By Dayan Jayatilleka –
One of our most interesting columnists, Uditha Devapriya, in a recent flurry of interesting pieces (Daily Mirror, The Island, Colombo Telegraph) pointed to new trends in the Opposition at two ends of the ideological spectrum, and raised in his Daily Mirror piece, the question of which direction civil society will opt to take.
I do not wish to suggest an answer by means of an ideological sermon, but instead, to do so as a Realist, which is also the way in which Uditha Devapriya defines himself.
My point is very simple. I do not know which direction civil society and the pluralist-democratic movement will take, but I have a modest suggestion as to which direction it should not turn. That suggestion is based on logic. Just as one wouldn’t send one’s children to a tutor who has a track record of having flunked his or her examinations, one should not take the cue from those who have a track record of serial political blunders and catastrophes. Instead, one should try something that is new or not quite so exceptionally disastrous.
Who and what should civil society and more specifically, a civic democratic resistance movement, avoid like Covid-19? I would say the same ideas and personalities who have repeatedly proved disastrous in the realm of political strategy, direction and guidance.
The facts speak for themselves.
In January 2019, the UNP was celebrating the overthrow of Mahinda Rajapaksa as PM. In January 2020 Mahinda Rajapaksa was the PM.
From 2015 to end-2018, the most numerous Opposition formation was denied recognition as the parliamentary Opposition. In 2020 it solidly controls legislative and executive power.
In January 2019 the UNP and TNA celebrated the successful avoidance of a parliamentary election. In 2020 the UNP which could have registered a respectable total of seats while going into Opposition, wound up without a single seat in Parliament while the TNA’s haul of seats was considerably diminished.
In January 2019 the UNP and TNA were hellbent on abolishing the presidential system. In 2020 the Presidential system emerged as strong as it ever was and arguably stronger than ever before.
In January 2019 para-UNP neoliberal civil society was celebrating the overthrow of a fake constitutional coup. Having cried ‘wolf!’ in late-2018, civil society was subjected in 2020 to an approximation of an actual constitutional coup, with a massively reinforced Presidency creating a broad swathe of ex-military brass and militarized Task Forces where the civilian state administration used to be.
In 2019 the UNP and TNA sought a new Constitution which would abolish the unitary character of the state. The country faces the prospect of a new Constitution in 2021 which abolishes Provincial Councils.
Looking back at the UNP over a quarter-century, one may paraphrase Churchill and conclude that never in the history of this island’s politics has so much been got so wrong, for so long, by so few.
How could this have been possible? A clue lies in a repeated assertion, on-camera, and post-electoral extinction, by a key ideologue and former power-wielder of the deposed UNP Establishment, that Sir John Kotelawala (1953-1956) was one of this country’s most successful Prime Ministers and Ranil Wickremesinghe was the best leader Sri Lanka never had.
This indicates just how far the mindset of the UNP Establishment and its ideologues had cut its moorings to reality.
The modernist consensus (which I subscribe to) holds that the policy of Sinhala Only adopted by SWRD Bandaranaike– not SWRD’s 1956 victory itself– was the ‘Original Sin’, the start of Sri Lanka’s fall from grace, the beginning of the end of its Golden Age.
Without Sir John Kotelawala and his administration’s ethos, there would have been no ‘Sinhala Only’ backlash.
Despite the unarmed Hartal (mass uprising) of August 1953, the UNP failed to course-correct, just as it failed to do after the crushing defeat at the 2018 local government elections. In a foretaste of 2015-2019, Sir John Kotelawala (Dudley Senanayake’s successor) was given to social gestures, practices and arrogant pronouncements that were an affront to the sensibility of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority.
Hence SWRD was tempted into playing the Sinhala Only card, just as the Rajapaksa-led Joint Opposition/SLPP was tempted to play the GR candidacy card.
If Ranil Wickremesinghe or even Karu Jayasuriya (uncharacteristically biased, immoderate, intemperate and manipulable as Speaker in 2015-2019) had been the UNP’s Presidential candidate in November 2019, GR would have hit his expected 60% mark which only a Bandaranaike—CBK—had ever obtained. Sajith Premadasa stopped it, holding the line at a respectable 42% at the worst of times for the UNP, and limiting GR to 52% at the best of times for him.
Sir John Kotelawala and his UNP were to the rise and triumph of ‘Sinhala Only’ in 1956, what Ranil Wickremesinghe and his UNP were to the rise and triumph of the Gotabaya ultranationalist backlash of 2019-2020: the most ethnically polarizing and electorally calamitous Prime Ministers the UNP ever produced.
Beyond the political decimation, the utter moral-ethical bankruptcy of the UNP is best evidenced by the fact that Ranil Wickremesinghe remains the party leader, while the sleepwalking survivors don’t have the sanity to replace him with Ruwan Wijewardena and nominate the latter for the national list seat.
With apologies to Lincoln, the good news is you can fool all the UNP much of the time, and much of the UNP all the time, but not all the UNP all the time. Hence Sajith Premadasa’s Opposition leadership, the SJB phenomenon, and its brand-new architecture.
The Samagi Jana Balavegaya’s adoption of its new Constitution at Bandarawela on December 19th, is the start of a whole new ballgame.
‘Goals, Policies and Basic Principles’ (Chapter 2) include ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’ ‘social justice’, ‘modern’, ‘progressive’ and ‘unitary’ among others.
The new Constitution returns to the roots, the founding 1946 UNP Constitution of DS Senanayake, combining it with features such as incorporating the elected Provincial Council and Pradesheeya Sabha members in the decision-making bodies as proposed by Sajith Premadasa during his reformist rebellion ten years ago.
It ruptures with the UNP Constitution of 1995 which enthroned Wickremesinghe, created a penthouse for a party leader socially distanced and insulated from the influences and feedback of the popular base, thereby ensuring that the UNP could never win the Presidency and lead the country again.
The SJB’s new Constitution opens the party to the flow of ideas and feedback from the elected representatives at all three levels of the political system, as well as from the party’s mass organizations.
Adopting through protracted consultation with all its elected representatives, by far the least despotic and most transparently participatory-democratic Constitution of any political party in Sri Lanka, the UNP’s successor formation has just become structurally electable–the UNP having failed for over three decades to contribute a leader for the country.
The renovated party has as its founder-leader, the most viable contender for the country’s top-spot: relatively youthful, perfectly bilingual, combining chemistry and resonance with people at the grassroots, with a British public-school education and a patriotic-populist brand-name that can compete with the ruling clan.