By Vishwamithra –
A way back in the sixties and seventies, the May Day rallies were an essential ingredient in the left-wing recipes for political strength. Purely an exhibitionistic ploy, the left-wing parties, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), the Communist Party (CP) and the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) displayed their allegiance to the working man by organizing trade union-led May Day rallies to their maximum strength. But invariably at the real polls, when the election day arrives, that strength was proven to be a mere flash in the pan. The people at large participated at these May Day rallies and ‘pelapalies’ (demonstrations) but did not trust their left-wing leaders at the summit of power, either at the General Elections or even at the Presidential Elections which, however, came after 1977.
It happened to all those leaders, NM Perera of the LSSP, Peter Keuneman of the CP and Philip Gunawardena of the MEP. Each one of them could serve any government as a coalition member of the two mainstream political parties at the time, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of the Bandaranaikes and the United National Party (UNP) of the Senanayakes and Jayewardenes.
Sri Lanka’s political journey has come a long way since then. The old left is dead. The workers’ paradise has turned into a hell of which the main custodians are those who claimed ownership to the common man’s cause. A den of corruption and betrayal has succeeded the traditional, yet incorrupt ‘left’ led by N M, Peter, Colvin and Philip. A doctrinaire approach to politics has been replaced by a ‘practical’ self-serving and self-enriching procession by thieves and hooligans.
Global transformation that began with the perestroika and glasnost initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid nineteen eighties in the Soviet Union was mainly the cause of the collapse of world communism. The Soviet experiment on Communism took almost one whole century, first to survive the onslaught of Capitalism and then to fail as an economic theory and a system of governance. But Ceylon in the early nineteen sixties, the peak of the Cold War between America-led West and the Soviet Union-led socialist countries, did not anticipate matters to take shape in such a drastic fashion. As a matter of fact, it was quite fashionable to be a leftist in the early nineteen sixties; even in the nineteen seventies, Capitalism was portrayed as one practiced by one class to exploit the other underprivileged class in order to dominate the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy of a country.
The romanticist attachment to the leftist ideas and ideals could be seen in a single photograph of the May Day celebrations held by the then United Left Front (ULF) in Ceylon where the triumvirate of N M, Philip and Dr SA Wickramasinghe parading along the May Day in 1963. However, later in less than one and half years, the LSSP decided to join a coalition government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike and since then, until they parted ways in 1976, identified themselves with the SLFP coalition. On May Day in 1963 the three main left parties (LSSP, CP and MEP) held a massive joint rally. That was followed by the launching of United Left Front (ULF) on 12 August, the tenth anniversary of the 1953 Hartal. The front launched agitations on issues like bringing down the prices of essential commodities, leading it to represent an immediate threat to the governance of SLFP. The SLFP began to offer the left parties ministerial posts and worked intensively to break the unity of ULF.
Having lost their identity as the leading force in the left movement in Ceylon, the LSSP, CP and MEP lost their collective DNA and were wiped out at the 1977 General Elections. The emergence of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), after their failed April-Insurrection in 1971 as the sole political force, was seen as representing the left-wing thinking in the political spectrum.
Nevertheless, the JVP-organized May Day rallies were distinctly different from the earlier LSSP/CP/MEP demonstrations. While those who took part in the various ‘pelapalies’ in the sixties and seventies were mostly intoxicated and utterly uncontrollable, the JVP demonstrations were demonstrably disciplined, outstandingly choreographed in relation to their commitment and devotion to the cause of the movement; they were intensely focused on their political agenda.
However, the irony of all these efforts by the JVP was, when the elections were called, from 1983 to 2019, they never went beyond 5% – 7% of the total vote. It was indeed a pathetic performance at the polls for the JVP and the index did not waver from that fixed point of voting strength.
Come 2023, the same was displayed by the National People’s Power (NPP) on a grander scale on the May Day. In addition to being the only political party that celebrated the May Day outside an enclosed location, the NPP further went to the extent to show average Sri Lankan that they are the only party that showed some allegiance to a particular governance cum economic doctrine.
From the State Council days, until the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was born, Ceylonese electorate was polarized between UNP-led right wing and the LSSP-led left wing. The left wing parties, namely LSSP and the CP with other fringe left-wing political entities were addressing the electorate on a bicameral basis. The UNP was basically committed to a capitalist system of economics and governance. At the time, especially prior to JR Jayewardene taking over the party, it was totally divorced from trade union politics and the working class was fundamentally committed to the various left-wing parties which advocated the rights of the working class. The UNP’s commitment to safeguarding the investor cum mercantilist classes was not only predominant in the pronunciation of their doctrine, it was practiced to its ultimate end. Prior to 1977, while showing a cursory attachment to the country’s agriculture sector, basically led by DS Senanayake and his son Dudley, its economic policies did not reach the farmer who is at the bottom of the agricultural hierarchy. The UNP government always backed the large landholding class in this sector. Instead of the farmer, they looked after the large landholding ‘Mudalalis’. One reason why Dudley Senanayake’s ‘Waga Sangramaya’ (Growth-War) failed during the 1965-1970 period was because of this over-dependence on the landholding class.
The successive SLFP-led governments, however, had a masterful propaganda machinery led by the famous ‘Atta’ (Truth) paper to discredit not only this Waga Sangramaya, they managed to destroy Dudley Senanayake’s credibility beyond redemption. They called him ‘Pacha-bahu’ (king of lies). In the 1970 May Day rally organized by the SLFP and other left-wing parties completely destroyed Dudley Senanayake’s reputation and the UNP was absolutely helpless against this propaganda onslaught.
However, thanks mainly to the left-wing ideologues like NM, Colvin and Keuneman, at least on the a very superficial level, the SLFP managed to cover its non-ideological nudity by a veneer of doctrine. The polarization of the country’s electorate had reached its pinnacle by 1970. The UNP was the rich man’s party and the SLFP-led left wing parties were the poor man’s party.
But the 1970-1977 Sirimavo-led coalition government proved that that left-wing approach to the solution the country’s problems was not only wrong ideologically, it was unabashedly inefficient and irreparably fractured owing to Sirimavo’s nepotism, rampant corruption and political hypocrisy. NM, Colvin and Keuneman failed miserably and their left-wing doctrine was proven an anachronism in the wake of the changes that had swept the international arena by that time.
Come 1977, J R Jayewardene, despite his many failures later, transformed the UNP into a common man’s party. He managed to introduce the ruralization of the UNP by selecting very common men and women as party organizers for each rural electorate. Laggala Wijeratne Banda. Minipe Attanayake, Galgamuwa Loku Banda Rattota Kaviratne, were amongst those who were selected to contest on the UNP ticket in 1977. What DS, Dudley and Sir John could not do from 1947 to 1973, JR did in 1977. The results of the ’77 General Elections not only justified JR’s move, it proved that it was the only measure the UNP had to adopt as a popular mass-based political party. The Left-wing was completely clobbered in ’77. Trade Union activities became an dynamic element of the UNP’s progress.
Furthermore, the UNP’s leadership prior to JR was basically rallying around the Senanayakes. Although the Party practiced a capitalist system of government, it did not have a firm ideological base outside the Senanayake family. J R changed that. Although JR’s approach to politics could be called non-doctrinaire, he did, in fact, introduce a theoretical tinge to his policies and and their applications. His approach to the agriculture sector was basically the massive Mahaweli Development Program and it did prove absolutely right, not only in the sphere of rice and other cash crop production, its contribution to the country’s electricity production cannot be ignored. If not for the Mahaweli hydro-power component, Sri Lanka would have meandered into the twenty first century virtually in the dark.
R Premadasa who succeeded JR managed to undo all that was positive about the UNP-led governments and he began the process of a personality cult and filled the UNP hierarchy with yes-men who had no business in deciding the country’s future. This cancerous process is till continuing under Ranil Wickremasinghe and Ranil’s emptiness is epitomized in the last General Elections when the UNP did not gain even a single parliamentary seat.
With the decimation of the Left wing in the late seventies, the SLFP too became shamefully nude of practical political doctrine. The Rajapaksas dominated the party and now the SLFP is another party led by Maithripala Sirisena who was a disaster as President and the majority of the then SLFP are now calling themselves the Pohottuwa group whose allegiance the the Rajapaksas is second only to their greed for green cash they had been collecting when they were in power under the Rajapaksas.
In such a lamentable context, the country’s future generations are becoming closely associated with the only political party that is fundamentally structured on an unwavering ideological line that of social justice and devoid of corruption. Although the JVP, the leading component of the NPP, used to be called an extremist left-wing political party, its reconciliation with the current flow of global realities has put them in a shockingly relatable position to the present electorate.
Its approach to governance and economic policies seem to to be much more practical and amenable to the present status of the country and its oft-repeated commitment to an incorrupt system of governance has a plenty of appeal in the country. That is what was evidenced in their last May Day celebrations. The country’s hopes may lie with them, at least for the time being, but once again, it might be the voters themselves who would betray themselves at the polls, once again.
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