By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The 2001-2003 Ranil Wickremesinghe premiership produced Mahinda Rajapaksa. The 2015-2020 Ranil Wickremesinghe premiership produced Gotabaya Rajapaksa. A cluster of obvious questions arise: it was foreseeable but why was it not foreseen?
Why were serious researchers Sunil Bastian’s and Mutukrishna Sarvanandan’s uber-accurate contemporary critiques of the Ranil interlude of 2001-2003 ignored by the civil society intellectuals and ideologues—and repeated in 2015-2019?
Given the obvious causal nexus between Ranilism and the rise of Rajapaksa power why isn’t the obvious point made that the ebbing of that power has as a necessary but not sufficient condition—indeed a precondition—the removal from the political and ideological equation, of Ranil and Ranilism, in whatever guise?
Insofar as liberal, neoliberal and left-liberal civil society ideologues seem to criticize Ranil and his UNP it is for the wrong things: (a) not prosecuting the Rajapaksas and (b) proceeding with insufficient vigor along the path of the neoliberal reformist project of January 2015. That camp in civil society—the pother being the ultranationalist camp—does not question the 2015 agenda and its equally unsuccessful forerunner the 2001-2203 agenda, and locate these within the collapse of neoliberal democracy in many parts of the world.
As for those who, got out from under the Ranilist UNP, and almost too late, launched the SJB, the liberal, neoliberal and left-liberal civil society camp has two contradictory views. One is that the SJB is the UNP and is interchangeable except in superficial ways. The other is that the SJB is Gotabaya Lite.
If the SJB is a twin of the UNP, the obvious question is why voters preferred the SJB to the UNP and wiped out the original UNP. Perhaps the UNP voters knew best—and they knew that they didn’t want the old UNP anymore. They wanted a UNP or an approximation that could compete someday with the SLPP and win. They wanted the change in the UNP that the SLFP effected when it shifted to CBK and away from Mrs. B. Since that change was not forthcoming, they shifted to the closest approximation of such a formation.
The equation of the UNP and SJB not only doesn’t make sense in arithmetical terms, it doesn’t make sense in the higher algebra (as Trotsky had it) of politics either. The argument that the same individuals who were in the UNP have simply moved to the SJB doesn’t prove that the two parties are classifiable in the same category. After all, those who broke away with Sanmugathasan and formed the Maoist party were all those who had been in the pro-Soviet Communist party instead. The same goes for the old LSSP and the breakaway Vaama Samasamaaja/NSSP formation. Did that make them in any sense identical or even the same as the old party?
How then does one explain the phenomenon in religion or politics of a schism? Because Martin Luther was once a figure of the undivided church, does that make the protestant reformation a disguised version of Catholicism? Because Trotsky and Stalin were in the same leadership at the same time, were they interchangeable? What of Mao and Khrushchev?
Quite obviously not, because the key determinant is the ideological and political line; the discourse; the project.
The equation of the SJB and the UNP is made still more nonsensical because it does not explain the huge political struggle within the UNP leading to the split in 1991—the attempted impeachment of Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Were the UNP’s Lalith-Gamini tendency and the Premadasa tendency identical or clones or just in different guises? Or was it a clash of two ideologies, two projects?
Premadasa would have contested as an independent Presidential candidate had he been deprived of nomination in 1988. Would that have been as a UNP clone?
When he did contest as the UNP leader and candidate, he made no reference to the previous government, did not use the color green and switched his ‘own’ color orange, and campaigned on a platform that was quite distinct from the UNP regime and which could compete with and defeat Sirimavo Bandaranaike in an atmosphere of heightened nationalist tension. Was Premadasa’s candidacy and campaign that of the UNP in other vestments or was a Populist project?
Was his Presidency a disguise for the UNP? Why did the successor UNP administration sabotage his funeral and turn back the crowds by declaring curfew?
One cannot comprehend the SJB/UNP schism today without understanding the struggle in the UNP of Ranasinghe Premadasa and against him, dating back not only the impeachment drive but to Premadasa’s rebellion in the UNP from 1970 to 1973, culminating in the Puravesi Peramuna (Citizens’ Front). Neither those two struggles nor today’s can be understood without a recognition and comprehension of the phenomenon of Populism.
MR ‘Lite’ or ‘GR Lite’?
Are Sajith and the SJB simply ‘MR Lite’ or ‘GR Lite’? Should they be so? ‘No’ and ‘Yes, sort of’. In 1994, CBK had converted to UNP Lite, because the Open Economy simply had to be incorporated in modified form, into a winning equation or else the SLFP would always be denied public consent since the public did not want to go back to the economy of scarcity.
Bill Clinton had to shift to the center, after Reagan’s re-composition of American consciousness just as Blair had to so after Thatcher’s. Bernie Sanders and AOC endorsed Joe Biden, and Biden junked Hillary Clinton’s neoliberalism and shifted his agenda slightly leftwards, because it was recognized that a centrist-progressive from the white majority community was needed to win back white working-class voters from Trump.
So it is in Sri Lankan politics and with Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s contribution. The Sinhala voter will never go back to the insecurity of the UNP days and will require the guarantee that they will be as safe as they feel on national security questions as they do under the Rajapaksas. Therefore ‘MR Lite’ or ‘Gota Lite’ will have to be some part of a winning formula but not the sole or main factor. It will be a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
However, this in no way necessitates the imitation of either MR or GR, because Ranasinghe Premadasa contained the synthesis of patriotism, moderate pluralist nationalism, populism and social democratic universal welfarism. Sajith Premadasa doesn’t have to mimic his opponent, the regime; he simply has to channel his father, but not stop at that. He has to think through what his father would have said and done in these new times and update the software.
To be charitable, the confusion of the civil society intelligentsia is not new; it is but a throwback. Prof Michael Roberts unearthed some years ago, an essay my father Mervyn de Silva wrote in the Observer magazine in 1967. It was a ‘Politics Today’ think-piece “1956: The Cultural Revolution That Shook the Left” and “The Left Awakens from Romance to Reality”, full-page articles published in the Ceylon Observer Magazine Edition, May 16th & 23rd, 1967. Mervyn de Silva’s essay was a retrospective of 1956, a prefiguration of the broad anti-UNP center-left Opposition front of 1968 and a prospective signal of the fall of the rightwing pro-western government in 1970. A critical reconsideration of postcolonial society, it was also a pioneering auto-critique of the Westernized elite and English-educated cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the Right and Left. It contained the suggestion of a possible synthesis, a third politico-cultural and intellectual sensibility and stance.
The point Mervyn developed in that long essay was the shared sensibility, indeed the insensitivity –mainly to the national sentiment — that blinkered both the pro-Western Right, the UNP, and the orthodox Left, mainly the cosmopolitan LSSP leadership, enabling their blindsiding by the SWRD/SLFP/MEP phenomenon.
The same thing happened to the neoliberal UNP and left-liberal intelligentsia when it came to the SLPP Pohottuwa, a Leviathan that a professorial (and Trotskyist) member of the NPP National List derisively called the “Poroppaya”. Its hegemonic supermajority based on a pan-Sinhala bloc isn’t too bad for a “Poroppaya” is it?
Of course, coming as it did from the same academic who put down in writing (it appeared on TamilNet) that the LTTE’s fledgling ‘air force’ showed its accumulated scientific-technological capability which clearly meant that the Sri Lankan state couldn’t and wouldn’t defeat it in the foreseeable future– and wrote this just a few months before the May 2009 victory, such absurd pontification should perhaps be excused.
Most of those who preferred Ranil and Ranilism to the bitter end and did not see the wipeout of the UNP coming, nor the prospect of Sajith Premadasa getting by a considerable multiple, the votes, percentage and seats that the UNP did, are the same ones who went on the record precisely during the last war, ruling out the prospect of a military victory by the state.
Now the same myopia is blinding the same civil society intelligentsia to the new Oppositional force, which is the only real opposition, Sajith’s SJB.
De-coding the SJB
What is the SJB, what it is doing and trying to do? It is, as in the case of the poorly perceived SLFP of SWRD in 1951-1956, the newly and rapidly emergent party of the Middle Path- albeit a new, different Middle Path—carving out a space between the neoliberals (UNP) and the neoconservatives (GR regime/SLPP) and occupying the center-space.
Sajith’s SJB is an ideological third force which, far more rapidly than any other party in Ceylonese/Sri Lankan political history including the SLFP, has become the politico-electoral second force and aspires to the top spot in 20204/2025. There’s no other force around. As an alternative to the Pohottuwa, it is the only game in town.
Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa made a similar attempt in 1973 with his Puravesi Peramuna (Citizens’ Front) which was rendered needless by the death of ex-PM Dudley Senanayaka and the prompt invitation extended by JR Jayewardene to Premadasa to replace the Old Guard and revamp the party together, as the Deputy Leader. What Sajith has done is resume his father’s journey from where the latter stopped the Citizens Front experiment and what he, Ranasinghe Premadasa, had geared up to do had he been denied of the President nomination AND the UNP leadership in 1988.
Who among the left-liberals thought that one would not even need the fingers of one hand to count the number of seats the JVP/NPP would get? What blinded them? Are they making a self-critical assessment and self-correction even now?
There is no acknowledgement that the JVP leadership became gentrified, lost its way, went along the path of middle-class reformism, abandoned its role in the Lankan political space as a radical patriotic and radical populist ‘watchdog’ movement, and was almost decimated electorally just as it was decimated militarily in the late 1980s. The middle classes it was wooing voted either SLPP or SJB or spoiled its votes or stayed home.
Had Wijeweera accepted Ranasinghe Premadasa’s offer and entered into a governing bloc with him, Sri Lanka would have had the most progressive government it could ever have produced, but the JVP’s sectarianism prevented it from so doing and the end was tragic. Today, the situation is similar. The most progressive and prudent thing the JVP/NPP could do is enter a coalition with Sajith’s SJB and share political power in 2025. If not, it’s fate will be the electoral version of what happened in 1989: its potential and actual voters will defect to the Premadasist SJB. This is of course what happened in 1956, when anti-UNP left voters defected to SWRD’s Middle Path progressivism.
If Bernie Sanders and AOC can endorse and work with and for Biden, why can’t the JVP/NPP do so with Sajith?
If that’s not the route the JVP wants to go, it must promptly reunify the Left by accepting Kumar Gunaratnam’s offer.
Either way, the JVP cannot continue to mimic the mistakes of Ranil’s UNP and should shift to Lal Kantha as leader, in order to reconnect with its grassroots constituency. A ‘new wave’ actress (from the same Colombo University crowd as Sannasgala), has already tweeted the idea.