By Dayan Jayatilleka –
With the decision of the UNP to retain Ranil Wickremesinghe, who failed to be -re-elected in his hometown, Colombo, and led his party to a situation of zero-representation in the parliament, as the leader of the UNP, was the second of the “double-tap” that finished off the UNP. The first shot to the head was administered by the voters, not least UNP voters.
However, Ranil fans still say that “…Ranil Wickremesinghe almost won a Presidential election in 2005, coming on a completely pro-devolution platform, save for an LTTE-led voting boycott.”
That bedrock argument for his continuing in politics and as UNP leader is wholly ridiculous. The LTTE boycotted the entire election, not just one candidate. Why didn’t the boycott destroy Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Presidential run as it did Ranil’s? Because Mahinda didn’t stupidly build his campaign on expectations of the LTTE vote. Then again, why didn’t Ranil win in 1999 when the LTTE didn’t boycott but tilted to him against CBK? Because he, unlike CBK was perceived by the voter, as tilting to the LTTE. Therefore, whether the LTTE boycotted (2005) or supported (1999) Ranil, he lost. That’s a ‘jinx’—of structural un-electability.
The new Opposition must opt for a strategy that can encompass the middle classes and the working people, the have-nots, not trade-off one for the other or privilege the middle-class over the masses. “…The millions of small people—the workers and the peasants—are the hardcore of our society. They are the very foundations of our country.” (Ranasinghe Premadasa, Gam Udawa, June 23rd 1987) This is what the Biden candidacy did, building on and broadening the appeal and catalytic contribution of the Sanders campaign.
The new opposition must be a force of and for all the people; the whole of society; the 99%, not the 1%. It must be the camp of the citizenry.
The SJB must establish itself as a camp of the progressive center; one which is capable of recovering voters who were lost by the UNP, attracting voters who opted massively for Gotabaya Rajapaksa (2019) and the Mahinda-led SLPP (2020), while appealing to new voters.
The UNP of the last quarter-century does not belong in the same camp as it classically did. This point is not original to me. It was first made by Dr Sarath Amunugama in the 1990s, underscoring the abandonment of DS Senanayake’s welfarism and agrarianism by Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP. It was made consistently by a second generation UNPer, former head of the UNP’s youth and student wings, Imtiaz Bakeer Markar. It was made by President JR Jayewardene’s grandson Pradip in newspaper interviews explaining his resignation from JRJ’s party.
I too made the point at the precise moment of the deviation by Mr. Wickremesinghe. I had no personal motivation because I had supported him from 1994-1996, when he had declared publicly that he stood for social democracy (in an interview with me in the Sunday Observer) and the Premadasa development philosophy. I broke with him exactly when he made the turn which placed him and his party in a global camp in a manner that was unprecedented, and signed up to an agreement that shifted the party drastically in local politics. He enrolled the UNP in the International Democratic Union, founded by the US Republicans and the British Conservatives, while signing up to the Liam Fox agreement which displaced the party’s position on the LTTE and the unitary state.
The UNP before that, including under Ranil, may not have been a progressive party. I certainly did not regard it as such which I why I declined President Premadasa’s kind invitation to enter Parliament through the national list and take a portfolio. I was and remain a Premadasaist, not a UNPer, just as later, I supported Mahinda and the JO, but never joined either the SLFP or the SLPP. However, the UNP did have a progressive aspect and progressive interludes, especially during the Premadasa Presidency. Even during the quarter-century of Ranil Wickremesinghe, the UNP retained progressive elements, the most progressive of which was Sajith Premadasa, whom I supported publicly from 2010.
However bitter the pill, the thinking of the new Opposition must be a shift to progressive realism.
It is profoundly counterproductive to the SJB and the anti-regime democratic struggle for it to be regarded as in the same camp as the UNP of the last quarter century, though it must certainly be regarded as the inheritor of the positive aspects of the UNP before that, going right back to its inception in 1946, while eschewing those abidingly reactionary, elitist, anti-national aspects that wiped it out in 1956, 1970 and almost destroyed it physically in 1988 before Premadasa rescued it against impossible odds.
Simply put, it is negative for the SJB to regard itself as belonging to the same camp as (a) the UNP of the ‘long downswing’ of the past quarter-century under Ranil and (b) those aspects of the UNP that made it turn Sri Lanka into a country of two civil wars and foreign intervention, described by candidate Ranasinghe Premadasa as ‘a torch ablaze at both ends’ which he was bequeathed.
If the SJB is perceived as belonging to the camp of the UNP or on a continuum with it, by which I mean the Ranilist UNP as well as the negative policies of before, that Ranasinghe Premadasa abandoned or rectified, it will be unable to lead a democratic camp that attracts voters from both sides, or more accurately from all points of the compass.
The camp the SJB must be at the helm and the center of is the Citizens Camp; the camp that represents the pressing concerns and the interests of the citizenry; the camp that can be credibly expected to uplift the quality of life of the citizenry at large and strive for “the public good”. (Premadasa, Gam Udawa, June 24th 1986)
What is necessary is the creation of a broad camp of which the enemy is despotism, proto-fascism, militarism, ultranationalism and xenophobia, i.e., the dictatorial Far-Right.
The camp of democracy must of necessity identify and accommodate the positive aspects of the Mahinda years and achievement as part of a broad national democratic narrative that cuts across parties, bringing together the development paradigm and ‘multiethnic democracy’ of Ranasinghe Premadasa and the positive contributions in domestic and foreign policy of an array of national leaders and figures, including the Bandaranaikes, Vijaya Kumaratunga and Lakshman Kadirgamar, in an ideological constellation.
A touchstone of the new opposition must be Ranasinghe Premadasa. How to classify Premadasa, where to locate his progressivism, I leave the readers to judge from his deeds—Janasaviya, the Housing Program, Free School Uniforms, the Presidential Task Force on Land redistribution, the Sevana Sarana Foster parents scheme—and his stated, overarching goal, to “transform the have-nots into haves” and” “to correct this imbalance between power and people”. (Harare, Zimbabwe, 3.9. 1986).
The question is sometimes asked by the neoliberals, how the “SJB’s version of patriotism, social-democratic approach, and peasant heartland politics, and centre-space are going to be different from SLPP…” Surely it is equally important to know how the SJB’s version of development, democracy, devolution and foreign policy are going to be different from the UNP, and especially the UNP of the last quarter century under Ranil’s leadership? Evidently not for some, but almost certainly for the voters.
Anyway, the answer to the Ranilist neoliberal query is easy. Even at its best, the JO-SLPP under Mahinda, and before the cave-in to the Gotabaya Alt-Right, the SLPP was never primarily about the people, especially the have-nots. It was about the nation, or the people (only) as the nation, which is lop-sided, ‘de-centered’. Under the hegemony of the Gotabaya faction and line, the SLPP has not dissented from the equation of the nation with the state and the state with the military, and thus the nation with the military.
If MR was ‘Country First’, GR is ‘Military First’, while the Premadasa line of both father and son, is ‘People First’ or ‘Citizenry First’. MR was more a democrat than not, while Gotabaya is uncommitted and unmoored to democracy. Sajith and the SJB are deeply and consistently committed to pluralist democracy. The SLPP is ambiguous about devolution while GR is opposed, but Sajith’s SJB is committed to the 13th amendment, no less, no more. The SLPP has back-peddled on pluralism and doesn’t attack chauvinism except of the minority variant, while Sajith and the SJB attack extremism and racism from all quarters.
If there is a GR Lite in the Opposition, it sure isn’t Sajith Premadasa.
The SJB must not regard itself as being in the old camp of the UNP and/or the center-right, any more than Buddhism was in the old camp of Brahminism/Hinduism and Christianity was in the old camp of the Jewish faith.
What is needed is a new camp that represents a new ‘national popular’ synthesis; a new yet organic ontology of a “people-nation”.