Photo courtesy of Tilak Hettige
Lenin once remarked that there are decades when nothing happens and weeks when decades happen. Much more than a decade passed last week at Galle Face. Beginning with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s desperate and disastrous attempt at retaining his premiership, events began to cascade one after another. Praised by everyone locally and internationally for their peaceful veneer, the Galle Face protests turned sour when Rajapaksa goons started vandalising the protest site and beating up protesters. As expected, the retaliation was swift and severe; although no one was killed at the protest sites around eight people ended up dead elsewhere, a sad finale to an otherwise peaceful display of dissent.
This flow of events may or may not have convinced the Rajapaksas that they can no longer call the shots as they once did but it compelled the elder brother’s resignation as prime minister. The main thrust of these protests remains, however, that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go home. Yet caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Scylla of resistance to his rule and the Charybdis of retribution following his resignation, President Rajapaksa has opted for the safer option, appointing a prime minister and an interim administration while remaining as president. How different political formations have responded to these developments tells us much about the rut that the opposition is currently in.
The mob-led violence earlier last week proved two things. Firstly, although middle class protesters may have the patience to hold peaceful protests, the lower classes – urban and rural – will not tolerate political chicanery anymore. That neither police officers nor soldiers could handle the situation on Monday night should tell us that the situation has got out of control. Secondly, the Rajapaksas can remain oblivious to these developments at the cost of not just the country’s but also their own future. This is why it is more than likely that the Rajapaksas will not enact the anti-climactic theatrics Mahinda Rajapaksa engaged with on Sunday and Monday again. People have reached their limit and the first family knows it.
The brief turnaround from a peaceful to a violent momentum at Galle Face signalled another, more paradigmatic shift among political parties. SJB MPs and UNP activists have, for quite a while now, been accusing the Galle Face protests of being manipulated by the JVP-NPP and the FSP. What happened on Monday has more or less hardened their stance; while not completely opposing the demonstrations, these MPs and supporters have been criticising the JVP-NPP-FSP’s involvement in them. This came about after Sajith Premadasa’s attempt to enter Gotagogama on Monday was rebuffed by certain protesters.
Since the latter incident, social media has been rife with speculation about the real hands behind these protests. From the SJB’s and UNP’s perspective, the protesters are as much against their parties as they are against the Rajapaksas. At the same time, they see them as being lenient or soft on the new left. Naturally, the SJB and UNP view this difference in treatment with hostility, claiming that the protests have been hijacked by certain political parties and are harbouring insidious agendas against certain others.
Is the SJB-UNP correct here? To an extent, yes. But we need to be clear on a few things. Firstly, if the protests have been infiltrated by the new left, it is because outfits like the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) have become active participants. The IUSF does not enjoy the support of the UNP or the SJB, nor does it endorse their politics. The IUSF is aligned with the FSP more than with the JVP and it identifies with an activist left. As far as the Galle Face protests go, neither the SJB nor the UNP can up their ante here.
Secondly, though the protests themselves remain leaderless, economic conditions have radicalised the middle classes, including the Colombo middle classes. What this means is that while they may have ridiculed student groups like the IUSF earlier, as they actually did when the latter organised demonstrations against SAITM in 2016, now the middle classes sympathise with the likes of Wasantha Mudalige, the IUSF’s convenor. They have expressed solidarity with trade unions also, the latter of which have, in response these turnarounds, changed their strategies. Whereas before unions from institutions like the Electricity Board went for all out strikes disrupting public services now they are refraining from such action, claiming it would disrupt the protesters and their access to social media.
My private university student friend who declared on Facebook in response to the growing solidarity between private and public university students over Gotagogama that class is a convenient construct and that the fight was always against political elites, may have got his reading of the situation wrong but it testifies to how middle class perceptions about left politics and activism have changed. That is not to say that the Galle Face protests are revolutionary in the classical Marxist sense; led primarily by a middle class, it has more or less endorsed peaceful tactics over more violent strategies. But there is a definitive left veneer to the protests. Whether the SJB and UNP likes it or not, therefore, the protests will continue to be dominated by groups identifying themselves with the left.
To be sure, this does not shield the protests and the left groups and parties themselves from criticism. On the one hand, as far as the JVP-NPP and FSP are concerned, one criticism that’s often dished out is that such parties milk our collective animus against politicians, which explains the “225 Ma Epa!” sloganeering of the new left. The anti-corruption narrative of the JVP-NPP and FSP is that all politicians are equally bad and that if there is to be change, they must all leave. To say the least, this line is impractical and counterproductive. It can only be promoted by parties that don’t have a significant parliamentary presence – the JVP’s much derided three percent, for instance. The same goes for student groups; they too tout the “225 Ma Epa!” line, persistently advocating a so-called system change.
On the other hand, SJB MPs and UNP supporters may be grumbling about the Galle Face demonstrations turning against them but they have a point. Engagement with all political parties, whatever their ideology, is essential to any real uprising. The JVP-NPP has, since they left the Chandrika Bandaranaike government, held against engaging with other parties. This holier-than-thou attitude, which has also infected left student groups, has turned supporters and activists away from the idea of politics itself. What parties that advocate this line forget is that no mass uprising will hold for long if it doesn’t engage productively with other political alliances.
At the same time, the protesters must come up with a programme that is at once reformist and radical. The UNP and the SJB have always been associated with right wing politics and policies; they are for the IMF, for instance. It would be a mistake to assume that the likes of the IUSF and the JVP-NPP and FSP will extend their support to IMF austerity in the longer term. To be sure, it is difficult to think of an alternative to IMF reforms now but it is possible to negotiate the level of austerity we will have to impose on ourselves.
The UNP and SJB may be adamant, orthodox neoliberals as far as these reforms go but they should realise that the crisis we are seeing through today extends beyond President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s exit from politics. This is why the left must engage with these concerns while interacting in a spirit of goodwill and constructive critique with other parties.
The lesson from the protests that unfolded in Lebanon and at Tahrir Square in Egypt was that unless every social element of a mass scale uprising gets together, an aragalaya will gradually run the risk of dying down. The Lebanese protests were divided between a social democratic and a radical left wing, although the two often joined forces. The same went for the Tahrir Square protests. That these protests were aimed at, and against, unpopular and authoritarian governments did not necessarily blind the protesters to the need for a radical social programme which went beyond the toppling of such governments. Yet without a clear sense of direction and focus, they soon ran out of steam.
The issue with the Galle Face protests is that they too seem to lack direction and focus. The underlying message of the protests is simple – President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must go. But protesters must also engage practically with other issues, shifting the aragalaya in a more progressive direction. One way the protests have become progressive is through the intervention of left wing groups. Right wing opposition parties, in particular the UNP, may feel threatened by left wing intervention in an anti-government uprising. Yet such parties must realise that in the present moment, only a radical programme can and will set things right. These parties should hence look at themselves in the mirror and adjust accordingly.