Political Principles 1Some years back Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a slim volume I wrote entitled ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’. I prepared this because I had been horrified at the lack of awareness even in students of political science of basic political principles. When we were revising syllabuses at Sabaragamuwa, I realized that the political science syllabus was moribund, with nothing that had been published in the seventies or later on the reading lists. The person in charge seemed to have no knowledge of John Rawls, or the seminal contribution of his ‘Theory of Justice‘ to political thought – and I began to understand then the comment of President Kumaratunga at our first Convocation, when she talked about Sri Lanka being the only country where the frogs in the well were digging themselves deeper and deeper into the ground.

This approach to life seemed to have become endemic at Peradeniya, with little added to learning or thought after the seventies. This has contributed to a very passive approach to the subject, with outdated theory being the focus of attention rather than the actual processes of government. Thus, when I addressed a meeting recently for the common opposition candidate in Kandy, I was startled to find a very formulaic approach to the question of the Executive Presidency, with no attention being paid to the very practical problems created by the particularly perverse form J R Jayewardene had introduced.

But this had started earlier, with the sycophantic celebration of the Jayewardene constitution presented in ‘The Gaullist Constitution of Sri Lanka’, written by a supposedly great scholar, A J Wilson. I am sure Wilson had his plus points, but he failed completely to analyse the crucial contradiction in Jayewardene’s approach, which was to impose a Presidential system on the Westminster Parliamentary model. Sadly no scholar in our universities, as far as I know, has analysed the implications of this for the doctrine of the Separation of Powers, which is the main reason for an Executive Presidency.

Indeed none of my interlocutors from Peradeniya could immediately identify the principal difference between our Presidential system and that which obtains in all other countries in the world which have serious constitutions. Our system gives the President more power has been the usual reply, which confuses principle with degree. No one it seems has bothered to ask why Jayewardene ignored his original idea (which Wilson cites) to have a Cabinet outside Parliament, which could be more efficient since it would not be subject to electoral priorities.

Speculating on Jayewardene’s motives makes no sense now, but clearly his ignoring what happens anywhere else (the United States, France, Russia) has led to greater control of the legislature. When Ministers are not part of the Parliament, Parliamentary scrutiny becomes more effective – and ensures that Ministers are truly answerable, instead of what happens now, when only lip service is paid to this (and often not that, given that answers to questions are inordinately delayed).

This is one example of why the absence of intellectual rigour in analysis has allowed our practices to deteriorate so badly. My experience now of how the system works (or rather does not work) makes it clear that what I wrote long ago is still valid. I shall therefore serialize that work in these columns, while expanding on what was published then. I hope this will lead to CUP bringing out a new edition of the book, based also on the practices I have observed in the last five years.

Before I conclude, I should however note another reason for my fearing that our universities are not doing enough for our students. In response to my request for ideas from students, one bright individual wrote, amongst other matters, that

One thing I observed in the Faculty of Arts in the University of Colombo is that International Relations (IR) is not taught in English medium nor they were encouraged to study in English. During the orientation the department head specifically told students that do not try to follow IR in English medium if students have not done A/L in English medium. I personally feel such statement would discourage students.

I have told the Vice-Chancellor that this is most regrettable. Obviously most students would not have done their Advanced Levels in the English medium. The attitude of the Department suggests that they will not allow bright students, deprived of English through no fault of their own, to study in English. This is desirable if they are to access modern materials, and students who ask should be encouraged and given special English classes to bring them to the required level.

This country cannot continue to allow international relations – or indeed any subject area – to be the preserve of an elite. We are a small country which means that the critical mass needed for productive discussion is not easy to produce. Given the lack of resource materials in other languages, we must therefore equip our brightest students with the ability to read in English.

We also need to set up discussion opportunities for students with bright minds outside the university system. I am not keen to take responsibility for the research institutions that come under our Ministry, largely because they deal with areas I know little about. But it would be good to do something with the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, on the Board of which I was privileged to serve under Lakshman Kadirgamar. He was trying to turn that into a Centre of Excellence, but the whole idea of excellence went by the board after he died. I can only hope whoever is now responsible for the Centre tries to make it the cutting edge of thought for at least one arts subject, as has been done for the sciences through the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Ceylon Today 31 Jan 2015 – https://www.ceylontoday.lk/51-83576-news-detail-political-principles-and-their-practice-in-sri-lanka.html

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