By Dayan Jayatilleka –
“War tends to create monarchs…Any war that continues beyond a certain point is a monarchy approaching.” – Regis Debray
Most commentaries on the crisis of UNP omit the chasm-like disconnect between that party and the national electorate. That yawning gap is best evidenced by the case of Dayasiri Jayasekara. He lost his bid to be elected the National Organizer of the UNP at its Convention of 2011, and went on to win a whopping three hundred thousand preference votes at the Provincial Council election a mere two years later. What that shows is just how far out of touch the UNP is with the collective psyche and mood of the vast number of voters outside the party fold. This is similar to the fate of the Tea Party movement of the US Republicans, and the trade-unionist Trotskyite Left of the British Labour party in the Opposition during the Thatcher years (before the New Labour/Third Way makeover). Closer home, this was the situation of the UNP of Sir John Kotelawela (which resulted in the ‘event’ of ’56) and the SLFP under Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike (which kept it in the opposition for 17 years).
Analyses of the UNP’s crisis tend to dodge the question of the leadership by diversions such as the largely rhetorical poser: “will the mere replacement of Ranil enable the party to win?” The sheer stupidity of the question resides in the unwillingness to grasp that the present need of the UNP is not so much to win elections as to stop its downward plunge—and stopping that plunge requires the replacement of the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe as a prerequisite.
Any possible UNP victory is but a third phase of the comeback process. The first is to stop the plunge; the haemorrhage of votes and MPs. The second is to bring the party back to its natural base vote and its status as the largest single party in the country. The third and final is an electoral triumph by achievement of a plurality of votes. Not even the first stage can be reached without visibly changing the UNP’s leader.
The SLFP couldn’t win for 17 years because of the memory of the closed economy, scarcities and queues. The UNP stayed in office because it had liberated the citizens from that curse. Today the UNP under Ranil suffers from a similar or worse malady: that of its record of appeasement of the LTTE, while the UPFA under Mahinda Rajapaksa has the merit of having liberated the masses from terrorism. The SLFP had to dump the most visible symbol of that economic era, Mrs Bandaranaike, and replace her with a new candidate and leader committed to an open economy with a human face, namely Chandrika. Similarly, the UNP has to ditch Ranil and replace him with a patriot if it is to get rid of the tattoo of ‘traitor’. One may ask how this will be different from Rajapaksa rule. The answer is simple– in the same manner and to the same extent that CBK programme was different from the UNP’s Open Economy: representing a younger generation, more modern, more in tune with global trends and with a human face. The UNP needs ‘pluralist patriotism with a human face’.
The extreme reluctance of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia to accept that the victory over Prabhakaran is the main source of the incumbent’s legitimacy and popularity probably stems from the fact that many of them supported the CFA, ISGA and PTOMS and even those who creditably didn’t, were more critical of Mahinda Rajapaksa than Prabhakaran during the decisive last war. Thus we have for instance, trained historians and political scientists who are blind to the importance in political history and the history of politics, of a war, especially one of such length and magnitude and against such a ferocious foe—and a decisive victory in such a war.
These analysts refuse to understand that the most deleterious contemporary phenomena that they rightly reject are also the outcrop of the war and more importantly of the failure of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s predecessors to win the war (which he proved could be done and thus could have been done by them). In his autobiography ‘Praised be Our Lords’ Regis Debray observes apropos Fidel Castro and the Cuban leadership, that “War tends to create monarchs…Any war that continues beyond a certain point is a monarchy approaching.” (p87) If this is more or less true of so iconic a fusion of Enlightenment Reason and Western Romanticism as Fidel, one may comprehend the mutations when the heritage and lineage go back as in Sri Lanka, to the very different matrix which Marx called Asiatic despotism (with its monopoly of land ownership etc).
The remedy then is neither to revile the war nor to mimic the incumbent but to renounce the Ranil-Chandrika approaches of appeasement and vacillation; recognise the failure of the cosmopolitan pacifist ideologues and intellectuals; contest the monopoly of the military achievement by reworking patriotism into a more pluralist, social democratic configuration. (The failure to do this is not unrelated to the enormous failure of the critical Lankan intelligentsia, including the expatriates, to grasp the political thinking of Antonio Gramsci, his stress on the progressive value of the national-territorial unification of the state, his revaluation of Machiavelli and repeated invocation of the ‘national-popular’).
Let us conclude this detour into the conceptual and return to contemporary politics. The limited successes and petering out of four important and laudable social struggles—the FUTA strike, the anti-impeachment protests, the strike against the electricity fare hike, and the Rathupaswala rising—all bring home the same message: the need for a credible political formation which links the struggles nationally and leads them either from the front or from behind (as the UNP and JVP did during the student and worker upheavals of 1976). In short, the crisis of the opposition, which is primarily a crisis of the UNP and secondarily that of the JVP/FSP, is the inescapable factor. No ‘civil society’ outfit or collection of outfits without a credible national profile can be a substitute. The triple factors of politics, political leadership and political project cannot be swept under the mat.
Clarity is more important in politics than benign intention. Ven Girambe Ananda thero of Anuradhapura led an entirely honourable effort to rescue the UNP, which was however, far too extensive in its formulation. Instead of a simple, single point proposal for Ranil’s replacement within a compressed timeframe and the election of a new leader and deputy by the UNP’s parliamentary group, the reverend monks produced a document with enough loopholes for Ranil to slip through.
Consider the current travesty of conceding to him the continued incumbency of post of the Leader of the Opposition. What is the logical basis for this, one cannot help but wonder. Insofar as he has presided over the unprecedented outflow of Opposition MPs to the Government benches—a flow which has resulted in 150% more UNP MPs in Government than in Opposition—Mr Wickremesinghe is easily the most lamentable Leader of the Opposition in the history of the Sri Lankan parliament.
Worse still is the fact that he could well enter the Guinness Book of Records as the longest running leader of the Opposition in the history of democracy. If he remains in that post he will continue to choose which MPs speak in parliamentary debates and he has conspicuously kept out the best speakers in the UNP benches from participating in them.
Next year, the UNP will celebrate two decades in the Opposition and Mr Wickremesinghe, twenty years as the Leader of the Opposition. The two facts are inextricably intertwined. The Australian Labour Party took only weeks—perhaps days—to pick a new leader and deputy leader after its recent defeat. By contrast, this time next year the UNP will commemorate its Twenty Year Curse. If it is to avoid that ghastly and pathetic fate, it must cut the Gordian knot rather than waste more time trying to unravel it.