By Dayan Jayatilleka –
If the JVP–NPP sincerely wishes to present itself as a serious alternative it should model its strategy on that of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) in Kerala. Kerala is governed by the Left Democratic Front, more formally the Left & Democratic Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and consisting of seven parties, not all of which are leftist.
The bedrock of the LDF is the alliance of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India, i.e., the CPI-M and the CPI.
My formation having been what is described in the USA as the “Old New Left”, I perceive the main failure of the Lankan Left for the past 73 years as being—and having been–in its relationships, i.e., its relationships within the left (with other left parties and groupings), and the relationship with parties not of the left, broadly of the center.
Put it differently, the abiding weakness has been in the intra-left relationships and inter-party relationships.
If one wishes to use more theoretical terminology, one can identify the historical-structural failure of the Lankan left in the domain of alliances, partnership, united fronts and blocs.
In their anxiety to avoid one mistake of the old Left, the contemporary Left is making many mistakes which the Old Left made; mistakes of commission and omission. It is also refraining from doing the correct things that the old Left did, but did not sustain.
In 1947 the left parties, especially the LSSP did very well at the general election. So well, that the disenfranchisement of the hill-country Tamils was largely because they had voted for left or left-oriented candidates.
The Left had an option in 1947 which could have given Ceylon a Left-led government at independence itself. A discussion was famously held at ‘Yamuna’ the residence of Sri Nissanka, which brought together the three Left parties and non-left progressive-leaning independents including SWRD Bandaranaike.
Dr Colvin R de Silva notoriously rejected a coalition of the left parties and the independents, denouncing it as a “three-headed donkey”.
The same Dr Colvin R de Silva was sacked by Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike thirty years later.
In 1953, on the eve of the Hartal, the Left invited SWRD Bandaranaike, head of the newly formed SLFP, to chair the Hartal launching rally at Galle Face Green. The SLFP did not participate in but supported the Hartal. The Left was correct to invite SWRD to chair, rather than reject the idea because he had been a prominent member of DS Senanayake’s UNP Cabinet!
In 1953, the Left prematurely called off the Hartal, limiting it to two days. There was no reason for it to do so, without exploring the limits of the possible.
In 1956, the Left had a tenuous electoral arrangement in some areas with SWRD, but did not enter a coalition with him. Had it done so, it could almost certainly have prevented the adoption of Sinhala Only as an election slogan by SWRD, and forestalled Ceylon’s slide into catastrophe.
Having failed to enter a coalition with the more progressive SWRD Bandaranaike, the Left later entered one with the far less progressive Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
The two best moves made by the Left since Independence were the August 1953 Hartal (which it was wrong to hit the brakes on so soon) and the formation of the United Left Front in 1963, with its accompaniment the Joint Council of Trade Unions Organizations (JCTUO) which adopted a program of 28 common demands. The ULF candidate won the 1963 Borella by-election.
In 1964, the LSSP promptly broke the ULF and betrayed the JCTUO’s 28 demands, and entered a coalition government with the SLFP led by Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
It was joined by the CPSL in 1968 and both Left parties entered a Coalition Government with the same Mrs B’s SLFP in 1970. Having made that error, it compounded it by not quitting the government when the Communist Party’s respected pioneer and elder statesman DR SA Wickremesinghe went into the Opposition in 1972 together with its most loved MP, Sarath Muttettuwegama.
As for the JVP, at its very inception it turned its face away from its leftwing generational counterparts in the Tamil areas. It entered an actively hostile relationship with the other Southern left radical/revolutionary groupings in the South, in the run-up to 1971. It violently purged its own leftwing dissenters within the jails. It was antagonistic to other radical leftists in the 1980s. It entered into and then broke a five-party left front in 1979-1980. It was lethally hostile to other left parties and groupings in the mid-late 1980s.
Classifiable in a different category, it spurned the space offered by the newly-elected populist President Premadasa in 1989.
All of this cost the JVP heavily. Three years after it smashed in the head of rival leftist student leader Daya Pathirana and cut his throat (1986), two years after it murdered Nandana Marasinghe (1987), one- and-a half years after it shot Vijaya Kumaratunga in the chest and face (1988) and the very year in which it spurned Premadasa’s hand of friendship and returned to civil war (1989), the JVP was militarily decimated and decapitated. The price of political paranoia and sectarianism is the highest.
What if all those it assassinated and sought to assassinate had instead been drawn into alliances, fronts, blocs and other forms of partnerships?
What if it had a policy of unity and struggle with the United Front coalition of 1970s, which it had helped elect, cultivating an equation with its more radical tendencies within the Communist Party and the LSSP? What if it accepted the respite and political space offered by the Premadasa presidency of 1989 which viewed it with sympathy?
Today, the JVP-NPP has four possible options, which are not contrary to each other. Any permutation and combination are possible, and accepting all of these options, though recommended, is not mandatory.
1. A Left United Front consisting of the JVP and FSP
2. A Broad Left United Front consisting of the JVP, FSP and the Left parties such as the CPSL, LSSP et al. (which recently attended the commemoration of the Cuban revolution).
3. A Left and Democratic Front, which is actually a Left and Center Front, consisting of the JVP, FSP, other left parties, the SJB (an emergent, mass-based centrist formation which is still a work in progress) and the SLFP (which is a slimmed-down entity).
4. To stay as it is, the JVP-NPP.
Today, we have neither a Left Front nor a Left and Democratic Front. We need both, first one and then the other, in short order.
Going by international and especially Latin American experience it would be prudent to adopt a two-stage strategy, the first being to engage with and engage in a bloc with populist parties. Logically it would be easier to shift a mass-based party with a leader who has declared himself and his party for Social Democracy to the left, than to cover that ground alone on a narrower front. I refer of course to Sajith Premadasa and the SJB.
What would be truly dangerous is to continue the go-it alone strategy of the JVP-NPP, which is the JVP and its “petty bourgeois shadow” (to borrow a phrase from Trotsky), and head into a stage of frontal confrontation with the regime, which is by no means the old Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, but which has been heavily militarized and recomposed to contain a recessed junta-in-waiting.