By Kumar David –
By all accounts the JVP’s star is rising; everybody says so. We have had similar scenarios before where it seemed the JVP was at peak but the outcome in the subsequent election was disappointing. Will it be the same again? No one can say till the results of local government (LG) or provincial council (PC) elections, due early and later this year, respectively, are known. The regime like a headless chicken is scampering to foil elections; it fears the JVP or SJB, or both will do well while pro-government entities will flop. But election forecasting is black-magic; let us watch. If the government does badly at LG or PC polls a new game begins. Or before that president and regime may scrap elections; this danger is real but I will not pursue that line of thought today though Burkina Faso became the latest domino to fall to the military on Sunday. Still, unbelievably all Sri Lankas’ entities, political and civilian are sleep walking into the abyss. The political and economic situation today is reminiscent of January 1962 at the time of the attempted coup.
Back to my topic. The SJB must sell to the people the conventional liberal-democratic, market-economy; the conventional capitalist development strategy. People are accustomed to it; this has both advantages and disadvantages. The big obstacle is that Sajith will not agree to dump the presidential system though a majority of people of all races and faiths are fed up with it. The JVP-NPP has a harder sell despite belief that a new broom will sweep cleaner. There are two things to do; one, better present the alternative state and economic strategy, the key word is alternative; second, convince people that the wild old ways are gone. The bad old days are heavy laden with two problems; a proclivity to foolhardy violence and an unsound position on the national question. I have said my part, for now, about how it can spruce up the alternative constitutional and economic outlook in my columns of 2, 9 and 16 January on the NPP manifesto, therefore will give that a slip today. I will comment on the “bad old days” conundrum in this column.
There is a reserve of voters who would like to vote JVP-NPP but remain reluctant because of recollections of 1971 and 1989; either personal recollections or they know all about it. This means that not only one-foot-in-the-grave old folk but younger voters too are put off by the gonibilla stories. How can the JVP change this? It’s not going to be easy; words, apologies and promises cut no ice in the cut and thrust of practical politics. But a point to note is that this stain has not rubbed off on the NPP which did not exist in those bad old days, and more important, now includes people who at risk to life and limb fought that madness. Were they to wield authority now, they will not permit anything of this sort to recur. Hence one adjustment that will help reassure voters is if the NPP wields significant power in the alliance with a degree of authority to veto decisions. Does this sound as if I am whistling for the tail to wag the dog? Maybe it does, but cross transfer of leading personnel will be reassuring. There will have to be an NPP presence in the leading bureaus and committees of the JVP. If the JVP says “No” it needs to explain how it intends to win public confidence that the ultra-left excesses of yesteryear will not be repeated.
My suggestion of cross-fertilisation of personnel will provoke dissent but the JVP leadership needs to face facts. Recently the JVP established a Consultative (or Advisory) Council of significant people; three of them of long Marxist political vintage I know well (Lal Wijenayake, Prof Vijaya Kumar and Dr Michael Fernando). I am sure there are others who are important. Such persons can serve a better purpose if they are not on peripheral advisory councils but in JVP ‘hard-core’ decision-making bodies. I say this bearing in mind the future of the JVP not the NPP. The former not the latter is the crucial element in the relationship and balanced power sharing is needed for the benefit of the JVP. JVP leaders participate in NPP gatherings and no doubt report back to the party but this is not the same thing.
I had an email from an ex-LSSP comrade Jumpy who is in a sense an ally of the JVP-NPP alliance. He said “I read your piece on Sunil Handuneththi in Colombo Telegraph with interest. The JVP has not changed and is using the NPP as a mask. I know you will not agree”. True, I do not agree with Jumpy but the perception of lurking post-election left-authoritarianism in the mind of the electorate and democratic leftists must be addressed. The JVP must take structural steps to change the perception. This is a more general need than simply promising not repeating 1971 and 1989 type ultra-left excesses. The examples of Nicolo Maduro and Daniel Ortega renew such fears in the public mind at every turn.
The SJB does not suffer from perceptions of internal power imbalances, although the ex-UNP wing is predominant. The role of other partners is clear and the Front is seamless to outsiders. The presence of influential leaders with clout who do not have the same organisational genesis as Sajith – Champika Ranawaka for example – establishes a more equitable power distribution. The JVP will not gladly accommodate my suggestions for changes in power relationships, but honestly, I don’t see a way forward for the NPP and more significantly for the JVP except by opting for a less-closed, less old-fashioned semi-Blanquist structure. I hope for constructive comments from others; there is time enough for reconsideration and discussion.
The relationship of the JVP to the national minorities is also tricky. It appeared from Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s statements that the JVP was reassessing its reactionary position on the national question and close to admitting that its association with state forces that brutalised Tamil civilians during the civil war was wrong. However, that apart from Anura no other JVP leader has said anything similar or attempted to mend fences with the Tamils, Ceylon or Upcountry. (Forgive me if I am ill informed). Sunil Handuneththi’s interview with Sirimantha Ratnasekera, Sunday Island, 16 Jan seemed to confirm my fears. His topic was opposition to “India’s plan to capture the Trinco oil tank farm and to take forward its expansionist intentions”. This is not a matter on which I have views; I have not studied it. What startled me was his next comment.
“The government has been compelled to sign this agreement. It is Déjà vu of the Indo-Lanka agreement which was pushed down the throat of Lanka on July 29, 1987. India got the JR Jayewardene government to sign the agreement by coercion. They dropped ‘parippu’ here, violating our air space. They sent an army of 150,000 while Sri Lanka’s army had only 72,000 cadre strength. This time they have used economic means for coercion”.
Let’s take a long view. I think it is correct to say that this is the opinion of four in five of Sinhalese people. However, I am also certain that four in five of Tamils distrust and fear the military and are pleased with the ‘parippu’ drop. (Many, from unpleasant experience however, are livid with the IPKF). Now I am not asking which view is correct; that’s not my point at all. The crucial matter is that there is not one uniform consciousness or common stance of the two communities on an event as serious as this. There are two different consciousnesses! And this is so in respect of much else of the conversation about ethnicity. A left party needs to take the fullest cognisance of this.
This puts a certain onus on the left about how to navigate these waters. I think the LSSP from the inception up to about 1960, and the Vama Samasamaja movement from its inception and the NSSP in its early days (I have no idea what the NSSP stands for anymore) did navigate this issue with leftist, liberalist and Marxist common-sense. However, it is difficult to believe that a conversation of depth and seriousness has taken place within the JVP on the “national question”. This perhaps is why the views of different leaders are disjointed and at times discordant. The JVP would do itself a favour if it set aside a goodly period of time and commissioned a thoroughgoing discussion of what its theoretical stance on the Tamil minority question is. What the NPP’s manifesto says is perhaps adequate for electoral purposes but a serious-minded party must have a thoroughly worked-out understanding, not bitty comments by this leader or that. The JVP needs to evolve from a robust and radical political party and reach the stature of an alternative government.
In other countries, say in North and South America and India there is vigorous dialogue among thinkers and activists about race. In the United States it is framed in terms such as critical race theory, the legacy of slavery and reparations, “black lives matter”, the case made by white supremacists, the looming Trump-Republican threat to curtail voting rights for people of colour, poverty and race, and so on. There is no dialogue of even remotely comparable depth or sophistication in our country. The SJB is sterile and has nothing new or old to say on the matter. The JVP must perforce move forward from a formula position to lively, no-holds barred open internal dialogue; the more open and the more outsiders are invited to participate the more productive it will be.