By Kumar David –
The NPP released its initial political Manifesto entitled a Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges on December 21 last year. Notably it is introduced as an “initial” document so presumably after accumulating public comment and benefitting from debate and perhaps a consultative seminar (physical or Zoom) a final version will be written up later this year. Therefore this is open-season for debates and dialogue. The Sajith-SJB and the SLPP, the only other entities with national-level clout, are sterile; they will surely print drab scraps nearer the elections, or crib from the NPP draft. Forget them for now.
Last week (2 January) I introduced the Rapid Response document and a mass of feedback has landed on my desk, or is it more fashionable to say computer-screen. Three or four articles intended to cut the ground under the JVP’s (apparently) rising popularity have also appeared in the Island, the Sunday Island and the DBS Jeyaraj column. I do not intend to reply to any because I have no mandate to speak for the JVP or the NPP, only for myself and make no reference to these authors by name. The were varied: (a) The Rapid Response document is too general and lacks nuts and bolts details, (b) the JVP must not make itself a footstool of the Sajith-SJB in the latter’s quest for presidency and parliamentary power, (c) denigration of the history of the JVP from alpha to omega, and (d) re the Tamils, “I have reservations about your (KD) assurance that the JVP now is not the JVP of 1971 and 1989”.
My responses, not the JVP or NPP’s – as said I am nobody in these circles – follows after I enumerate issues on which I agree (a, c, d, e and f) or disagree (b and g) with the post-Somawansa JVP. The Tamil question I discuss separately at the end.
a) Joining Chandrika’s government was WISE; the JVP proved its ability to run ministerial administrations.
b) Quitting CBK’s Administration on relatively flimsy grounds, instead of staying on and proving her error in enrolling right-wing opportunists was IMMATURE.
c) Supporting MR in 2005 and SF in 2010 were ARGUABLY the best options in the circumstances.
d) Campaigning for the Single-Issue Common-Candidate strategy in 2019 and leading the drive to defeat an MR third-term was 100% CORRECT.
e) Electoral bids in the 2019 and 2020 were JUSTIFIED as it was reasonable to hope that the NPP would poll better than it did.
f) Consolidating JVP-NPP strength and now emerging (apparently) as a significant force is GOOD.
g) Failing, concurrently with (f), to take the lead in consolidating a joint-opposition alliance to stall potential junta adventures is WRONG.
Thoughtful if cautious JT of liberal political disposition had this to say when I remarked that it was absurd to ask the NPP Manifesto to spell out economic policy down to nuts and bolts. This is both absurd and undesirable and just what a programme must not do. A Manifesto lays out broad attitudes and thinking, it must not become a straightjacket. As circumstances evolve it is necessary to respond flexibly. My interlocutor was unconvinced and responded:
“I agree that no manifesto can spell out each nut and bolt and how and where they will fit. But I remain convinced that the NPP-JVP needs to tell the voter more about its economic policy. Saying it is ready to take over governance and guarantee an “adooshitha palanayak” is inadequate. A severe economic crisis already here and there are foreseeable trends to which the NPP-JVP needs to respond now. The point I have consistently made is: What is their (JVP’s) true analysis of the crisis facing Lanka? What are the solutions they offer to solve this crisis? Don’t the voters need to know now? If it is to become a credible alternative government the JVP needs to provide its answers to these question.
The NPP document does do quite a bit of this! But JT is sympathetic to the JVP and discards the SJB and the SLPP as dead-ends, so the NPP must consent and include in the second version of the Manifesto carefully drafted details. The drafters can benefit from a review of NMSJ’s constitutional proposals – see Jayampathy Wickremeratne for a short review of the proposals.
Fraternité or Liberté?
However as I cautioned readers TJ is a “classic” liberal, hence I need to digress and explain the inadequacy of liberalism in today’s world. Year 2021 was bad for liberal democracy globally; there were military take-overs in Burma (February), Chad (May), Mali (August), Guinea (September) and Sudan (October). Khaki-clad thugs imposed varying degrees of brutality; Buddhist Burma the worst. The incapacity of liberal economics to deliver public goods bamboozled some into accepting coups in desperation. When maalumiris (capsicum) sells at Rs 960 a kg, surely food riots can’t be far off. True-blue liberals in their love of democracy (bless them) overlook that feeding families and schooling children is the priority of the poor. They neglect livelihood concerns to pursue a liberal agenda. That said, one must never let criticism of liberalism turn into repression as in Russia where liquidation of Memorial which unearths Stalin’s crimes or, imprisonment of Putin’s foes on trumped up charges is routine. In Hong Kong, Beijing’s acolytes are snuffing out press freedom, cashing in on the idiocy of the 2019 rioters which led to draconian legislation passed by the National Peoples’ Congress in Beijing. The HK judiciary mercifully is still independent but it does stringently enforce laws on the book.
In Lanka deception crept into the 2019-2020 elections when dumb majorities swallowed the bait and threw their weight behind known authoritarians – “A little bit of dictatorship” was prescribed even by some in the sangha. Russia, China and the West prioritise their own interests not a concern for other people’s democracy. International actors striving to increase their global influence now mimic a low intensity Cold War. Beijing is explicit; Moscow stretches to back-up putsch leaders like Mali’s Goita and Sudan’s al-Burhan, and carries online disinformation. The first fissure in the international stance against military juntas this millennium was the 2013 Egyptian coup. The Western world, led by America denied calling that the military takeover a coup and embraced el-Sisi’s cabal which is now also a darling of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and China.
“Liberté, égalité, fraternité” is a far cry from mercantilist free-market capitalism, the lode star of twentieth and twenty-first century liberalism. In all the great revolutionary events of Europe (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1905, 1917 and 1923), in the surges of 1945-48 and 1966 and in post-Soviet 1990 liberation, material hardship of ordinary people was a crucial driver. I mention cultured Europe to alert true-blue liberals to pay attention to livelihood misadventures. If liberals lose the masses they will lose democracy! This is the plus point of the NPP’s left inclined manifesto, though granted it needs enhancement.
Turning back the khaki-clad thugs
Where I am most critical of the JVP-NPP is when in reply to my demand (g) above some say: “The regime is weak; it can’t get out of this mess. If the situation changes, we can reconsider”. This is like a man who waits till after death to take an insurance policy! Points (f) and (g) in my enumeration are complementary; they are not either/or propositions; both must be done. I know what is holding the JVP back on (g). It has suffered a long history of being used and discarded by bourgeois parties. Now it suspects well known Sajith salesmen of singing the united-front song for their master’s benefit. Yes that’s why Sajith’s choristers caterwaul loudly. But that’s all beside the point. The JVP must lead a defensive treaty not because Sajith wants to use it as a footstool but because it, the JVP, understands the need for a well prepared united-front to throwback emergent threats.
Oh for the tactical clarity and firmness of touch of a Lenin! The left must take the right stand on issues at each point in time knowing that every political actor is strategizing to benefit from everybody else’s moves. The JVP needs strengthen its theoretical confidence and sureness of touch so as to reinforce its base while also leading alliances for defined purposes.
A brief comment on a thoroughly negative and destructive piece in the Daily FT must suffice. But for the fact that I know the author VI and hold him in good regard I would have assumed it was written for the benefit of the SBJ or the SLPP; but this cannot be the case. It is carelessly drafted and pays inadequate attention to the evolution of the JVP from a pre-1989 phase, via the Somawansa interregnum to its current avatar. Pity that it reads like a harangue! But the life-story of the JVP is outside the scope of this essay.
The NPP, JVP and the Tamils
One of my fiercest interlocutors was Pineapple Lover, a Tamil with pristine left credentials (LSSP, Hector and Vama) who to this day remains far to the left of the liberals. Here are his reproaches – abbreviated.
“I have strong reservations about your assurance that the JVP is no longer the JVP of 1971 and 1989. In your Sunday Island/Colombo Telegraph column today (2 Jan) you correctly explain the left’s post-1956 debacle on the national question. You say that the LSSP and CP despite heroic and steadfast commitment to secularism and pluralism during 1956-60 finally gave in and were part of a government which implemented blatantly racist policies like standardisation and gave constitutional status to a unitary state, Sinhala and Buddhism”.
“The JVP’s racism did not end in 1989. As late as 2006 it went to Court and got the North East Province bifurcated. Given half a chance the SLFP and UNP (in all their forms) will roll back the 13A, but up to now only the JVP has carried the threat through. I think a political party built in the 60/70s on racism which and according to you murdered the likes of Vijaya Kumaranatunga for supporting 13A in 1988, and post-88 achieved the breakup of the North East Province, has been consistently Sinhala Buddhist. Those like you who are sympathetic to the JVP brush over this saying: “If you detect any slippage on the national question in the programme blame not the NPP, hold the Sinhalese people to account.”
This is a strong and well-grounded indictment. But I continue to hold from my knowledge the NPP and from the presence of Comrades Lal Wijenayake, Prof Vijaya Kumar and Dr Harini Amerasuriya, all of whom will make short shrift of any racism in NPP inner councils, that there is no tangible racism in the NPP. I think not in the JVP either though I am less familiar with its leaders and have never observed the Central Commission in session. A far-ranging interview with JVP leader Anura Kumara by Susitha Fernando however is a better guide because it goes well beyond the NPP programme and anything the JVP has openly said before.