A significant week in political realm | Daily News

A significant week in political realm

Bilateral talks between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar
Bilateral talks between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar

Several significant political developments were recorded last week even as the Government continued its relentless battle against the Coronavirus pandemic that has now claimed 244 lives, with the number of those infected with the virus nearing the 50,000 mark, including several Parliamentarians.

Among those recently infected were Water Supply and Drainage Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara and State Minister of Batik, Handloom and Local Apparel Products Dayasiri Jayasekara. The health of the former was being closely monitored as he is in a high-risk group, given his age of 82 years.

An issue of great political significance was the visit of Indian External Affairs Minister Dr. Subramaniam Jaishankar. During a short visit to Colombo, the Indian minister held talks with all top Government leaders including a detailed and wide-ranging discussion with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

It is known that the most contentious issue that was discussed was the question of devolution of power. Currently, this is ostensibly through Provincial Councils which were enabled by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which was the result of the Indo-Lanka Accord, entered into in 1987.

The Indo-Lanka Accord was the result of negotiations between then President J. R. Jayewardene and then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi. However, in Sri Lanka, public opinion against the Accord was high. Many felt Jayewardene was coerced into signing the Accord under the threat of Indian intervention.

Successive Governments have honoured the Provincial Councils concept and elected representatives to them. However, they have been inactive for the past several years and all provinces are now being administered by governors appointed by the President, raising questions about their usefulness.

This is more relevant in the context of formulating a new Constitution for the country, a task now in progress by a committee headed by President’s Counsel Romesh de Silva. There is an influential section within the Government which is of the view that Provincial Councils should be scrapped.

It will be recalled that after the end of the Eelam war and the annihilation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, India was of the view that Colombo should offer more devolution of power to the regions, if it was to consolidate the gains made by defeating the terrorist group.

Indian leaders at the time made several public statements that such devolution should go beyond what was envisaged in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. This was what came to be known later as ‘13 Plus’. However, what was specifically intended in the ‘Plus’ component was never specified. At the time there was speculation that then President Mahinda Rajapaksa had committed to a ‘13 Plus’ plan. However, when asked about this, then President Rajapaksa clarified the issue stating that he had only committed to review all proposals regarding the devolution of power to the regions.

Provincial Council elections

It is against such a backdrop that Indian External Affairs Minister Jaishankar met President Rajapaksa. The discussion was friendly and cordial but Minister Jaishankar had conveyed new Delhi’s view that it hoped Provincial Councils will be allowed to continue and be strengthened.

Minister Jaishankar met with a group of Parliamentarians from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and held several hours of talks with them too. The TNA legislators also conveyed their concerns regarding the issue of devolution of power to the visiting minister, reports said.

However, the Government has already decided that Elections to the now non-functioning provincial councils will not be held this year. This is due to two reasons: logistical issues due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic and legislative obstacles related to the conduct of elections.

Since the entire Constitution is under review, the concept of Provincial Councils is indeed under scrutiny but Colombo is now aware that India’s stance is firmly in favour of Provincial Councils. The expert committee drafting the new Constitution will no doubt be mindful of this political reality.

India has been known to attempt to exert political pressure on its smaller neighbours from time to time and the Indo-Lanka Accord was one such example. Although Jaishankar’s visit was cordial, the Government will now be aware that it has to walk a political tight rope with New Delhi on this issue.

Previously, India’s major concern regarding Sri Lanka revolved around the exodus of Tamil civilians fleeing the war in the North. These civilians flooded Tamil Nadu and at times, the Central Government in New Delhi was reliant on support from the Tamil Nadu Government for its survival.

Now however, the ‘Sri Lankan Tamil issue’ is no longer an emotive topic in Tamil Nadu and has little vote buying power there. Therefore, New Delhi can afford to allow Colombo more flexibility in doing what is best for Sri Lanka, rather than having to cater to the perceived concerns of a regional power.

Opposition politicians also generated some headlines this week and among them was former minister Harin Fernando. The former stalwart of the United National Party (UNP) is now a member of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). He was critical of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Parliament.

He said President Rajapaksa’s recent speech at a public meeting was not made in a dignified manner. The President said many were requesting him to be ‘Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa rather than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’. He could do so if he wished to, he said.

Parliamentarian Fernando has interpreted this statement as a threat made to him and has complained to the Inspector General of Police saying he feared for his safety following these remarks. Social media was also active on this issue with comments flooding from both sides of the political divide.

However, many have noted that President Rajapaksa’s remarks were made very publicly. They say this indicates there were no sinister motives and that it was only a response to Fernando’s remarks in Parliament where he referred to the President in quite derogatory terms describing him as a ‘curse’.

Ranjan’s political career

In a more significant development, another Opposition Parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake was sentenced by the Supreme Court to four years of Rigorous Imprisonment for Contempt of Court. This is the latest drama involving Ramanayake, an actor turned politician who has always been controversial.

Last year, Ramanayake was in the headlines when audio recordings of his conversations with many individuals were leaked to the media. These recordings, done without the consent of the other party, implicated many high officials and politicians and provided an insight into how they functioned then.

The leaked recordings negated the claim by the previous Government that it was transparent and clean and gave an indication of how political interference was used to target selected individuals for prosecution in Courts. As a result, several Police officers and officials are now under investigation.

Ramanayake was charged with Contempt of Court for remarks he made on August 21, 2017. Speaking to the media after a meeting with then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees, he had claimed that the majority of judges in the country issued biased rulings and that they are corrupt.

Former Air Force Officer Sunil Perera and Ven. Magalkande Sudatta Thera filed petitions in the Supreme Court alleging that such defamatory comments can shatter public confidence and provide a distorted image of the Judiciary. They requested that proceedings be instituted against Ramanayake.

Based on these complaints, the Attorney General later served charges against Ramanayake before the Supreme Court. A three-judge bench comprising Justices Sisira de Abrew, Vijith Malalgoda, and Preethi Padman Surasena unanimously issued the verdict at the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Announcing the verdict, Justice Sisira de Abrew, presiding judge of the bench, said the Contempt of Court charges levelled by the Attorney General against Ramanayake have been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court had perused video recordings of Ramanayake’s statement.

After the verdict was announced, Ramanayake was defiant. He claimed that he had no regrets and would not be seeking a pardon. He told supporters that he would ‘return’ after four years. The Parliamentarian was sent to the Correctional Centre in Pallansena for quarantine.

It will be recalled that previously then United National Party Parliamentarian S. B. Dissanayake was imprisoned for two years for Contempt of Court in December 2004 for being critical of the Supreme Court. Dissanayake was granted a full pardon by then President Mahinda Rajapaksa in February 2006.

Ramanayake’s sentence is harsher in that it is for four years. Despite the criticisms levelled against him, Ramanayake has been an active legislator and an outspoken critic and activist and the Opposition and particularly the fledgling SJB will feel the impact of his departure from active politics.

It has been suggested that Ramanayake could be out of active politics for as long as 11 years - if he has to serve out his full four-year term. It also carries with it a seven-year disqualification from running for public office. Therefore, the verdict could potentially end his political career.

These developments suggest that, after months of hibernation necessitated by the Coronavirus pandemic, political activity is slowly emerging in the country. The coming weeks will bring more such developments as the Government focuses on governance amidst the challenge of a pandemic.