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Critical assessment of the state of democracy

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At the head table (L-R): Prof. Deepika Udagama, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Prof. Emeritus Jayadeva Uyangoda, Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and former Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara.

While the progressive empowerment of people and their steady liberation from the forces of state repression could be regarded as being at the heart of democratic governance, it is imperative that the defenders of democracy everywhere ensure that these basic aims are achieved and protected by governments claiming loyalty to the fundamental ideals of democracy. This requires consistent scrutiny and assessment by the advocates of democracy of the functioning of democratic institutions within their countries and outside.

The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS), Colombo, a pioneer in the teaching and researching of International Relations in Sri Lanka spiritedly spearheaded such an undertaking when it conducted a panel discussion on the subject, ‘Popular protests and the future of democracy in Sri Lanka and South Asia’ , on September 11. The BCIS is, of course, no stranger to robust intellectual exercises of this kind because it has carved a niche for itself locally and internationally as a trail-blazer in the conduct of discourses that are profoundly relevant to the furtherance of democratic development worldwide, besides forging ahead with its main undertakings.

The principal speaker at the forum was Professor Pratap Bhanu Mehta, former Vice Chancellor, Ashoka University, India, a guest of the BCIS. Responses to his presentation came from Professor Deepika Udagama, Head, Department of Law, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka and former Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara. Professor Emeritus Jayadeva Uyangoda moderated the forum.

Subsequent to BCIS Executive Director Professor Gamini Keerawella making an introductory address and following the main presentations, a wide-ranging discussion followed on issues that grew out of the main topic, with the participation of a widely representative audience. Prominent among the gathering was former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Chairperson, BCIS.

The essential backdrop to the Sept. 11 forum was the launching by the BCIS of the historic and monumental two-volume book titled, ‘Democracy and Democratisation in Sri Lanka – paths, trends and imaginations’, on Sept. 9th at the BMICH. Edited by Prof. Emeritus Jayadeva Uyangoda, the book contains more than 20 informative and discursive papers on issues at the heart of democracy by prominent Sri Lankan scholars. It is a Vijitha Yapa Associates publication.

The keynote address at the book launch was delivered by Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta. He ably and eloquently brought into sharp focus some principal challenges currently facing democratic governance in South Asia and worldwide. Some of these questions were further elaborated on by him at the Sept. 11 forum. He gave the local audience much to ponder and discourse on, going ahead.

Prof. Mehta laid the thematic basis for the Sept. 11th discussion by defining the principal essence of the democratic experience. Briefly expressed, democratic movements centre on the aspiration of the people to build and sustain a set of freely chosen collective institutions. Among other things, he said that democracy is, broadly, all about us the people, ‘making and re-making our collective world’. In the post-1989 world, however, the people’s demand for state accountability towards them has become a striking feature of this ‘making and re-making’ process.

Consequently, new social movements, such as Sri Lanka’s ‘Aragalaya’ of mid-2022, demanding a total ‘system change’, or those struggles featuring a ‘foundational demand’ by the people, have come into being. ‘Citizens’ agency’ or popular participation is a keynote of these upheavals for system change.

A principal challenge facing the people in these movements is how to constructively manage post-upheaval developments, or the question of how to channel the energies unleashed in these struggles towards the people’s collective benefit. For, the ‘potential for derailment’ of these revolutionary upsurges by anti-democratic forces is great in these subsequent phases of struggle.

Moreover, the prime question that the people need to ask themselves, Prof. Mehta added, is whether these systemic upheavals really deepen democracy. Critical scrutiny and assessment by the people of the outcome these movements become essential.

Prof. Deepika Udagama in her response, besides other issues, questioned as to whether Sri Lanka’s ‘Aragalaya’ was a mere ‘flash in the pan’ or whether it contributed something of substantive significance to local democratic politics. While constitutional structures empowering the people are important, people need to continuously drive the democratization process forward unflaggingly. What was particularly noteworthy about the ‘Aragalaya’ was its vast inclusivity. That is, people irrespective of ethnic, religious and language differences rose as one to demand a ‘system change’. Was this Sri Lanka’s ‘secular moment?’

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu took the minds of the audience back to 2015. He pointed out that the key concept in the presidential poll of that year was state accountability, a call that resounded in the ‘Aragalaya’. The 2015 election dislodged the Rajapaksas from power but they are still in politics, he said.

At this juncture, it is vital for the country to know where it is headed. Stock-taking is essential. It could very well be that by 2048, Sri Lanka would be no more than a ‘remittance economy’. It would be interesting to do a survey to find how many participants in the ‘Aragalaya’ are trying to get out of the country currently, Dr. Saravanamuttu added.

Social media (SM) was a key feature of the ‘Aragalaya’, he said. It is crucial to inquire into the impact SM makes on governance and governments, going forward.

Among the salient matters raised by former Foreign Secretary H.M.G.S. Palihakkara was the need for consensuality among the main stakeholders in the local polity. We urgently need a wide consensus on a reform program for the country in a multiplicity of areas as we venture into the future, he explained.

Moreover, is there anything that could be described as an ‘apolitical demo’, Palihakkara asked. Are there any ‘best practices’ to be learnt from the world community? Given the bitterly adversarial nature of local politics nothing positive could be gained post-‘Aragalaya’, was his opinion.

This columnist is of the view that the ‘Aragalaya’ was indeed Sri Lanka’s ‘secular moment’. It was an epochal development in local politics wherein the people rose as one against state repression and stood for their total empowerment, which is the true meaning of independence.

However, the challenge facing right-minded Sri Lankans now is to perpetuate the spirit of the ‘Aragalaya’. Could they do this in the face of the current repression unleashed on them by the country’s political Right? This question is crying out for an answer.

Meanwhile, democratic opinion in the country needs to forge ahead with the undertaking of educating people on the dangers facing democratic development, to the best of its ability. The BCIS could be said to be taking on this challenge forthrightly.

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