By Uditha Devapriya –
In claiming that all mainstream parties have failed the country, the JVP–NPP has made a necessity out of virtue. The JVP has always touted itself as the better alternative, and in the present conjuncture, it feels it’s the best alternative we have.
That may explain why its manifesto, “Rapid Response”, reads like a rushed job, full of rhetoric but no real substance. It’s the policy statement of a party which attempts to please everyone and ends up pleasing no one. This is a necessary offshoot of how it perceives itself: since it considers itself superior to every other outfit, it assumes that people will vote purely or exclusively on the strength of their dissatisfaction with mainstream politics.
The JVP-NPP’s political vision is, essentially, the leftwing version of Mangala Samaraweera’s Radical Centre. Like that initiative, the JVP-NPP concentrates on political systems rather than ideologies, and engages with corruption to the exclusion of more structural issues. That is why its pamphlet has more to say about bribery than about the state of the economy, the latter of which it views through the prism of post-1977 liberalisation.
This is a far cry from the approach taken by the Latin American Left, an irony considering that the JVP-NPP has more or less recommended Pink Tide strategies.
“Developments in Latin America are being closely watched by progressive groups and movements globally. Peru recently voted in a left-wing teacher as President after a closely fought election. Boric has been congratulated by the old guard of the left from Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico. Colombia and Brazil are due to have elections in 2022 and in both countries, left-wing leaders are sensing possible victory. Most importantly, these shifts are signalling a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a desire for political and economic models that are less divisive and unequal.”
Laudable and accurate, but have leftwing outfits in Sri Lanka taken stock of these “developments”? We need to ask three questions here: what lessons the Sri Lankan Left should learn from the second Pink Tide, whether the Left has learnt them, and what course of action the Left, particularly the JVP-NPP, should opt for to go ahead.
The way I see it, the second Latin American Pink Tide taught us three important lessons. First, it saw a return to basic economic concerns: Peru’s Pedro Castillo, a member of that country’s marginalised indigenous community, dwelt on immediate priorities, like income and wealth inequalities and the country’s dependence on imports, putting them at the forefront of his presidency. Second, as the Mexican election showed, the Left in the region encompassed not just orthodox Marxists, but also social democrats, centre-left reformists, and populists, though the latter’s backtracking, as seen in Gabriel Boric’s statements about Venezuela and Nicaragua, remains open to question.
Third, and most important, the Latin American Left consistently portrayed itself, not as the moral superior to other political formations, but as the only viable alternative to the status quo. If ever a JVP-NPP outfit made an appearance in the Pink Tide last year, it was in Chile, where certain Left commentators claimed that there was no “essential difference” between Boric and his rightwing opponent. Indeed, unimpressive as Boric’s compromises on foreign policy were, his camp considered these as necessary expedients in the larger fight against neo-Pinochetianism and rightwing authoritarianism. The strategy, in other words, was not to be morally superior, but rather to win the race and end the war.
Perhaps the biggest issue with the first Latin American Pink Tide was its failure to connect with the European Left and to make headway with forces which had elected it to power, namely peasants and urban workers. Opposed and then supported by reactionary forces, it caved into the demands of neoliberal interests and ensured its own demise, culminating in Jair Bolsonaro’s election in 2019. By the looks of it, those leading the second Pink Tide seem to have learnt their lesson there, opting for a “Back to Basics” approach that highlighted material issues affecting ordinary people. Themes like bribery and corruption did enter the fray, but these did not swamp other, more important concerns.
Latin America has always been a wide canvas, a potpourri of political systems and cultures. What bound it together was its staunch anti-imperialist legacy, reinforced by decades of besiegement from its big neighbour to the north. In organising a viable opposition, then, progressive forces didn’t so much adhere to orthodox prescriptions as adapt theory to reality, making use of mass electoral politics. From Cuba to Nicaragua, it was mass politics, and popular hatred of authoritarian rule, that helped overthrow rightwing regimes. This is something the heirs of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez have understood well.
Has the Sri Lankan Left picked up these lessons? History should tell us that it has not. The Old Left, which gained a reputation for debating important issues like free education and independence in, and fighting over them outside, the legislature, later disintegrated into almost never-ending sectarian squabbles. To their credit, the LSSP and the Communist Party realised that they could not ignore Sri Lanka’s legacy as Asia’s oldest bourgeois democracy in their agenda, and that any transformation of society had to involve electoral politics. In ignoring these realities, conversely, the breakaway Left engineered its demise long before the LSSP’s and the Communist Party’s fallout from the 1977 election.
The New Left, namely the JVP, suffered from another failure: its inability to tolerate dissent, within or without. From its inception, it embraced an adventurist spirit which caused it to shift to the extreme left under a leftwing government and to the extreme right under a rightwing government. After 1994, it entered the democratic mainstream, though without acknowledging the failures of its past, and over the next two decades chose to pander to a burgeoning middle-class. These developments compelled it to compromise on its radical potential. Not surprisingly, the JVP-NPP today stands as a case in point for how the centre-left can lose track when responding to shifting class demographics.
The problem with oppositional forces calling themselves progressive in Sri Lanka is their almost casual disregard for mass electoral politics. The irony is that those among them who came to power, the JVP included, could not have done so without electoral politics. The yahapalana regime, for instance, would not have been able to defeat the Rajapaksas on the strength of reformist rhetoric alone; it had to listen to voters, and it had to pay attention to their more genuine concerns. In doing so, it had to assuage their fears.
That explains why Maithripala Sirisena distanced himself from left-liberal talk of cutting down Sri Lanka’s security apparatus, declaring in an interview with Padma Rao Sunderji that any withdrawals from the north and east would be phased out and not immediate. The UNP faction of the yahapalana regime, by contrast, failed to grasp this, which led to its colossal fallout. For its part, the SLFP realised the pitfalls of the UNP’s approach and extricated itself from the UNP’s embrace, entering into a last-minute alliance with the SLPP.
Now, the paradox at the heart of oppositional politics in Sri Lanka today, which one simply does not find among the Latin American Left, is the disconnect between its advocacy of a fairer, better order and its casual indifference to electoral politics. Hence, while calling for the government to resign and pave the way for better leadership, the JVP-NPP’s Anura Kumara Dissanayake rejects offers to ally with not just the SJB – which has its own problems regarding its direction – but also the FSP. The latter, for its part, has been more forthcoming about its stances on pressing issues, which would make it the ideal partner for the JVP-NPP, but which has otherwise been ignored and cast aside.
Indeed, instead of listening to the people, which is what any sane opposition, leftwing or otherwise, should be doing, these outfits are gambling on the support of certain social groups, especially the forever upward-aspiring middle classes.
It’s a testament to the power and influence of Sri Lanka’s suburban and urban middle class that it continues to pull the strings of every other oppositional outfit. From the SJB’s Ranilist wing to Champika Ranawaka’s 43 Senankaya, everyone is coveting support from this class, and everyone is adjusting to its demands. To give just one example of how much the middle-class has altered the political landscape, Ranawaka’s turnaround over the abolition of the Executive Presidency, which his allies dismiss as a molehill that leftists have turned into a mountain, echoes anti-Rajapaksist Sinhala nationalism’s shift from constitutional reform to the more immediate imperative of overthrowing the Rajapaksas.
I have outlined the dangers of pandering to these groups from a Left perspective before, more than once, but the point needs reiterating: as long as the crisis we are in continues to radicalise the middle-class, the Left can and will win by tapping into their discontent and taking advantage of their stances on issues like political corruption. Yet the moment their radicalism slips up, obviously once the crisis comes to an end, the Left might be forced to take stands antithetical to their progressive foundation. This is where the JVP-NPP is going wrong, where the FSP has not gone wrong, and where the Left as a whole needs to course correct and return to a saner, more commonsensical approach.
To usher in our own Pink Tide, we need to think beyond the rhetoric of political corruption, going back to the basics. To that end the JVP-NPP needs to wake up, and fast.
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com