From 1991 till 2016, there have been 32 instances of the exercise of this power — compared to 92 instances in the preceding period. In S.R. Bommai v. Union of India (1994), the limitation laid down by the Supreme Court might have placed gentle breaks on exercise of this power, but the Centre continues to wield superior legislative powers, including residuary powers and legislative precedence.
These are powers the Central government enjoys under the Constitution and States’ legislative powers have routinely yielded to the Centre. Given this constitutional framework, what is the cooperative federalism that one can hope for?
Recently, in Govt. of NCT of Delhi v. Union of India, the Supreme Court gently tilted the balance of executive power in favour of the Government of the National Capital Territory vis-à-vis the Lieutenant Governor (and by extension, the Centre). However, the court’s observations on cooperative federalism were stating the obvious considering members of both cabinets take an oath to uphold the Constitution. The facts behind the case and the acrimonious litigation, which the Supreme Court did not examine in its July 2018 ruling, clearly bring out the yawning gap between the Constitution’s intent and political reality.
Taxation powers are another contentious issue and the Central government has won most of the disputes purely due to express provisions in the Constitution. In the Goods and Services Tax (GST) scenario, States have foregone some taxation powers (octroi, entry tax, luxury and entertainment taxes, etc.) but have powers to levy taxes through panchayats and municipalities.
Such powers can result in an anomalous situation of a transaction being taxed under GST laws and a local law, and this is yet to be tested in court. After the GST amendments to the Constitution, States have power to levy tax on sale of petrol, diesel, etc. and these would be revenues of the respective States. However, the GST Council is yet to recommend inclusion of these items under GST.
This brings us to another key dynamic that defines the Centre-State relationship — sharing of taxes. The southern States have been vocal about the false positives and negatives from tax sharing and this mechanism is largely subject to the recommendations of the Finance Commission (FC) and action by Parliament. State levies and State GST form part of a State’s revenue. Under Article 269A(1) the GST Council — and not the FC — has the powers to make recommendations in relation to sharing of taxes from inter-State trade.
This is important since States have a vote in the GST Council. However, Articles 270(1A) and 270(2) provide that taxes levied under the GST laws will be shared in the manner ‘prescribed’ in Article 270(2) — which takes us to the FC, and not the GST Council. The possible anomaly between roles and powers of the FC and the GST Council has not been tested but it may make sharing of these revenues subject matter of the FC and Parliament rather than the GST Council, where States have more power.
States don’t merely seek parity with each other, historically States have also sought parity with the Centre (Sarkaria and Punchhi Commissions). Recommendations of the FC are placed before Parliament and States have no role in the debate. There is no provision for an aggrieved State to challenge the FC report or seek its enforcement. If the Centre refuses to make allocations as per the GST Council, or if a State is aggrieved by the recommendations itself, an aggrieved State would have to litigate in the Supreme Court as it appears that the GST Council is yet to establish a mechanism for resolving differences in terms of Article 279A(11). In 68 years of the Constitution, there is limited precedent for such extreme actions. In an era of coalition politics, this would be a true test of cooperative federalism.
‘Pakistan is likely to continue its state of stable instability’
Pakistan knows what it stands against, but what it stands for remains obscure, says historian Farzana Shaikh
Pakistan is often called a “security state”, one in which the army has a country rather than a country having an army. Farzana Shaikh, London-based historian and author of ‘Making Sense of Pakistan’, however, argues that Pakistan’s problem is that it is an “insecurity state”, defined more by what it is opposed to than what it stands for. Excerpts:
How does one understand the events of the past few weeks in Pakistan? The Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, but protests broke out and she couldn’t be freed. Prime Minister Imran Khan said he wouldn’t bow to extremists, but the government caved in and signed an agreement with them.
Well, the judiciary is just one branch of the state. While the acquittal was a landmark judgment which should have been praised, but without an act of Parliament changing the blasphemy laws and [making them] less vulnerable to the kind of abuse that led to Asia Bibi’s incarceration for more than a decade, we will have many more such cases. Parliament and the government must support this judgment, heed the message they have sent out that the law itself is flawed and open to abuse. Instead, there is abject capitulation. Mr. Khan is making a habit of making grand, progressive statements and following them up by backtracking. We saw this over the appointment of Atif Mian as an economic adviser, when the government made him step down within three days after protests from extremists. Similarly, he promised to bring the “might of the state” to bear on those questioning the judgment, and within days his government caved in and signed a peace agreement, which was just an “appease agreement” with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) promising not to oppose a review petition against Asia Bibi’s acquittal and move to stop her from leaving the country to where her family is. The TLP hasn’t stopped its threats despite that.
Such surrenders have been seen in the past too, so what is new now? Is Pakistan heading towards becoming a full theocracy, like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?
I don’t think so. I don’t see the state being taken over by a Taliban-type clergy. Pakistan is not Afghanistan, for better or for worse. The military will not countenance the prospect, nor would the international community. There is some truth in the old adage about Pakistan being “too important to fail” which its leaders have used to their advantage. It is a nuclear weapons state in a tough neighbourhood, and the great powers are deeply engaged with Pakistan for Afghanistan. There is a sense of frustration with Pakistan, but it is unlikely to change that engagement drastically in the short to medium term. Pakistan is, in fact, likely to continue its state of ‘stable instability’, which is built into its structure because of the perennial tension between the military and the political classes, and that of Islam’s relationship with the state.
Yet the contradiction remains, that religious parties haven’t won a large majority of votes in any election, including the most recent one this year?
They don’t win many seats. But ultimately it doesn’t matter much, because they have the clout to set national agendas, as we are seeing at present with the Asia Bibi case. The reason they can do that is that mainstream parties are now appropriating the discourse of the religious right. The manifesto and campaign of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and also the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and to a lesser degree the Pakistan Peoples Party on issues like blasphemy and women… their stance is indistinguishable from extremists. On issues like blasphemy which are seen as the index of the good Muslim against the bad Muslim, we see mainstream political parties using the language of political Islam. So instead of religious parties entering the electoral fray, we must look at so-called moderate mainstream parties radicalising their discourse.
Is Pakistan’s creation the heart of the problem? That a state built on religion alone, and I think Pakistan and Israel are always used as examples of that, is structurally problematic?
Structural constraints are one part of it, but culture, which is much more difficult to analyse, is a bigger part. You could argue that Pakistan’s civil-military tension stems from the fact that it was a small country next to a powerful, hostile neighbour. The perceived threat from India gave Pakistan’s military an importance it may not have enjoyed otherwise. You might say that that was the case in Israel as well, but it didn’t go the same way because Israel’s political classes at the beginning, like David Ben-Gurion, etc, subscribed to a secularism that set a different foundation for that country, one that understood that civilian supremacy was paramount in a way that didn’t happen in Pakistan. The military took power much too early in Pakistan’s history for democracy to have the same effect, and became not just a political player but one that was able to use politics to increase its economic reach and become a corporate entity with significant assets as well.
Even so, unlike perhaps in other military regimes, the Pakistani military appears to have also had a tradition of institutional stability, and each Army Chief, regardless of how powerful he seems at the helm, eventually hands over to the next one. How do you explain that? So General Pervez Musharraf, General Ashfaq Kayani, General Raheel Sharif seem extremely in control, until one way or the other they demit office.
Well, Gen. Musharraf did falter and stay on. But this is an important point. Every time a new chief takes over, we are told that he will be different, more committed to democracy, peace, and so forth. And then he seems much the same as the previous ones. The military institution is much stronger than the chief. A maverick like Gen. Musharraf who tried to mould the institution was eventually slapped down from within the military. The unity and coordination of the Corps Commanders is truly impressive and the institution must not be underestimated. This is not the army of a banana republic, this is a hugely sophisticated operation run by men who have honed the politics they play to a fine art as well.
In your book, you say that no foreign policy for Pakistan is more central than the relationship with India. Yet, we now have seen a decade without any sort of substantive dialogue between India and Pakistan. Is there any pressure inside Pakistan to change that, to try to accommodate India’s concerns on terrorism, for example?
Yes, it is unprecedented that there have been no talks for a decade, and I must say I am pessimistic that that will change. I think both India and Pakistan are in a difficult position over talks. The past experience of talks, the rebuffs, the impact of local politics and elections… and frankly no one has come up with a way to break this deadlock. Many ask about third party mediation, especially over Kashmir. But Kashmir is not just a territorial dispute, Kashmir is very fundamentally tied to the self-image, the identities of India and Pakistan. India sees retaining Kashmir as vital to its secular credentials. Whatever Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh maintain, India’s secular Constitution aspires to be the law for everyone: Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. In Pakistan, its claim to be built as a nation representing Muslim India is compromised by not having Kashmir, and it is seen as the unfinished business of Partition. Jinnah didn’t give Kashmir much attention until it was too late because he expected it would fall into Pakistan’s lap. He was more interested in the borders of Punjab and Bengal, and dealing with the internal tensions in Sindh and Pashtun areas. All of this is to say that even if a third party were to get involved, it would go nowhere. At the government level, I think it is a hopeless situation. But I was interested by a piece I read here that advocated allowing visas to Pakistanis to visit India. India can then create a lobby in Pakistan that would counter the hypernationalism narrative borne out of ignorance of India. And vice-versa. If they can relax visa regimes, we might see some change, but at the level of the two states, I can’t see any shift. If a decade has gone without talks, who can tell if another decade won’t also pass the same way. There is also the issue of Afghanistan, where Pakistan will not budge. The truth is, regardless of Trump’s threats, or Russia and China’s interventions, the source of the problem in Afghanistan is the conflict between India and Pakistan. Everything else is a sideshow.
Is there a way of handling Pakistan on the issue of terrorism? The world, including India, appears to have tried every tack, from incentives to threats and financial pressure, but with little success. How does one “make sense of Pakistan” on this issue?
There is no one single formula. Many like to refer to Pakistan as a “security state”, one dominated by the military. But I choose to describe it as an “insecurity state”, one that is profoundly unsure and uncertain of itself. We know what we stand against, that is India. But what we stand for remains obscure and is a subject of contestation. That is extraordinary. The phrase “nationalism without nation” encapsulates this negative identity Pakistan has, of the opposite to India. We were led to believe that Islam would be the cohesive force, but as we have seen, religion is the source of division in Pakistan.
As far as terror groups are concerned, look at one example. Both the U.S. and other countries like China have said they won’t help Pakistan with its debt repayment crisis. But that means Imran Khan had to go and speak to Saudi Arabia. Now, Ahl-e-Hadith groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad receive support from Saudi Arabia. And it was noticed that the ban on them was lifted just about the same time it promised the government a bailout. So in these circumstances, one has to consider the benefit of taking a hard line and dropping out of Pakistan. On Pakistan, therefore, you need joined-up and united thinking in the world than on any other problem, and unfortunately joined-up thinking is in short supply at present.
Making sense of fast-changing political developments in the run-up to the general election
Ideology may be dead in the Indian political landscape, except in some crannies of the Left parties. Fast-changing developments, where alliances are being forged to take on a bigger adversary, are without any long-term allegiances. These have produced a sense of déjà vu. Bitter enemies until yesterday are turning into friends, prompting wordsmiths to apply words like frenemies.
Most recently, the source of déjà vu has been the decision of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader N. Chandrababu Naidu to build bridges with Congress president Rahul Gandhi in a bid to forge an alliance. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar has also been roped in.
There is now an ‘all are welcome’ rush to rope in anybody and everybody who is anti-Bharatiya Janata Party. It is only a matter of time before other regional parties are wooed and brought into a united front, vindicating the proverb from Kautilya’s Arthashastra: the enemy of enemy is my friend.
That begs the question: enemies when, and friends when? It is all transient and fluid. And, ‘enemies’ is an incorrect description. They are not countries at war for territory, where there is one with imperial ambitions and the other trying to protect its turf, in the belief that it rightfully belongs to it. These are political parties of different ideological denominations in the country that want to “serve” the people, for which they seek political power.
On the question of ideology and its relatively rare occurrence in the Indian polity, consider the TDP, whose original raison d’etre was reasserting and protecting Telugu pride and anti-Congressism. It was floated as a political party in 1982 and has grown on this very cornerstone. It ruled the undivided Andhra Pradesh (A.P.) for over two decades, and now, post-bifurcation, the residual State. Given the TDP’s bitter enmity with the Congress over these decades, Mr. Naidu’s alliance-building exercises with Mr. Gandhi, in order to take on the TDP’s former friend, the BJP, is erasing the TDP’s identity. It is nothing but pure and unadulterated political expediency.
So, Mr. Naidu’s recent meetings with Janata Dal (Secular) leader and former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and DMK leader M.K. Stalin for a repeat of the strategy of 1996 hint at an underlying sense of urgency.
This urgency resonated 30 years ago too. The National Front in 1989, led by the Janata Dal under the overall leadership of TDP founder N.T. Rama Rao, and the United Front in 1996 were cases of ideological insouciance to take on a common adversary.
Meanwhile, the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh are with their Hindutva ideology, but it is strategically kept on hold, except in pockets. The Congress’s socialist ideology is passé. Its secular and redistributive justice talk is amorphous with a wide chasm between word and action.
And citizens feel bewildered at these political machinations as they go about trying to decipher who stands for what and where, in this unpredictable political theatre.