The leaderships of the Jathika Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and National Peoples Power (NPP) are making valiant, laudable efforts to project an alternative to the established political class that, by most accounts, have failed the country. The United National Party (UNP), the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and their respective, barely distinguishable clones, Samagi Jana Belavegaya (SJB) and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) have little to offer on how to tackle two challenges. The first, is a systemic change by diversifying from the colonial plantation system into an industrial economy (not by promoting merely “industries”); the second challenge is political: the systemic restructuring of the unreformed and authoritarian colonial State inherited in 1948.
The JVP, established in 1965, catalysed the formation of the 2015 NPP; the latter, also headed by the JVP leader, consists of some 27 entities – selected political parties including the JVP, some trade unions and women’s groups and a sprinkling of members of the urban intelligentsia and more. Together the JVP/NPP are apparently designed as a Rural-Urban Bridge to strengthen the JVP’s base among the rural middle class by allying with sections of the predominantly Sinhalese intelligentsia mustered under the NPP banner; the alliance, it is perhaps hoped, would boost its attraction for agricultural producers.
However, the JVP/NPP leaderships seem to underestimate the overwhelming dynamics of the four-decade (1979-2009) long Civil War that spawned the dysfunctional State institutions, spread and deepened corruption among the political class, brought about widespread lawlessness and sowed seeds of multiple economic crises. Successive governments qualified and sometimes overrode legislation protecting fundamental rights; they dismantled institutions that facilitated accountability; the political class grabbed the opportunity to institutionalise impunity and insulate against their own criminality and so accelerated the breakdown.
In short, the nationalist Sinhalese elite fabricated the non-rule of law system mainly to give carte blanche to pursue a patriotic “victory” against Tamil nationalism. The resulting Sinhala-Buddhist political tidal wave lifted Gotabaya Rajapaksa on to the presidential throne in 2019. The consequences and outcomes are well known.
As always, it is not for us to question the political decisions and electoral choices of the Sinhalese people; they are entitled to follow their interests. On the other hand, it makes no sense to scape goat Tamils, as a majority of mainstream Sinhalese intelligentsia seem to, for allegedly starting the war; a perceptive minority among the intelligentsia rue in private that the nationalist Sinhalese elite brought about the catastrophe by rejecting a political settlement with the Tamils through their Federal Party in the 1950s and 1960s, brutalising them with repeated Pogroms and gratuitously provoking the armed resistance of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The JVP/NPP leaderships has to confront an onerous reality: that social institutions and traditions could be demolished almost overnight; on the other hand, re-building them takes a few generations, if not longer.
In many ways the feudalist Sinhalese elite dragged the country along the path to ruin by not remedying the structural distortions intrinsic to the colonial State. Instead they nurtured the toxic inheritance handed down since it appeared to guarantee their undisputed hold on political power; so, they further reinforced the crisis-prone State with two republican constitutions, 1972 and 1978, to consolidate their power during the subsequent decades. The preservation of the ramshackle plantation system went hand in hand.
Diversifying the plantation system
When President Ranil Wickremesinghe and team secured the IMF’s March 2023 “bailout” agreement, there was considerable satisfaction among sections of the elite; they also comforted themselves that it had been well worth falling into debt to defeat Tamil Nationalism, spearheaded by the LTTE.
They confidently imagine the debts incurred to prosecute the war towards the 2009 “victory” and those arising out of the unbridled corruption they had slurred over, so as not to hobble the war effort, could be steadily serviced while the economy recovered gradually. The IMF’s intravenous infusion of funds as seed money, they expect, would support a proposed “value added technologically driven agriculture and fisheries-based export market economy” in the future, as described by a commentator.
The IMF in the garb of a debt collector may soon, if not already, begin to coerce the debt-strapped government to squeeze more taxes and roll back public spending in order to service the debt. The social and economic costs of debt servicing, let alone repayment, and the impact of debt servicing-induced deprivation has yet to be assessed fully. Nonetheless, some sections of the Sinhalese elite appear to be preparing for the worst-case scenario; they are empowering the State to contain the anticipated upheavals in the south through the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), currently a Bill in Parliament, as a legal umbrella not unlike under the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
The JVP/NPP leaderships have few answers for the first challenge, on how to go beyond the colonial plantation system toward a diversified industrial economy, while necessarily retaining plantation production for the time being. The NPP’s “initial ideas and proposals” in the 2021 Rapid Response to Overcome Current Challenges have been unveiled against the above backdrop (the document is apparently no longer available on the website). They too envisage an “export-oriented approach with value-added products…that can generate more foreign exchange by joining the global supply chain”.
A mention of industrialisation is conspicuously absent in the Rapid Response. One expects a subsequent revised version would clarify whether value is to be added by squeezing further the grossly emaciated lower-middle and working classes or whether value adding will be enhanced by accelerating technological developments under an overarching industrialisation that increases labour productivity. As for “joining the global supply chain”, Colonial Ceylon’s export-oriented plantation system added value to three main commodities: tea, rubber and coconut, using mostly indentured labour and linked them to the “global supply chain” from the 1830s onwards.
As of now, the initial Rapid Response is crucially influenced and limited by the JVP leadership’s worldview, mired in the agrarian milieu and grounded in the rural middle-class base from which they sprang and which root their politics. The JVP leadership has to contend with the miasma, thrown up by the feudalist elite, of revitalising the Dry Zone’s Village-Tank-Temple agrarian trinity that dominates the minds of Sinhalese rural producers and extends conceptually to the rain-fed peasant cultivators in the Wet Zone.
The feudalist elite reinforced the conservative ideology of small producers through peasant proprietor schemes, the Mahaweli Settlements and Gam Udawa (Village Upliftment) programmes as a counterweight against social forces seeking a fundamental transformation. So, peasant proprietorship was to support a “self-respecting” class of farmers with “an abiding interest” in land and, therefore, would be resistant to change; the elite’s palpable objective, in our view, was primarily to set up ideological road blocks – masked by altruistic claims, not altogether inaccurate, of achieving self-sufficiency in food – to thwart systemic economic change that may undermine their interests as a class.
Is it a mere accident that President Ranil Wickremesinghe reportedly urged in January, 2023 that “we must…build the economy that Late Mr. DS Senanayake created 75 years ago”? Did he allude to the agricultural base of the peasant economy that colonial administrator C.V. Brayne conceptualized and Senanayake actualised through his 1935 Land Development Ordinance and the associated irrigation infrastructure?
If press reports are anything to go by, sections of the elite are dredging up the JVP’s earlier Marxist avatar – one claimed the Left-Wing JVP wolf is crouching under the NPP’s “sheep’s clothing” – that could panic the rural and urban petty property owners into fearing that a future JVP/NPP government would confiscate and socialise their hard-earned wealth. The elite are, of course, entitled to defend their own interests; on the other hand, the success of the JVP/NPP political project crucially hangs on its leaderships’ ability to nimbly step over the ideological tripwires strung across by the elite.
The feudalist Sinhalese elite unwittingly helped to dilute a similar peasant ideology among Tamil small farmers and underemployed cultivators by virtually excluding them from land settlement schemes and by displacing and expropriating considerable portions of their fertile lands during the four-decade long war. Some with wherewithal emigrated while large sections among Tamils have been compelled to move more into non-agricultural economic activities and hone their entrepreneurial skills acquired under the Chola mercantile Empire that spanned South-East Asia (9th to 13th Centuries CE) to expand their economic horizon.
Incidentally, a telling evidence of the extent of Chola cultural influence is the celebration of the Hindu-Shaivite solar New Year on or around the 14th of April that continues across many countries in South East Asia to this day.
The JVP/NPP’s Rapid Response in many ways expresses the hopes and aspirations of the third rural Sinhalese generation struggling to climb out of the Sinhala Only abyss, dug by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The first two, led by the JVP, fought to effect what they saw as a systemic change – to defeat the “Kaduwa” – to overthrow the domination by the Anglicised elite symbolised by the English language; but they were ill prepared for battle and went to the wall in 1971 and again in 1987-89, paying with the lives of a conservatively estimated eighty thousand of the politically conscious cream.
The current generation the JVP/NPP are mobilising seem to prefer the parliamentary path to change. That could be a further reason why the Rapid Response does not highlight a broad-based industrialisation probably in order to not alienate the potential agrarian electoral base, essential to secure a parliamentary majority. Surprisingly the Rapid Response’s alleged Left-Populism does not extend to promoting education in the mother tongue combined with universal English literacy as the indispensable supplement that CWW Kannangara had envisaged in 1939 to decolonise education – non-negotiable pre-condition for meeting the first challenge, of sustained economic development.
Restructuring the State
The JVP/NPP leadership’s second challenge is to restructure the State. Their Rapid Response takes up two important reforms:
a) Replace the Executive Presidency with a parliamentary form (page 20); and
b) Introduce a decentralised political system “affirming the Sri Lankan identity of all nationalities in the country” (page 21).
Every presidential candidate from 1989 onwards promised to eliminate the Executive Presidency; one in 1994 tendered it in writing.
The Rapid Response seeks to affirm the “the Sri Lankan identity of all nationalities”. Sri Lankan of course is the code for the Sinhalese identity and we see no evidence that the authors of Rapid Response are aware of, let alone explored, the views of other nationalities on the Lanka or Ilankai identities. Might this mean the lessons of decades of political confrontations, destructive civil war, Indian military intervention and the associated economic ruin and societal misery are considered irrelevant by the JVP/NPP leaderships?
In fact, the Rapid Response did not go beyond decentralisation, which the 1931 Donoughmore Commission had recommended supposedly to “bring the colonial government closer to the people”; and it appears reluctant to enunciate the other “D” word. A JVP/NPP aficionado, to his credit, laboured to ease the traditional Fear of Jaffna among nationalist Sinhalese intelligentsia in general and especially in the JVP/NPP leaderships by obliquely alluding to the unmentionable: Devolution. He assured that Tamils no longer seek an independent Tamil Eelam and stridently called, “Change the party line now!”
President Wickremesinghe reportedly claimed, during his January, 2023 Thai Pongal speech in Jaffna, his government would implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution (to devolve power) after discussions with Tamil parliamentarians in February/March, 2023. Sections of the Buddhist clergy marched on Parliament and publicly set fire to a copy of the Amendment. Their reaction is understandable since they too, like most members of the nationalist Sinhalese elite, view devolution as an unconscionable capitulation at the negotiating table of what was won on the battle field at the cost of blood and treasure.
It is unclear how the Rapid Response intends to cope with the opposition from the Buddhist clergy.
The anti-Tamil sections of the nationalist Sinhalese intelligentsia in the south cheered the State’s war machine; and the anti-LTTE groups among the parochial Tamil intelligentsia in the north and east desisted from opposing the armed forces’ military campaign. They together are culpable in enabling the government’s military victory that dialectically, so to speak, firmly closed the door to the very democratisation of the State they claimed to seek through the defeat of the LTTE.
We suspect the JVP/NPP leaderships have also to cope with two further spill overs of the 2009 “victory”. First, the nationalist Sinhalese elite seem to have concluded the Tamil National Question could be blown away by applying the military solution; second, the “victory” confirmed in their mind that a reform of the State towards a federal structure is superfluous since the military solution has been tried, tested and found “successful”.
The populist distraction
The JVP/NPP leaderships’ inability to imagine a credible a democratic structure within which to orchestrate the contending Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslim nationalist forces as well as class contradictions have apparently led them to dabble in populism.
The variations in populism are limited only by human ingenuity. Broadly speaking, political forces resort to populism to postulate a “third” or non-capitalist path of development; or a charismatic leader could exploit emotive symbols for populist mass mobilisation to compensate for the inability to craft a political programme incorporating concrete social realties. The second option may explain better the JVP/NPP phenomenon.
Some analysts interpreted the NPP’s approach as “Left-Wing Populism” akin to the Latin America’s anti-imperialist Pink Tide. Others drew on the Latin American experience to dispute the relevance of the label and suggest alternative ones.
The experiences of Latin American countries and those in Europe – Greece’s Syriza (“from the roots”), Spain’s Podemos (“we can”), etc. – are interesting; they may reveal a few useful insights. Nevertheless, in our view, one must bear in mind that the European movements do not have to contend with the dynamics specific to 20th Century post-colonial societies in South Asia.
Moreover, Latin American countries are settler colonies in which political theory and practice are dominated by the Spanish- or Portuguese-speaking European settler-elites. The elites are grounded in their colonial interests as a class, have yet to permit the indigenous nations into mainstream politics and their political articulations, therefore, cannot but be warped to fit the racist, genocidal rule over the colonised nations (Mayas, Aztecs, etc.).
A few leaders (Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Peru’s Alejandro Toledo) have broken through from colonised indigenous nations after more than 500 years of colonial repression and destruction; remarkably the anti-colonial resistance movements continue although attempts are often made to suppress them under the pretext of “anti-narcotic” military operations. The ahistorical transposition of the Eurocentric theoretical formulations of the Latin America’s settler-elites almost in toto upon the conquered colonies of South Asia is highly questionable.
Rather than be distracted by extra-regional experiences rooted in starkly different historical contexts, it would be of more value to draw from the populist movements within the splinters of the crumbling British South Asian Empire. The RSS/BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindutva that evokes a mythical Ram Raj in India, the PPP’s Islamic Democracy, which Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto hedged as Islamic Socialism, and the SLFP’s Sinhala-Buddhist Middle Path socialism in Sri Lanka are attempts by indigenous elites to grapple with the challenges of internal de-colonisation – two important criteria that do not apply to Latin America – in order to build democratic State structures for multi-nationality post-colonial polities in South Asia.
What is at issue, arguably, is the capacity of the JVP/NPP leaderships in Sri Lanka to look across the Palk Strait not only at Buddhist traditions and practices but also to craft a political program rooted in the region’s historical evolution.
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*Dr Sachithanandam Sathananthan is an independent researcher who read Political Economy for the Ph.D. degree at the University of Cambridge. He was Assistant Director, International Studies, Marga Institute, Visiting Research Scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University School of International Studies and has taught World History at Karachi University’s Institute of Business Administration. He is an award-winning filmmaker and may be reached at: email@example.com