By Uditha Devapriya –
By sacking Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila, the government has betrayed its inability to withstand criticism, especially from within. Weerawansa and Gammanpila were, of course, hardly the first government MPs to offer such criticism: Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe came out long before them. But Weerawansa’s and Gammanpila’s sacking is important because of who they are and what they represent. While it is somewhat justifiable to view what’s unfolding now as part of a long drama authored by the government, one should not shrug off, and ignore, the significance of these two leaving the Cabinet.
Together with Dinesh Gunawardena, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Dullas Alahapperuma, and Kumara Welgama, Weerawansa and Gammanpila were key ideological backers of the Bring Back Mahinda Campaign. Unlike Rajapakshe, who ensconced himself with the yahapalanists before making a hasty exit, they stuck through and through with Mahinda. While it’s true that on their own the parties they lead amount to nothing, it’s also true that without their mobilisation, the Joint Opposition wouldn’t have been able to tap into the mass discontent that was the hallmark of the yahapalana years. It’s no small irony that the man they fought and campaigned against, Maithripala Sirisena, is standing with them on the same stage. This is why their departure is so significant, and why one shouldn’t belittle it.
Weerawansa and Gammanpila represent a softer version of the rightwing politics being espoused by the current government. This does not make them progressives, nor fellow travellers of the Left. But no Oppositional strategy can, or will, work without accounting for the fact that they are no longer with the regime. Moreover, as Minister of Industries and Minister of Energy respectively, they did some work, even if in the larger scheme of things that didn’t amount to much. They also fired off warnings about the present crisis that the ruling party paid no attention to: warnings that, especially in Gammanpila’s case, have now come true. Sacking them won’t make the problem go away.
All this seems comparable to what happened in 1975, when the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government sacked the LSSP and the Communist Party before shifting rightward. In that sense, it’s tempting to compare Weerawansa and Gammanpila to N. M. Perera and Colvin R. de Silva, with Basil Rajapaksa playing Felix Dias. But at the end of the day, such comparisons are unhelpful, and don’t stand up to the complexities of the situation.
What we are seeing now essentially is the excision of two petty bourgeois appendages from a Bonapartist regime. This calls for new strategies, both for the defectors-to-be and the Opposition. For starters, both Weerawansa and Gammanpila have a history of engagement with populist politics. While the economic crisis has seen their brand of nationalism take a backseat, in the right hands this is an ideology that can be mobilised progressively.
Mr Gammanpila’s past connections to Champika Ranawaka, in particular, may or may not result in a shift in oppositional politics, but such conjunctions, improbable as they would have been two years ago, seem plausible today. The SLFP has already marked itself out as a key adversary of the SLPP, endearing itself to sections in the Opposition. It remains to be seen whether the NFF and PHU will follow suit, but that may well happen.
None of this necessarily bodes well for the country. But if the Opposition needs to topple the government democratically, it needs to explore all options. We are now in a situation where the most corrupt and dislikeable acolytes of the regime are pushing out their less corrupt and dislikeable colleagues. Weerawansa and Gammanpila do have their chequered pasts. But to be fair, so do certain members of the Opposition. Compared with the excesses of some government MPs, the NFF and PHU have conducted themselves rather well over the last two years. Of course, that hardly excuses their shortcomings. Yet it does open up the possibility of them joining a broader anti-regime alliance.
More importantly, these developments should not distract the Left from forming a progressive bloc against the government and the neoliberal Opposition, while shifting the latter leftward. Petty bourgeois formations in Sri Lanka have a tendency of turning to the right, but they have always been guided by prevailing circumstances. This is why the same SLFP that nationalised multinational oil companies in 1961 could reduce wealth taxes at the top level from eight to three percent barely 15 years later. The Left must hence recognise the progressive potential of breakaway factions from the government, without embracing them or forming alliances with them. It must also recognise that there are others within the regime, even within the ruling party, who want out, and encourage them.
In that sense, the biggest mistake the Opposition can make is to assume that what we are seeing now – the exit of two key partners in the government – is part of a lengthy drama scripted by the government and the ruling party. No Opposition in Sri Lanka can or should discount the potential of dissidents. Anti-government forces may privilege principles over expedience, but then they must note that the ex-government formations they are dealing with are cleaner than the closest acolytes of the regime. They must also understand that politics is about shifting allegiances, that alliances are marriages of convenience, and that Oppositions can only linger so long as they make use of the moment.
When Britain experienced queues at filling stations and India imposed power cuts over coal shortages, pro-government commentators basked themselves in glory. Today we have fuel shortages and power cuts, and those commentators have gone quiet. Udaya Gammanpila was right: this is the worst crisis since independence. But who from the government’s side will acknowledge? Who from that side will come up with a feasible plan to get us out of this mess? The government is hell-bent against going to the IMF. Progressive commentators are opposed to the IMF too. But what’s the alternative? Does the regime have one?
We are seeing through the biggest crisis this country has ever experienced. Without a joint alliance to set things right and redirect the government, there’s no telling where we will go. To that end, we need to course-correct. A progressive bloc is the only solution.
*The writer can be reached at email@example.com