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qrcode.30826356In my book on Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, which Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a decade or so back, I wrote that ‘Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people.’ People needed to ensure their safety from external threats, and they also needed security from others within the community. For the latter they needed laws to govern relations internally, with mechanisms to defend against attacks from outside – though initially these were not subject to law.

Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. So in many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Ministry for this purpose.

The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.

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political principlesIn Political Principles and their Practice, which Cambridge University Press in India published some years back, the 3rd chapter (after chapters on the State and the Powers and Functions of Government) was about the Law. However I thought that I would leave that till later, and move on to Chapter 4 because of current concerns about changing the electoral system. This chapter explores systems of representation, but before we look into that, it makes sense to consider what me mean by Democracy, and how it has developed over the years.

The origins of democracy

The word ‘democracy’ comes from two Greek words, ‘demos’ and ‘kratos’, which mean ‘people’ and ‘power’. Thus, by democracy is meant a political system in which power belongs to the people. This is now generally accepted as the best system of government, inasmuch as it is the people who constitute the state, and therefore the government of a state should be in the hands of its people. However, numerous disagreements arise when we try to work out the best mechanisms through which people can exercise their power of government.

Clearly, all the people cannot rule together. Therefore, in a democracy, at any given period some of the people have to rule on behalf of the rest. But choosing some people as representatives of all the others has its problems.

Athens was the first state to have adopted the democratic system of government. They found that when there were elections the wealthy were chosen as leaders. They, therefore, instituted a system in which the representatives were chosen each year by drawing a lot from among all the citizens. This, they felt, led to a more truly representative government rather than the system of elections which gave advantages to the more influential members of society.

Athens functioned effectively for several years in the fifth century BC under this system. But a terrible defeat in 404, in the thirty-year war against the Spartans, led to the downfall of its political system. Some of its citizens felt that the defeat was due to their existing system of government. Since then this system of participatory democracy has never been put forward as a model.

In any case it would be difficult to put the system into practice in larger societies with vast differences among people. Athens was, after all, only a small city-state with a relatively educated population which prided itself on the capabilities of all its citizens. It also excluded women, slaves and foreigners dwelling in the city, from involvement in the democracy. So, the number of those from whom the choices were made was limited. Still, the experiment was interesting, and has since provided a mode of sorts for all democratic societies which aim to maximise participation of people in government.

The next important experiment in democracy was conducted by the Romans. It was a significant stage in the development of democracy, since final authority lay with the representatives elected by the people. Though systems of administration in other parts of the world at the time have been described as democratic, inasmuch as there were councils of elders in villagers or regular consultation of bodies of citizens, these were not institutionalised as ultimate authorities. Power, in the end, lay with kings, and it was from them that others—governors, advisers or elders—derived their authority. In Athens, however, as later in Rome, for nearly five hundred years from the fifth century BC onwards, power actually belonged to the people and to the representatives they chose. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29413330We have looked thus far at areas where government has a major role to play. In other areas it must recognize that people should by and large be left to function on their own. Yet in the modern world, given the scale of activity that occurs, there is need of some state intervention. This however should be seen as




Increasing involvement of government has become necessary for production and trade after the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of the modern economic system. Before that, government had mainly to ensure physical and financial security. But even in early days there were requirements that could be met only by large-scale activity, and governmental involvement was essential for this.

Thus, going back to early Sri Lankan history, we find that the mark of a good ruler was promoting infrastructural development for irrigation purposes. In modern times, apart from irrigation, which is still of vital importance, research to promote productivity and preservation, communications networks to promote distribution, and credit schemes to promote investment, are essential for the support of agriculture.

Industrial development requires even greater infrastructural support, including utilities on a large scale and specialised training. Trade in both agriculture and industry should be facilitated through financial assistance as well as improved international communications, including telecommunications where rapid modernisation is vital.

Some of these areas overlap with those discussed earlier, but these activities are the responsibility of individuals and organisations. Government need not itself engage in such activities. In statist systems, economic activity was undertaken by government, often leading to monopolies. Experience has shown that this may hinder economic development. Without incentives for efficiency or penalties for incompetence, systems tend to collapse. Political interference often leads to overstaffing and indiscipline, which breed corruption and limit productivity.


The essential function of government in these areas is facilitation of activity by providing infrastructure and services needed for smooth functioning. In some instances, it could also include subsidies, but this should be carefully monitored lest they contribute to inefficiency. Nurturing a particular sector at times is a vital task of government but such nurturing should be to strengthen it to stand on its own over the course of time. If this is not feasible, continuing with subsidies is inappropriate in view of the wider interests of society.


To sum up, the facilitatory functions of government, which need careful planning and the setting of readily identifiable targets, require in a cabinet the following portfolios—minister of agriculture / irrigation, minister of industries and/or trade, minister of transport (including roads, railways, harbours and aviation), minister of communications / telecommunications and minister of power and energy.

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… an inflated idea of its own importance

In addition to security considerations, there are several areas in which government is deeply involved. But we should not take what government does for granted. There is a natural tendency for any institution to have an inflated idea of its own importance, and this means that it will tend to take on more and more responsibilities. A regular consequence of this is that it becomes inefficient.

It is therefore important that those exercising particular responsibilities give careful consideration as to their core functions. They should know what it is they must do. Any additional services they can provide might be useful, but they should also make sure that they do not create a culture of dependency, which could inhibit development. The statism that dominated many societies in the last century often led to stagnation. Any government therefore must bear in mind the need to leave room for individual initiatives that would also help with satisfying social needs.

In particular ,when allocating responsibility for the provision of services governments must take care to discourage populism. Ministers responsible for services should be able to conceptualize. They must work on improving service delivery whilst encouraging alternatives that will help to raise standards and improve the service.  I therefore present here the next section of the Second Chapter of ‘Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka’, which scrutinizes what government should do, and why, with regard to service provision –



qrcode.29262648Before what we may term the Modern Period, beginning from about the eighteenth century, security and justice were seen as the primary duties of a government. While governments performed various other functions these were largely as a matter of personal commitment by particular rulers, or in times of emergency. They were not seen as central to the duties of a ruler.

With the development of modern society, however, the role of government changed. This can be seen most clearly with regard to health care, which is now seen as one of the most important functions of government. In the early days, some kings distinguished themselves by building hospitals, the management of which was often handed over to independent institutions such as religious bodies. But the responsibility was not usually considered that of the government itself.

With industrialisation and rapid urbanisation, health became a more central concern. Epidemics had more disastrous consequences for the society, and not only cure but also prevention became an urgent necessity. With the development of new techniques in health care that required extensive capital investment, the establishment of government hospitals became necessary. So health became a vital function of government. The minister of health has a crucial role to play in any government of today. Read the rest of this entry »

Political Principles IIIExecutive Power


The word ‘executive’ means ‘doing’. The executive of a country is usually its cabinet of ministers. These ministers are responsible for the day-to-day business of government. Although we refer to a prime minister or a president who has executive power as the head of government, he or she is almost always part of a group of ministers known as the cabinet, which exercises executive power collectively. When executive decisions are made, they are presented as cabinet decisions, rather than the decisions of the president or the prime minister.


The cabinet consists of ministers (known as secretaries in a few countries like the United States) who run various government departments and decide what needs to be done in the various areas or ministries for which they are responsible. Major decisions however, or decisions concerning policy, are brought before the cabinet so that they can be taken collectively.

Prime minister means ‘first minister’. When the cabinet system of government developed, the prime minister was simply the chief among the advisers of the executive monarch. It was the monarch who appointed the cabinet, the term used to refer to the whole body of his advisers. As countries developed politically, the advisers, who were supposed to be representatives of the people, acquired greater decision-making power. In time, in democracies, their leader became more important than the monarch. So now, in many countries, the prime minister has greater decision-making powers than his colleagues in the cabinet.

In some countries such as the United States, an executive president is the head of government, and therefore the head of the cabinet. Since such a president has been elected direct by the people, he or she has greater powers in relation to the rest of the cabinet than a prime minister, who has been elected along with several others. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2017
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