If the TNA wants three Regional Councils, should the country rejoice? | Daily News

If the TNA wants three Regional Councils, should the country rejoice?

The signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord by President J.R. Jayewardene and Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in Colombo in 1987.
The signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord by President J.R. Jayewardene and Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi in Colombo in 1987.

On the face of it, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has given up on the 13th Amendment? Or, has it? Will the Sun rise from the West?

Unthinkable as it may be, the fact that the TNA may abandon the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – that India has wanted all along to be fully implemented in the interests of preserving the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils – should come as a shocker. But the TNA has come out of its shell after the setback at the recent elections, to propose that Regional Councils replace the Provincial Councils (PCs) established with the 13th Amendment.

Going by reports, the TNA wants three regional councils. Therein lies the rub. The party reportedly wants three regional councils, with one to be made up of the North and the East which are predominantly Tamil.

On the face of it, Sri Lankans should be happy. Here is the TNA, no less, being indifferent to the 13th Amendment which being Indian invented, we thought was for the TNA an article of faith. But now we know that the PCs with its unwieldy nine units – that is a heavy burden on the National Exchequer – is not necessarily liked by Tamil leaders either.

Meeting point

Sri Lankans should be ecstatic. This is such a great meeting point. Still the main Tamil opposition party, the TNA, seems to want the same things that the majority of Sri Lankans want, such as avoiding wasteful expenditure on maintaining nine PCs, most of which at least going on their record, were of no use to man or beast.

But the TNA hoping for this type of a change, to many would seem as if a case of ‘Greeks bearing gifts’. Don’t mind the Europeanized reference. The three councils would entail one large majority Tamil unit called a Regional Council – and with still no idea of powers that they want devolved.

If somebody says there is a catch, that would be an understatement. But yet, the idea is coterminous with the palpable majority sentiment in the country that the unwieldy PCs are totally unnecessary and should be abolished.

If that is the case, should not there be a prize for anyone who can forge a meeting point between the TNA’s call for three Regional Councils, and the rest of the country’s desire to keep things simple by getting rid of the PCs created by the 13th Amendment?

In one sense, the TNA is opting for less decentralization and that is a matter that should ideally be celebrated. Larger regional units, are after all, less chaotic and in and of themselves more centripetal than the smaller PCs for the obvious reason that the smaller PCs scatter power to smaller areas that are demarcated on the map.

Excessive power

But the paradox is that the TNA would rather have their power ‘centralized’ within one large unit, and one can say so much for their interest in devolution.

Their answer to centralization of State power is to have a unit that centralises their own power, so to speak, within a large enough unit where they can enjoy political hegemony due to a large Tamil population.

The Sinhala majority could now perhaps go up to these people and say, good job chums, now you understand the value of strong Government.

It is still unknown the extent of power that the TNA wants devolved to those proposed regional councils, but if their urges to devolve excessive power are kept in check – should not there be some merit in this idea of regional councils?

Or, could some point of accommodation be found between the TNA’s push for regional councils and the rest of the country’s desire to have a less unwieldy system than the now prevailing PCs? This should keep the neighbouring Indians happy too, as the TNA is after all representing the Tamil people, and India was always having the interests of the Tamil people at heart, they said, when India brokered the 13th Amendment. It has to be argued – if the TNA would be happy with regional councils, why should not India be?

However, the skeptics would be outraged. They will no doubt say that allowing the TNA to jockey for power in a large regional unit that has a majority Tamil population, is anathema as that will be a justification – a prop even – for a separate state.

This is essentially the TNA’s problem. The party has for so long touted separatism that its leadership is seen with suspicion. However, strategists within the Sinhala majority could see politics as the art of the possible. If there are several ways to skin a cat, there are several ways that a regional council – one of three in the country – can be demarcated, and one of them is to ensure that there is no lopsided Tamil majority in any given regional council.

The TNA may not like it but they may like it better than the Provincial Councils that are so dysfunctional due to systemic failure largely stemming from antipathy towards the PCs. That antipathy is a fact, whether anybody likes it or not.

Solution to decentralisation

Apparently the Prime Minister has mooted the idea of Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti – the three provinces of ancient Lakdiva. This has been reported but there is no confirmation of the fact that the Premier in fact made such a statement or is partial to the idea of such an arrangement.

That notwithstanding, such a solution to the issue of decentralization doubtless has some appeal among a certain coterie of scholars and other free thinkers because of the historical connotations and the fact that three regional councils is obviously a far more practical arrangement for a country of Sri Lanka’s size and means, than the unwieldy PC system that people see as being no solution, but rather as part of the problem.

Besides all this, three regional councils have a better chance of being functional in the long term. The PCs are dysfunctional now and that is because the previous Government did not want to face PC elections for the fear of defeat and did some political jugglery to defer the polls. Though there is no argument that this type of problem may also arise with any other system such as regional councils, there will be a greater justification to keep them functional, as there will be far less antipathy towards a more structurally cohesive system. Three units would be welcome after the structural deficiency of nine.

The alternative to regional and provincial councils is seen by some as no devolution at all. This would be tragic. If our ancient forefathers had three administrative areas, and we do not in this modern age – the less said about that the better. However, no process of Constitution-making has addressed the issue of devolution substantially and the devolution we have is courtesy of a rushed Amendment. It is all the more reason that the new Constitution should have clear and well thought out provisions for the devolution of power. Ideas such as the proposal for regional councils could be scrutinized and opened up for public discussion – and for the first time the country may have a structural framework for devolution that is politically useful and legally perfect.