By Dayan Jayatilleka –
Wasantha Mudalige has been detained initially for 7 days, but for up to 90 days, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Nothing he has done warrants even remotely the use of the PTA against him.
The deployment of the PTA against this student leader is the shape of things to come: the deployment of the heaviest legal artillery of the State against unarmed activists and participants in unarmed demonstrations.
What is used against the most prominent student leader today will be used against the trade unions, farmers unions and fisheries unions tomorrow. With Bolling and Martenstyn hauled up before the CID—they only heckled Ranil, on live social media– clearly no one is safe. Everyone can be caught up in the net of Ranil’s repression.
Alienating the Students
Wasantha Mudalige is the latest in a series of student leaders of significance—student leaders who were known by the public through the mass media– in Sri Lanka.
Kanchana Wijeysekara’s father Mahinda Wijeysekara was one such. The phenomenon goes back at least to the 1960s, when two young men burst onto the scene. One was Malcolm Wijithapala and the other, MA Justin. In a decade they were tame enough, but in the 1960s they were red-hot.
The student protests of the 1960s were no small deal. At Colombo university and Peradeniya university there were clashes between student and the Police and Army respectively.
There was a UNP administration—a 7 party “National Government”—which alienated the university student community and the academic staffers as well.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is old enough to recall the political price paid by the Government for its insensitivity towards the students and academics and its crackdown on the campuses. At the 1970 General Elections, the university academics were an important component on the platforms of the Center-Left Opposition. More importantly, the university students organized themselves impressively and conducted its own door-to-door campaign of leafletting and lobbying, which proved the autonomous Commando force of the Opposition campaign.
The UNP-led 7-party “National Government” went down to a crushing defeat, with the SLFP-LSSP-CPSL Opposition sweeping to the 2/3rds majority in Parliament. The phrase that entered the political lexicon was “The Silent Revolutions of 1956 and ’70”.
By the use of repression against the activists of the Aragalaya and the student leaders, President Ranil Wickremesinghe is (further) ensuring the inevitable, crushing electoral defeat of his administration, his party and his allies. The President would recall what happened after that defeat of 1970 and later in 1977: the defeated ruling parties of the privileged were the target of the people’s rage. There was no FSP, IUSF or JVP involved.
SJB’s Convolutions: Ranil or Sajith?
It is at this moment that there should be clarity and purpose on the part of the democratic Opposition. Sadly, that is the last thing we see today. It is perfectly valid for any mainstream democratic party to have several schools of thought—an excellent example is the US Democratic Party. However, at a decisive moment in history, it is incumbent upon the main Opposition to not to display the confusion and tendency to collaborationism that is visible and audible today.
Some leading figures of the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) were seen on TV hailing President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s speech as reflecting their own ideas; ideas they had espoused way before.
Others said emphatically that they endorse the economic ideas in Ranil’s speech.
If so, and given that we are consumed by an economic crisis, why don’t personalities belonging to these two sub-categories, simply go and join him in Government instead of propping him up while remaining in the Opposition, having been elected on a stance against Ranil Wickremesinghe?
Some SJB personalities present economic blueprints which are indistinguishable from the long-standing ideas of Ranil Wickremesinghe. This is hardly surprising because these personalities were proteges of Wickremesinghe. They are functioning as Ranil’s ideological Fifth Column, pushing and prodding the SJB into the role of prop of President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s administration and enabler of his neoliberal economic policy agenda.
The SJB’s neoliberal wing proudly announces that it is unafraid to propose and administer “bitter medicine”, but what on earth makes it think the voter will swallow it, still less vote for a party that insists on “bitter medicine” as opposed to a rival party that offers the same medicine with “spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down” (as the song says)? Do the SJB’s neoliberals think the masses are masochistic?
SJB centrists are politically better but logically untenable. Their stand is that they will support the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration’s program for national development without accepting portfolios and while being based in the parliamentary executive committees. In short “we shall prop you up but not while sitting next to you; we shall use a long prop or special scaffold to do so”.
Their stance begs quite a few questions. Can President Wickremesinghe present a national program to develop the country? Does he have the capacity, the ability? If so, why didn’t he do so in all those years especially when he was elected Prime Minister in 2001-2003 and 2015-2019? If the answer is that he was moving in the right direction, then why did the electorate turf him out on both occasions and hold back for 15 years between the two stints in prime ministerial office? Why did the electorate never make him the leader of the country?
That being the case, what is there to discuss about a “national development program” with President Ranil Wickremesinghe? If he does have the capacity or potential, or you believe he does, then why not simply support him openly and join his Cabinet? This of course leaves open the questions of whether or not it was wrong not to field Ranil Wickremesinghe as the Presidential candidate in November 2019 and to break away and form a new party the SJB in 2020. I believe it was right and that the voting patterns show it to be so.
But if that divorce—that rupture and new beginning– was correct, what is the logic of holding ‘discussions” with Ranil about a national development program and expressing the willingness to support either him, or his administration, or an all-party administration under his leadership or his economic program? Ranil certainly hasn’t changed his ideas, so what was the big deal in breaking away and forming a new party?
A party has to think logically and clearly. Is the SJB the Alternative and does it possess the economic alternative? Or is Ranil the solution to the economic crisis, in which case there is no room or need for an alternative?
If the gap between Ranil’s economic ideology and the SJB’s is so small, why maintain two parties? Why not re-merge? Or why not form a single front?
Why support Ranil at all, and if one does, why not in/from the Cabinet?
It is only if the SJB’s economic ideology and program are [Ranasinghe] Premadasa-ist and social democratic, that the gap between it and Ranil’s economic ideology is so large that a separate party and leadership are needed.
SJB “seniors” should try explaining to the voters that they are not in or not willing to be in the same Government as Ranil Wickremesinghe and the Rajapaksas, but are in or willing to be in the same “Governance”!
Ranil Wickremesinghe knows who he is, what he stands for, and what he is. Does the SJB have the same clarity about its identity, role, stand and function?
The SJB’s rightwing, neoliberal collaborationists should be asked some simple questions: who is their top leader, Sajith or Ranil? Who do they believe can produce a national development plan and save the Sri Lankan economy—Ranil or Sajith? Whose ideology are they closest to –Ranil’s or Sajith’s? Who do they think is the alternative – Ranil or Sajith? Which is their stronger identity—UNP or SJB?
The SJB should have an emergency Special Congress, Convention or Conference, bringing together all its elected representatives and organizers, and make a collective decision.
Only the left parties—JVP-NPP and FSP—are clear. But they cannot do it on their own. If they are to survive Ranil’s repression (which will get far worse and more lethally militaristic), defeat it and prevail politically, i.e., win, they must commit to mind these words of Antonio Gramsci:
“The proletariat can become the leading and the dominant class to the extent that it succeeds in creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the population against capitalism and the bourgeois state.” (Gramsci, Selected Political Writings II, 443)
The just-concluded Nugegoda meeting was quite impressive because of Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s and Tilvin Silva’s political clarity, will and determination i.e., exemplary political leadership, as well as the militant enthusiasm of their audience.
Judging by the speeches, the JVP-NPP seems to think that because it is big and strong it is the sole force necessary for a people’s victory. True, it is quantitively strong, but the FSP though much smaller, is a qualitatively impressive vanguard organization.
Victory will require both forces. Gramsci’s injunction of “creating a system of alliances which allows it to mobilize the majority of the population” is the task of the day, but it is not being undertaken.