Super-minister! Toddy ban! Devolution!

Super-minister in the South; toddy ban in the North: Wonder how devolution will work?

Ranga Jayasuriya (Daily Mirror)

Cartoons from Ceylon Today

We are entering the New Year with many self-contradictions. In politics, at least one stands out. Consider this for instance: The government has mooted a plan for a super-minister who would lord over all others and provincial councils in affairs related to economic planning and foreign investment. The relevant bill which needed the approval of the nine provincial councils was voted down by nearly all of them during the past two weeks.

In the meantime, the government is promising a new constitution this year, which would presumably offer the maximum possible devolution of powers to the provincial councils to address the minority demands for self-determination. This is not to say either premise is bad, but they are self-contradictory. They are driven by two wholly different thinking; the former is intended to address real practical economic concerns and prop up economic development; the latter is to assuage emotive, mainly Tamil concerns on an equally emotive concept of Tamil nationhood. As history has shown with devastating consequences, when these primordial demands are not fulfilled, it makes neither economic development, nor peaceful cohabitation feasible — even when those demands are granted, there is no guarantee they would serve either objective.

However, the problem is not confined to the North alone. Take for instance the provincial councils in the rest of the country, of which the only practical purpose is to be a nursery for future national-level politicians, and even that is achieved by infusing the worst form of sycophancy into their grooming process. Even in the South, provincial councils can function even nominally only when the ruling party in the Central Government is also the ruling party of the provincial council. That is not to say there is a major consensus between the two on how the lives of the local electorate be bettered. That is not necessary because provincial councils provide none of that. But, when there is uniformity among those who rule the Centre and the provinces, at least the damage to the national policy can be avoided. Otherwise, provincial councils have the ability to obstruct the practical implementation of most national plans. (That explains the reluctance by successive governments to grant land powers to the provincial councils.)

Thus, when the UPFA was ruling both the government and provincial councils (sans the North), all of them meekly approved the controversial Divineguma Bill; Now the UNP is in power, the UPFA-ruled provincial councils rejected with a vengeance the bill for a Super-ministry, aka Development (Special Provisions) Bill. Though the government concedes that the Bill needs to be amended, it was not exactly the reason for its defeat. The simple logic is that the UPFA provincial councillors assume they are obliged to oppose any bill proposed by the UNP; there is no coherent logic other than divisive political approaches.

One good thing in Southern politics is this dichotomy between the Central Government and the provincial councils are short-lived for provincial council elections which generally follow the general elections tend to reflect the same political disposition as the one in the Central government. However, this time it is different due to ex-president Rajapaksa’s tampering with the elections process that would mean the provincial councils, unless dissolved prematurely or their members be bought over through the usual tactics, would remain a thorn in the side of the government.

The North is also different; if anything it is showing an ever stronger penchant to pique on the government and provoke the Southern electorate. The means deployed to reach that end so far are though silly are also divisive. It passed a resolution calling for a genocide probe, then a ban on construction of places of religious worship, ostensibly aimed at Buddhist statues, and now has passed a ban on bottled toddy from the South. When the space is opened for political participation, Northern Tamil politics has shown signs of return to divisive ethnic politics dating back to G.G. Ponnambalam.

Each of those provocations in the past was reacted by the South with disproportionate force, leading to an escalation, finally ending at Nandikadal. Even in politics, a socialization effect should lead the politicians to act with a degree of uniformity and not to upset the apple cart of democratic process. That may explain why the JVP which waged two ruthless insurrections did not resort to a third after they joined parliamentary politics. However, those ethos in the North are different from the South, which is why Mr. Sampanthan or Mr. Sumanthiran speak in a voice different than Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran. Similarly the metamorphosis of Mr. Wigneswaran within a matter of years from a respected Supreme Court Judge to a darling of the Eelam lobby suggests the socialization process in the northern politics is not the same as in the South.

The centralized State is the best form of state structure to facilitate and expedite economic development. There is plenty of empirical data, ranging from the East Asian and South East Asian newly industrial states, to small states such as Botswana to Pinochet’s Chile on the function between the centralized state and the state power and, by extension, its ability to achieve its economic goals. Even in China where the development is driven by provinces, though federal in the paper is controlled by an overwhelmingly hierarchical structure with a seven-member Communist Party Politburo Standing-Committee at its apex. The Party hierarchy decides who is appointed to govern the provinces and places an elaborate scheme of rewards and sanctions based on the performances of provincial officials.

India is now flaunted as a success of a quasi form of devolution. The limit of devolution in India was so important to its independent leaders that Nehru and others resigned to the fact of partition of India, preferring to a stronger central government, ruling out the demands by the Muslim League for a weaker centre with stronger provincial governments. Nehru himself argued that a stronger centre was mandatory for national development. However, even with the limits of devolution, India’s provinces for too long proved to be a case of abysmal economic growth. Now some provinces in India, including our neighbour Tamil Nadu are gearing for the economic take off in the country, however it took four decades of lost opportunities and a long process of socialization for India’s provinces to effectively take part in the development process. Still, most of them grow from a lower base, much lower than the per capita income of Vietnam, which also opened up its economy in the early 90s. It took India nearly seven decades to have a unified Goods and Services Tax for the whole country. The relevant act was passed only last year but not yet operational.

Devolution has an emotional appeal to minorities and the feel good effect for good governance. However, for a country at a low or middle level of economic development, trade-offs would also be critical. None of the pundits who conduct seminar after seminar on devolution tell how a future government would manage those contradictions. It is more likely than not, under an enhanced devolution of land power, a UNP government in the Centre would not secure land from a UPFA-controlled provincial council (or vice versa) to lease out to the Chinese-managed Export Zone in Hambantota. Politics in this country is divisive and it would not end with devolution of powers. People can hope for saner counsel to prevail and both entities of the state to act with the best intentions for the economic and social well-being of the country.

Social well-being itself is a lofty idea and is subject to interpretation; in a country as argumentative as ours we can debate till the cows come home and go home without reaching a conclusion what is actually good for the country. If that indecisiveness is empowered through a Constitution it would augur long term disaster. Constitution makers should think not just about the best of humanity, but also about worst case scenarios. If the worst happens, one day, they should make sure that the Centre prevails against all odds, because, failing that would be anarchy.