By Kumar David –
Yes I was a National List candidate for the NPP (National People’s Power) in the August 2020 election along with others of strong or not so strong association with the Left, as well as a few liberal-democratic candidates. Since then I have been a sort of post box for suggestions, discussions and criticisms though I have no sway in the Party. The discourse is worthy of follow-up and public comment and the JVP would be wise to take note of it. I will use abbreviated snippets from two emails I received in the last fortnight. The fist from a pretty young PhD, Ms SB (MSB) with whose doctoral thesis I had a minor association, the other an old codger – Engineering Faculty my vintage, later a professor and Dean, Prof. H. Sriyananda (Eich hereafter).
The compelling point that MSB makes is that “There is a view of the JVP among locals that they are always against better-off people because their Satan Phata is “Peeditha Panthiya“. But this class is diminishing in numbers and in any case many people don’t like to be called peeditha. Moreover, most JVP grass-roots members are not from the middle-class, but from poorer families. Hence they lack family ties with a majority of rural people and are not well positioned to penetrate the entire village”. This is true and has been much commented on since 1971. The leadership of the JVP is educationally, socially and intellectually far different from the “giants” of the old-left (NM-Colvin-Peiter-SA Wicks-Bernard), nor is it schooled in the Marxist classics nor English educated. This fact has been held up by analysts as proof that it is more authentic and closer to the people. The membership too is less cosmopolitan; the JVP cadre is more rural, more caste specific and largely from poor strata in the village. The membership of the old left parties spanned the urban working-class, the GCSU-CMU white collar classes and the intelligent and radicalised portion of the urban elite. The old left was ethnically pluralist; the JVP has no Dorics, Peiters, Karlos, Shans, Poky Kandiahs, Panudevans or Anamalais.
MSB has hit the nail on the head! Because of the social, class and intellectual composition of both membership and leadership, the JVP faces an obstacle in breaking into social layers other than its own provenance. To a large measure this explains why despite being the most sincere, incorrupt and dedicated outfit of recent times it has difficulty in breaking through the 5% total-vote ceiling when it goes-it-alone at general or presidential elections. MSB has, perhaps unwittingly, shown great insight: The JVP can’t win an election all on its own; it must form alliances with parties that represent other social layers and classes – urban and rural middle and working classes, the minorities and civil-society entities. A JVP-inclusive government will always be a coalition of some form. I don’t want to go down the road of speculating on suitable working-class, middleclass and liberal democratic coalition or united front allies, that’s a nitty gritty and obviously an ephemeral detail. Though the NPP is a step in the right direction; there is much further to go.
There is a second valuable point in MSB’s letter to me and it’s a corollary to the previous argument. It is that the JVP has been inconsistent and haphazard in the alliances that it has formed in the last thirty years – CBK (1994), Mahinda (2005), SF (2015) and RW-MS (2015). I am of the view that except for the line-up with Mahinda in 2005 the other alliances had a degree of merit to them, especially 2015. But MSB’s irritation is justified because the Party has given the impression that it is short-sighted and unanchored and hence it has lost some credibility. The problem is that the JVP has not formulated and enunciated a clear-cut theoretical policy-position on what alliances it will form, and why, and how. This is the conclusion that I was moving towards in the previous paragraph.
An adumbration of the class and social make up of rural, urban and minority-community Sri Lanka is readily available from scholarly and statistical sources. Next the JVP must take stock of its own class composition and radical ideology. Then it will be in business and it can construct a strategic assessment of what kind of political alliance it needs. These linkages will change as circumstances evolve but if the way of thinking is outlined to the people they will appreciate that the evolution of tactics with changing circumstances is not ad hoc but strategic. It must set its mind seriously to formulating a theory of alliances because by its class nature and radical-revolutionary agenda it can form a government not all on its own but through democratic electoral strategies built around principled alliances.
H. Sriyananda (known as Eich among close friends because of the way he pronounces his initial) discusses two matters. I will dispose of one quickly as it is straightforward (not unimportant). He argues that the NPP-JVP needs to develop a programme or manifesto encompassing the following important topics and it must take the manifesto to the people without awaiting announcement of elections:
- Governance (Democracy, bribery & corruption, judiciary, public service.
- Education (end rote learning, encourage thinking, knowledge of Sinhala, Tamil, the role of English, equitable education in a society that is diverse in many dimensions, university, vocational, community role, teaching different belief systems).
- Environment and Development (What is development? Conservation, sensitivity among the people, role of education, impact on health)
- Food and Agriculture (Organic agriculture and target dates, food security of marginalised communities, land reform, water resources and irrigation. Industry; Trade and Commerce; Finance, Transport & Communications – balancing public and private).
- Health – Preventive vs. curative health, allopathic and indigenous systems
- Power and Energy – Sustainability, renewables, time targets
- Absolute and comparative poverty – Target Gini Index (say 25, suggestion by Sriyananda), time targets, strategies, monitoring mechanisms
- Defence and External affairs
Obviously a huge task list which to be done systematically will need expertise beyond the Left, but that will be generously on offer if subject experts are convinced the matter is being addressed seriously.
The more important critique made by Eich is his other main point and I quote verbatim.
Quote: “The formation of the NPP is a step in the correct direction but it is not enough – a new left should not be immediately identified as the old JVP under a new name. My suggestion is that the NPP be rebranded as a political party with the JVP as an influential faction within it. Activities in the future should be conducted in the name of the new entity. A concerted effort should be made to make the party a national party, representing all communities. I pointed out earlier that no objections were raised by the JVP when Sunil Ratnayake was released last year, and that the series of public consultations that were conducted in different parts of the country on environmental destruction should have covered the Northern Province as well, especially as there it also involved human rights violations. It is not possible to win the country based only on the Sinhala-Buddhist faction, a faction that is largely anti-Buddhist in attitude”. End Quote.
Eich also gives me a punch in the solar-plexus in his mail: “It is totally unrealistic to expect the JVP to apologise to the people for what happened in 1989, and it is unnecessary to keep reminding them of it. Everyone makes mistakes, and these things happened long ago, and only a few who participated then are active now”. Of course he is cross because I harp on the JVP for not living up to the Leninist obligation that a revolutionary party must thoroughly analyse and openly correct its errors. Ok Eich, out of the window go old-fashioned Leninist norms of party building. I will hereafter stop picking on the JVP for 1971 and 1989.
The JVP is the single most important political entity in the country today. Its leaders and cadres are free of sleaze and they are genuine, it is serious minded about its duties and obligations in Parliament and in Councils where it is represented, it is dedicated and diligent. Anura is frequently rated the best MP by ‘manthri.lk’ an independent monthly web ranking site and Sunil Handunneththii was an outstanding COPE Chairman. His defeat at the 2020 election teaches us two lessons, first it proves that the Sri Lankan voter is a buffalo, second it confirms my previous song and dance about the JVP needing to go to the polls in alliances.
I know that the leadership and membership will take little note nor long remember what I say in this column; they are unlikely to pause even to give me the time of day. So why do I write it? Because what I have said here is indisputably true, so other people will pick it up, explore it and expand upon it. In this way the discourse will seep into the party; there is no other way out, or road ahead for the JVP.