By Uditha Devapriya –
One of the most fascinating things about politics is how a common enemy unites groups that otherwise hold diametrically opposed views. I am not suggesting that the JVP is such an enemy, nor am I implying that their dislike of it has united the SJB and the SLPP. But reading between the tweets, Facebook posts, and even political commentaries, I can only conclude that the resurgence of the JVP has generated a mutual aversion to its policies, personalities, and aspirations. This is intriguing, but by no means inexplicable.
While both sides consider the JVP as sectarian, this aversion materialises in different forms and takes on a different character: thus whereas the SJB accuses it of acting as a third-party spoiler against the Opposition, the SLPP accuses it of challenging its policies.
What are we to make of such perceptions? Insofar as the JVP’s attempts to deconstruct the government’s policies are concerned, the SLPP is correct in viewing the party as a challenge. That does not justify the mud supporters of the regime sling at Anura Kumara Dissanayake, but it does provide a rationale, however slight, for such mudslinging.
It’s a different story with the SJB and, to a much lesser extent, the UNP. The gist of their argument, as far as I can make it out, is that the JVP can’t make it on its own at an election. Since this debars it from contending alone, accordingly, it should join a coalition led by the mainstream Opposition. If it does not choose that line, it will split the anti-government vote and enable the SLPP to win again. Thus, the more it dabbles with the idea of going solo, the more counterproductive its campaigns will be for the Opposition.
While this line of reasoning has always surfaced vis-à-vis the JVP whenever a government becomes unpopular, in recent weeks it has generated a horde of negative comments against the party. No doubt its resurgence online has contributed to such critiques.
Reading between these comments, one wonders whether SJB supporters are worried about the JVP: one such supporter goes as far as to warn that if the latter becomes more sectarian than it is, “there will be a boycott.” The government, of course, faces no such problem: its promoters do not have to contend with the JVP for votes from its traditional bases, though one wonders whether the Rajapaksas will have to fight for support from those fronts in the long term, given their alienation from the SLFP’s peasant and working class roots.
To be fair by the SJB, the argument that the JVP can spoil prospects for a united resistance against the government is partly true. The SJB’s predecessor, the UNP, benefitted not a little from the JVP’s campaign against Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1988. This is certainly not to deny the popularity that Ranasinghe Premadasa enjoyed in the run-up to the elections that year. But if the JVP’s tactic of smearing the Opposition is anything to go by, these campaigns have ended up benefitting the status quo more than the resistance.
By no means was this the exception in 1988. Writing to The Island on Christmas Day that year, the columnist Kautilya argued that the benefactor of JVP-instigated violence “was the narrowly winning victor.” I confess this simplifies what was a rather complex situation, since there were, as one analyst contended in Economic and Political Weekly, “reasons to believe that local-level SLFP sympathisers sometimes joined the JVP.” But the underlying conclusion cannot be denied: the JVP’s violence helped tilt the scales against the SLFP, just as the JVP’s rhetoric bolstered the UNP’s prospects a decade earlier.
The situation under yahapalanaya was different. There the JVP had been recognised as part of the official Opposition: its leader happened to be the Chief Opposition Whip. Deprived of any proper standing in parliament, the Mahinda Rajapaksa led Joint Opposition found itself unable to cut ice there; it had to find its base outside the legislature. That paid dividends in 2019 when the slogan of the hour became Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s claim of being a maverick and a newcomer: a claim the JVP could not make.
Krishantha Cooray is only half-correct in his assertion that the UNP’s mistake was “to allow the so-called ‘joint opposition’ to dominate the public discourse on policy matters” – half- correct, because it conveniently lays aside the UNP’s complicity in the Bond Scam and other unpopular measures, a complicity that the present head of the SJB never shared – but he is right in the sense that in ejecting the Joint Opposition and allowing it to gain steam outside, the UNP enabled it to ride over the official Opposition, the TNA.
Identified unfairly with the UNP, the JVP did much to pinpoint and publicise the flaws of the regime. Sunil Handunhetti’s chairmanship of COPE enabled the Bond Scam to come out into the public; while several MPs, some of them later migrating to the SJB, succeeded clumsily in inserting footnotes in the COPE Report, Sunil opposed them and made his stance on the matter very clear. The JVP lambasted the UNP’s policies as much as the Joint Opposition did, standing with students protesting against SAITM and with unions protesting against the Port City deal. Yet these moments belonged to the Joint Opposition; despite its laudable critiques of the UNP, the JVP thus had to give way to a more nationalist-populist front.
Neither supporters of this government nor advocates of yahapalanism will admit the role played by the JVP in tarnishing the yahapalana regime’s prospects. That says as much about the popularity of the Rajapaksas as it does about the myopia of those who think that regime was the best we got, and argue as much in column after column. In both instances, the JVP remains forgotten, marginalised, and tragically underappreciated.
My point here is that if the ability to mobilise vast swathes of the population against the government is the litmus test of any opposition party, the JVP has failed to match its policy rhetoric with election results. Since 2005, it has registered an almost terminal decline at the polls, hardly commensurate with the popularity it enjoys among the youth.
The view that an “honest” opposition does not need to win elections – a view supporters of the JVP subscribe to – does not bode well for a party identifying itself with a disenchanted electorate. In politics, numbers matter. Without numbers, any attempt at acting “holier than thou” – a tactic the JVP resorts to so frequently it has become a trademark today – not only fails to generate votes, but also denies counterparts elsewhere crucial support. Perhaps it is this high-strung idealism, bordering on arrogance, that alienates SJB activists. Unfortunately for the JVP, it has not tried to extricate itself from such perceptions, as Anura Dissanayake’s outburst at Sajith Premadasa over the latter’s call for snap elections shows.
Having said that, the assumption that the JVP’s rhetoric impairs the SJB’s prospects as the country’s main Opposition is flawed and, to me, smacks of partisanship. It is no small irony that political activists trying their best to bring down the government can, in the same vein, denigrate the decisions and stances of a party that, for all the disenchantment the people had with this regime in the wake of the first wave last year, received only three percent of the vote at the general election. To denigrate such a party even subtly indicates, in the first instance, a fear of that party – hardly becoming of an Opposition attempting to pose as an alternative to the regime – and, in the second, a confidence in the main Opposition’s ability to unify disgruntled sections of the population against this regime.
To consider the SJB as somehow being more unified than the JVP is of course to overlook the reality. The SJB is presently suffering from a twin paradox: between its modest size and the scale of the divisions raging in it on the one hand, and between its break from the UNP and its response to the UNP’s return to parliament on the other.
The height of its confused relations with the UNP surfaced the other day, on Twitter, when certain SJB MPs alleged, then quickly withdrew the allegation, that UNP officials connived to delay investigations by the previous regime into the Lasantha Wickrematunge murder. Such confusions to me reflect a deeper problem: the SJB is yet to evolve an identity that can help it stand out and apart. Indeed, while publicly rejecting its UNP heritage, not a few of its MPs tout policies no different to the neoliberal prescriptions of the mother party.
That this remains the case despite Sajith Premadasa’s attempts to reach out to communities alienated by the policies of the previous regime, despite a shift among some SJB MPs from adherence to orthodox theory to calls for populist measures, and despite a debate that has sprung up over economic policy within SJB circles (a debate in which Dayan Jayatilleka and Kusum Wijetilleke, among others, have made commendable interventions), should inform us that while there are many terms one can use to describe the SJB, “unified” is not among them. The end-result has been dismally clear: people no longer distinguish between the old party and the new; nor, indeed, between the government and the opposition.
It is this, primarily, that has bolstered support for the JVP. While I remain sceptical over whether its resurgence can translate into actual votes, it is clear that disenchantment with the government’s policies has made a third option – which is what the JVP has historically been – preferable to a mainstream Opposition. Instead from attacking the JVP’s insularity, hence, SJB activists should find out why anger against the regime has turned its critics, not to a mainstream party as is typically the case, but to a party whose identity remains to the left and decidedly to the left of mainstream Opposition MPs.
There are many valid critiques that can be made about the JVP. I have made them, in this column and elsewhere, again and again. But to bemoan its decision to play the game alone, without finding out why the SJB has been unable to summon as much firepower, even after all these months, is to me unfair, unjust, and counterproductive. The way out for the SJB lies neither in demeaning the JVP nor in returning to the UNP, but rather in charting an ideology that squares with the interests of the country and the aspirations of its people.
*The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org