By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The departure of GR (of “Gota pissek!” fame) has not made Deep State discourse more rational. When the discourse of the state begins to be irrational, one worries about the state of the State, under its new head.
Given the statement of the Police which seeks to justify the arrest and detention of IUSF convenor Wasantha Mudalige under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, it is obvious that the authorities are not functioning according to reason and evidence but the Butterfly theory: Mudalige made a speech somewhere which made someone do something somewhere else and at some other time, though he was nowhere around and hadn’t been there anytime recently.
Let’s see that nonsense get past the courts.
Ranil’s Death-Dealing Bans
When President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration engaged in a ‘shock ban’ of a large number of items, I expected the Opposition’s economists to do exactly what they did when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Dr PB Jayasundara did the same stupid thing. That is, to denounce it to the high heavens, demanding “BUILD BRIDGES, NOT WALLS!” But no, when Ranil does what Gotabaya did, there is a deafening silence from the same quarters.
Ranil’s ban and the Opposition’s silence are especially dangerous because the items listed include material vital for the maintenance of our railways which are used by large numbers of commuters.
The banned items include rail air brakes, fire fighting vehicles, rail locomotives, railway signaling equipment, railway coaches, wooden railway sleepers, safety headgear, steam turbines, boilers, diesel engines.
In the absence of these items, the already depleted railway system could begin to malfunction even more than it currently does, leading to the most horrendous accidents, causing large numbers of deaths and maiming.
Come to think of it, that may be an opportunity to make a case for privatizing the railways and selling them off to local or foreign “investors”.
Maybe that’s why the ‘Economic Ranilists’ in politics and civil society are not voicing opposition to the ban?
Ranil’s ban includes many items necessary for the maintenance of industrial plant and infrastructure, agriculture, and production of goods and services locally: Machinery for making paper or paper board, book sewing machines, printing machines, lathes, weaving machines (looms), knitting machines, ploughs, harvesting machines, dairy machinery, poultry incubators, machinery for preparing animal feed, machinery for cleaning, sorting or grading seeds, duplicating machines, machinery for the extraction or preparing of animal or ‘fixed’ vegetable fats or oils, gaskets, safety headgear, boilers, ship cranes, fork lift trucks, hoses, gas and water gas generators.
Industries of all sorts from manufacturing to dairy and poultry, and even agriculture could collapse due to these items being banned.
Here too, if these do collapse, one supposes that foreigners could be asked to set up in those sectors! Hence the silence from the usual suspects, the free-market fundamentalists.
The Opposition as it stands is caught in a self-designed trap. The trap wasn’t designed by Ranil Wickremesinghe but it has been triggered by him and the Opposition has still to extricate itself.
The main Opposition party the SJB is trapped by the declared statement of its designated economic troika that they endorse and support President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s economic policy doctrine.
In the context of a deep economic crisis, if the economic policy-makers of the Opposition support in the main, the economic policy of the ruler, an economic policy that will cause tremendous hardship, then there is a severe limitation on the capacity of the SJB to oppose the government.
This is a completely unnecessary dilemma, given that the SJB has as an asset of inestimable value, the economic policy doctrine, model and example of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, a proven success story in rescuing the country and rapidly growing its economy.
It is now increasingly evident that the SJB contains two tendencies: those who regard Ranasinghe Premadasa as a greater inspiration than Ranil Wickremesinghe and those who regard Ranil and the late Mangala Samaraweera as greater than Ranasinghe Premadasa. The former regard Sajith Premadasa as their only leader, while the latter seem to have a two-tier loyalty structure in which their immediate, temporary leader is Sajith but their Supreme Leader is Ranil.
Dr Ravi Rannan-Eliya’s IHP/SLOTS tracker data clearly shows that the erosion of SJB votes and their switch to the JVP-JJB is traceable to the loss of the Nov 2019 Sajith Premadasa presidential election vote-base, which in turn is due to the pivot from his (Ranasinghe Premadasa-ist) ‘developmental-populism’ to a policy discourse heavily weighted towards the neoliberalism of his economic policy troika.
What is noteworthy is that the first ‘Premadasa-ist’ tendency does not comprise of leftists from outside the UNP, but precisely those like Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, a second generation UNPer. The second, ‘Ranilist’ tendency consists of those whose UNP experience is solely limited to the disastrous Ranil quarter-century with its neoliberal ideology, but were also minions of Ranil during one or both of his stints as PM (2001-2003, 2015-2019).
Sumanasiri & Ahilan
The other important component of the Opposition—now perhaps the leading component—is the Left, consisting of the JVP-JJB and the FSP. Though in terms of parliamentary politics, we could simply limit it to the JVP-JJB, the main weakness is common to the Lankan Left as a whole. It is the absence of a declared, credible macro-economic alternative, fronted or backed by economists of mainstream repute.
This again is an unnecessary weakness and is easily bridgeable, because the first economist I heard focusing on the debt crisis and its effects on the economy as a whole– and this was many years ago, to an audience which included Mahinda Rajapaksa, who chaired most of the day-long meeting, was Prof Sumanasiri Liyanage, Sri Lanka’s most notable Marxist economist (not counting Prof Howard Nicholas)!
Prof Sumanasiri Liyanage and Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar could easily chart a progressive, pro-people path out of the crisis, but I have yet to see the Left produce a policy plan co-authored and signed by them.
There are two further weaknesses of the JVP-JJB which could cost them everything they have built so far. One is the refusal to entertain the idea of a united front, even in the face of Pohottuwa officials naming at media briefings, Anura Kumara Dissanayaka and Sunil Handunetti (JVP-JJB), as well as Kumara Gunaratnam (FSP), as conspiring to overthrow the democratic system by extra-constitutional means. The net of repression is beginning to descend on both parties but only the FSP has called for two united fronts: a political united front of all democratic parties, and a workers united front against privatization and cutbacks.
The third weakness, is that the JVP-JJB while very correctly campaigning for a n early parliamentary election, avoids the elephant in the room: even if it wins such an election, which is possible, even likely, the President, Defence Minister and Commander-in-Chief will remain Ranil Wickremesinghe who will have no hesitation whatsoever in signaling Secretary/Defence (Retd) General Kamal Gunaratna to use live ammunition against demonstrations, however colossal they may be. The JVP-JJB must logically call for a snap President election as well, but it fails to do so.
SLFP, 10-Party Swerves
The third space in the Opposition consists of the Centrist and Center-Left currents. At the moment, these are the SLFP and the 9-party group (the Union of Independent Parties). The first is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the second, which should have been led by Vasudeva Nanayakkara, is headed by Wimal Weerawansa.
Both these currents have lost their way. While Maithripala Sirisena often strikes the correct note, speaking with the benefit of experience, the SLFP contains several personalities who are in their track shoes awaiting to make a running-jump into President Ranil’s administration. There are a few free-floating individuals like Chaminda Weerakkody and Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, who are pretty good on policy issues but are of no fixed political abode.
As for the 9 -or 10 party grouping, it blotted its copybook by voting for the Emergency and has followed it up with the Weerawansa party’s vicious attacks on the Aragalaya and support for “investigation into the conspiracy”. This is the same bitterness with which the Old Left denounced Wijeweera’s JVP as a “CIA conspiracy” and cold lack of sympathy or empathy it displayed towards the youth uprising of April 1971, the brutality of the suppression of which completely undermined the moral legitimacy of the United Front Government and decimated the Left electorally in 1977.
Wimal also has a tendency to take a xenophobic anti-Indian stance, when the need is to balance between India, Russia, China and the USA. This is in addition to his proclivity to shift to ethno-populism on the issue of devolution/provincial autonomy.
This ‘Union of Independent Parties’ seems ideologically closer to Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena than to anyone else. Given that the PM is part of the Rajapaksa bloc which is propping up and being propped up by President Ranil Wickremesinghe, the traditional adversary of the center-left, I see no electoral future for the Wimal-led ‘union’.
There is however, hope for the important Center-left space and tradition in the island’s politics. A new entity seems to be struggling to be born. That is the Dullas Alahapperuma-GL Peiris group of ‘SLPP Reformists’. It has several strengths, some of which are manifest, others, potential.
1. It is bigger than a splinter group in parliamentary numbers, running as it does into double-digits.
2. It’s personalities have national name-recognition. It is not a one-man show.
3. It’s collective brain-power as manifested in academic and professional credentials — starting with Prof GL Peiris–arguably exceeds that of any other formation in Parliament. Dr. Charitha Herath and Dr. Nalaka Godahewa can match anyone in a substantive policy debate. To produce a realistic economic rescue package/roadmap and negotiate with the IMF, I’d bet on GL-Charitha-Nalaka over Harsha-Eran-Kabir on any given day.
4. Dullas Alahapperuma, a prominent SLPPer whose house was not burned on May 9th, is a parliamentarian of rare civility and integrity, whose progressive ideological discourse expresses and extends the best of the SLFP-JO-SLPP experiences.
5. The SLPP’s option for the long-standing enemy of the center-left voters, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the vacillation of the SLFP and the 10-party group, and the unfortunate circumscription of the SJB’s progressive center-left appeal and potential by its neoliberal ‘economic Ranilists’, gives the Dullas-GL group a clear field on the center-left, if it chooses a New Middle Path and a 21st century social democratic project. If, in short, it can be the 21st century successor to SWRD Bandaranaike and the SLFP of 1951-1955, before the travesty of Sinhala Only in 1956.
However, it must be said realistically, that in the first stage, the new formation will have the potential of a new, progressive project, partnering and allying with either Sajith Premadasa’s SJB, or Anura Kumara’s JVP-JJB, or ideally, both, in a broad democratic bloc.