The Rajpal Abeynayake Column                     By Rajpal Abeynayake  

How not to sell a constitution to the people
What can spin doctors do, and what have Sri Lankan spin doctors failed to do? Take the constitution of the United States, which is seen in the Western world as the ultimate federalist document. In a hugely interesting article that appeared last Thursday in the The Times (..of London), it is stated that the American constitution was in actual fact a clever trick played on the American people by the framers of the constitution such as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin.

The writer - an expert in constitutionalism and a British based political science don - says that what was promised to the Americans when the various states came together to form the United States of America, was a federal constitution that envisaged separate sovereignties, a weak centre and strong state governments.
But, he says, that was only the 'spin' that was generated by the framers, such as Alexander Hamilton -- perhaps the lesser known but more innovative of the framers. What the framers clearly knew was that apart from what they said in the spin, the American constitution in fact offered strong central government, even though ostensibly what was on offer in those seminal seventeen-hundreds, was 'a weak centre and strong states.'' The writer ends the article by saying that a characteristic of all federal governments since then has been that they strive towards a cohesive strong centre, and if they don't, these federations break-up.

So, there it is. Even Europhiles, who are seeking to forge a modern European federalist constitution look towards the American document as the ultimate federal example - and now we have it that this ultimate federal model was in fact sold to the people by good solid 'spin.'' Whereas the founding fathers, being as they were disillusioned with the British example, promised less government and even less military capacity within the new American union, more than 200 years later America possesses a great deal of government, and the strongest military machine ever on the face of the earth. Ah, the powers of spin.

In Sri Lanka, there has been a good deal of attempt at spin by the country's political elite -- but yet, the only spin doctor who practices his craft today with any real sense of accomplishment is Muttiah Muralitharan - him and only him. Last week, for instance, the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) accused the government of trying to use the 'spin' on them, by foisting an Interim Administration that talked of representation by the "'true representatives of the Tamil people' without stating who these true representatives were."

An astute political scientist tells me that whatever is on offer as an Interim Administration to the LTTE has to be 'strictly within the constitution' for the simple reason that if the LTTE gets an 'interim' that is too strong, it is inevitable that what is given in the end, as a lasting political settlement, will be far too much and much too harsh -- something akin to a confederation with unilateral option for secession etc.,

But, others such as Jayadeva Uyangoda seem to take after the Norwegians, nudging the Sri Lankan government to be more 'imaginative'' in offering an Interim Administration to the LTTE.

If the Sri Lankan political elite finds it difficult to 'spin'' an Interim Administration into existence, the less it seems it is better, that is said about its ability to 'spin' a system of effective devolution of power into existence.

Perhaps, the Sri Lankan political elite takes itself too seriously. As the framers showed with the American constitution, the mood of today, and what people are tearing their hair about as of now, is almost guaranteed to change tomorrow. True the Sri Lankan political elite cannot think of the 'long run' and sell the people an effective long term constitution -- which in fact is something else than it promises to be (….as it was in America, as explained above.) The Sri Lankan political elite cannot do this, because they have to think about their political survival today before they think of the long-term benefits of a constitutional document.

But, this is where the power of 'spin' comes into being. The Sri Lankan political thinkers of the day seem to be too clever for their own good. When they try to be 'clever' the slip shows so bad, that it is embarrassing. Cases in point: the 17th Amendment, and this week's clause in the Interim Administration proposal which says 'the true representatives of the Tamil people will be part of the apex body in the Interim Authority.'' What did the government hope to achieve with this ambiguous clause? That the people will think these 'true representatives' are not the LTTE, while the LTTE will think that these "true representatives' are them and only them? Can you not visualise Prabhakaran saying 'go tell that to the Marines''? The first thing about spin is that it cannot ever appear to be insincere. The spin cannot be transparent -- and if there is transparent spin, there must be firepower to back it, as George W Bush possesses.

Even the difference between Federal and 'confederal' has been described sometimes as a subtlety. In America in fact, what was sold to the people of the time was called 'confederal' in nature, but today America is the federal model for Europe with its strong cohesive centre and lasting power as a federation. The Swiss cantons, it seems, 'just happened.'' The system may sound quaint, but it works -- even though it seems there are stronger powers for the Cantons than the States have in America, particularly in the area of implementation of Federal policy for instance.

It can be argued that no system can be sold to the Sri Lankan people, as the political divide is too unrelenting -- the Opposition will pick holes in whatever document that is proposed. But, this is where the 'spin' comes in.
True spin, is based on the fact that it is built on a firm foundation of acknowledging the reality. Take the American example again for instance. The reality was acknowledged that the mood of the time was a constitution with separate sovereignties strong states and a weak centre. The constitutional rhetoric, and the preambles and all of the literature that accompanied the legal document was indeed to this effect. But the actual legal instruments in the document in fact were structured to achieve the exact opposite.

Nothing that is foreign can be transplanted here. True. But, within our island reality and our own unique system, some first principles about statecraft at this critical juncture can be useful. One first principle is that the spin doctors must not be too clever for their own good -- they must not run away with the idea that the public is too dense to see through their sophistry. Translation: The spin must respect people's intelligence. It must contain all the rhetoric that pleases the party to which it is being sold. If the Interim Administration, for instance is being sold to the LTTE, the rhetoric must please the LTTE.

In a constitutional arrangement, if the sentiment is for a strong centre so be it in the rhetoric - - as long as what is in fact devolved, stays strongly devolved and stays devolved for good. It may be easier said than done, but it is the spin doctors with an exaggerated assessment of themselves (replace with "our political elite') who think statecraft is but a walk in the park…?

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