The SLPP-UNP government has catapulted to the centre stage of politics the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (13A), of all things, making its critics ask whether it has got its priorities mixed up, for its focus at this juncture should remain undivided on ways and means of sorting out the economy. Some political observers even argue that the government has bitten off more than it can chew and is courting trouble, on the political front. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has gone so far as to hold an all-party conference (APC) to ascertain views for and against the full implementation of 13A. The meeting ended inconclusively, with most participants including Tamil political leaders claiming that it was a flop.

There has been a mixed reaction to the government’s efforts to have 13A implemented fully, and none of the stakeholders, especially the political parties represented in the parliament, has spoken with one voice on the issue. The ruling coalition itself is divided on the issue; the SLPP has openly questioned President Wickremesinghe’s wisdom of undertaking to carry out something that all his predecessors were prudent enough to avoid. SLPP General Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has told the media that the government’s efforts to revive the economy and grant relief to the public must be prioritized over everything else. The SLPP is also divided; a section of its MPs led by Nimal Lanza has pointed out that it was Mahinda Rajapaksa who offered 13A Plus as the President. Lanza, an erstwhile Rajapaksa loyalist, has faulted the SLPP leadership for playing politics with the issue of devolution to undermine the President’s authority. Some of the TNA MPs are demanding that the much-delayed Provincial Councils (PCs) precede the government’s plan to devolve more powers. Other members of the TNA parliamentary group, however, want police and land powers granted to the PCs.

The Sinhala and Muslim political parties in the Opposition are also urging the government to hold the PC polls immediately and then discuss issues related to devolution. Pointing out that the PCs without elected representatives are now controlled by Governors appointed by President Wickremesinghe, they have accused the President of trying to devolve more powers to the PCs under his control so as to consolidate his power further.

Justice Minister’s brief

It is being asked in political circles whether the government is actually keen to implement 13A fully. Minister of Justice, Prison Affairs and Constitutional Reforms, Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC, has given some interesting insights into the ongoing debate on 13A. Taking part in an interview with Hiru TV, on Monday (21), he held a brief for the government. When he was asked why the government had undertaken to implement 13A fully instead of remaining focused on resolving the economic crisis, he claimed that the media had blown a discussion on 13A out of proportion and caused a stir. In the course of the interview, he said he did not think time that spent on a discussion on 13A was worthwhile, and insisted that the government had not committed itself to implementing 13A fully and it was only consulting political parties; the President had categorically stated that the government would adopt a solution that was acceptable to all stakeholders.

External pressure

What one gathered from Minister Rajapakshe’s carefully-crafted answers to the questions posed to him in the aforesaid interview was that the government was under intense pressure from India to sort out issues in respect of 13A fast. Indian Prime Minister Narendran Modi could not ignore demands from the Tamil Nadu politicians in view of the upcoming parliamentary polls, Rajapakshe said, noting that even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had also succumbed to pressure from Tamil political activists in his country.

When the Hiru interviewers pointed out that one could argue that President Wickremesinghe was also politicking and had sought to garner votes in the North and the East, with an eye to the next presidential election, by taking up the issue of devolution, Minister Rajapakshe sought to rubbish that assertion. If that had been the President’s objective, he would have undertaken to devolve more power, but he had not given any such undertaking and was only consulting others, Rajapakshe said.

Disillusionment of Tamil civilians

Minister Rajapakshe asked interviewers not to make the mistake of thinking that the Tamil people and their politicians were on the same wavelength where devolution was concerned. He said even some Tamil MPs who attended the recent APC had not seen eye to eye with the TNA on devolution; it was a widely-held misconception that all Tamil people were solidly behind the TNA and/or other Tamil politicians, he said. In support of his argument, he related a story: during one of his official visits to Jaffna, recently, some prominent Tamil civilians had invited to hand over the keys to 18 houses they had built with their own funds for some needy families in the area, and when he asked them to invite the Tamil MPs as well to the ceremony, they had said in no uncertain terms they had had no faith in Tamil politicians. He had attended the event and handed over the keys, he said.

Minister Rajapakshe said the people had not asked for the PCs, which had failed to meet their expectations, but 13A was a fact of life. He said he agreed with Arun Sithdharthan, a bitter critic of the TNA, who says devolution of more powers will only strengthen the hands of Tamil politicians who do not have the interests of the Tamil people at heart. What the political undertones of his answers suggest is that he himself is not well-disposed towards 13A.

Draft Constitution shelved

President Wickremesinghe’s critics have demanded to know why the government is making no effort to implement the draft Constitution prepared by a nine-member expert committee at the behest of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The committee appointed by President Rajapakshe in September 2020, consisted of Romesh Silva (Chairman), Manohara de Silva, Gamini Marapana, Sanjeewa Jayawardena, Samantha Ratwatte, Prof. Nadeema Kamurdeen, Prof. G. H. Peiris, Prof. Wasantha Seneviratne and Dr. A. Sarveshwaran. It handed over the draft Constitution to President Rajapaksa in April 2022. When Minister Rajapakshe was asked during Monday’s interview whether he had shelved the draft Constitution, he said the situation in the country had been too chaotic for it to be taken up.

Minister Rajapakshe did not provide clear answers to questions about the draft Constitution, and gave the impression that the government was not keen to proceed with it. He said the government did not have a two-thirds majority to implement the draft Constitution and there was also the possibility of the Supreme Court ruling that it be approved by the people at a referendum.

The odds are that the government will keep trying to muster support for the full implementation of 13A, under external pressure, which is likely to mount as the Indian elections draw near, but chances of its efforts reaching fruition are remote. The Modi government and the Tamil Nadu politicians cannot be unaware of this reality.