Originally Published 2018-01-15 08:28:42 Published on Jan 15, 2018
Taking Parliament for a ride?

In a way, it is the reverse of having the cake and eating it too. By calling a special session to discuss the Central Bank bonds scam probe report, and not making the report available to members, the Government seems to have pulled a fast one on not just the political Opposition of whatever kind, but on the nation and the collective intelligence of the people and institutions, alike and together.

It was but natural for any Opposition in the place of the JO and the JVP to have demanded a special parliamentary session to discuss the report. But possibly, the initiator of the demand too might not have dreamt of a situation wherein they would have the session but not the material to discuss and debate upon.

It sounds funnier at one end but a mockery of the system on the other when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said that the Opposition wanted a special session to discuss the probe panel report and he had given them – but he could not be expected to present the Report to the House, as he did not have it. It was obvious that Wickremesinghe was telling the Opposition to ask President Maithiripala Sirisena if they wanted a copy of the report each, and not bother him anymore.

In a way, it sounds like a typical ‘good-cop-bad-cop’ situation, in which Sirisena first played the good cop on ordering the probe, in which Wickremesinghe and his Team UNP in the coalition Government were all bad men, not bad cops. And when the probe report is out, and the nation wants to know the details, the reverse is the truth. Or, so it seem.

But the truth seems to lie in between, and seems going beyond it all, too. It is thus anybody’s guess if the President, who directed the probe and chose the panel members, has since shared the commission report with the ‘real government’ under its care, with the Prime Minister and the rest of the Cabinet holding ‘collective responsibility’ to the people and Parliament alike.

Calculated indifference

The calculated indifference seemingly displayed by the Prime Minister in Parliament could imply that he and his Cabinet colleagues, whichever party they belonged, may not be privy to the document, and officially so. If some of them, both inside the Government and outside, know more than what the nation knows, they may be Sirisena’s confidants and advisors, not otherwise. Or, so it seems.

Doubts in this regard only gets multiplied when Wickremesinghe’s UNP has gone to town saying that the President should have taken all government parties into confidence before seeking the Supreme Court’s determination on the length of his current term – six years as in the Constitution earlier, or the reduced five-year term, after 19-A that they had piloted and got passed through Parliament. Those were different times, different people, and in a distant space, it now seems.

Surely, the Prime Minister did not expect Parliament to debate the President’s statement to the nation on the probe panel report, or all that had already been known on the commission’s proceedings through media reports even as those very events were unfolding. If the issue was one of translating the English original into Sinhala and Tamil, as is otherwise mandatory, the JVP requisitionists of the special parliamentary session were ready to forego it all for once.

Yet, it defies logic how the Prime Minister still could have hoped for the Opposition to have accessed copies of the probe report, studied and understood the nuances to be able to debate the same forthwh. His own idea seemed to be giving Parliament the debate that the Opposition wanted but without any meaningful and purposeful debate.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya having already declared that it was for the Prime Minister to decide on special sessions of the kind, Wickremesinghe can now turn back and tell the Joint Opposition, the JVP and whoever else that demand a special session, that he had given them one, but they did not use the occasion and opportunity. That could also put paid to fellow UNP ex-Minister, Ravi Karunanayake’s demand for the special session for the very same purpose, but instead to clear his name as Finance Minister during the sordid saga. Whether Ravi K would gain that way, or lose, is anybody’s guess, again.

‘De-fanging’ Executive Presidency

This may be a problem when political leadership, to meet their populist needs of a time, keeps tweaking the Constitution, laws and procedures, without a second thought. The nation having given itself an Executive Presidency at the commencement of JRJ’s ‘Second Republic’, to twist and turn the statute through the likes of 19-A without much thought if only to prove to the electorate that it was the painless way to defang the Executive Presidency, as if it was the greatest need of the hour at the time, could have only generated more problems than any real solutions

In neighbouring India, the world’s largest democracy, with a more vibrant democracy for a diversified – and not necessarily, a divisive -- society, such matters had been put to very long ago. Parliament amended the Constitution as far back as the early 1970s, to suit the demands and realities of a Westminster form of democracy by amending the relevant Article to take away the ‘discretionary powers’ in such matters, binding him instead to the decision(s) of the Cabinet on all affairs of government and governance. In doing so, Parliament did retain the President’s powers to return a resolution or Bill to the Cabinet or Parliament, as the case may be, for review, but with the provision that he or she did not have a choice if the latter stood by their earlier decision.

At a time when Sri Lanka is supposed to be discussing (still) the contours of a new Constitution, exposing the otherwise unfathomable side of the constitutional provisions and implied practices is good education. But, it would be so only if the system and the polity learns from the inherent mistakes that their forebears were in too much of a hurry to visualise and consider collective. In the current scenario, people seem to be discussing a new Constitution, to ensure its failure at passage, and more so at implementation – as with those in the past.

In a way, the appointment of such commissions of inquiry, in other parliamentary democracies, are also invariably decided by the Prime Minister and his team, with the President attesting the same – or, having to attest the same. Unless it is the Executive Presidency of the JRJ, CBK and Mahinda R kind, it would be a travesty of parliamentary democracy that the current duo team had promised to the nation, to have a dual authority that did more harm than good to the people.

Cohabitation dharma

Sri Lanka has had enough experience with ‘cohabitation governments’. As coincidence would have it, Ranil W was/is Prime Minister on both occasions. Under CBK, who has had the largest ever popular mandate in the country today (which even Mahinda R could not overcome after the ‘war victory), PM Ranil was riding rough shod on the Executive President, especially in matters of war and Norwegian peace-building with the dreaded LTTE. Or, at least until CBK showed Ranil and his UNP as to who was the boss.

Today, when it is known that Sirisena owes his election to the UNP more than any of his political or personal constituencies, and that 19-A, too, has purportedly de-fanged the Executive Presidency of the ‘sky-high powers’ from the past, for the incumbent to behave the way he does, only implies that persons make the institution, not necessarily laws and the Constitution.

There is another difference, too. In the CBK-Ranil saga, theirs was only a cohabitation arrangement, inflicted on them by the nation’s voters. It had its own advantages for the times. The LTTE having been continually targeting top leaders, if only to create a vacuum for them to thrive and grow, expand and entrench, as they did after the Premadasa assassination, a cohabitation arrangement of the kind provided a ready second line that the terror outfit could not escape. But the unexpected reverse became the truth, with the PM asserting himself over the President in every which way.

The present-day arrangement goes beyond the constitutionally-facilitated, voter-induced cohabitation. Instead, it is still a polity-induced coalition, where commitment to a cause (even if only to eliminate the Rajapaksas) is paramount than any cohabitation arrangement of other kinds might have imposed on shared leaderships of the kind.

Yet, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe seems wanting to run with the hare and hunt with the hound, at every turn, and in opposite directions, even three full years after their coalition arrangement of the political kind made for the cohabitation adjustment of a constitutional type (though there are no specific provisions for the same in the statute). Rather than running the yahapalayana government as they themselves had coined and defined in specific terms, and going after the Rajapaksas, even if that were their only collective mission, the two and more so their confidants are continuing to indulge in shadow-boxing, doing nothing more, nothing less.

Worse still for the nation, at every turn that critics point an accusing finger at him, Sirisena is wont to say that he was ready to quit—but does not make any serious move, or even commiment, even one – making it all a farce for the nation to laugh at him and laugh at itself. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe is too careful not to utter such words, on which the nation might take him more seriously and sincerely, and also expect him to act upon. To the extent, the nation seems to be taking the Wickremesinghe more seriously than Sirisena, and the persons concerned, too!

This commentary originally appeared in The Island.

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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