That ‘F’ word again!

No doubt about it; ‘Federalism’ is a dirty word in Sri Lankan politics. It has been indubitably proven that the mention of the word could well cost a political party a crucial election.

This is not to say that the vast majority of Sri Lankans have even bothered to contemplate the dimensions and definitions of the word. It just so happens that ‘federalism’ has become profanity in our national lexicon, largely owing to the baseless rhetoric of pseudo nationalists and of course political parties ever ready to jump aboard the bandwagon of expediency to attain power. It would not be hyperbole to claim that in the minds of a majority of Sri Lankan people, federalism has come to mean ‘separation’ even though global examples of implementing the system of governance has proven exactly the opposite – keeping nations united rather than tearing them asunder.

Devolution of power, within a federal system as a means to resolve this country’s ethnic turmoil, has been toted by experts and statesmen for well over half a century. In fact, while the unitary nature of the state was preserved when power was devolved to the provinces in 1987, there are legal luminaries and constitutional experts who continue to argue up to now, that the 13th Amendment carried predominantly federal features, although implementation of the provincial council system proved an abysmal failure. To this date, sections of the ruling party, including the chairman of the All Party Conference, appointed to arrive at a consensus with regard to what nature a final political solution ought to be, are convinced that the only way forward in terms of reaching a negotiated settlement is to use a federal model for extensive de-centralisation of power. Yet, the propaganda arm of the government continues to plug the ‘unitary’ line, reiterating constantly, the Mahinda Chinthanaya’s commitment to retaining the unitary nature of the state. The JVP and JHU, formidable forces within government and the parliament have consistently told their followings that the patriotic forces of this country must necessarily reject the notion of federalism as a conspiracy of separatists, aimed at fulfilling the LTTE’s aspirations of Eelam. Taking into account all these facts, one might even say that in Sri Lankan politics today, it has become fashionable to denounce federalism.

Despite the trend being what it was, there was one man who opted to swim against the current – at the cost of several elections at that. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP Leader has many shortcomings but inconsistency was not one of them. In the face of immense populist pressure he stuck resolutely to his guns, refusing to change his position on federalism as a means to settle the north east issue for the sake of winning the southern vote. Despite his many failings, Wickremesinghe had come to be accepted by the Sri Lankan people as one politician who stood up for his policies even when they cost him first the premiership and then, in 2005, the presidency.

“I will not lie to win an election” Wickremesinghe would tell the crowds in the run up to the November 2005 poll, even as his opponent gained ground by saying ‘yes’ to all the extremist demands put forward by potential allies. On November 18, Wickremesinghe may have lost the presidency, but the intelligent masses were well aware that the man who sat on the presidential chair was not only a hypocrite, but also one who had stood for very little during the election campaign. It was recognition of this singular strength within Wickremesinghe – a man who stood for his principles, to hell with the consequences – that sparked such an outcry over his attempts to step down from the UNP leadership soon after he lost the presidential poll.

Again, this is also why the UNP’s sudden backtracking on its ‘federalism’ stance smarts so much. Although it is attempting to do some damage control now, the bottom line remains that the UNP appears to have shifted positions, and is now attempting to do away with the use of the term ‘federal’ when it speaks of the national question. There is very little distinction to be drawn between the two main parties when it comes to most policies of governance. The JVP’s unuth ekai munuth ekai theory holds very true with regard to the SLFP and the UNP. However, on this one single issue, the two parties remained poles apart. The people may not have always liked it, but the UNP’s position was extremely clear on a final solution. At a time when the government speaks in about a hundred different voices, it was a relief to know that there was so much clarity when it came to the main opposition on the issue of a final political solution. The turning of tables by the UNP today, therefore, leaves the man on the street in a desperate quandary, blurring the lines between the SLFP and UNP so much, that it would almost make no difference which way his vote were cast.

The UNP also runs a massive risk in terms of losing its minority support base, so crucial in every election. This is a vote that has remained with the ‘Greens’ no matter what, since the UNP has always projected itself as the more committed party, genuinely so, to taking up the just claims of the Tamil community. In attempting to win over the Sinhala majority voters of the south, the UNP could well lose everything. The hardline Sinhala voter continues to regard the UNP with a great degree of suspicion given the party’s hand in the CFA, the Millenium City investigation and its apparent appeasing of the LTTE. It is unlikely therefore that his vote will go to the UNP. The disillusioned Tamil voter may well believe that both main parties of the south are out to get him, and the UNP would suffer that loss too.

The historical example, unfortunately, of exactly this kind of about face in terms of long standing policy, is resolutely against the opposition. In 1956, when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in his eagerness to appease the Sinhala majority mooted the Sinhala Only Act, Sir John Kotalawela refused to be outdone. He too adopted an uncharacteristically extremist line, going one step further than even Bandaranaike by advocating Sinhala Only without special preference and deference being afforded to the Tamil language. The public called Kotalawela’s bluff and voted Bandaranaike in by a large majority.

Wickremesinghe is no political infant. He sees the road ahead a lot more clearly than others on most occasions. Unfortunately, like in many cases before, this too appears to be the result of heeding imprudent counsel of those who put expediency over principle in playing this political game. Wickremesinghe would do well to realize that expediency can only get you so far. Policies stick; hypocrisy does not. He was better off standing for something, because at least then he stood apart from the average political monkey strutting its stuff and expedient rhetoric on the political stage. Whether or not Wickremesinghe wants to believe it, so frustrated he might be with his consistent defeats, consistency in policy still counts for something – especially with the fair minded, righteous peoples of this land.