By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Since Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike took over the SLFP leadership in 1960 after the SLFP lost the first election of that year and won the second, right up to the time the baton passed to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the SLFP adopted ‘Bandaranaike Policies’.
When Mahinda Rajapaksa took over the leadership, the ideology and policy paradigm shifted to ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’. The branding and re-branding helped the SLFP, until it deviated and signed up with Wickremesinghe’s UNP in the Yahapalanaya government, a move that crippled and paralyzed it.
The crisis of the SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’) today is that it cannot decide between the nationalist-populist Mahinda Chinthanaya of the two MR terms and the Mahinda Sulanga movement and its vanguard, the Joint Opposition (JO), on the one hand, and the Far-Right ultranationalist-autocratic Gotabaya ideology and policy paradigm, on the other.
Led by a Premadasa, and so long as it led by a Premadasa, the SJB’s policy paradigm and prescriptions must be Premadasa-ist. They cannot be even residually Ranilist. The policy prescriptions that the SJB offers as an alternative cannot be those of the Ranilist quarter century when the UNP never produced a leader for Lanka.
This is what the SJB’s pro-UNP civil society critics do not understand.
There is also an obvious strategic logic to this. Under Ranil’s leadership the UNP never led the country. Under Ranasinghe Premadasa’s leadership the UNP never once lost an election and wielded power through the vote at all three levels of the polity—the Presidency, the Parliament (1989) and the local authorities (1991).
But what is the Ranasinghe Premadasa policy package, paradigm and perspective? What is the Premadasa ideological position, perspectival space and path?
How many UNP-ers and ex-UNPers of the Ranil-era, i.e., the era of never being responsible for wielding state power –as distinct from governmental/administrative power—under a President who led their own party; the long era when the UNP was never the ruling party but only and for short-duration the governing one, actually know the answer?
As a Deputy Minister in the Dudley Senanayake administration of 1965-70, Premadasa had been the second Lankan politician ever, to reach out to Western Social Democracy – the first such being his erstwhile leader A. E. Goonesinghe who, as Prof K. M. de Silva documents, sought to link up with the British Labour Party. Premadasa returned from a visit to West Germany and close interaction with Willy Brandt. He sought the assistance specifically of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES), the foundation officially affiliated with the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), to set up the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute (SLFI) for the task of labour education.
This distinctive line of Premadasa, sharpened by the April Insurrection (he attended every single sitting of the CJC main trial), was best exemplified in an April 4th 1973 speech to the Colombo West Rotary Club, a speech he was so proud of and committed to that he had it reproduced in the ‘SAARC Summit special supplement’ of the Daily News during his Presidency, accompanied by an introduction in bold type which read: “The seeds of today’s concepts were sown years ago…President Ranasinghe Premadasa, then First Member of Parliament for Colombo Central was invited by the Colombo West Rotary Club to deliver an address on the topic ‘A Plan for Sri Lanka’ at a luncheon meeting of the Club. The speech was delivered when President Ranasinghe Premadasa was only an opposition member of Parliament and portrays the vision of a young politician of what he thought was the best for Sri Lanka”. (CDN Nov. 21, 1991).
In April 1973, there was no one who would have bothered to ghost-write a speech in English for this lonely pioneer who had launched the Samastha Lanka Puravasi Peramuna in ’72, in the enfeebled Opposition.
That speech, which takes as a desirable goal “Socialism without ulterior motivations and external interferences”, is the best short exposition of and platform for a social democratic Third Way a good quarter century before Prof Anthony Giddens.
Though dating from his Puravesi Peramuna period, before he rejoined the UNP mainstream at JR Jayewardene’s invitation (sometime after the latter succeeded to the leadership in late April ’73) its reproduction under his presidency – with the word ‘Socialism’ significantly undeleted – underscores the continuity of his thinking and gives the lie to those who would cunningly dilute and distort the content of his economic philosophy.
A lengthy excerpt from Premadasa’s crucial April ’73 text is needed to comprehend the core of his thought:
“Political power has been diffused among the people through the exercise of the franchise. In like manner the economic wealth of the country should also be diffused among the people. We should evolve a scheme under which the public sector, the co-operative sector, the private sector and a combination of all these three sectors – a joint sector – could function in competition with each other. Such competition will bring the maximum benefit to the people who need not become slaves of either a public or private monopoly. The government should ensure through its legislative and planning processes that the people participate in all aspects of development without allowing monopolies – state or individual.
The people’s participation should be enlisted in all matters relating to policy decisions and their implementation. The common people should be made to share the responsibility of finding solutions to their problems. That burden must not be presumed to be monopolized by a few. The common people should have a voice in making decisions and share in their implementation…
…We can solve our problems. Scarcity of foreign exchange is no obstacle. To earn foreign exchange, we must increase production; to increase production we must develop our national resources, and if we are to develop our national resources, we must harness the human potential that we have in abundance. It is futile to go on bended knees to foreign countries begging for assistance.
We must trust our people who have placed their confidence in us. Going to them for the vote alone is not sufficient. In order to formulate and implement policies from the village level to the national level we must get the active participation of our people including the new generation. The root cause of unrest among our people is that we have reduced them to mere voting machines operating once in five years. This system must change; and change completely to make the people the real masters”. (People’s Participation in Government- CDN Nov. 21, 1991.)
1977 was almost as much a victory of Premadasa’s as it was of JR Jayewardene’s. Lalith Athulathmudali writing as a confident Minister (of Trade and Commerce) in 1980 in the Lanka Guardian special issue looking back at the decade of the 1970s sums up the changes that made the UNP the electoral juggernaut it was by 1977:
“…A new policy and programme proposed by a committee headed by R. Premadasa was adopted. Family power and privileged group power were dethroned and the fact that these very monstrosities were being strengthened in the other parties only served to consolidate the UNP. In the popular mind the UNP often thought of as being concerned with the few, came to be considered as the party of the masses. The UNP had built itself a new political base”. (Lalith Athulathmudali, Lanka Guardian Vol. 2 No 17, 1980 p13-14).
For Premadasa, the 1977 victory was an unfinished revolution. At the mammoth UNP May Day of 1977, before the landslide, Premadasa’s was the only voice to rise above the triumphalism of the impending victory and sound a clear cautionary note. It took a depth of discernment far greater than that of JR Jayewardene and the other UNP personalities, (‘genius’ would be the right word) to do so, and his perspicacity was spotted and published internationally by one journalist at the time:
‘…Premadasa said “Those young hands applauding us now may manufacture the bombs that will kill us, if we too do not change our ways of living and leadership.”’ (Quoted in Mervyn de Silva, ‘Survival of the Fittest’, Far Eastern Economic Review, Hong Kong, May 20th 1977, pp.17-19)
This was no mere flash in the pan. In his Feb 23rd 1978 Parliamentary speech assuming the Prime Ministership, an occasion which any other individual would have regarded with smug satisfaction and chosen not to strike a discordant note on, he spurned etiquette and rang the alarm bells again:
“Our people are facing untold hardships. The efforts of our youth to obtain opportunities for work, economic progress and social security have been unsuccessful. The forbearance and fortitude of our people who are shouldering great burdens of the cost of living, must not be mistaken for weakness. This atmosphere of poverty is about to overwhelm the limits of their patience. If so, none can tell what might transpire. Policies must be formulated, implemented… bearing this in mind.’’ (‘Prabuddha Shakthiya’, p170, published by B. Sirisena Cooray, June 1978, printed by MD Gunasena & Co.
One of Premadasa’s last acts as Prime Minister (1988) was to pen and publish the Introduction to the Sinhala translation by Janadasa Pieris of Gorbachev’s Perestroika, a work in which Gorbachev defined his project as a ‘reformed…democratic Socialism’.
The very fact that Premadasa as President chose to reproduce his Rotary Club speech of April 1973 on Socialism and People’s Participation in Government, in the SAARC special supplement in 1991 when he was SAARC Chairperson, indicates that it was the consistent perspective he wanted the outside world to know about, and which he hoped to radiate in the region.
Opposition’s Existential Choice
Most certainly, Premadasa’s social democracy was Populist, but it was ‘social Populist’ or ‘socioeconomic Populist’ as in Latin America, not ‘ethnoreligious Populist’ or ‘ethnonationalist Populist’ as in the case of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, the Rajapaksas or SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956.
Today’s SJB is the successor party of not only the UNP but also the Samastha Lanka Puravesi Peramuna. It should emancipate itself of every last vestige of Ranilist ‘Toiyyaist’ neoliberal urban-elitism.
The SJB as the main Opposition party stands to inherit the thinking of the greatest development policy thinker-practitioner that the UNP and indeed Sri Lanka ever produced; the greatest developmental leader that independent Sri Lanka ever had.
The late Neville Jayaweera, who held a First-Class Honours degree in Philosophy from Peradeniya (1953) and was one of the most stellar products of the elite Ceylon Civil Service, confirmed it thus, writing with the benefit of hindsight, very much later in 2009:
“…The soaring vision he [Premadasa] had for his country, and I do not mean merely for the Sinhala people but for Sri Lanka as a nation, was unmatched by any political leader of the last century, either conceptually, or in terms of the intelligence and managerial energy with which he backed it up, even though that vision was tainted by his many failings…”
It is up to the SJB, led by Ranasinghe Premadasa’s only son, Sajith, to pick up the torch of Premadasa’s “prabuddha shakthiya” on development philosophy and practice, resume and complete the unfinished social democratic people’s revolution of 1988-1993, and build a 21st century social democracy in and for Sri Lanka.
*The writer was President Premadasa’s appointee as Director, Conflict Studies at the Institute of Conflict Studies, and later, Executive Director of The Premadasa Center (1994-1999). He was co-editor of ‘The Premadasa Philosophy: Selected Thoughts of Ranasinghe Premadasa’, June 1994.