Colombo Telegraph

Of Political Signatures That Stay And (Don’t) Go Away

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Politics has as much to do with the past as with the present. That’s a given. Natural. Nothing out of the blue there. It also has to do, however, with forgotten pasts and forgotten enmities, with people who come together for the flimsiest and the most expedient reasons and with people who go their own separate ways because of the ideals they espouse. Again, nothing out of the blue there.

We do not remember those who live, we remember those who died. That is why politicians who have long gone are remembered more fondly than those who are among us. That is also why, when dead politicos and stars are cherished by those who purport to stand what they stood for, there is always some healthy scepticism which greets it. This week’s column is not about those dead politicos only, rather about their proverbial descendants who believe (sincerely or otherwise, we cannot tell) they are continuing what they stood for.

As a follower of Sri Lanka’s post-independence history, if I were asked to name the two most important political shifts which transpired after 1948, I would mention S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s swabasha revolution and the entry of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) into our political landscape. Between 1956 and 1971 and between 1971 and 1988, there were a great many years, years in which loyalties changed, friendships soured, and the constituent parties of an entire regime backtracked on the National Question. When Bandaranaike proposed the Banda-Chelva Pact, for instance, the Old Left were in arms against it, if not loudly then covertly, and when Dudley Senanayake proposed a similar agreement, the SLFP and (again) the Old Left opposed it.

The JVP was born out of this confusing political hodgepodge. As Gamini Samaranayake points out in his book “Sri Lankave Viplaveeya Vyaparaya” (published in 2002), the 1971 insurrection proved for the first time that State coercion could be used, brutally and violently, to set down a potential revolution. It also proved that Sri Lanka’s political landscape was not adequate, that a new party questioning the Leftist credentials of an increasingly armchair socialist government was needed. While this column is not about whether the JVP was successful in pulling off its coup in this respect, it is about another, more covert revolution that its traditional ideological foe, the Old Left, indulged in, which I would consider as the third most significant post-1948 political shift.

When the 1971 insurrection unfolded the bloodier, more violent side to revolutionary politics, the constituent Left parties in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government were busy badmouthing the JVP. No less a figure than Colvin R. de Silva implied that behind the party stood the CIA, fresh from its imperialist projects in South-East Asia (most prominently, Indonesia) and only too willing to unseat a democratically elected government to placate the West’s anti-Communist sympathies.

Echoed in that indictment was a feeling of hurt, a feeling that in doing what it did the JVP had gone beyond the Old Left in its commitment to the Marxist principles of justice, welfare, equality, and equity. How do we know this? The fact that it was AFTER, and not BEFORE, the insurrection that Mrs Bandaranaike’s regime spearheaded its most ambitious “leftist” programs (the Land Reforms Act being one of them). In other words, the JVP had questioned the credibility of the Old Left, and the Old Left (which was aging too fast) needed leverage to retain that credibility. When they passed the Land Reforms Act, of course, they would not know that five years later they would leave the government and leave ground for J. R. Jayewardene and the United National Party (UNP) to attack Mrs Bandaranaike and her cronyism.

What happened to the Old Left after 1977, I have tried to chart in an earlier column (“Whither the withering State?”). With the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was forced to resort to the same donor agencies it had earlier shirked. Profesor Susantha Goonatilake in his book “Recolonisation: Foreign Funded NGOs in Sri Lanka” singles out the Communist Party, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP), and the Sri Lanka Mahajana Party (SLMP) for distorting the Left-Right dichotomy by letting go of their allegiance to the Left. While I am not interested in Professor Goonatilake’s well researched allegations against these parties, I am interested in the political shift they brought about when they let go of their leftist avatar.

It is pointless to write about the Old Left without bringing up the SLFP. It was the SLFP that brought the LSSP and the CP to the mainstream political process, in 1956 and in 1964. The rifts that would later tear these parties apart were, if at all, minimal and not that discernible back then. Nevertheless, they were there, insidiously if not subtly, and the main rift was between the govi-sangha sympathies of the Philip Gunawardena faction and the kamkaru-lawkika sympathies of the N. M.- Colvin faction. The latter was more cosmopolitan, more secular, and less rooted, while the former was so culturally sensitive that Professor A. V. D. S. Indraratne, speaking at the Philip Gunawardena Oration in 2015, argued that the man brought Marxism to the peasants, an unparalleled feat here.

This rift was accentuated with the entry of the NGO sector. It explains, to a considerable extent, why those who followed these factions went their own, separate ways: why Philip Gunawardena’s son formed a nationalist movement (the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna) that did more for Mahinda Rajapaksa’s resurgence in 2004 than some of the constituent parties which deserted him later on. Gunawardena was an old warhorse, whose eventual shift away from Leftist politics signified a shift in the LSSP to parliamentary politics (under N. M. Perera).

His legacy, in other words, was not to continue after 1977, at least in terms of its ability to shape and nurture the SLFP. That was a task largely left to those who followed Colvin’s cosmopolitanism, who emerged from the University system and other institutions as intellectuals and political activists. They were responsible for the usurpation of the Left movement in this country. Such usurpations call for protestors and successors, those who seek to separate the turncoats from the movement. These were to be found with Rohana Wijeweera and the JVP.

Meanwhile the Old Left floundered. They were treading on manifestly unfamiliar territory, branded and hated by both sides of the political divide: by Tamil extremists because they were not pushing hard enough for a federalised Sri Lanka, and by Sinhala extremists because they were perceived (not unfairly, one can add) of pandering to extreme variants of Tamil separatism. That is why they needed a figurehead to affirm their legitimacy, because as Professor Liyanage Amarakeerthi rather austerely pointed out in his critique of nationalist literature (“Unlearning what Gunadasa Amarasekara taught us with a sense of gratitude”), the NGO sector could never (hope to) reach the “monolingual masses.”

In the end, they got that figurehead. They got Vijaya Kumaratunga.

Vijaya was not a politician. He was a star and a very good one at that. He felt the pulse of the people because he WAS the people. Most importantly, he was not reviled by the Sinhala nationalists because he pandered to the myths and ideals they evoked whenever they saw him onscreen. Unlike that other giant of the cinema who crossed over to politics, Gamini Fonseka, Vijaya didn’t mind being a populist. In the end, Fonseka became the Deputy Speaker of the parliament, staying away from the stains that politics besmirches those who take to it. A similar fate could or could not have met Vijaya. We do not know. We do know, however, that he was the man the Old Left wanted.

He was not the nationalist those who praise him cut him out to be. He was opposed to the war and to the racialism it was kowtowing to. He was for a united Sri Lanka at a time when “united” was synonymous with “unitary” and not “diversity” (that is, in political parlance). He was opposed more than anything else to Sinhala chauvinism and was thus allied with MIRJE, the ICES, the Marga Institute, and all those other outfits which were preaching the gospel of devolution. Speaking in a television interview, I believe right after he visited Jaffna (the only politician from the South who did so until then), he made his stance clear: what was being fought was a “jathivadi yuddaya”, which could end only if power was devolved to the periphery.

Now economically this made sense in the eighties, but whether or not it makes sense today (with the mess our economy has got into), we know that Vijaya, by saying this, was transforming the party founded by his father-in-law from a nationalist outfit to a federalist outfit, transforming 1956 to 1988 (the year he was killed and his death legitimised the federal-speak the Old Left had solidified). As a moderate nationalist, I neither subscribe to nor oppose federalism, but I am aware that what Vijaya did, which the political historian has been afraid to touch, was bring about the third most potent political shift this country saw after 1948. I cannot emphasise on this enough.

Fortunately or unfortunately (I can’t tell which), the same Left that had floundered before Vijaya’s arrival floundered after his death. The United Socialist Alliance (USA), which had him as its articulator and figurehead, included the LSSP, CP, NSSP, PLOTE, EPRLF, and SLMP. Of these, the PLOTE and EPRLF would be bloodily eliminated by the LTTE, while the NSSP and LSSP would separate and the CP would pass away into a void. These were constituent parties, and they did their part, but without Vijaya they were nothing. In other words, Vijaya was all of them, but they were not Vijaya. The moment he died, he empowered the outfits that had sponsored his party and the ideology they propagated. As had been the case before, those other parties merely became the instruments of these outfits.

The late eighties was a terrible time, so terrible that those who did not live through it have no authority to speak of the carnage it unveiled. The dichotomies that had cut out one political movement from the other dissolved, to the extent that the Old Left, the traditional foe of the UNP, covertly affirmed the Indo-Lanka Accord: the same Accord that J. R. Jayewardene was bullied into signing. Jayewardene was, whether or not you agree with his economic policies, a mild nationalist, quite differently to the breed of culturally castrated ideologues in the LSSP and CP. Not surprisingly, when the government of the day used brutal force against those who protested the Accord (the JVP included), the Old Left stayed quiet. I am not alone in saying this: a perusal of Professor Susantha’s book (referred to above) would confirm my indictment.

History does not paint a pretty picture of these parties, which is why Professor Susantha’s book merits more than a passing reference. He points out how sections of the Old Left were involved in paramilitary groups which were affiliated to the government and were involved in extra-judicial killings. We have it from Rohana Wijeweera himself that the NSSP was allegedly being trained by Tamil militants (The Sunday Times, November 13 1988). That is not the only allegation that Professor Susantha alludes to, but owing to spatial constraints I will not list the others out. Suffice it to say, then, that while the “Spent Left” (I am tired of calling it “Old”) was superficially opposed to the government, it was not opposed to the brutal force and propaganda which were deployed to implement the Indo-Lanka Accord.

What happened next? The personal rivalries and familial tensions that ran riot in the SLFP were echoed in Chandrika Kumaratunga’s decision to quit it and join her husband’s party, the SLMP. The SLMP was housed by the likes of Ossie Abeygunasekera, who’d later join the UNP. It was a party that was doomed to pass into the political wilderness unless Kumaratunga returned with her stalwarts to the SLFP. That is of course what happened, and what transformed the party that had earlier stood for the pancha maha balavegaya into a federalist outpost. It is this, and not just Vijaya Kumaratunga’s entry into our political landscape, that compels me to write that his entry left behind a political signature which has since remained as potent as it was when it first emerged.

To put what happened next pithily, the likes of Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, Felix Perera, and later Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera became the ideological shapers of the SLFP, when after 1994 Kumaratunga turned it into the biggest champion of devolution and federalism, more so than the UNP (whether under J. R. Jayewardene or Ranil Wickremesinghe). Not for no reason was the Old Left referred to as a set of three-wheeler parties, and like all three-wheeler parties, when the Pied Pipers in the SLFP led the way, they followed even though the economic policies their government authored were against their Marxist principles. All they could do, in this context, was to keep shut, warn the people against voting for the UNP, and refuse to co-sign the SLFP’s “centrist” policies. Small wonder, then, that they have since become insignificant. And unpopular.

So has all this been for the better? I would say yes. If those who have not lived through the bheeshanaya have no right to comment on the brutality it unleashed, those who have not lived through 1983 have no moral right to trivialise the aspirations of the ethnic minority. The eighties was a different time altogether, certainly bloodier that today and indicative of how far a State could go to crush dissent. 1983 had what those who wanted a separate state wanted: a covertly organised attempt by the government to target their community. The scars it caused still haven’t been healed, which is why the entry of the SLMP was needed to placate the marginalised ones.

That does not, however, make up for the politics that the Old Left stood for. It was composed of what Dayan Jayatilleka once referred to as “mul sidagath aragalkarayo” (culturally uprooted revolutionaries). This in itself is not a bad thing, but it is a bad thing when considering what they indulged in later years.

They did not feel the pulse of the people or for that matter the people’s mandate. They were content in subverting the democratic process to achieve their aims. They were not just concerned about changing the mindsets of our politicians, but those politicians themselves. In other words, they were keen on dismantling the legitimacy of a government to promote their crass, minoritarian objectives. Fortunately for us, they did not succeed. They could not, both because the people knew who they were and because of the likes of Nalin de Silva, Gunadasa Amarasekara, S. L. Gunasekera, and (closer to the present) Gevindu Cumaratunga.

Vijaya Kumaratunga left us 29 years ago. He was killed by the JVP, which entered the democratic process and the parliament thanks to his widow. They cohabited for a brief time with the Old Left, then left knowing quite well that the government was kowtowing to mild separatism. Whether or not they knew Mahinda Rajapaksa the populist, they were correct in supporting the man in 2004, along with the descendants of the Old Left who were not culturally uprooted (I am talking about Dinesh Gunawardena here, though there were and are others).

So to wrap up: Vijaya was a humanist, a great man, and a refined populist, but it is my belief that those who used him failed abysmally to retain the popularity they enjoyed when he was alive. His death was a death knell for them. Predictably, they ended up being the parvenus they always were.

And you know what? I for one am not complaining.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com

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