Constitutional Reform, End of war special edition, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War


I must thank Asanga Welikala (‘Publius’) for a reasoned and literate critical engagement with my views.  I respond for the twin purposes of clarification where I think my views have been misunderstood, and advancing the discussion, indeed debate.

Asanga chooses to take Colin Irwin’s latest statistics as a one off, ignoring my references to the Marga survey of 2007 and numerous surveys of public opinion in Sri Lanka starting from the Research International Pvt Ltd surveys of 1997 running through the many Peace Confidence index surveys of the last decade.  Furthermore, he parleys Colin Irwin’s survey of 2008, which shows a majority in favour of radical decentralisation provided the term federalism is not used, into a real or potential endorsement of federalism. In so doing he not only conflates devolution, decentralisation and federalism (“federal type decentralisation”) as do the Sinhala chauvinists, but also ignores the results of repeated surveys that give federalism a support base of around 5%.

Now it is perfectly possible that some enlightened liberal redeemer will come along someday with a perfectly convincing sales pitch for federalism and convince the majority in its favour, but I would prefer not to waste my time, when the weight of empirical evidence is so overwhelming. This does not mean that Realism proceeds from the foundation of mere public opinion, but decades long failure of the federalist politics and propaganda, taken together with the cumulative weight of public opinion over a fairly long period of time (12 years of survey data) and the complete absence of any political formation of significance at the centre (a contender for state power)which stands for federalism, tells the realist in me that the balance of forces leaves no room for a federalist perspective. If however, there had been a significant body of opinion or some serious political current with a chance of success, which stood for federalism, I’d spend more time on it, rather than consider it the utopian abstraction that I do.

I dismiss out of hand and as absurd, analogies with the abolition of slavery, the end of apartheid in South Africa, and Obama’s campaign on healthcare.  Not only was there mass sentiment for abolition (which included Lincoln’s wife), but slavery existed only in the southern states, not in the industrial North. Apartheid was a system of minority rule over majority rule and the anti-apartheid struggle was primarily one for majority rule, while the call for federalism in Sri Lanka is quite the opposite. However laudable, it is strictly the view of a small minority in a competitive democracy.  As for Obama’s campaign for healthcare, that was a struggle over a policy paradigm, not one over the fundaments of the US constitution, which a struggle for federalism in Sri Lanka would be. The day Obama campaigns against the Constitutional right of every American citizen to bear arms, we may see an analogy with a Sri Lankan leader campaigning for a federal state.

In the UK, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, to name just a few, there is no serious call or political campaign involving a major political formation agitating for a federal state.  I take that as a given; a fact, which is not to say that it will remain so in permanence. What it does mean is that the issue does not enter any consequential political calculus. The same is true, or even truer, of Sri Lanka.

My opposition to federalism does not derive from public opinion polls. I was not opposed to the federalist trade-off implicit in the Mangala Moonesinghe proposals of the early 1990s, because that was during the tenure of President Premadasa who had demonstrated a firm commitment to what he called ‘state-led, a carefully regulated market economy’ along East Asian lines. I was however, opposed to President Kumaratunga’s federalising ‘union of regions’ package of 1995, because the global context had changed to the victory of neoliberal ‘Washington Consensus’ and CBK herself had converted to a neoliberal economic policy. Reinforced by the contrasting experiences of Gorbachev’s USSR and the break-up of Yugoslavia on the one hand, and the growing success of the Chinese model on the other, I have since considered a combination of radical economic and state restructuring to be dangerously centrifugal, especially when it involved ethnic-federalism.  The   firm opposition to federalism in the context of globalisation, as articulated theoretically by Samir Amin and politically by Evo Morales, should bear out that this has little to do with Sinhala sentiment, but then again that should be self-evident to anyone who recalls that Karl Marx was as bitter a foe of federalism as Mikhail Bakunin, his Anarchist enemy within the First International who was an advocate of it. This issue , that of federalism , was one of the lines of demarcation between  Marx , a radical modernist if ever there was one, and the Anarchists, and was but a subset of the larger debate between them: the question of the state. My views on federalism derive from that source: the issue of the state and the need for a strong unitary state.  Thus, while I have no issues with ‘radical pluralism’ as a vision of society, I am opposed to it as a vision of the state.

If however, a Sri Lankan government or political formation with a proven commitment to a strong state, national security and sovereignty were to arrive at a negotiated federal solution with the Tamil leadership,  I would not write in opposition to it and would support it as a risk worth taking.

Asanga is wrong when he assumes that I cannot conceive of a state with more than one nation. I do not believe that I have ever written or said anything which lends itself to such an assumption. I have no problem either with a two state solution for Israel/Palestine or with a one state solution in which there would be a single, secular bi-national state. Indeed I have no problem with the idea of a multinational state. Tito’s Yugoslavia with its population distribution was one. I just do not think that Sri Lanka currently holds two equal nations. The concrete demographic reality leads me to conclude that currently there is only one fully fledged nation on the island and that is the Sinhalese nation, while the Tamil community constitutes (at best) a minority nationality or (at least) a national minority.  Even if one were to accept that both Sinhalese and Tamils are nations, it would be a politically correct fiction to pretend that they are or should be equal nations in terms of access to /distribution of power (with the Melian Dialogue as rendered by Thucydides, making my underlying point).  The challenge today is to accommodate and reconcile Sinhala and Tamil collective identities, with their enormous asymmetries of presence, within an overarching national or state identity (’Sri Lankan’).   While as citizens there must be complete equality (and I have advocated a powerful anti-discrimination legislation and a standing commission), no progress is made by whiting out the real and abiding asymmetries of power.

To conclude, let me deal with the troika of Asanga’s most serious errors of analysis. He misunderstands the term hegemony or my use of it; he confuses the model I advocate with what currently exists; and he has a dubious notion of realism in politics.

I use the term hegemony in the Gramscian and indeed Leninist sense, in which it is drastically distinguished from ‘domination’.  Hegemony denotes leadership based on alliance or the composition of a bloc. This cannot be on the basis of pure coercion or even primarily on the basis of coercion.  Gramsci’s notion of politics, which he derives from and develops Machiavelli’s use of the dualistic symbol of the centaur, is the twofold combination of coercion and consensus. Alliances, blocs, and leadership of course contain the idea of hierarchical power relations. I argue that Sinhala leadership on the island is unavoidable and understandable, but if it is to be successful it must be based on consensus and ‘hegemony’ in the Gramscian sense, NOT domination/pure coercion; pre-eminence, not monopolistic ownership. When Lenin spoke of the worker-peasant alliance he meant the hegemony or leadership of the former in a partnership with the latter. The Sinhala chauvinists have no model of partnership with the Tamils, while the Tamils (with the significant exception of Devananda) have no realistic recognition of the possible terms and parameters of such partnership.  The model I propose is as similar to Obama’s ‘ethical realist’ strategy for US global leadership as the JHU’s is to the Bush Neo-Conservative model of global dominance, or to the Rabin-Peres-Barak two state solution with ‘security red lines’ rather than the Netanyahu-Lieberman apartheid model.

Asanga is transparently wrong when he describes my ‘domestic Yalta’ model as essentially what we have today. He has repeatedly recognised that mine is an argument for maximum devolution within a unitary state, and one which bases itself on the 13th amendment but improves upon it. To me that is the concretisation of the ‘Dutugemunu’ Realist model, which mirrors the material reality of the island’s historically evolved social formation with Sinhala pre-eminence in state (politico-military) power in the final analysis, while moulding it in a progressive direction by devolving power to the periphery through an authentic measure of ‘self-government’ or ‘home rule’ in those contiguous areas where the Tamils comprise a compact majority. If as Asanga complains, Proposition 1 has greater emphasis than Proposition 2 in my schema , that is because it was so in Dutugemunu’s original practice and could not but be so for the contemporary state when faced with the existential threat of the LTTE. Surely there is a qualitative difference between Putin’s Chechen model and that of the Gaza strip or the West Bank under Netanyahu? To assert that this is what prevails today is to play precisely the game of the spin doctors of the status quo! It is to deny the distance that has to be travelled and the political struggle waged in order to turn what is or may well become (an occupation of sorts) into what was envisaged under the Indo-Lanka accord of 1987 and its issue the 13th amendment of 1988! In the broadest domestic consensus for devolution, Vijaya Kumaratunga and the parties of the democratic, rational Left joined with the UNP in producing a thick proposal for Provincial Councils (without the merger, which Vijaya stood opposed to) in mid-1986. In August 2000 Lakshman Kadirgamar and MHM Ashraff passionately argued and pleaded on the floor of the House for the acceptance of the draft Constitution (which was a draw down from the union of regions package of 1995). Asanga implies that what I advocate, the devolution of power within a non-federal state, which is what Rajiv Gandhi, Vijaya Kumaratunga, and Lakshman Kadirgamar stood for and lost their lives for, is essentially what prevails in Sri Lanka today. This is truly surreal.

Finally, a word on Realism.   “With the Marxians, Machiavelli returned to Italy” observed Benedetto Croce with wry accuracy. In a volume in the interesting Routledge Studies on Critical Realism series, Jonathan Joseph deals with what he terms Gramsci’s ‘Realist Hegemony’. Whatever the appellation, Gramsci himself sets out the very core of his political strategy, the strategy he derives from Machiavelli and Lenin and commends the ‘modern Prince’:

“If one applies one’s will to the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative – basing oneself on the particular force which one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory – one still moves on the terrain of effective reality, but does so in order to dominate and transcend it (or to contribute to this). What ‘ought to be’ is therefore concrete; indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality…” (Gramsci 1971:172)

Gramsci’s politics consists of (1) “the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative” (2) “basing oneself on the particular force which one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory” (3) “moves on the terrain of effective reality”, (4) “but does so in order to dominate and transcend it (or to contribute to this)”. As for the ‘is/ought’ conundrum, Gramsci cuts the Gordian knot: “what ‘ought to be’ is therefore concrete; indeed it is the only realistic and historicist interpretation of reality”, and it is to this ensemble that “one applies one’s will”.

Thus, Gramsci bases himself not on some political current not yet in view, or still in embryo or worse still in the imagination, but on the most progressive of those political forces that exist.  In other words it deals with concrete political reality, with the balance of forces, and an available force among those that have a chance of success. It does not involve the leap of faith into a state of federalist grace that Asanga (and Dr Kumar David among the GV commentators on the debate) would have us undertake.  Asanga obviously fails to see the obvious: that what we face today is not the challenge of advancing to federalism, a defensive ‘war of positions’ against a counter-reformation which was defeated in the southern civil war of 1986-89 but now seeks to roll back even modest provincial autonomy.  Today’s struggle is to save and restore the gains of the indo-Lanka Accord, namely the 13th amendment, and any attempt to overshoot that mark by placing federalism of the agenda , would jeopardise the really ongoing  debate and contestation.  Asanga’s slogan, formula and platform (“asymmetrical federalism …with powers of paradiplomacy, including inward investment, trade and commerce”) possess none of the conditions that would warrant an “application of one’s will”.