By Dayan Jayatilleka –
I was born at a particular moment, 1956, into a center-left familial universe and culture. In 1956, Mervyn, aged 26, was introduced to SWRD Bandaranaike by his senior at university, Nimal Karunatilleke, a former Communist who had joined the MEP, the winning coalition of 1956, and whose victory in Matale, beating the feudal UNP candidate, was the first result that came in on Radio Ceylon, heralding the Silent Revolution.
SWRD Bandaranaike promptly instructed Mervyn to take over as the foreign affairs commentator of Radio Ceylon, in place of the Britisher the UNP had typically kept in that sensitive post. When Mervyn protested that he knew nothing of the subject, his proper province, including on the airwaves, being English literature and literary criticism, Bandaranaike had walked into his library, returned with an armful of books and dumped them into Mervyn’s lap. “Atoms for Peace” was the title of one, Mervyn recalled decades later.
From 1956, Mervyn was firmly of the pro-SLFP center-left in political terms while remaining temperamentally and intellectually the left-liberal he had always been. His firmest friends in 1956 were the Rajapaksas, Lakshman and George. My father was an SLFP and Bandaranaike loyalist, who was buddies with the Rajapaksas and quite fond of Mahinda. Mahinda Rajapaksa wrote in the Daily News shortly after my father’s death in 1999 that:
“Whenever I met him, which happened to be at least twice a month during the last 25 years, I always made it a point to have a serious chat even for a minute…First I came to know Mr.de Silva through my cousin the late Mr. Lakshman Rajapaksa. Both of them were regulars at the Orient Club. Being a Royalist he was also very close to late Mr. George Rajapaksa, his fellow alumni. Being only a student of politics, I remained a passive participant at the meetings Mr.de Silva had with my cousin, Lakshman and George, gathering valuable points. However I came still closer to him after I became a Member of Parliament in 1970. The frequency of meetings grew after the formation of the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine, when the journalists who launched this organization elected me as its President. Mr. Mervyn de Silva was one of the Patrons.”
Mervyn was recruited to Lake House by Esmond Wickremesinghe, the present PM’s father. In a heated exchange in Parliament in 1978 over the journal Lanka Guardian which my father had founded that year, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Anura Bandaranaike hurled at each other the accusation that Mervyn had been the “blue-eyed boy” of each of their fathers! They were both right, only at different times and in different spheres of endeavor—journalism in the former case, and politics, especially international politics, in the latter.
Of course Mervyn and the present PM’s mother Nalini did not have the ambivalent relationship that Esmond and Mervyn had. She was an ideological hardliner and cold warrior, and Mervyn as Editor Daily News and she as Director and the founder’s daughter, fought out the Cold War in Lake House, much to the bemused horror of her brother and Mervyn’s boss, the Chairman of Lake House, Ranjit Wijewardene, a cultured and charming man (whose classmate my uncle had been at St. Thomas’s and whose wife had been a student of my mother’s).
My mother taught Sunethra and Chandrika at St. Bridget’s Convent and clearly urged me from her hospital bed in 1999, after my father had died, to support Chandrika against Ranil at the Presidential election late that year because she “is not a dangerous person and wouldn’t intentionally harm anyone”.
I have never taken my political or intellectual cue from my parents but the older I get the more aware I am of the influences that shaped me and the heritage I carry. Where I am at is shaped by where I am coming from.
I have tried to be loyal to what I learned from President Premadasa by warning the UNP against precisely that erroneous path that Premadasa warned his party against and the consequences of which he rescued it from against all odds. It was this disastrous path he took his party away from. The UNP has since returned to it and is determined to stay on it, though it had, very recently, the chance to turn in the correct direction. I am not going to waste my time on attempting to rectify the UNP’s political choices which stem from the very mentality that Premadasa strove to liberate it from.
My positive experience with the UNP was episodic: the last year of President Jayewardene and the turbulent, progressive years of President Premadasa, and a few post-Premadasa years with his Segundo, Sirisena Cooray (the first to be double-crossed by Ranil Wickremesinghe who owes the latter much of his modest political achievement). Throughout the rest of my decades-long engagement with politics, my relationship with the UNP, especially in government, has been adversarial, as has that of my father (despite his friendly, respectful yet sharply critical association with President Jayewardene, of whom he was a longtime neighbor).
The relationship with the SLFP and the center-left is a thicker one. Of course I had rebelled against the SLFP administration of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and the first time I was taken for questioning was in the mid-1970s, as a teenage high school student awaiting entrance to university and member of a revolutionary left group, Mitipahara, comprising of ex-JVP and ex-Communist Party elements, and of which Rohan Samarajiva and Asoka Pieris were also members as university students.
However, because of the milieu I came from, a milieu created primarily by my father, the SLFP and the larger center-left was for the most part seen as an ally, a rearguard, a friend—unlike the UNP, which was for the most part an enemy, or The Enemy (with Premadasa an exception for Mervyn, well before he became President).
Right now, I am in a somewhat complex situation because my heritage as it were, has split. The problem is not that the daughter of SWRD Bandaranaike has gone one way, into alliance with the UNP, while the sons of DA Rajapaksa, the cousins of my father’s friends George and Lakshman, have gone another. Clearly the anti-UNP, anti-imperialist banner is with the Rajapaksa sons and not the Bandaranaike daughters.
I have no dilemmas whatsoever in that department and am confirmed in my choices when I have my weekly telephone call from LA from Auntie Roma, daughter of a founder member of the SLFP and SWRD’s aristocratic Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa and his private secretary in the 1956 administration. Her brusque rejection of the Western ambassadors’ apprehensions about a Rajapaksa return (“none of their business”) and her instinctive aversion to the UNP-TNA bloc, overcome any attachment to the official SLFP. Her loyalty is to the founding idea of the SLFP established by SWRD and her father and their friends (she has the signed copies of the founding draft and owns the table on which the document was signed), rather than to what the SLFP has now become. Stanley de Zoysa’s secretary-daughter’s clear, unambiguous identification is with Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the new political formation, in which she sees the reincarnation of the original SLFP’s moderate nationalist and progressive anti-UNP project. She is delighted by its rapid electoral success.
So my problem is not there. I am happy that the new party (‘Pohottuwa’) was founded and indeed had suggested it publicly and privately in 2015, once resulting in a dispute at ex-President Rajapaksa’s temporary residence in Mirihana in August 2015 in the presence of the whole JO leadership, with Minister Susil Premajayanth, an intelligent man I rather like and have a positive view of. My position remains that which it did from, and in, 2015. Mine was a Leninist-Gramscian position based on Gramsci’s approving invocation of Lenin’s tersely dialectical advice to Italian Communists: “Separate yourselves from Turati and then form an alliance with him”. In short, split and ally; split from, and then ally with. I strongly felt that the populist Rajapaksa project should secede from the SLFP and launch a new formation, while reuniting with it not as a single or ‘unitary’ party but as federation or confederation i.e. a united front.
Today, that united front can either be in a Transitional Government (with the JO supporting a non-UNP dominated government or an SLFP government while remaining in Opposition), or in the Opposition. The SLFP need not organizationally unite with the JO under the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa if it chooses not to. It can remain a social democratic or liberal nationalist party of the moderate center, while the SLPP-JO remains progressive, patriotic and populist. But the SLFP must establish a relationship with Mahinda Rajapaksa and his 45% vote base, by recognizing him as the pre-eminent leader of the anti-UNP forces.
The longer the SLFP stays in this government with Ranil as PM, the more of its 13% vote share it loses. If it remains in this government it must be provisionally, and must alter the balance of forces in the government through the impending Cabinet reshuffle, wresting away the commanding heights of the system from the UNP.
The SLFP is facing electoral extinction just as and for the same reasons that the proud LSSP and CPSL did in 1977. The possible, probable, fade out of the blue banner which my father identified with more than with any other color in the political spectrum, saddens me somewhat. 1956 was tale of two shawls: blue (SWRD) and ‘kurakkan’ maroon (DA Rajapaksa). Towards the end of her second Presidential term, Chandrika broke the Bandaranaike alliance with the Rajapaksas of the Ruhuna, by allying instead with Mangala, the son of defector to the UNP, Mahanama Samaraweera. In 2015 she followed it up by crossing the barricades and relocating the blue banner alongside the green. She literally returned to the UNP headquarters, which her father and Mahinda’s had left, firmly shutting the door behind them.
I am delighted at the success of the Pohottuwa. My problem lies with the fate of the SLFP. I cannot regard President Sirisena as I do the UNP, as an enemy. And I cannot but be saddened at the self-destruction of the SLFP. I wish to see the blue banner flying in its rightful place next to the maroon, on the opposite side of the barricades as the green, someday soon. In 1956, the maroon was the ally and adjunct of the blue, but this time around, in the 21st century, the roles will have to be reversed.