26 January, 2021

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The Opposition: Waiting For Godot

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Political alliances are marriages of conveniences. The UNP, which promised everyone that it would stick together, and accused the media of painting a false picture of disunity, is trying to outdo itself in vilifying the rival factions. A low ranking member of the UNP, one of those young organisers who revel in regurgitating whatever the Executive Committee of the party issues to him and to the public, denounces Mr Ajith Perera on social media for a statement the latter is alleged to have made about attacking those in the party who do not support Sajith Premadasa. Mr Perera, who obviously did not make that statement, comes out moments later saying that a fake post with his name on it is making the rounds.

If the situation elsewhere is no different, it’s at least more farcical. One only needs to read between the lines in Palitha Rangebandara’s, Naveen Dissanayake’s, Vajira Abeywardena’s, and Akila Viraj Kariyawasam’s offhanded statements to understand that this may well be the biggest rupture the UNP has faced since Gamini and Lalith exited. I see Mr Dissanayake has stated emphatically that to give up the elephant logo would be to give up the UNP altogether. That, if anything at all, shows how far the Sajith-Ranil rift has gone and how far it is yet to go before they lose everything. It’s futile, however, to think that that rift began to unravel only recently; that rift began to emerge the moment the UNP and the SLFP got together. And now, at present, the party at the centre of the alliance – the UNP, not the SLFP – is more concerned with axing off its rivals than taking on what the government is doing. So when someone like Mr Imtiaz Bakir Marker speculates on TV that by alienating their faction Ranil’s group might be working on orders from the government, can anyone really blame him?

The UNP made use of the intra-party splits in the SLFP during the 1980s and the SLPP and, to a considerable extent, SLFP are making use of the splits in the UNP now. When the SLFP and the UNP got together, the rallying call for the Joint Opposition was betrayal – that of the parent party and its representatives – and resentment. If this didn’t get them the numbers they wanted straight away, the JO at least had the foresight to go about it alone. The reason why it could do so was that the SLFP was deemed a lost cause the moment it relegated itself to the UNP. Statements contradicting each other cropped up almost immediately after the Unity Government began its term. For the JO, it worked both ways: by distancing themselves from the alliance, and by being distanced from it by the SLFP and the UNP, they could get outside the parliament what they were could not within it; they could say, for instance, that the social market ideology promoted by the SLFP was denied by the UNP and that they had no hand in either the UNP’s distortion or the SLFP’s co-sponsorship of it.

In the end they won. The dynamics favoured such an outcome. They do not favour a similar outcome for Sajith Premadasa today. To begin with, the context is different. The call of the hour, and of the people, back then was anger: anger at the rising cost of living, the surrender of sovereignty and national pride, the ethnic polarisation, and the indifference of activists to the plight of the public. In other words, anger was directed against not only the government, but also the official opposition: the JVP and the TNA. The JO filled the vacuum this resulted in. The JVP today has lost what it could muster had it been as vocal against the regime as it was against the JO. As for the TNA, it has stated it will wait until elections are finished. That leaves the UNP and the SJV. What circumstances are they in currently?

Mervyn de Silva, prescient commentator that he was, hit the nail on the head when he once noted that the problem with the Opposition – Gamini Dissanayake and Lalith Athulathmudali had left the UNP to form the DUNF, and the SLFP was about to join hands with them – was its unwillingness to contend with the regime beyond an “issue-centred approach.” The SLFP, the DUNF, Dinesh Gunawardena’s MEP, and remnants of the Old Left ended up attacking the Premadasa administration from a multitude of vantage points – joblessness, slow growth, mismanagement of terrorism in the north and south, vigilante counterterrorism in the south – without engaging constructively with them.

The approach was in that sense more issue-led and not only slipshod and incoherent but also unsustainable in the long run. De Silva may have been supportive of Premadasa, but unlike most such supporters he empathetically dwelt on where the Opposition was falling apart: it was trying to take on the administration by pointing at its failure to realise its political, social, and economic program without presenting an original manifesto at a time when the electorate favoured the ideological base of the Premadasa regime and the shift from elitist to populist anti-elitist politics that it had brought about. In other words, it did criticise the government, but not by presenting a better vision for a government led by it that cohered with the populist shift Premadasa’s administration had embedded in the system. The problem was aggravated by the SLFP’s dynastic faceoff: Anura versus Chandrika versus Sirimavo.

There were times when personality clashes stunted their ability to act as an opposition, when the pro-Anura Tilak Karunaratne and the Hela Urumaya were accused of being foreign agents by the former Prime Minister and when Anura Bandaranaike declared that, on the event of their alliance winning the polls, they would not go back to his mother’s closed economy. As Izeth Hussein pointed out in an article after the failed impeachment of the president, Lalith and Gamini were critiquing Premadasa’s anti-democratic facade while “regarding the 1977 government as having been democratic.” On both counts, the contradictions were almost the same – the Opposition, while attacking the man heading the government, were begrudgingly accepting the program he had initiated despite heavy-handed opposition to it, by either stating that they would not rewind the clock if they came to power or asserting that they viewed the regime which paved the way for his coming to power as ideal – and on both counts the irony was clear. People may not have been in the mood for a regime change – since Premadasa was killed months before the election, we’ll never know for sure – and these issues, in whatever place and time, may not have been enough to convince them to shift.

The same goes for today. I am not sure whether in his first 100 days Gotabaya Rajapaksa has achieved more than what the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration did in theirs, but I do know that he has achieved and got through significant reforms. The optics are there – placing educated professionals as provincial governors, issuing instructions to MPs and other officials to not use or misuse his name and portrait, condoning publicly with protesting students while contending that they can’t obstruct traffic – but so is the enforcement and implementation of the optics, of which the highlight for now has to be the successful expediting of the RMV’s driver registration process. This is what people wanted and clamoured for, and though it may not be what people explicitly wanted it’s certainly emblematic of their frustrations and their demands. No amount of conference hall seminars of fancy party launches is going to get out an exodus from the SLPP to the SJB unless and until there’s a fundamental rupture in the way things are going in the government. Meanwhile, the precious few critiques of the government Sajith Premadasa makes are as unfocused as the SLFP’s critiques of his father’s regime back then: issue-led, and not a little incoherent, as with his pledge to stand with the graduates the government had hired and later vacated at the behest of the Elections Commissioner calling it a political appointment during election period. There is a rift between the SLPP and the SLFP but as of now, it has produced nothing comparable to the Sajith-Ranil faceoff.

My guess is that the rupture will come later rather than sooner. And since it will be delayed, my guess is that the two halves of the Opposition will have to wait for Godot, just as the Opposition in the presidency of the father of the man heading the UNP’s splinter group had to wait for Godot. In 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga got her chance, and it took the deaths of two key people for that to happen. It will take no less than a similar earth shattering event for the SJB to upend this regime. Meanwhile, it will have to focus its energies on upending the Ranil faction. The task for Sajith isn’t easy, and it isn’t going to get easy any time soon. Only when the contradictions at the heart of the UNP and the SJB – the Colombo English speaking elite on the one hand and the new emergent young and suburban bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie on the other – are reconciled will Sajith Premadasa be able to fulfil the task he thinks history has given him. Until then, he will have to wait, and not just for Godot. 

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