Colombo Telegraph

Whither The SLFP 64 Years On?

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was a political doer. For the most. He knew words and knew how to colour on-the-moment rhetoric. He knew how to bend movement into mass action and how to stunt existing political structures. That is why he could turn 1947 into 1956, why what he left behind survived death (for better or worse), and more importantly, why his principle legacy to the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was able to commit to different ideologies without losing that original thrust it stood for upon inception.

Formed in 1951 and originally a result of a schism in the United National Party (UNP), the SLFP was the first “alternative” party which crippled the ruling regime. No other party or force here was as able to intrude into politics within a short time and create a presence as this one. The object of this article is to engage not in self-reflection or in the “what might have been” of history but rather in the implications of what actually happened. The SLFP celebrates 64 years this week.

The first real attempt to form a national movement against imperialism came up in 1915. Both the Temperance Movement and the 1915 riots shaped the leaders who would take up this movement. The riots in particular, which incensed the British into imprisoning several members of the anti-imperialist brigade, were led by those who’d later head the Ceylon National Congress and form the UNP.

What was the real story though? Most of these leaders came from the noveau riche, whose landowning interests necessitated a “bowing down” of sorts to the imperialists, indeed the same imperialists whom they had in their youth avowed to defeat.

One remembers F. R. Senanayake’s invective against the British, when Henry Pedris’ body was paraded in front of him and his jailed colleagues: “I take the solemn pledge here and now that even if I am forced to beg on the roads with a coconut shell, I will spend all my wealth to teach these fellows a lesson.” Patriotic no doubt, but were these words really kept to?

To ask that is to ask how those who espoused rhetoric of this sort began to be opposed, not by the colonial government but by the first real movement aimed against it, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).

Regi Siriwardena, writing on the Left movement in his essay “Remembrance of Politics Past”, makes this observation:

“Marxists, in analysing the failure of the Ceylonese political leadership to promote a militant anti-imperialist movement, have emphasised the absence of an industrial bourgeoisie and the dependent role of the indigenous landowning and mercantile classes in relation to imperialism… It was left to the new generation of young political intellectuals who formed the LSSP, themselves by origin of the English-educated elite, to bring back from the West the theories of socialism and Marxism which were to stimulate a new political development in Ceylon.”

The LSSP represented the first real mass struggle against the colonial administration. As history has shown, most of those national heroes venerated today were not only dependent on this same administration but preferred (as in the Bracegirdle affair) the subversion of law by its representatives to the questioning of it by Marxists.

The riots of 1915 represented a struggle of another sort. As Kumari Jayawardena has illustrated in her book Nobodies to Somebodies, what went on through the riots was a tug-of-war between the political Somebodies entrenched in the colonial government and the political Nobodies vying for power.

That is why (for instance) the latter class who are venerated as heroes today could oppose universal franchise and prefer Dominion status to independence, never mind that they had come to power on a mandate to deliver the country from the British. The irony of course is that it was a scion of the Somebodies who led Marxists and nationalists against the Nobodies of the UNP.

But this is beside the point.

What happened next was tragic. Stunted by factional struggles (through the Third International) and the wartime ban imposed on it by the government, the LSSP split and remained, after the war and euphoria of independence, a paled replica of what it had once been. There were victories obtained, yes, but these were mostly orchestrated in the parliament, the shift to which was echoed in the de facto shift in party leadership from Philip Gunawardena to N. M. Perera.

In other words, it needed someone else, preferably from the ruling party, who could disagree with the UNP and lead what it had been leading all this time.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike’s antipathy towards the UNP, compounded by the fact that no one in its top rung was listening to him, meant that his rejection of its principles had more to do with a personal clash than an ideological rift. That is why, for all his critiques of the UNP’s political principles, one can spot out a feeling of hurt in many of his essays on the matter.

History is, however, yet to deliver a verdict on the man. The most we can do is assess his party in light of what he wanted it to stand for. It’s no secret after all that Bandaranaike’s original stances, with regard especially to the language issue, fluctuated in the 1950s to a point where he rejected them to appease popular pressure.

Reflected in James Manor’s excellent biography of him (The Expedient Utopian) is the point that Bandaranaike, far from being the chauvinist his detractors paint him as, was in fact a classic political opportunist. Those who grill him and his party as racist, not surprisingly, have little to nothing to say about the decision by D. S. Senanayake to disenfranchise the estate workers. History isn’t selective, but those who insert political frill into it are.

The SLFP then purported to continue what the LSSP left behind. But even in that case, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike refused to create a Marxist party out of it, which meant that the SLFP was moderate, structured to accommodate those who were opposed to Marxism while being tired of the UNP’s erratic policies (particularly during the Kotelawala years). The defeat of the UNP was, as Denzil Peiris observed, “the result of the maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia” and not an outright victory of socialism over conservative politics.

The point is that the SLFP, while tilting towards the left, wasn’t really leftist. The reforms Bandaranaike brought about had more to do with opening political structures to the people (his government was described as “ape anduwa”) than with real economic reform, which explains how he inadvertently preserved class-hierarchies and this in a way which intensified the rifts between different social classes in the years to come.

Put in another way, the SLFP robbed the Left. By legitimising itself as a leftist party, the squandering of that image in later years meant that the party became to the UNP what the Labour Party under Tony Blair became to the Conservatives.

Decades passed. Bandaranaike’s widow brought the LSSP and Communist Party into an alliance which declared a full break from the British and at the same time pandered to majoritarianism through a constitution which marginalised Tamil. It lost. When the UNP ruled up high in the 1980s, the soon-to-be successor to Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika Kumaratunga, matured into a leader who consolidated the first and most radical ideological shift in that party.

The likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, Felix Perera, and later Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera became the ideological shapers of the SLFP, when after 1994 Kumaratunga’s widow (again, for better or worse) turned it into the biggest champion of devolution and federalism, more so than the UNP (whether under J. R. Jayawardena or Ranil Wickremesinghe). By that time, the LSSP, having flirted with a “racialist” party, kowtowed to federalist demands, a point worsened by the fact that those who laid these demands were Eelam mythmakers for the most.

Here lies the tragedy of the SLFP today: its inability to move beyond this federalist-devolutionist stance.

To be sure, we saw 2005. We even saw 2009. But Mahinda Rajapaksa was to the SLFP roughly what Ranasinghe Premadasa was to the UNP: a popular leader who rationalised a virtual dictatorship in terms of that popularity and remained, for the most, an outsider to both colleague and foe. Sooner or later, dissent within the party would have privileged Kumaratunga’s hold on the party, just as Premadasa’s murder led the UNP to perpetuate Jayewardena’s legacy in the hands of his nephew.

No, this is not to say that Maithripala Sirisena will continue what Kumaratunga left behind. But the fact of the matter is that Rajapaksa’s defeat marks a return to her “narrative” in the SLFP, which even after her brief self-imposed exile from it after 2005 (she never supported Rajapaksa, let’s not forget) continued to dominate the party, principally through “her people”, left behind and for a time in support of Rajapaksa’s nationalist thrust.

Rajapaksa’s era is over. So is Bandaranaike’s. What continues in the SLFP is what someone who never entered it (Vijaya Kumaratunga) injected into it, courtesy of her widow, and those who befriended her and were allowed to shape its policies. Perhaps Gunadasa Amarasekara got it right when he claimed that Bandaranaike continued what Anagarika Dharmapala left behind and that the SLFP was and is able to “throw up” a nationalist of the calibre of Rajapaksa sooner or later, never mind what those who call the shots in the party stand for.

The tragedy of the SLFP is the tragedy of our people: the tendency of popular leaders to justify self-perpetuation and subversion of democracy using that popularity. The UNP does not and will not produce these leaders, at least not for quite some time. Only the SLFP can. A truly national ruler however remains as far away from our country as Bandaranaike was in 1956.

Sirisena, though, seems to fits the bill. We hope and pray that he will. One day. The sooner he does so, the better it will be for the SLFP in terms of continuing what his predecessor left unfinished: a nationalist project that is neither majoritarian nor minoritarian, but supportive of all identities.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at Blog –

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