Patali Champika Ranawaka’s somersault into the political establishment remains one of the more interesting developments from the last quarter century or so. Beginning with the JVP, moving to the nationalist right, only to later turn to the neoliberal right, he remains shrouded in enigma, a cut above the rest: while most of his colleagues go round in circles, shifting parties as you would shift from one musical chair to another in a never-ending cycle, he prefers straight lines.
The issue has to do with where those lines are leading him. What are his beliefs and strategies? Who are his friends and enemies? Which side does he tilt to? These questions may remain unanswered for some time, well into the long run; to search for answers now would be futile.
Ruthless to a fault, yet quiet and tactful, our most perfectionist parliamentarian happens to be one of our most intelligent. He knows the numbers, and quotes them almost effortlessly. Even if he jumps to the wrong conclusions, he gives the impression of having taken a longer, more tortuous route to reach them. Whether he’s critiquing a development initiative or a financial scandal – of course while in the opposition – he resorts to logic, not speculation. His speeches are among the eloquent we hear from parliament today, at least by the standards set by both present government and opposition MPs in that unfortunate institution. He says what critics of the government want to hear, not what they’ve heard elsewhere. Insofar as opposition MPs are concerned, Ranawaka has thus laid the benchmark and set the yardstick, even if he lacks the charisma and charm of his opponents.
What explains his appeal? It’s not as though he’s been consistent throughout. The truth is that he has indulged in as much pole-vaulting as most of his colleagues and contemporaries: a dubious record to be sure, but one which hasn’t attracted for him the kind of outrage others have.
Take a look at his affiliations: the JVP, Jathika Chintanaya, Ratawesi Peramuna, Janatha Mithuro, National Movement Against Terrorism, Sihala Urumaya, Jathika Hela Urumaya, United People’s Freedom Alliance, United National Front for Good Governance, UNP, and finally SJB. His entry into the latter remains tenuous and debatable at best, yet it was with its formation that he let go of his past, for good: having served as leader of the most powerful nationalist party in the country, the JHU, he left that party, even if he did not disavow its ideology. What’s extraordinary about it is that regardless of where he has jumped to, his record has attracted less censure than that of most of his colleagues. Bottom line: consistency is not his forte, but his lack of it hasn’t worked against him.
If it’s isn’t consistency, is it survival? From the tail-end of the Cold War to the peak of a pandemic, Ranawaka seems to have been driven by two impulses: power and adaptability. But he’s hardly the only such politician who’s stuck to these credos. To say he’s survived due to some farsighted powers of adaptation is to overlook a crucial, inescapable fact: that adaptation for him signals not so much an ability to harbour different ideological affiliations across parties as it does an ability to adhere to the same ideology, the same worldview, while straddling different parties. In this, he is the superior of many colleagues and foes. Bottom line: he’s survived not because he’s changed so often, but because, at a fundamental level, he hasn’t changed at all.
At a Q&A session organised by a group of young activists a few weeks before last August’s election, Ranawaka was suave, confident, and a tad tired. He spoke about his journey from university student to political activist to politician, underscoring his achievements without bragging about them. The man has, if anything at all, a clean record as a minister, whatever his failings on other fronts may be, and this became apparent as one slide moved into another on the screen.
Yet what caught me wasn’t the conviction with which he outlined his achievements, but the answer he gave to my question as to why he abandoned his activism over alternative development paradigms (he called it Sanwardhanaye Thunweni Yamanaya, (“The Third Era of Development”). Ranawaka was polite, yet to the point with me: “We must bend when we have to, without clinging on to the same ideas, movements, and personalities forever.”
Does this offer a clue to his philosophy, if he follows a philosophy at all? Critics, especially from the Sinhala nationalist right, accuse him of peddling nationalism as a launch pad for his personal politics: a strange assessment, given that since at least the Donoughmore period politicians have been peddling nationalism, of all shades, for personal gain. What makes Ranawaka a target of nationalist vitriol here is not his tendency to shift parties so quickly, but his gift for dominating nationalist discussions while cohabiting with parties hardly amenable to such discourses: the UNP then, the SJB today.
That boils down to a simple truism: no matter the virtues he claims for pole-vaulting, no matter the vices he claims for sticking to the same ideologies, he’s achieved the best of both worlds, bending to the currents of political expedience while sailing on the same ship. If Ranil Wickremesinghe has been compared to a fox, Mr Ranawaka’s spirit animal, given these predilections, ought to be a leopard: not a leopard that doesn’t change its spots, but one whose spots can never change.
All this is peripheral to any proper discussion about the man, his dreams, and how he has set out to realise them. Far from concentrating on why he’s survived all these decades despite abandoning any pretence at ideological consistency, while sailing on the same (Sinhala nationalist) ship, it behoves us to consider the challenges his track record poses to his future prospects. Put in another way, what are the biggest obstacles he faces as he charts yet another new political course?
To ponder these is to ponder Ranawaka’s vision for the future. None of his critics, from the nationalist right or the pro-SJB opposition, has engaged him over that vision. In essence, it centres on the need to nurture what he calls “fifth generation leaders”, a meritocratic class of results-oriented politicians and officials. The emergence of that generation is, in fact, the objective of “43 Senankaya.” Rawanaka’s strategy to that end is to consolidate the Bandaranaike reforms of 1956 and the Jayewardene reforms of 1977, forming “an administration comprising of experts from various sectors.”
One can of course question how the reforms of 1956 will square with those of 1977 – can you think of a more contrasting, disparate set of policies? – but that is grist for another piece. For now, what needs to be understood is that Ranawaka’s political philosophy has engaged a suburban petty bourgeoisie, along with a young precariat milieu fresh out of university, engaged in part-time employment, and entranced by his talk of next generation leaders. The “43” in his brigade’s title refers to the year free education was enacted here: its aim, therefore, is the realisation of the hopes and aspirations of a post-1956, post-1977, and post-2000 educated class. This is ambitious, cutting across political differences and potentially unifying everyone from everywhere. Yet it is not without its problems.
Ranawaka’s showing at last year’s general election (he came second from last in the SJB’s Colombo district preferential results) confirmed two things: one, that the nationalist crowd he wooed long ago has defected to the SLPP today, and two, that despite a lack of support from this crowd, he could not canvass enough support from other communities and groups. The latter revealed a more fundamental failure: an inability to cut into a) Colombo’s upper middle-class and b) ethnic minorities from Central Colombo. In these constituencies he was upended by a neoliberal rightwing, populist centre-right, and minority bloc. Once these groups deserted him, he was left with only a Sinhala suburban middle-class: a paltry base from which you can aim for little, and achieve even less.
Ranawaka’s challenge then is two-fold, necessitating two strategies. Firstly, since he is locked into Colombo’s middle-class and ethnic minorities, he should cross the terrain, beyond city and district, canvassing popular support from other regions. Secondly, since he cannot do without city and district, he should scale the wall, winning support from non-suburban-Sinhala constituencies there.
To both cross the terrain and scale the wall is not easy. But given his dismal showing last year, he should opt for a strategy which squares the circle. Otherwise, he runs the risk of not only irrelevance, but also marginalisation: both of himself and of the “43 Senankaya.”
The problem for Ranawaka is that he has ruffled the feathers of three minority communities: Tamils (anti-federal postures, coupled with an ambivalent stance on devolution), Muslims (comments about them being outsiders 13 years ago), and Christians (anti-conversion campaigns vis-à-vis the JHU, following the passing away of Soma Thera). Simultaneously, his defection to the UNP and SJB has led to dwindling support from the Sinhala nationalist right. All these factors have led to losses on all electoral fronts, with no compensating gains.
Today, he courts support from a niche audience: an anti-Rajapaksist, pro-meritocracy Sinhala middle-class as conservative as rightwing neoliberals. Unless he claims real estate elsewhere, he will find it difficult to achieve either his aims or the objectives of his brigade, even with a Sinhala electorate on his side. In politics especially, the past cannot be allowed to determine the future. In Ranawaka’s case, the past seems to be coming back with much ferocity. He must do what he can to let go, paving a new road. A failure to do so can only condemn him to irrelevance and extinction.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
The politics of opposing imperialism and neoliberalism
By Uditha Devapriya
One of the most important debates to emerge from the history of the Left movement in Sri Lanka – by which I include the Old and the New Left – is whether they were correct to ally with formations that were anything but socialist. Be it the LSSP’s decision to join forces with the SLFP, or the JVP’s decision to support candidates fronted by Sri Lanka’s definitive right-wing party, the UNP, these choices have divided socialist activists. History is yet to deliver a verdict on them. Until it does, I am afraid that we can only speculate.
Of course, it’s not just the Sri Lankan Left. Socialist parties everywhere and anywhere – from the US to India, and beyond – have joined forces with non-socialist formations. In Sri Lanka it is the Old Left, the LSSP and the Communist Party, that are called out for having betrayed socialist causes and allied with such formations. But other Left outfits have done the same thing: from the NSSP to the JVP. While these parties are yet to receive the same degree of criticism the Old Left has, it must be admitted that, at least from the perspective of practical politics, they all considered it necessary to enter into various alliances.
I am not sufficiently versed in Marxist literature to justify or criticise this. I am aware that Marxist figureheads of the 20th century, including Stalin, were not above forming tactical alliances with other formations. And it wasn’t just Stalin. The LSSP’s decision to support the SLFP, in 1964, can partly be traced to the shifts of opinion within the Trotskyite movement regarding alliances with non-socialist parties. It is on the basis of such shifts that parties like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have become part of mainstream outfits like the Democratic Party, which can hardly be described as left-wing.
At the local and the global level, then, the socialist Left’s main dilemma, essentially, is whether it should join forces with other formations to fight a greater evil, the greater evil usually defined as imperialism or neoliberalism.
Marxists call out on sections of the Left which support Russia against Ukraine, or China against the United States, on the grounds that states like Russia and China are no more or no less imperialist than the West. These activists argue that no one country holds exclusive rights to the concept of imperialism. As such, the task of the Left should be, not to take sides with one camp or the other, but to oppose all forms of imperialism.
There is nothing inherently objectionable with such a strategy. The task of socialist politics, after all, is supposed to be the emancipation or liberation of the masses from all forms of oppression. Viewed this way, a viable, progressive socialist movement must be prepared to oppose not just US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Russian intervention in Syria and Eastern Europe. The objective or telos of such a stance, comments Dan La Botz in New Politics, would be to secure “a world free from oppression and exploitation, one in which all human beings can have a voice and a vote about their future.”
While being generally supportive of these objectives and tactics, however, we need to be mindful whether such an outlook will create equivalences where there simply aren’t any. After all, for socialists of the Third Camp, it doesn’t matter which imperialism you oppose: no one holds a monopoly over its meaning or its deployment.
The core question as far as the global Left is concerned, then, is what imperialism entails. Third Camp socialists would contend that imperialism involves the conquest of other territories. This would include not just Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but also China’s designs in Hong Kong. Their opponents, by contrast, would argue that imperialism, not unlike fascism, is dependent on certain criteria, such as the possession of economic and military strength – on which basis there would only be one imperialist power, the US.
These debates have shaped socialist politics in countries like Sri Lanka as well. This is especially so where critiques of right-wing nationalism, including Sinhala nationalism, are concerned. Certain Marxists, especially in the Global South, tend to erase any distinction between nationalist and neoliberal outfits, arguing that there is no distinction to be made, and that as far as the Left is concerned, it should not take sides with either.
To be sure, nationalist formations can invoke the rhetoric of anti-imperialism. This is palpably so in Sri Lanka, as witness parties like the National Freedom Front. Yet their critics on the Left point out that not only are such displays of anti-imperialism mere eyewash, but that if encouraged, these outfits can even appropriate discussions over issues which the socialist camp should be taking up. On those grounds, the New Left contends, dogmatically, that nationalist and neoliberal outfits must be equally opposed.
I understand this attitude, and to understand it is, at one level, to empathise with it. The nationalist and in particular Sinhala nationalist right – often construed as the alt-right – has done itself very few favours over the last few decades. It has attempted to raise the banner of anti-imperialism, but has failed to acknowledge a more cohesive, inclusive framing of country so necessary for anti-imperialist politics. As I have mentioned many times, in this paper and elsewhere, we must oppose chauvinism from this standpoint.
I do not necessarily agree with those who take issue with the nationalist right’s gripe with Westernisation and globalisation, simply because such agitation is a symptom of a deeper malaise: it is a variant on the same agitation to be found among blue-collar workers in the US against China. But I do agree with those Marxist commentators who chastise nationalists for framing their politics within what Devaka Gunawardena calls “an exclusivist definition of community.” For Sinhala nationalists, or a majority of them, anti-imperialism appears less directed at neoliberal politics than at other racial groups, an easier target. In targeting the latter, it even ends up borrowing the language of the imperialist: hence Jathika Chintanaya’s obsession with Samuel Huntington and his clash of civilisations agitprop.
At the same time, sections of the Left, demonstrating that purist strain which has for so long besmirched academic Marxism, appear to refuse not just to join forces with nationalist formations – in itself not execrable – but also to acknowledge the economic and material factors that led to their growth. Instead, such parties and outfits are automatically termed as suspect, and viewed with the same suspicion with which neoliberal outfits are. This is what explains the Left’s horrendous failure to address, much less deal with or resolve, the tide of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism which accompanied the neoliberal reforms of the J. R. Jayewardene and Chandrika Kumaratunga governments.
Their assumptions regarding these developments follow the same logic which Third Camp socialists deploy when equating Western imperialism with Russian and Chinese imperialism. Such logic seems to me as misplaced as the tactic of supporting whatever formation, simply because it claims to be opposed to imperialism or neoliberalism.
Let me be clear here, then. I believe that the task of socialist activists, in the Global North, is not to feign moral neutrality, but rather to recognise certain distinctions between the forms of imperialism they oppose. NATO, to put it bluntly, possesses the sort of firepower which Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China does not, as every Defence Strategy Paper authored by the Pentagon should make us realise. This is the basis on which the global Marxist Left must begin to address and confront the politics of hegemony.
I believe, also, that the task of socialist activists in the Global South is to recognise distinctions between the neoliberal politics against which they are pitted, and nationalist formations which hold up anti-imperialist slogans. This does not mean the Left should join with the latter. Far from it. But the Left must certainly acknowledge that, as powerful as the latter may be, such formations are powerless compared to the former.
In other words, the fight against hegemony must begin from the recognition of the fact that there are no competing imperial or authoritarian forces out there. It is possible to oppose Putin from a socialist standpoint, just as it is possible to oppose right-wing nationalism in countries like ours. Yet such critiques should be constructive. Third Camp socialists who feign neutrality risk not just preaching to the choir, but, more dangerously, ceding moral space to more powerful antagonistic forces. It is against these forces, at home and abroad, that socialists must bare their sabres. This should be their first priority.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at email@example.com
A damning indictment of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment
By Rathindra Kuruwita
Armies in the midst of combat learn incredibly fast. This isn’t the case with peacetime militaries, as has been evident in Sri Lanka.During the 25-year-long war that it waged against the Tamil separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan military came up with a strategy and a series of tactics in the last phase of the war that enabled it to inflict a comprehensive defeat on the terror outfit. The Sri Lankan intelligence services efficiently identified targets and eliminated them, stymieing LTTE operations, and making rear areas safe.
However, ten years after the end of the war, the Sri Lankan defense establishment, pampered by a decade of peace and hampered by political squabbling between President Maithripala Sirisena and then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, proved incompetent. It was unable to prevent suicide bombers of the Islamic State group-affiliated National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) from carrying out a string of deadly attacks across the island on Easter Sunday of 2019.
On that day (April 21), bombs ripped through three churches and three luxury hotels in Sri Lanka, killing around 279 people and injuring over 500 others.
The island is no stranger to terror attacks; its 25-year-long civil war was often punctuated by suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas. Yet the Easter Sunday attacks as they are known were unprecedented. Not only did they lay bare the vast jihadist network on the island but they also underscored the abject failure of Sri Lanka’s political and security establishment to secure the Sri Lankan people.
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lanka was roiled in intense debate and discussion over why a country with an oversized security apparatus and enormous experience in fighting terrorism failed to prevent the attacks.
A recent Supreme Court verdict provides some insights. Last week, a seven-judge bench ruled that President Sirisena and other senior officials failed to prevent the deadly attacks although they were in possession of credible and actionable intelligence. The Supreme Court noted that “the want of attention on the part of the important players heading the security apparatus of this country is unpardonable. The apex court has said that those in charge of the country’s national security worked in silos and acted with lethargy, without vision, and were mainly interested in protecting their fiefdoms.”
This is remarkably similar to the observations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday Attacks.
Issuing a verdict on 12 fundamental rights petitions alleging that leaders of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government (2015-2019) and those in charge of national security failed to take action to prevent the Easter Sunday bombings despite receiving sufficient intelligence, the apex court pointed out that “reasonable men” would have behaved differently.
Casting aside arguments of presidential immunity that most Sri Lankan leaders use to evade responsibility for what transpired during their tenure, the Supreme Court ordered Sirisena to pay 100 million Sri Lankan rupees (around $270,000) to the victims of the attacks. Several other top officials including former Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundara, former State Intelligence Service (SIS) director Nilantha Jayawardena, former Defense Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, and former Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) Sisira Mendis have been ordered to pay monetary compensation to victims as well.
Sirisena has said that he did not know about the attacks. “I was abroad when the attacks happened. I have told many times that I was not informed of the intelligence any officer received. Even the court found no evidence of this,” he said.
The former president has asked why he needs to pay the victims compensation. “The Supreme Court says that if an official appointed by the President makes a mistake, the President is also to be blamed. I have no money to pay. I will have to collect money from my friends,” he said.
The verdict dampens Sirisena’s political aspirations. He is the head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which was expecting to make a comeback in the upcoming local council elections.The Supreme Court has drawn attention to the “pinpointed allegation” leveled by petitioners against Sirisena’s “executive inertia” and his failure to take “steps to avert the mayhem and destruction,” when “it was within his powers to have ensured the personal liberty and security of the people and prevented the precarious slide into anarchy.”
The Court also pointed out that as early as 2015, the security establishment was aware of a growing threat from Islamic extremism and NTJ chief Zahran Hashim. However, nothing was done to neutralize these threats.
During an earlier appearance at the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on the Easter Sunday attacks, SIS director Jayawardena had said he received intelligence on April 4, 2019 from a foreign counterpart about a possible terrorist attack by April 20 by Hashim and his associates. By April 9, Jayawardena had informed the IGP and the CNI about the information he had received. The CNI, too, had written to the IGP on SIS intelligence. The IGP then sent both these letters to the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police (SDIG) (Western Province and Traffic), the SDIG (Crimes and STF), the DIG (Special Protection Range), and the director of the Counter Terrorism and Terrorism Investigation Department with a note for demanding necessary action.
Not only did the IGP not provide pointed instructions to his subordinates, but he also didn’t share the information with the DIG of the Eastern Province, the hotbed of Islamic extremist activities. In fact, the NTJ carried out a dry run on April 16 at Palamunai, Kattankudy, which baffled the policemen there as they were not privy to information that the NTJ was readying for a terror attack.
SDIG Jayawardena said that the SIS had been informed in 2017 of the danger Hashim posed and that he had urged the relevant agencies to arrest him. However, Jayawardena said that he did not inform the political authorities about the possible attacks. He reiterated this in his statement before the Supreme Court as well.
Importantly, Jayawardena did not bring up the intelligence input he had received during his weekly intelligence meetings, where all senior military and law enforcement officers as well as representatives of the political authority are present. The Court noted that if the former SIS director has spoken about the imminent attack at this meeting or presented the information he had on the suspects to the tri-forces, the disaster could have been averted with a series of quick arrests.
Although several key officers in charge of national security were aware of an impending terror attack, no NSC meeting was summoned between April 4 and 21. The officers did not inform the president of the threat posed by the NTJ although Sirisena visited Batticaloa, a town which is near Kattankudy, Hashim’s hometown.
Jayawardena received further intelligence from his foreign counterpart on April 20 at 1642 hours, information he classified as “most vital, specific and reliable intelligence.” The court observed that he used WhatsApp and SMS to notify the secretary of defense (at 1653 hours), SDIG in charge of the CID (1654), CNI (1702) and IGP (1707) He proceeded to call the secretary of defense (1802), IGP (1703), SDIG in charge of the Western Province (1755), SDIG in charge of the CID (1657), SDIG in charge of the Special Task Force (1927 and 2009), and the DIG Colombo (1909 and 2124). However, it seems that no one took the initiative to beef up security near the main churches and hotels or to reach out to the Catholic Church to explore the possibility of canceling Easter Sunday religious activities.
In its verdict, the apex court says, “the intelligence received proved true but the mobilization of counter terrorism measures or its facilitation through an effective dissemination of forebodings to stem the impending disaster was totally absent and this clearly shows how security mechanisms in the country remained fragile and in shambles.”
President Sirisena was in Singapore for a medical check-up on April 20. Jayawardena told both the court and the Presidential Commission that he could not contact the President.
Throughout the court proceedings Jayawardena insisted that he did not inform the president of the imminent threat because his reporting officers were the IGP and the defense secretary. This is a position that the Supreme Court did not accept. The court said that senior officials in charge of national security are obliged to consult the defense minister on matters of extreme importance and that they cannot evade responsibility by stating that they do not have direct access to him.
It must be noted that in late 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe from the prime minister’s post. While Wickremesinghe regained his position through judicial means, the relationship between the two men was strained and Wickremesinghe was not invited to NSC meetings again.
Sirisena’s failure to act was also partly an outcome of his suspicions of any intelligence coming from India. He was convinced that India wanted to assassinate him.
Given that the court focused only on the fundamental rights violations of the victims, it did not make recommendations on streamlining the intelligence apparatus. However, the Presidential Commission on the attacks had made several recommendations on preventing the recurrence of such incidents. The final report of the Commission was handed over to then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on February 2021 and to Parliament a year later. So far, nothing has been done to address the gaps in intelligence gathering, dissemination, and coordination.
The Easter Sunday bombings underscored Sri Lanka’s extreme and continuing vulnerability to religious extremism and terrorist violence. Importantly, it underscored shortcomings in the way individuals in positions of authority and key institutions allow personal bias and politics to prevent action to secure the country.
What Sri Lanka needs is a mechanism whereby various stakeholders involved in national security are compelled to share information in a way that vital information flows to concerned agencies and institutions unimpeded.
Will the government address the problem laid bare by investigations into the Easter Sunday bombings and underscored by the Supreme Court verdict? It is unlikely as the government is preoccupied with the economic crisis. Importantly, with elections around the corner, the Supreme Court verdict has become an issue for parties to draw political mileage and score political points. Consequently, security will suffer.
The Left, the Nationalist Right, and industrialisation as policy
By Uditha Devapriya
By now we know that the government’s prescription for the economic crisis is greater austerity. The regime has outright rejected welfare measures or state intervention, and is heavily promoting the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation, and tax hikes. While economic think-tanks in Colombo have effectively welcomed these proposals, trade unions and Left activists bitterly oppose them. Yet the situation is not comparable to what it was a year ago: the middle-classes that cheered Left outfits at the Gotagogama protests have now chosen to ignore them, even as the State rounds them up and arrests them.
It is against these tensions that the Dullas Alahapperuma faction of the SLPP, which includes nationalist stalwarts previously associated with the Rajapaksas, like Wimal Weerawansa and Gevindu Cumaratunga, has teamed up with the SLFP and sections of the Old Left, including the LSSP, the Democratic Left Front, and the Communist Party. Ostensibly opposed to the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa regime, these formations have, while not expressing support for Left groups agitating against the present government, distanced themselves from the SLPP-UNP combination and by extension its economic agenda.
There is little doubt that the latter agenda will provoke a backlash or a response, of some form and magnitude. Yet, as Devaka Gunawardena points out in a thoughtful piece in Polity Magazine, “[d]etermining the progressive or reactionary character of that response… is key.” Gunawardena, a research scholar based in the US, argues that the situation today is comparable to the John Kotelawala UNP regime of 1953-1956, which itself came to power in the aftermath of the Hartal and was defeated by an array of Sinhala nationalist forces led by the SLFP. The analogy is clear: the regime felled by the Left in 1953 is similar to the deposed Rajapaksa government and the regime that followed it is similar to the present government. The question here is, who or what will lead the opposition to the latter.
Gunawardena argues against letting the oppositional space be dominated by the ex-SLPP, SLFP, and Old Left. This would obviously include the Uttara Lanka Sabhawa. His rationale is, simply, that these groups, particularly the right-wing elements in them, once associated and hobnobbed with the Rajapaksa regime, and hence cannot be trusted to come up with a truly radical alternative to the present regime’s neoliberal agenda. Their programme, he points out, is anchored in an “expanded role” for Statist elements, including the military, as well as virulent opposition to the privatisation of State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and to Free Trade Agreements (FTAs). It is, in essence, dirigiste in outlook and conception.
It should be noted here that Gunawardena is right in his observation that dirigisme is not necessarily a socialist imperative. In an article published in New Politics (“Remembering Dependency Theory: A Marxist-Humanist Review”), Edward Tapa lays down a convincing critique of Marxists and socialists who idealised industrialisation, and state intervention, and on that basis formed alliances with petty bourgeois (small capitalist) parties in the hopes of fermenting a revolution in their countries. While not necessarily agreeing with Tapas’s view or implication that a preoccupation with such strategies led the Left in the Global South – in countries like ours, that is – to neglect the all-important issue of class struggle, I agree with his argument that industrialisation as pursued in such countries immediately prior to the era of neoliberal globalisation did not achieve the desired outcomes.
I certainly concede that ULS (Uttara Lanka Sabha) and dissenting SLPP faction, as well as the Old Left, have framed their economic policy in terms of a more interventionist State, though this is not the end-all and be-all of their programme. Such a State would, in some respects, be an improvement over the UNP-SLPP’s proposal for its retrenchment and divestment. In others, it would be grossly inadequate. The likes of Gunawardena object particularly to the inclusion of Sinhala nationalist parties, outfits which, in their view, are in favour of the same policies and share the same ideology as the parties they now claim to oppose. In this respect, he contends that the Nationalist Right’s framing of the need for industrialisation, which the Old Left has taken up as well, must be scrutinised, critiqued, and if necessary, rejected.
All this dovetails with the question of whether industrialisation in itself constitutes a viable departure from and alternative to the present government’s neoliberal agenda. Marxist academics attach importance to what Gunawardena calls “proposals for economic recovery that hinge on mass mobilisation.” By contrast, the parties he associates with the Nationalist Right, including the Freedom People’s Alliance (FPA), favour an interventionist State moored in “appeals to nationalism and an exclusivist definition of community.”
My response to this is that industrialisation per se, as a Left or Nationalist Right construct, requires the kind of dirigiste State being promoted by these and other formations, including formations on the right and the centre-right. In that sense, the real question, for me, is not whether the Nationalist Right’s proposals for nationalisation and industrialisation constitute a radical alternative to the SLPP-UNP’s agenda, but whether, from a socialist and Marxist perspective, the Nationalist Right’s articulation of such proposals automatically disqualifies the latter as an alternative to that agenda. I would contend it does not.
I posit two reasons for this. The first reason is that the mainstream Opposition, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya, includes a not insignificant segment which is basically in agreement with the government’s neoliberal policies. This segment includes a number of MPs who owe their political career to Ranil Wickremesinghe, even though Wickremesinghe’s arch nemesis is their leader. Against this backdrop, the New Left, led by the JVP-NPP and FSP, is sending mixed signals about their stance on the government’s neoliberal programme. On the one hand, the JVP-NPP has made contradictory statements over issues like private education and the IMF, some of which I mentioned last week. On the other hand, the more consistent FSP is experimenting with coalitions with other parties, including the SJB.
What does this mean, in terms of political strategy? It means that the centre-right and the centre-left is facing an existential crisis, perhaps the biggest such crisis in decades. Both these formations lack, as I mentioned last week, the proverbial fire in the belly. The SJB, specifically its anti-Ranilist and pro-Premadasa wing, has the potential to move to the Left if not centre-left, while the New Left, especially the JVP-NPP has the potential to dominate discussions over the issues that the National Right has taken over. Viewing industrialisation and state intervention as right-wing policies without incorporating them into a left-wing policy platform helps no one, least of all the JVP-NPP dominated New Left that now accuses the Nationalist Right of playing a duplicitous game vis-à-vis the SLPP and UNP.
The second reason is that the radical politics espoused by the New Left and certain Marxist academics and activists requires a total and continuous campaign of mass resistance. This would obviously call for trade union mobilisation. Now, Sri Lanka does not lack strong and activist trade unions. However, unions have seen a decline in membership since the 1980s, so much so that union density in the country is barely 10% today.
Moreover, barring sectors like textiles, private sector workers lack union representation. The public sector does not lack representation, but any union agitation involving public sector workers would pit the latter, not against the capitalist framework opposed by the Left, but against middle-class taxpayers who claim they are contributing to government coffers and, even when battered by neoliberal reforms, are virulently opposed to strikes and walkouts. There is clearly no room here for a repeat of the 1953 Hartal.
What I am suggesting here is that the Left simply lacks the base on which it can oppose, let alone overthrow, the regime’s neoliberal agenda through mass resistance and mobilisation alone. Such strategies can and will lead to the overthrow of individual regimes, but as last year’s protests showed, it can only end with the replacement of one authoritarian regime by another. I would certainly concede that the Nationalist Right needs to be opposed from an anti-imperialist standpoint. But any rejection of the policies they propose – policies such as the nationalisation of strategic sectors – would lead to the Nationalist Right dominating if not monopolising discussions over those proposals. That should be avoided.
To prevent this from happening, the New Left needs to focus on industrialisation as much as it is focusing, at present, on social welfarist or mass resistance programmes. This is not just because Sri Lanka’s crisis is heavily rooted in a lack of manufacturing and a dependence on imports: a point noted by economists and scholars like Jayati Ghosh and Prabat Patnaik. It is also because the Left in Sri Lanka can gain more firepower and moral strength from focusing on such policies. By doing so, it will be able to take back discussions on them from the same Nationalist Right it now opposes, thereby winning the debate.
The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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