By Kumar David –
The government is in retreat analysts say. Strategists in the opposition, smelling blood, are hopeful of replacing President and Parliamentary majority in 2024 and 2025, if not earlier in the event of a debacle. It is a sign of the times that Namal and his wife were jeered and compelled to flee Monarch Imperial, a posh restaurant, on 23 December said the Daily Mirror of the next day. In this context there are four national groups of importance – JVP-NPP, SJB-Sajith, TNA and the scattered Muslim parties. The first two have national ambitions and the latter two sub-national (not lead a government). The SLPP has not yet given up the ghost and under Mahinda’s leadership hallucinates recovery. Sajith hankers after the presidency. The JVP-NPP is motivated to get enough parliamentary seats to be one step away from power. I discount Ranil’s UNP, the SLFP and every other faction of the government as a centrepiece of any future government. Presidential ambitions: Sajith, Champika, Karu, and from the Paksa-clan Gota second term or Namal, all crave the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
It is premature to make predictions but strategies are ripening; the NPP has issued a draft programme and JVP Secretary Tilvin Silva a strategy letter in the 20 December 2021 issue of Mawilma (Compass) the NPP’s monthly magazine-newsletter. I will discuss the programmes of the aforementioned four and the government side as they become available, but right now only the JVP-NPP version is to hand. I will not confine myself to the document but also comment on broad strategy in the context of the unfolding scenario. For example, I will spell out my views on the JVP-NPP’s orientation to military intimidation.
The NPP’s “Rapid Response” Manifesto
The platform entitled “Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges” opens with a preface outlying Sri Lanka’s manifest debacle followed by a section entitled ‘A Thriving Economy Instead of a Dependent Economy’ which declares “As National People’s Power we present initial ideas for the socio-economic transformation that society needs”.
The document is heavy on economic aspects, less so on state-structure, constitutional reform and the national question. It gives prominence to comprehensive short, medium and economic goals and includes a section on preparing the human resources required for plan implementation. It critiques JR’s Open Economy as the origin of the current malaise and for initiating a culture of greed which bred a select group which benefited from profit, fraud and corrupt business practices, and vested power in a few hands. Features of JR’s policy were ‘financialisation’, austerity, subsidy cuts, nurturing monopolies, excessive borrowing, and the sale of state assets to a favoured coterie; neoliberalism Sri Lanka style. Emphasis on financial markets undermined commodity production says the manifesto and accuses post-independence policy makers of not managing the economy for eco-friendly and people oriented outcomes and failing to even protect the place the country previously occupied in foreign trade. Instead there has been borrowing for narrow political and personal gain of rulers (Hambantota Harbour, Mattala Airport, Mr 10% etc.) but not borrowing for development. The document should have emphasised that a Tourism and Remittance based economy is not production oriented.
The end result, the NPP says is near bankruptcy leaving the country enmeshed in a vicious cycle of debt and foreign currency shortages. The nexus of Manufacturing-Technology-Education-Exports-Foreign Investment targeted at production are all mentioned, but the presentation could have been better integrated. The role of the private sector is noted but employing the state as vehicle to enable entrepreneurship as in China could have been emphasised. Interestingly the document also warns that “The people responsible for creating the debt trap will not be allowed to escape from liabilities”. Hope this is not another empty threat!
In respect of state-structure the NPP urges a strong parliament with a cabinet accountable to parliament and elimination of the executive presidency where power is “arbitrarily concentrated in one person”. The president is to be elected by parliament as the ceremonial head of state and the armed forces. Governance is to be led by the prime minister and the cabinet with checks and balances. The right to recall representatives will be introduced – an important new provision. The separation of power between the executive, legislature and judiciary is to be ensured. What more could any blue-blooded liberal ask for?
The National Question is the Achilles’ heel of all Sinhalese politics because even anti-racist parties know that a bold position regarding minorities will spell their doom. This perception is correct; the core of the problem lies with the Sinhalese people. (It’s well and good for me, not warming a seat in parliament to say this, but which Sinhalese party can say this and hope to win even a few seats?) The LSSP story is a frightening reminder of the truth that eventually it is the people, not the leaders, who make history. NM was prepared to demand ‘Parity of Status’, Colvin raged against Sinhala Only, Reggie Mendis lost a hand at the Town Hall grounds deflecting a bomb thrown by a racist bomb. But then in a decade plus, pressure wore down the Party. Every Sinhalese party has been frightened by such lessons. That my dear countrymen is Lanka!
The programme promises a system of governance that decentralises political and administrative power based on democracy, equal representation, and participation, “affirming the Sri Lankan identity” of all nationalities (sic!). It resolves to make the Provincial Councils efficient institutions – note, not to abolish them. It promises a commission (dear God another god forsaken commission!) with powers to prevent discrimination against any individual or social group based on nationality, religion, caste, language, gender, or sexual orientation – why not the laws of the land do this, I ask? The NPP-JVP promises to take steps to acknowledge cultural differences between different communities and to promote coexistence within this matrix.
The drafters seem to have been in difficult terrain bridging three concepts; liberal democracy, radical rejection of ethnic exclusivity and any notion that Lanka is the land of the Sinhala Buddhists. As a political realist I find the NPP’s phrasing adequate though I will tease it about the missing elephant ‘devolution of power’. The difference from Sajith-SJB is that from personal knowledge of JVPers I know that the Sinhala-JVP of the 1960-70s and the anti-13A Somawansa Amerasinghe JVP of the 1980s, are both gone for good. If you detect any slippage on the national question in this programme blame not the NPP, hold the Sinhalese people to account.
JVP Secretary Tilvin Silva’s Approach
The Party Secretary is the official spokesman and his emphases are significant. What I detect is that Tilvin is, perhaps, concerned not to make too many concessions to liberalism in the economic programme. He emphasises “paradigm shift”. But I am not sure what he means when he critiques “the old State-monopolistic capitalistic system”. Is he referring to the Stalinist centralised universally-planned state economy or the Sirima-NM model of 1970-75? Perhaps both. I agree that a fresh approach to economic problem solving, including an understanding of why the liberal-capitalist model, the Sirima-NM guided model and Stalinist regimented economy all failed is needed. He does not comment on the avatar of the Deng Xiao Ping model as transferred to Vietnam and Mongolia. There is much to learn from these two since there has been substantial manufacturing and economic and export growth, while benefits have percolated down to the people and hence the regimes have sustained public approval.
Here is an extract from Tilvin’s Malima article. “This crisis is now a challenge to the people. Its real cause is not merely factors such as Gotabaya’s personal failure. The real reason for this is the bankrupt and wrong socio-economic system still being followed in the country. Therefore, there is an inescapable challenge to everyone who expects a real and sustainable solution to the crisis. It is defeating the system of roll-over politics and handing over the country to people trusting in various political personalities. Further, reverting back to the old State-monopolistic capitalistic system as a solution to the neo-liberal economic model is also not feasible. What the country is honestly requesting for is a deep and vast paradigm-shift in the socio-economic system. There is no other real solution to this problem.” Tilvin Silva, Malima, 20 Dec 2021; (Available from JVP, 464/20, Pannipitiya Road, Battaramulla. Phones: 0112 785612, 0777 199524, 0714458399, 0718449424).
An ex-LSSP, ex-Vaama comrade
Readers of my column are familiar with the two themes I have been emphasising in recent months: (a) The regime is buckling in a huge crisis; (b) nevertheless it is very dangerous – it cannot be trusted and is prone to military adventurism. This is Comrade Puwakpitiya’s response to my importuning that he pushes both these ideas in the NPP; he is quite close to NPP policymakers. I quote from a recent email.
“I think it is premature. We should consolidate our base at working class and village level so that we can intervene as a powerful force. We do not see a threat of militaristic intervention. The government is too weak at the moment and I do not see any way it can come out of this. If the situation changes, we can reconsider. At the moment there is space for us to work towards an alternative political movement” – Puwakpitiya.
Though he is agreement with my assessment of the mess in government, at the same time he shows naïve underestimation of potential dangers. To wait till the “situation changes” to make defensive alignments is like a man who waits till after his death to take an insurance policy! The costs of an adventure by a regime which cannot “come out” of a disastrous meltdown are too catastrophic to wait till it happens. There are two Christmas season examples on the world’s TV screens right now. The Burmese military is on a rampage of brutal bloody crackdown, rape and murder including indiscriminate airstrikes on Karen and Kachin minorities precisely because the junta is in a social and economic crisis. In Sudan on Christmas Day the military mobilised thousands of troops to spray gunfire on protests against a “government too weak to come out of” its crisis except by such methods. The Sri Lanka military has tasted blood in 1989 and against Tamils in the 30-year civil war. Thus waiting “for the situation to change” is complacent. The costs of complacency will be very high if there if a military venture is attempted (anarchy plus economic, ethnic and civil conflict). What’s the objection to establishing a minimal defensive covenant of the whole opposition right now? How will this obstruct “consolidation of a base at working class and village level”? Why is it an either-or formulation?