Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Mirror
It’s a simple question. Why, in the face of utter electoral destruction, doesn’t the UNP choose a new leader through a secret ballot? That question alone, that inability to do the obvious, the correct and the democratic, as well as the silence of civil society and the commentariat in calling for such an election, sums up the bankruptcy and moribundity of the UNP and its supportive civil society.
In the meanwhile, the commentariat just cannot make up its mind about the Oppositional space. There is no acknowledgement that the JVP leadership became gentrified, lost its way, went along the path of middle-class reformism, abandoned its role in the Lankan political space as a radical patriotic and radical populist ‘watchdog’ movement, and was almost decimated electorally just as it was decimated militarily in the late 1980s. The middle classes it was wooing voted either SLPP or SJB or spoiled its votes or stayed home.
Had Wijeweera accepted Ranasinghe Premadasa’s offer and entered into a governing bloc with him, Sri Lanka would have had the most progressive government it could ever have produced, but the JVP’s sectarianism prevented it from so doing and the end was tragic. Today, the situation is similar. The most progressive and prudent thing the JVP/NPP could do is enter a coalition with Sajith’s SJB and share political power in 2025. If not, it’s fate will be the electoral version of what happened in 1989: its potential and actual voters will defect to the Premadasist SJB. This is of course what happened in 1956, when anti-UNP left voters defected to SWRD’s Middle Path progressivism.
If Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez can endorse and work with and for Biden, why can’t the JVP/NPP do so with Sajith?
If that’s not the route the JVP wants to go, it must promptly reunify the Left by accepting Kumar Gunaratnam’s offer of a Democratic Defense Front.
Either way, the JVP cannot continue to mimic the mistakes of Ranil’s UNP and should shift to Lal Kantha as leader, in order to reconnect with its constituency.
As for the UNP and SJB, there’s terrible confusion. When a party last produced an elected leader of the country, a president, thirty years ago, logic demands that a post-mortem begins with an audit of what happened after that leader left the equation and ends with a recognition that with the necessary modifications allowing for social evolution, the party has to find its way back to that crossroads where it took the wrong turning and this time take the correct fork in the road.
Instead, the civil society commentariat seems to criticize the UNP for not prosecuting the Rajapaksas, i.e. for proceeding insufficiently vigorously along the path of the neoliberal reformist project of January 2015, rather than questioning that very agenda and locating it within the collapse of neoliberal democracy in many parts of the world.
As for the SJB, the civil society commentariat has two contradictory views. One is that the SJB is the UNP and is interchangeable except in superficial ways. The other is that the SJB is Gotabhaya Lite.
If the SJB is a twin of the UNP, the obvious question is why voters preferred the SJB to the UNP and wiped out the original UNP. Perhaps the UNP voters knew best — and they knew that they didn’t want the old UNP anymore. They wanted a UNP or an approximation that could compete someday with the SLPP and win. They wanted the change in the UNP that the SLFP effected when it shifted to Chandrika Kumaratunga and away from Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Since that change was not forthcoming, they shifted to the closest approximation of such a formation.
The equation of the UNP and SJB not only doesn’t make sense in arithmetical terms, it doesn’t make sense in the higher algebra (as Trotsky had it) of politics either. The argument that the same individuals who were in the UNP have simply moved to the SJB doesn’t prove that the two parties are classifiable in the same category. After all, those who broke away with Sanmugathasan and formed the Maoist party were all those who had been in the pro-Soviet Communist party instead. The same goes for the old LSSP and the breakaway Vaama Samasamaaja/NSSP formation. Did that make them in any sense identical or even the same as the old party?
How then does one explain the phenomenon in religion or politics of a schism? Because Martin Luther was once a figure of the undivided church, does that make the protestant reformation a disguised version of Catholicism? Because Trotsky and Stalin were in the same leadership at the same time, were they interchangeable? What of Mao and Khrushchev?
Quite obviously not, because the key determinant is the ideological and political line; the discourse; the project.
The equation of the SJB and the UNP is made still more nonsensical because it does not explain the huge political struggle within the UNP leading to the split in 1991 — the attempted impeachment of Ranasinghe Premadasa.
Were the UNP’s Lalith-Gamini tendency and the Premadasa tendency identical or clones or just in different guises? Or was it a clash of two ideologies, two projects?
Premadasa would have contested as an independent Presidential candidate had he been deprived of nomination in 1988. Would that have been as a UNP clone?
When he did contest as the UNP leader and candidate, he made no reference to the previous government, did not use the color green and switched his ‘own’ color orange, and campaigned on a platform that was quite distinct from the UNP regime and which could compete with and defeat Mrs. Bandaranaike in an atmosphere of heightened nationalist tension. Was Premadasa’s candidacy and campaign that of the UNP in other vestments or was a populist project?
Was his Presidency a disguise for the UNP? Why did the successor UNP administration sabotage his funeral and turn back the crowds by declaring curfew?
One cannot comprehend the SJB/UNP schism today without understanding the struggle in the UNP of Premadasa and against him, dating back not only the impeachment drive but to Premadasa’s rebellion in the UNP from 1970 to 1973, culminating in the Puravesi Peramuna (Citizens’ Front). Neither those two struggles nor today’s can be understood without a recognition and comprehension of the phenomenon of populism.
Is Sajith ‘GR Lite’?
Are Sajith and the SJB simply ‘MR Lite’ or ‘GR Lite’? Should they be so? ‘No’ and ‘Yes, sort of’. In 1994, Chandrika Kumaratunga had converted to UNP Lite because the open economy simply had to be incorporated in modified form, into a winning equation or else the SLFP would always be denied public consent since the public did not want to go back to the economy of scarcity.
Bill Clinton had to shift to the center, after Reagan’s re-composition of American consciousness just as Blair had to so after Thatcher’s. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed Joe Biden, and Biden junked Hillary Clinton’s neoliberalism and shifted his agenda slightly leftwards, because it was recognized that a centrist-progressive from the white majority community was needed to win back white working-class voters from Trump.
So it is in Sri Lankan politics and with Mahinda and Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s contribution. The Sinhala voter will never go back to the insecurity of the UNP days and will require the guarantee that they will be as safe as they feel on national security questions as they do under the Rajapaksas. Therefore ‘MR Lite’ or ‘Gota Lite’ will have to be some part of a winning formula but not the sole or main factor. It will be a necessary but not a sufficient condition.
However, this in no way necessitates the imitation of either Mahinda or Gotabaya, because Premadasa contained the synthesis of patriotism, moderate pluralist nationalism, populism and social democratic universal welfarism. Sajith Premadasa doesn’t have to mimic his opponent, the regime; he simply has to channel his father, but not stop at that. He has to think through what his father would have said and done in these new times and update the software.
To be charitable, the confusion of the civil society intelligentsia is not new; it is but a throwback. An essay by my father Mervyn de Silva in the Observer magazine in 1967 was a retrospective of 1956, a prefiguration of the broad anti-UNP center-left opposition front of 1968 and a prospective signal of the fall of the rightwing pro-western government in 1970. A critical reconsideration of postcolonial society, it was also a pioneering auto-critique of the Westernized elite and English-educated cosmopolitan intelligentsia of the Right and Left. It contained the suggestion of a possible synthesis, a third politico-cultural and intellectual sensibility and stance.
The point Mervyn developed in that long essay was the shared sensibility, indeed the insensitivity – mainly to the national sentiment – that blinkered both the pro-Western Right, the UNP, and the orthodox Left, mainly the cosmopolitan LSSP leadership, enabling their blindsiding by the SWRD/SLFP/MEP phenomenon.
The same thing happened to the neoliberal UNP and left-liberal intelligentsia when it came to the SLPP Pohottuwa, a Leviathan that a member of the NPP National List derisively called the “Poroppaya”. Its hegemonic supermajority based on a pan-Sinhala bloc isn’t too bad for a “Poroppaya” is it?
Now the same myopia is blinding the same civil society intelligentsia/commentariat to the new oppositional force, which is the only real opposition, Sajith’s SJB.
So, here’s the simplest way for the confused civil society intellectuals/commentariat to understand what the SJB is, what it is doing and trying to do. As in the case of SWRD’s SLFP in 1951-1956, it is the newly and rapidly emergent party of the Middle Path – albeit a new, different Middle Path – carving out a space between the neoliberal Right (UNP) and the neoconservative Right (GR regime/SLPP) and occupying the center.
Sajith’s father Ranasinghe Premadasa made the same attempt in 1973 with his Puravesi Peramuna (Citizens’ Front) which was rendered needless by the death of ex-PM Dudley Senanayaka and prompt invitation extended by J.R. Jayewardene to Premadasa to replace the old guard and revamp the party together, as the deputy leader. What Sajith has done is resume his father’s journey from where he stopped the Citizens Front experiment.
Sajith’s SJB is an ideological third force which, far more rapidly than any other party in Ceylonese/Sri Lankan political history including the SLFP, has become the politico-electoral second force and aspires to the top spot in 2024/2025. There’s no other force around. As an alternative to the Pohottuwa, it is the only game in town.