By Dayan Jayatilleka –
At a time when the JVP–NPP has grown unprecedentedly, can play an unprecedentedly valuable role and score unprecedented success, it is being simultaneously held back from actualizing its full potential and propelled towards its third disaster by old habits—ghosts as it were—of old errors; errors from its past, combined by the errors of the Sri Lankan left as a whole.
By a dialectical irony, while it is hamstrung by the burdens of past negativity of its history and that of the movement it emanates from, it is also suffering from the absence of the positive aspects of its past, i.e., of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Let’s start with the abandoned positives. Rohana Wijeweera was acutely aware of the experiences of the global left even as he chose to ignore some of its lessons. In the founding years of the JVP, he was profoundly affected by the decimation of the huge Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI) headed by DN Aidit. The lesson he and generations of leftists drew from Indonesia and later from Chile was that however enormous and pacifistic a left party was, it was acutely vulnerable to extermination at the hands of a ruthless Right.
The Indonesian experience was of particular import for Sri Lanka, at the time Ceylon, because it featured in an ideological struggle that almost split the UNP government of the day. That struggle played out in the main in Lake House.
On one side were Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, Planning guru Dr. Gamani Corea and his deputy, Godfrey Gunatilleke, who were committed to the mixed economy and the welfare state.
On the other side were Esmond Wickremesinghe (the present President’s father), BR Shenoy and JR Jayewardene who was to abandon this this rightwing ideology a decade later and pick the brilliant, left-leaning admirer of Cuba, Ronnie de Mel as Finance Minister in 1977.
Esmond Wickremesinghe applauded the Indonesian coup and the economic model that followed it. His opponent in Lake House was my father Mervyn de Silva who had returned just before the coup from Indonesia where he (accompanied by my mother and me) had been guests of President Sukarno’s foreign minister Dr. Subandrio, at the Afro-Asian Journalists’ conclave celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Bandung conference.
To their credit, the Dudley Senanayake team which was staunchly opposed to the economic doctrine of Esmond and Shenoy, took the stand that “we’d rather spend on social welfare than slash it and have to spend on security”.
The split in the government was ideologically so sharp that Wijeweera fully expected the rightwing to overcome the Dudley Senanayake wing, forestall the election scheduled for 1970, and install the Suharto model that they had been advertising with such vehemence. The mistake that he made was that he underestimated the strength of the progressive and left movement that the fledgling JVP had itself contributed to, which overcame any putschist projects and ensured elections. He had overreacted also by self-defensively arming the JVP to fend off an Indonesian style massacre, and then couldn’t uncoil the coiled spring the party had become, or to decelerate.
That said, a version of Wijeweera’s nightmare of ‘the Indonesian model’ is about to be implemented in its economic and political dimensions by the son of the man who first advocated it. The Suharto economic model which was repeated after the Chilean coup of 1973 by Pinochet who called in Milton Friedman and the Chicago Boys, is on the agenda in Sri Lanka today with unelected President Wickremesinghe inducting the rightwing Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann.
In Indonesia and Chile, a dictatorship was installed by a coup and preceded the economic model. In Sri Lanka, the economic model was not preceded by a coup, but is being installed together with the closure of the political and legal systems through the freezing of elections and the attempt to introduce the totalitarian Anti-Terrorism Act, which should be re-named the State Terrorism Act.
Though the JVP-NPP doesn’t seem to realize it, it is looking exactly like the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965. I know the thinking of the PKI at the time because my father interviewed DN Aidit, its leader. The PKI was proud of its rapid peaceful growth into an enormous force. So too is the JVP-NPP.
The JVP-NPP is derisive about the breakaway FSP and thinks that the latter will be the target of repression by the Ranil administration—a prospect it will shed no tears over. What it utterly fails to grasp, just as the German social democrats failed to in the 1930s while expecting the axe to fall only on the Communists, is that there is an insurmountable contradiction between on the one hand, the economic model the bourgeoisie was seeking to install in the context of the crisis at the time, and on the other hand, the trade union base of the large, moderate Left parties.
The JVP-NPP will be hit hard by the most rightwing, reactionary regime Sri Lanka has ever had, not because of its radicalism, but because of its trade union base.
The rapid growth of the JVP-NPP is no guarantee, as the party seems to think, against repression. The hybrid JVP-NPP formation is too big to be ignored by the regime but not strong enough to deter or defeat the repression. It is big enough to be perceived as a threat but not powerful enough to preempt or paralyze the regime.
Almost daily, the JVP-NPP leaders articulate a public position while being blissfully unaware of its implications. The position is this: Ranil’s regime would have elections if it could be certain that its class, as represented by itself or Sajith Premadasa’s SJB , could win an election, but since it knows it cannot count on a victory and knows that power is shifting to another class—to the popular classes- for the first time in 75 years, it is not holding an election.
Fair enough, but if that is the case, surely a regime that avoids a mere local government election is not going to hold a far more crucial election to the Presidency in 2024 or parliament in 2025.
The JVP-NPP’s answer is, yes, well, we’ll force an election at the time while consolidating for the next year and a half. The problem with that argument is that the regime will be entrenching itself too, and using the time to come for the JVP-NPP, and the populist wing of the SJB, after it has suppressed the FSP.
So, how is the JVP-NPP going to escape this fate? Certainly not by the boastfulness and ego-centrism that has characterized the party since its inception in 1965. Nor by the recourse to arms that it engaged in before it had exhausted all other options in 1971 and built the necessary alliances in 1986.
The only answer known to politics is a series of united actions, leading to united fronts and popular blocs. Anyone who rejects that course is like someone trying to defend a community which will be under attack by a ruthless enemy, without building fortifications, walls, trenches, and alliances.
However large the JVP-NPP is, a way of being of political unipolarity and isolationism, devoid of partnerships has never led anyone to any success. Surely the lesson of the struggle against nazi fascism is the necessity and success of the Popular Front and the convergence, irrespective of system and ideology, of the Allies.
*Dayan Jayatilleka is the author of ‘Fidel’s Ethics of Violence: The Moral Dimension of the Political Thought of Fidel Castro’, Pluto Press, London.