By Uditha Devapriya –
When both the Sinhala Alt-Right and neoliberal Right start attacking you, you know you’re occupying a centrist moral high ground. Appointing Dr Dayan Jayatilleka as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s Senior International Relations Advisor – no Junior Advisor as of yet – portends, I think, a world of possibility, for an Opposition bruised and battered by a quarter-century of self-manslaughter. The appointment as it stands doesn’t really amount to much, unless you place it in its proper context: what we have is a key theoretician, the only theoretician who can pose a credible enough challenge to what the government is doing. I do not necessarily agree with everything he has said and written over the last few months, but I do agree that the Opposition needs a radical reset. And it’s becoming more and more clear that the man best capable of handling the surgery to see that through is Dr Jayatilleka.
The key to a successful Opposition is not to be high on principles, but to offer a practical and tous azimuts course of action that squares the circle. It must talk about democracy, it must talk about decentralisation, it must talk about empowering the people, yet it must not do so loftily. The Opposition’s rhetoric must reach the people: this is as simple a political axiom as the Samagi Jana Balavegaya is going to get. The SJB is not the UNP, nor should it try to be. It is for this reason that Dr Jayatilleka’s appointment is needed, since, as he has emphasised in column after column, any cohesive critique of the government must incorporate a cohesive if not comprehensive critique of the Opposition too. And going by the flurry of contradictory statements, tweets, and posts made by SJB personnel, Dr Jayatilleka’s critiques are needed more than ever. To put it in perspective, then: the SJB cannot be UNP Lite.
The problem with the SJB is that it is acting more and more like a many-headed hydra facing a rapacious but determined behemoth. To match the behemoth, the Opposition must meet it headfirst; it must critique the state’s more questionable actions while matching its better ideals. In three areas it should seek to go beyond the UNP’s paradigm: domestic economics, foreign relations, and the constitution. It’s no coincidence that Dr Jayatilleka’s critique of the government rests on these three areas, and it’s no coincidence that it’s from those vantage points that his critics – from BOTH the Alt-Right and the neoliberal Right – continue to attack and denigrate him. The first strategy must therefore be to purge the Opposition, not in the old authoritarian sense, but in the sense of removing remnants of what Dr Jayatilleka calls Ranilism: that failed neoliberal, anti-Presidential yahapalanist policy.
The yahapalana neoliberal project failed, but not because Sri Lankans are averse to a liberal polity. It all depends on what kind of liberal policies the yahapalana government was trying to dish out. At the centre of its project was a fatal disjuncture between its populist roots and its avowed policy of “liberalising and globalising” (Mangala Samaraweera, Budget Speech 2017). People voted for a social market economy; what they got was anything but. In other words the yahapalanists failed to reconcile the timeless rift between social liberalism (with its emphasis on state interventionism and state-directed equity) and economic liberalism (with its emphasis on the rollback of the state). High on principles, and lofty ones at that, it floundered. For that reason, we cannot go back to 2015. We should not try to do so.
Given this, how should the SJB craft its policies in those areas? On the domestic economic front, the SJB must abandon, totally and considerably, that earlier policy of liberalising and globalising. It must think of production, since the biggest, most persistent problem facing this country’s economy today is its absence of a proper manufacturing base. It cannot hope to achieve this with piecemeal solutions; there must be state intervention, what Dr Dayan calls “a new, New Deal, Rooseveltian-Keynesian.” I am no economist, so I can’t really detail the specifics of this new New Deal. I do know, however, what it should not be: the old UNP-yahapalanist neoliberal paradigm. The new policy must be progressive, state-led though not state-monopolised, and driven by local manufacture.
Of course, in all fairness to Dr Jayatilleka, I should point out that this may not necessarily be what he has in mind or what he advocates. That is why I disagree with him when he ponders the impracticality of import controls, since local production requires “imported inputs, while a middle-class society in an MDG country, cannot sustain itself without imported consumer goods, including essentials.” Far from being a minus point against restrictions, I believe the very fact that we import consumer goods, even for local production, necessitates a cohesive substitution strategy that, while directed by the state, should be phased out.
I do agree with him, however, that substitution must NOT be a cover for crude Alt-Right nationalist economics, though I disagree on exactly why such economics should be avoided: not (just) because it seeks to enthrone one community, the majority over the minorities, but because even a cursory examination of Sinhala nationalist party manifestos from the past will make it clear that nationalism in this country is itself mired up in the kind of neoliberal, globalisation-MNC-led model that its most vocal proponents oppose on cultural grounds; the Sihala Urumaya, for instance, point-blank stated in 2000 that it was inconceivable if not impractical to go back on globalisation, even the Open Economy. Yet if we are to shift from an extractive economy – dependent on the triumvirate of tea, rubber, and coconut – to an industrial one, we must cut off, produce, and take off.
On the foreign policy front, relations with India must be patched up immediately, while the anti-China lobby must be discouraged. To be fair by the current regime, notwithstanding the anti-Indian comments of certain Ministers it has more or less attempted to stick to its “India First” policy, even attempting the impossible: the lease-out of the East Coast Terminal to an Indian investor in the teeth of opposition from the government’s own ranks.
I don’t think it feasible or advisable, however, for the regime to have gone to such lengths to prove its India First credentials, and to Dr Dayan’s credit he critiques it extensively as well: it will, he observes, antagonise China, forcing it to try leaving behind a bigger footprint on the country. Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar’s interlude with Tony Blinken, however, makes it clear that Indo-US ties will only strengthen across the board against the China Factor under the new administration in Washington. Sri Lanka can’t afford to ignore this, but it must not use geopolitical imperatives to go overboard when dealing with neighbours.
A clear consensus has arisen, especially among the hardliners in the regime and nationalists within the Opposition, that the ECT deal should not have gone ahead. Dr Dayan is agreed on this point, but to what extent is the Opposition in the SJB also agreed to it? We’re getting mixed signals from Sajith Premadasa’s party. Symbolically enough the tweets and messages congratulating the government vis-à-vis the ECT deal have been, not from any government figure, but from the Opposition. The SJB has mostly tilted between reluctant acquiescence (they were with the UNP when the agreement was drafted, after all) and hysterical rhetoric (Harin Fernando’s claim that the Adanis to whom the ECT was leased will take business from Sri Lanka to a port they have developed in Mundra, a claim that was shown to be untrue by N. Sathya Moorthy in a report on the deal). This is not how it should be.
The ECT deal, however, isn’t all there is to what course Sri Lanka should take regarding its foreign policy. Another issue is Geneva, the UNHRC bomb. Dr Jayatilleka is adamantly of the belief that inasmuch as the government blundered by withdrawing from Resolution 30/1, it was the yahapalana regime’s fault for cosponsoring it in the first place.
This runs counter to elements within the UNP and even SJB that still view Resolution 30/1 as a foreign policy success; Harsha de Silva’s lengthy though well detailed speech in parliament two months ago on the question of the government’s foreign policy did the rounds in every quarter, but then ended up referring to the March 2015 Geneva session on a positive note. Not so, Dr Jayatilleka warned not too long afterwards: any reform-and-reset program in the Opposition must let go of the belief that Resolution 30/1 was a success, and recognise it for the unmitigated disaster it was.
On the constitution front, the way forward for the Opposition seems clear: it must abandon any rhetoric of getting rid of the Executive Presidency. For Dr Jayatilleka, the problem with the 20th Amendment isn’t so much the fact that it restores the Presidency as it is the degree to which it entrenches it. There is a clear difference: the objective of any practical-minded and national Opposition, he implies, must be, not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to retain the baby sans the bathwater. Ergo, constitutional reforms must a) not abolish or substantively reduce the powers of the EP, and b) go as far as it is permissible, possible, and practical vis-à-vis devolution of power, that is within and not beyond the framework of the 13th Amendment. Regarding the latter, Dr Jayatilleka has opposed, and is opposed by, anti-decentralists and ultra-decentralists, the latter represented by mainstream and fringe Tamil Opposition parties. When you happen to be a punching bag for both these camps, you know you’re some sort of a centrist, I daresay even a radical centrist.
Sri Lanka’s political landscape, as it rests, is occupied by Lockean liberals and Hobbesian sovereigntists. The former are high on ideals, low on execution, while the latter are all for execution, not so much for ideals. To take a middle-ground between these two must be the aim of every self-respecting Opposition, and it seems as though Dr Jayatilleka has, despite my reservations with some of his policy recommendations, got it. We need an alternative to both neoliberal think-tanks and ultranationalist-technocratic fora. I believe the SJB has what it takes to go beyond its neoliberal roots, though I fear I’ll be proven wrong.
The solutions to Sri Lanka’s predicament must come from a left-of-centre, even Marxist, position; I believe in taking the latter course, but I also know what is practical and what is not, at least in Sri Lanka. The SJB does not stand out as a Marxist party, but then nor does the SLPP. Yet it must adroitly escape its neoliberal past, and for that, Dr Jayatilleka’s policy recommendations must be, if not unanimously, then at least considerably endorsed by the upper echelons of the party. I mean not just Sajith Premadasa, but also Harsha de Silva, Eran Wickramaratne, Buddhika Pathirana, Rajitha Senaratne, and Ajith Perera.
These ex-UNPers must realise that the old centre-right neoliberal paradigm no longer works. They must realise, in what they say and what they do, that such a paradigm must never be tried or tested out again. If getting the SJB and its officials to undergo this radical reset is all he does, I believe Dr Jayatilleka will have done his part. To reiterate yet again: there must be a purge, so that the SJB doesn’t end up as GR Lite or, worse, UNP Lite.