By Dayan Jayatilleka -
However bad things are in Sri Lanka today and however bad things may get, there is almost nothing that cannot be reversed in three years when elections come around. That election may however be the last chance at reversal of the negative aspects, preventing their cumulative growth from embryonic structure to stable system. Sri Lanka is not under a dictatorship today, though there may be a dictatorial project or latent tendency towards dictatorship. If dictatorship is ever erected in this country it will be as much by default as by design. It will be because the Opposition didn’t get its act together in order to prevent it at the next – and last–available electoral opportunity. How is this to be done? A pre-requisite is to abandon errors of thinking and strategizing, the most crucial of which have recently been pointed out by an astute observer of Sri Lankan politics.
Kath Noble, an Oxford trained mathematician with a postgraduate degree in economics from the JNU (Delhi) has more political lucidity and therefore, useful counsel, than all our local political critics, commentators and pundits put together. In her latest column she writes:
“…Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalizing’ what must be a national struggle…The international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka! It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremesinghe wouldn’t do it…If the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response. There really is no short cut…It is a national struggle…” (‘Calling in the Marines’)
Though it may have to be preceded as in November-December 1976, by peaceful mass action which ensures a level electoral playing field, the endgame is always electoral. In a Presidential system this reduces itself to a viable Presidential candidate. However bad the crisis in its economic and external dimensions, the people will not vote for a candidate whose patriotic credentials have always been deeply suspect. This is all the more certain if the prime sources of external pressure are Tamil Nadu and the West-based Tamil Diaspora, and the main slogan is accountability for the conduct in the closing stages of the war, of the military—drawn from rural peasant families, as are most voters. In such a context, voters are likely to hold their collective nose and opt either for continuity or change within continuity (as they did in 1988 when they voted for UNP candidate Premadasa). In the latter case, the pro-western Opposition liberal-conservatives will realize that there are worse options within the System than the incumbent.
Pro-Opposition and/or anti-regime ideologues, strategists and commentators fail to understand at least four major points, and so long as they fail to do so they will be unable to halt the Machine.
Firstly, the sources of legitimacy: while the regime is losing democratic legitimacy and legitimacy in general due to its flouting of democratic values and norms, it continues to retain national legitimacy deriving from its historic military victory over a hated enemy. The regime wins every political battle, from the FUTA strike to the impeachment, because of those vast ‘reserves’ of nationalist – and national- legitimacy, which the present Opposition, or the Opposition presently, lacks. National legitimacy will almost always trump democratic legitimacy, especially in a context of victory. In the context of military defeat, nationalist legitimacy remains as powerful but acts against the regime, as in the case of JR Jayewardene after the ’87 airdrop, the Argentinean junta after the Falklands/Malvinas defeat and the Serbia’s nationalists and Socialists after losing Kosovo. Crudely put, any election which pits the present leader of the Opposition and the UNP against Mahinda Rajapaksa is akin to Marshal Petain running against de Gaulle or Neville Chamberlain contesting against Churchill. Even if the military victory over the Tigers fades in the public memory, it will be instantly revived if the alternative remains one who is indelibly perceived as a great appeaser and collaborator during a titanic, historically nodal contestation. The memory of that appeasement will not fade. The memory of shortages under the Bandaranaike regime of ’70-’77 was instantly triggered for 20 years, by the question “do you remember how bad it was and do you really dare risk going back?”. With anti-Sri Lankan separatist sentiment in Tamil Nadu on the rise, the existentially threatened and insecure Sri Lankan citizenry will always consider Ranil Wickremesinghe (and his wing of the UNP) far too risky an option.
Secondly, the vital importance of shifting to and occupying the centre: Democratic politics the world over shows that whoever occupies the centre-space, wins. The Republicans were too far out in right field and lost to Barack Obama who carved out a progressive centre. For years the Democrats were perceived to be too far out in left field, and continued to lose, until Bill Clinton and then Barack Obama shifted the party to the centre. This is even more pronounced in Sri Lanka where the Buddhist cultural heritage privileges the Middle Path. It was the political genius of SWRD Bandaranaike to explicitly project himself as carving out a middle path between the Marxist Left and the pro-western Right. Be it the Aristotelian Golden Mean or the Buddha’s Middle Path, the middle ground is the moral high ground, and the strategic space to occupy. If the regime has abandoned the middle ground, it is all the more compelling and easier for the forces of resistance to occupy it. The regime cannot be opposed from an extreme position, and even if someday, a determined and apparently extreme position has to be taken in order to administer a final push and secure a decisive breakthrough, it must be preceded by the broadest accumulation of social and national forces which is feasible only by the secure occupation of the middle ground.
Thirdly, a grasp of Gramsci, and the importance of triangulating the factors of the ‘national’, the ‘democratic’ and the ‘popular’ or pro-people: Though the regime and its ideologues define the national in an ethno-religious and hierarchical manner, this is not an argument for abandoning the national, but one for defining it in the broadest and most inclusionary terms, as did DS Senanayake and Ranasinghe Premadasa of the UNP, and Dr SA Wickramasinghe (Southern) founder of the Communist movement. The defence of the national has to be fused with the defence of democratic rights, liberties and values. The freedom of our nation from unfair external encroachment on our sovereignty must be combined with the freedom of the individual. Both these dimensions of freedom and liberty must be conjoined with a strong sense of social justice and socioeconomic policies which place the interests of the people as the driver of policy and practice.
As long as the defence of democracy remains purely individualist or institutional, legalist and liberal, rather than rooted in the social; so long as the call for the defence of democracy remains insensitive to the material and everyday concerns of the vast majority, it will remain a greenhouse plant. That which I propose is not an impossible synthesis. The French political consciousness and culture for instance, takes as axiomatic the hyphenated slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, combined with a strong sense of the Nation (and a national destiny). More pertinently, so too does the political discourse of the left and social democrats in Latin America—a discourse most successfully articulated by Brazil’s Lula, which accords important recognition to national sovereignty, which is brushed aside by the ideologues of Sri Lanka’s Opposition and therefore monopolised by default, by the regime.
Fourthly, political content must not be sacrificed for organizational forms: The most significant political enterprises in the politics of this island have taken the form of ruptures with pre-existing organisations. DS Senanayaka broke away from the decades old Ceylon National Congress to found the UNP on the eve of Independence. SWRD broke from the UNP in 1951. SJV Chelvanayagam ruptured the Tamil Congress to form the Federal party. Wijeweera left the Maoist party to found the JVP. Chandrika and Vijaya formed the Mahajana Party, splitting from the SLFP, which enabled her to return to the leadership of the SLFP giving it a new profile and taking it to victory. Ranasinghe Premadasa formed a pressure group the Puravesi Peramuna in the early ’70s, and had planned to break away from the UNP in 1988 as an independent presidential candidate if he were deprived of the party’s candidacy. As the Bible says, one cannot put new wine in old wineskins.
The four points made above, constitute the parametric outlines of a project that can counter the dominant project of the regime. The objective of democratic change is to be free citizens in a free country; in a country that is free from domination from without and within.