By Siri Gamage –
During the present contest for power in terms of the Presidential election, an interesting question is whether the JVP led alliance i.e. National People Power movement (NPP) will become the third force in Sri Lankan politics? Some may argue that it is already the third force. In the absence of other credible alternatives with mass appeal, it is yet to be seen whether the JVP led alliance will become so in terms of the votes gained on November 16th ? Whatever the case, evolution of the JVP from its smaller beginnings in the late 60s as a petty bourgeoisie, mostly rural grassroots party- critical of the mainstream politics, party and governance system, capitalist economy, as well as the behaviour of elitist ruling class – cannot be ignored when considering the political history and even the future of the country. The political and policy platform being prosecuted by the leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake (AKD)at this time bears testimony to the maturity that the JVP and its alliance partners have achieved during the JVP’s rebirth as a parliamentary political party after the decimation of Rohana Wijeweera and the top leadership during late 80s.
1971 insurrection and the 1988/89-armed struggle against the then UNP regime formed important landmarks in the JVP’s turbulent political journey. It is obvious that the party has learned bitter lessons from these violent episodes where the party was not able to capture state power as expected. In fact, after violent struggles quite the opposite happened i.e. strengthening of state power. When the 1971 insurrection took place, I was a 3rd year undergraduate at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya. In the preceding months and years, the university campus, in particular its residential halls were a hotbed of clandestine cadre activity. Political discourse of the JVP via public meetings and the five indiscrete classes was taking root in campus politics. Several student leaders of the insurrection based at Peradeniya Campus were arrested and subsequently served prison sentences. They have since been rehabilitated and co-opted by the mainstream political and governance process to the extent of some holding important positions during the Rajapaksa regime.
During the 1988/89 period I was away from Peradeniya University on leave studying for my PhD in Melbourne, Australia. The nature of violence unleashed by the JVP as well as the clandestine forces affiliated to the government security establishment was reported by the local and foreign media making an impact on the Australian government authorities to grant a blanket temporary visa extension to Sri Lankans (and Yugoslavians) in Australia at the time. People may have forgotten the nature and level of barbarity displayed during this period due to the subsequent war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) and its impact on the collective conscience. It is the latter episode that is still in the minds of many voters and being even exploited by some politicians to their advantage during this election campaign. However, we need to be mindful that the Muslim extremism is also a key factor after the suicide bombings in Colombo this year and its human toll. Though the JVP was not involved in these violent episodes, it has to deal with their consequences one way or another in terms of policy and political discourse.
Since it became a parliamentary party and engaged in parliamentary politics, the JVP experienced the negative consequences of neoliberal economic policies (so-called open economy in JR’s terminology) as well as the executive Presidency. It has also experienced the downside of Provincial Council system, unhindered corruption by politicians and the corrupt political cum beaureacratic culture, and the plight of the disempowered majority trying to make ends meet. Among these are farmers, workers in various sectors, professionals such as teachers, clerks, officers engaged in rural level service delivery, urban workers such as those in the Free Trade Zones. Through the experience in parliamentary practice, the JVP has gained much valuable insights and experience that can be useful in articulating existing problems facing the nation and developing policies to solve them. It seems that this time around, JVP has come up with more policy than ideology.
During the period of JVP’s emergence, evolution or transformation, not only the economy in the country transformed to be a globally linked entity serving the interests of global capital hand in hand with the local capital and their owners but the polity itself underwent remarkable changes for the worse. National economy moved away from its indigenous footings including agriculture, crafts and manufacturing. It became one that relies heavily on foreign loans, investments and more alarmingly imports of even essential products. There is more than anecdotal evidence that political representatives and their families are closely involved in various enterprises associated with this so called new or to use a more appropriate term newly indebted economy. In the absence of an effective corruption investigation mechanism, the vested interests carry on regardless. Voices against corruption have become mere voices.
In the political front, the very meaning of ‘representative democracy’ has changed to mean that elected representatives are not there for public service but for accumulation of wealth and power as well as self-advancement. Disenfranchised masses who live in poverty are provided with minimal material aid by those in power. Instead they are categorised into communal blocks based on their ethnicity, language, location, and nature of work. Parties that are organised enterprises campaigning to win over their consent at elections provide the masses with various ideologically coloured speeches and propaganda in stages where the performativity of politicians of all sorts who use the tools in the vernacular are tested. Advanced forms of oral and visual communication as well as entertainment methods are being used to attract the minds of the masses away from their real circumstances and place them in an imaginary future full of prospects – though unrealistic to the core. Families, friends and associates of major coalitions are active in this game of wills to transform the minds of voters one way or another by local reasoning, accusations and praise of their own while waiting in the wings to reap the results of power once secured.
The JVP and its alliance partners led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake are proceeding with a disciplined campaign supported by a suit of policies to their credit. However, the question is whether the deployment of the tools of language on their part and tamasha style performativity will be able to surpass that of the major coalitions led by Sajith and Gotabhaya? After all, electoral politics has become a language and mind game more so than a contest of ideas or policies.
One advantage that the JVP has had during the last 4 and half years is that it was able to operate in a context where there was a semblance of democratic government –though skewed toward executive power exercised by the President rather than an authoritarian one. What this meant was that it was able to criticise the government and the Presidient when it was required and also strengthen the party machinery across the nation. Through its critique and actions, the JVP was able to establish some credibility –though this was tarnished somewhat by its association with the Yahapalana government at various junctures. Since there is the possibility of returning to an authoritarian government with curtailed freedoms led by the deep state, the same space may not exist for it to exercise its democratic rights as a parliamentary party. This scenario must be looming large in the thinking of JVP leadership and its alliance partners.
Social reform (including economic, political and social) as stipulated by the NPP policy agenda is never easy in any country without mass support because the upper echelons of society entrenched in power are not easy to dislodge. Their tentacles can be found in every corner of society not only monitoring the activities of progressives but also attempting to thwart the initiatives taken to correct the system. In a context where the institutions that are supposed to protect public and national interest have become inefficient, politicised, or corrupt, such a task is even unimaginable without a social revolution, meaning mass support against the deep state. The existing patron-client relations advantaging those in power or in opposition (not much difference these days as the ruling class embodies elements from the both) contribute to such entrenchment of power and privilege. Those at the bottom end of such patron-client relations derive some recognition, closeness, and material benefits from such relations. Party loyalty is one way to maintain such relations. The JVP finds itself in a dilemma in this regard because it cannot provide material benefits and a share of power to others who are seeking the same from various sectors –be they farmers, professionals, businessmen and women, monks, academics, provincial councillors or the average citizen.
Nonetheless, having a progressive, social reformist agenda in order to address the existential problems faced by the nation and its varied communities is the need of the hour. Surprisingly, to match the NPP movement’s political and policy agenda, two major coalitions have also come up with appealing initiatives –though one can wonder about their credibility especially in terms of implementation. As an example, we may remember initiatives like Mathata Thitha included in the Mahinda Chinthanaya and what happened to it when in government. Election manifestos are not worth the paper they are written in a constituency where the large majority of voters do not have civic power to seek accountability after the elections. The outcome of failing to fulfil election promises are that the voters can look to an alternative party at the next election. But the parties are good at twisting the stories and discourses at election times so that the average voter get deceived one way or another. Election propaganda tends to camouflage the true status in the economy, budget, foreign debt, service to the people etc. big time.
Social justice agenda of the JVP is also impressive. It not only wants to create a level playing field for the citizens from all walks of life but also to create equality before the law. It wants to open up university and vocational education to a larger number of students while creating a better health service and care for the elderly and disabled. It plans to make government departments and agencies more efficient and answerable to the public. Major inequalities in the system is to be rectified by way of legislative and constitutional changes as well.
Unilike others, JVP has the advantage of a new generation of leaders also (Sajith is an exception). They are attuned to the global and diasporic developments, global politics and economics, and the predicament of the country as a whole. Their ability to be pragmatic in their efforts rather than ideology comes through clearly. However, what inroads have they made in towns and villages in terms of winning over the grass roots elements is a critical question? If their political strategy has been based primarily on the election campaign to move votes in their favour, it is not a sound strategy though it may yield some favourable results in the short term. Party political work during the intervening periods is the key to link up with masses.
A third force in Sri Lankan politics is a must not only to create balance in the political and economic system but also to address critical issues facing the nation with credibility by garnering mass support for a social reform agenda. The JVP has made a start at this election campaign in this direction. Whether they succeed or not, it has mapped out a strategy for reformist governance in the future.