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Positioning science, technology and research to meet new normal industrial challenges

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Prof. Tissa Vitarana M.P. (MBBS.MD.Ph.D.(Lond).Dip.Bact.FNASSL)

Introduction

To overcome the problems due to the present economic crisis and Covid 19 pandemic the revival and development of industries in Sri Lanka is vital. On this World Science Day I’m very happy to deliver the keynote address at the fifth ITI Biennial Research Symposium to make my contribution to on the above theme, and I thank the organizers for providing me with this opportunity.

The evolution and development of human society has been a result of the application of science, technology and research (STR), including innovation, to overcome challenges. The Industrial Technology Institute (ITI), together with other STR (Science, Technology and Research) institutes like the National Engineering and Research Development Centre (NERD) have enabled Sri Lanka to develop from a low income country (annual per capita income of about US dollars (USD) 1,000) to a low middle income country (with about USD 3,850). But we are still an Underdeveloped Country (UC) and have to overcome many more challenges to become a Developed Country (DC).

If much smaller Singapore could become a developed country overcoming the normal industrial challenges, why not us? Singapore had practically no natural or agricultural resources to develop value added industry, but they made full use of their human resources according to a plan, to become a financial and trading hub. In addition they imported raw material, mainly from Malaysia, to develop industries. While Sri Lanka has abundant natural and agricultural resources, it does not make proper use of them. For example we continue to export ilmenite rich sand, which Britain converts into titanium dioxide and titanium (which is vital for the aeronautical industry) and becomes richer, while we remain poor. The same applies for graphite, which Europe converts into graphine, the wonder base for a whole new field of valuable industries.

Overcoming Normal Industrial Challenges

While Sri Lankan scientists and engineers have successfully overcome the many normal industrial challenges, this has been done despite the lack of funds and autonomy to effectively deliver the scientific support that industries require. In general we lack the entrepreneurial spirit to develop value added industries. As Minister of Science and Technology I tried to get Sri Lanka the full benefit from our natural resources by setting up a Centre, SLINTEC, based on the latest Hi-tech, Nanotechnology, but the progress has been slow. For example though scientists there have produced nanoparticles with 40% nitrogen, without developing this, we are obtaining nanoparticles with 4% nitrogen from India.

It would be far better to devote that money to developing our nano nitrogen particle industry. In Sri Lanka mainly the ITI, and other institutions like NERD, provided the STR for the development of nearly 12,300 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) through the 240 Vidatha Centres that were developed countrywide through my initiative while I was Minister (more than 50,000 youth were trained for careers in computer technology). I am glad to hear that over 1,000 of the industries are exporting their products having reached international standards. Many normal industrial challenges have been overcome during this process, thanks to the STR contribution given mainly by the ITI, which can be proud of its achievement.

Overcoming New Normal Industrial Challenges

What then is the meaning of “new normal industrial challenges” and how do we “position” STR to challenge them? While this could mean the challenge posed by new technology abroad, I presume that “new normal” refers mainly to the new challenges arising as a result of the Covid 19 Coronavirus pandemic, and its aftermath. There have been much worse pandemics in the history of the world (e.g. the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed over 30 million people and infected one third of the world’s population) but they have all disappeared in two to three years. The chances are that this one too will fit into that pattern. Obviously the industrial challenges due to Covid will continue for some more months, probably a year or more, though persistence with variants, like influenza may occur as minor epidemics periodically forever. The need for industrial development continues despite this and the problems caused by Covid 19 and the global and local economic crisis, will continue for years. These are discussed below.

The negative impact on the industries in the countries due to the Covid 19 pandemic have to be minimized. For instance the closing down of the industries or cutting staff due to Covid related problems can be reduced if the necessary structures and organizational changes are instituted. Air conditioning increases the risk of any infected person passing on the virus to others. Use of fans and keeping doors and windows open will minimize that risk. Activated carbon air filters replacing what exists would further reduce the risk of virus entry, besides dust particles, into laboratories and factories. At the same time distance between employees should be at least one meter, if possible two meters. Wearing of masks all the time should be compulsory. The handlers of any material brought from outside should wash their hands with soap and water/or use sanitizers. There should be no crowds gathering for meetings or discussions. These should be limited to a few key personnel. There should be a Covid committee, in each institution who should have been fully informed about the virus and its behavior. Having full awareness, the committee members can ensure that all employees are informed and that they observe the health rules mentioned above.

The entire staff should be immunized with safe vaccines. I consider the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as unsafe as they are based on the use of mRNA which are composed of viable genetic material alone. This type of vaccine has never been used on humans before and it is uncertain how there mRNA will act once they combine with genetic material in the cells of our bodies. Due to scientific observations and thinking the outcome of the mixture of foreign virus genetic material with human genetic material is unpredictable and may give rise to undesirable genetic changes. This is why the European Union has banned the import of GM (genetically modified) foods. Here this foreign genetic material is being directly injected into our body so that the danger is even greater.

Other vaccines that are on the market are based on accepted vaccine production procedures and are free of these dangers. For instance Sinopharm is whole virus which has been killed so that there is no live matter in its make-up. But it must be remembered that vaccination only prevents the individual from developing severe disease and dying. The vaccinated person can get infected and while developing no symptoms (over 80%) or developing a mild cold like illness (20%) alone. During the infectious period they can infect other people. Thus it is imperative that everyone is given safe vaccine while ensuring that they do not infect any other or get infected by observing the health rules against virus transmission. If the work in the work place, factory or office is organized in this way then the Covid challenge is minimized or even nullified. Then it will be possible for all industries to function despite the “new normal challenges”. Once these precautions have been taken in all work places industry could return to normal working conditions.

In Sri Lanka the plantation industry employees are very vulnerable due to their poor housing conditions. These employees and their families, which include persons over 60 years of age as well as those with co-morbidities (the vulnerable group) are in danger.

People living in the “line rooms”, which have several families crowded together, are prone to get infected, with severe Covid disease affecting the vulnerable group. The Government must take urgent action to separate the families by temporarily moving them to individual family housing, and proceed to intensify their housing construction programme.

Another factor related to the Covid pandemic is the fact that a significant amount of the labour force elsewhere went back to their villages and have not returned. One factor is that some of them fear that they may be exposed to Covid infection if they return to work. The lack of labour has affected major manufacturing industries in Sri Lanka as well as abroad affecting the manufacturing sector in particular globally. This has delayed economic recovery. The government health authorities may need to look into the question of helping these industries to recover by removing the fear complex among the employees by health education programmes.

An important aspect is to change the behavior pattern of people throughout the country to understand the true nature of the virus and the effect of getting infected so that people will overcome the fear complex that has arisen as a result of the frequent shutdowns. A result of this situation is that the majority of the people have got poorer and are facing economic problems which are even worse than the Covid threat. This is the problem of hunger. Latest figures indicate that about 60% of the Sri Lankan population is living below the poverty line and there are many people who have to manage with only one proper meal per day. The level of malnutrition too has increased and is a little above 18%. This means that nearly one out of every five children under five years of age is suffering from malnutrition. They will grow up to be shorter, thinner and worst of all their mental development will be retarded. The other children too will be affected but to a lesser extent. This augers badly for our future generation.

Another factor that has been the outcome of the Covid problem is the disruption of the education system. The children have suffered by missing about two years of schooling with serious consequences. Some of them have developed mental problems. A majority have lost the habit of regular schooling. Some of the children at higher grades have been badly affected and their preparation for critical examinations has been disrupted. Some of the children due to idleness have been corrupted and even turned to consumption of addictive drugs.

In my view the problem of hunger should receive first priority and money should be devoted to ensuring that people get adequate nutrition. I would like to suggest that highways and other development projects that are not essential be delayed and the money diverted to ensure that everybody gets adequate nutrition. The successful solution to the causal factor for the high cost of living is to by-pass the whole chain of profiteering middleman. This can be done by adopting a new economic system that is gathering momentum in both developed countries, specially in Europe, and in developing countries as well. eg. Argentina.

This is the concept of the “Solidarity Economy”. The basic idea is that all institutions that are running at a loss, both government and private, should be made into companies that belong to the employees. This entitles them not only to get their salaries but also everyone has one share in the company. In this way the profit is divided equally. Where this has been done there has been a conversion of loss into profit for the enterprise. A good example relevant to Sri Lanka is what has been achieved in Kerala, India. e.g. Sixty three hectares of tea owned by TATA’s (one of India’s leading enterprises) was running at a loss. The government took back the land and ran it on the solidarity principle.

One of the members of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Agriculture Committee, who has retired from the post of General Manager of the State Plantation Cooperation (SPC), visited Kerala and gave us a report. Where TATA’s had failed, under the new setup the tea plantations were running at a good profit and the employees were happy. The idea of being the owners while they were also the employees had caused a big change in their mental attitude. They did not return from work by mid-day but went on until evening. All robbing and other illegal activities had stopped.

The Employee’s Council had chosen professional managers on merit (not on relationship and personal factors that have corrupted Indian society). I wish to propose that the plantation industry and all loss making government and private enterprises in Sri Lanka too turn to the solidarity principle. This can be applied to farmer organizations as well, so as to by-pass the middlemen who have them caught in a debt trap and exploit them, so that they do not get a proper price for their paddy and vegetables. These farmer solidarity organizations can deal directly with the solidarity shops set-up island wide. Initially it may be wise to make use of Government wholesale establishments in the agricultural sector like the Paddy Marketing Board, CWE and Sathosa to facilitate the process.

Globally too there has been considerable disruption of industry due to Covid. In particular the shutdown in China has led to the shortage of manufactured goods. China and many Eastern countries took to the manufacturing of goods, supported by outsourcing from the developed countries, due to their cheap labour and lower production costs. Now as a result of Covid, the USA and most developed countries that had earlier shifted to the service industries as the mainstay of their economies were dependent on goods which could be obtained cheaper from countries like China.

The result has been that with the Covid shutdown in China these countries have now had to restore their manufacturing capabilities to produce the goods that they need but cannot import from China. This tendency has also had some impact on developing countries like India. Therefore in both developed and developing countries there is a tendency to restore or develop their manufacturing industries to achieve some degree of self-sufficiency.

Globally there is an economic crisis which has been exaggerated by the Covid 19 pandemic. This economic downturn is continuing and having an adverse effect on global trade. The drop in trade has led to an adverse impact on shipping and transport by air globally. The disruption of shiping and flight schedules has led to the disruption in global trade. This has affected both developed countries as well as developing countries, with the effect being greater on the latter. Items required for industries are behind schedule and supply chains have been disrupted. This disruption of trade associated with the impact on the global transport system has badly affected manufacturing industries worldwide.

The agriculture industry has also encountered many problems during this Covid period. Much of the problems are the result of the monopoly situation which has affected availability of rice and vegetables. With the reluctance of the Government to intervene on behalf of the farmers and consumers the situation has been exploited by ruthless mill owners and traders to raise prices sky high. In a situation where people are without a source of income the high price of food has been a major factor that has led to fall in the nutritional status of the people.

The fact that they were suffering from serious health problems like kidney disease, cancer etc. due to the use of toxic chemicals received a sympathetic response from our President. During the time of the Chandrika Bandaranaike presidency I reacted in the same way when she made me the Chairman of a committee to identify the causes of these illnesses among farmers. I too made the same suggestion about shifting to organic farming but no action was taken. I am glad that the President has taken a firm decision to do away with the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture. But I would appeal to him to make the transition a gradual one so that there is minimal disruption.

In order to conform with the subject title given to me I have laid emphasis on the main causal factor to be the Covid 19 pandemic and its economic and social impact. The impact may last for a shorter or longer period depending on the duration of the pandemic. Once the pandemic is over it will take considerable time to restore normalcy. This may vary from country to country and from town to village. What I have said above may also vary accordingly. As a scientist I can only generalize but future events and outcomes may confirm or contradict what I had said above. Only time will tell.



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Politics

A REALIST READING OF THE POLITICAL MARKETPLACE

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Dr. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

[This article is dedicated to the memory of the late B. Sirisena Cooray, former General Secretary of the UNP.]

The irony never fails to strike me when the Lankan liberals who fetishize the free-market above all in economics, are totally impervious to and imperiously ignore the signals of the political marketplace.

If Dr Ravi Ranan-Eliya’s SLOTS tracker is accurate and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has lost a full third (33%) of his 2019 vote, then he is still slightly above the combined SJB+UNP vote of 2020, i.e., the ‘greater UNP’ space in the polity.

In an extended interview given to Dinesh Weerakkody which was the cover story of Business Today February 2000, the UNP’s former strongman-General Secretary Sirisena Cooray, who had been Ranasinghe Premadasa’s righthand man for decades, predicted (“take it from me”) that the UNP under Ranil Wickremesinghe would average 25% in the future. He was right. After a quarter century that ideological space in the political spectrum has become structural, though the UNP itself has almost vanished. No combination of forces that stays within that space can defeat the regime. Only a breakout/breakthrough strategy can.

Two Traumas

Political commentators correctly observe that the decline of the regime’s popularity is not matched by the rise of the Opposition’s. They fail to grasp the reason for the mismatch and prefer instead to prattle on about the allegedly poor performance of the current Opposition, chiefly the SJB.

I’d say that mismatch is because the regime’s popularity has declined so speedily that the memories of the previous administration’s negative performance have not faded. The Gotabaya administration has proved the most traumatic to our material well-being in our post-1948 history. The predecessor Yahapalanaya administration, chiefly Ranil’s UNP with its foreign and constitutional policies and cultural nihilism, proved traumatic to our national identity and sense of sovereignty.

To re-state: the Gotabaya presidency and the Pohottuwa are in a downward spiral which they can’t pull out of and are wildly unpopular. This in no way means that the values, policies, practices and profile of the Yahapalanaya UNP by any other name are retrospectively popular. It too is unpopular, doubtless less so currently than the GR regime, but that’s a low bar.

Yahapalanaya

didn’t fail because the Government “failed to resolutely prosecute the crooked Rajapaksas”. The prosecutions didn’t help the Government and in fact hurt it, because the larger percentage of the public perceived a UNP which had appeased if not collaborated with the LTTE, persecuting Mahinda, who had won the war, depriving him – and therefore the Sinhala majority–of the Opposition leadership and prosecuting those who were loyal to him.

Those who see the GR presidency as a self-evident argument for the abolition of the executive presidency ignore the market signals that the primary problem was/is not the presidency as an institution:

(a) Even the protesting peasants curse the parliamentarians and Cabinet more, and more often, than they do the ruler.

(b) The former president Maithripala Sirisena found an ally and survived electorally while the former Prime Minister did not, and the former Speaker and former Foreign Minister couldn’t muster any political traction by the tail-end of the previous regime and opted out.

(c) It is doubtful that a two-thirds majority in parliament and a simple majority in the country at a Referendum can be mustered for a Constitutional change that abolishes the directly elected executive presidency while enhancing or even retaining the 13th amendment or any form of provincial devolution. A majority of Sinhalese will not vote for it. Any government, Constitutional order or law that exists without the consent of the majority of the majority is doomed to generate eternal instability, even a coup.

The citizens detest the Gotabaya regime for the trauma they are being put through. They almost certainly regret their choice of 2019. But only someone who is deluded would think that means they wish to return to 2015-2019 (or 2001-2004) or approve of that government and its values.

SLPP & SJB

Sirisena Cooray often insisted that the UNP must win back “the majority of the majority” which Ranil Wickremesinghe had lost. That was the bedrock of any winning strategy, he emphasized, endorsing the report of NGP Panditharatne (2003) that most UNP activists felt the party could never win the Presidency under the leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe because he had lost the support of the Sinhalese, especially the rural masses.

The accusation that the Rajapaksas’ SLPP and Sajith Premadasa’s SJB are ‘two sides of the same coin’, or more charitably, siblings, is vastly amusing. If the underlying critique is that there is a similarity or sharing of views or values in some sense, then my answer as a Realist is “I would certainly hope so!” because there is little prospect of winning back “the majority of the majority” i.e., the Sinhala voters who shifted to the Pohottuwa, if an Opposition party takes a stand and espouses values that are the total opposite—the antipode– of those of the majority.

Only if the Opposition shows sensitivity to whatever is legitimate in the concerns of the Pohottuwa voter; only if those voters feel that their concerns and core values will be respected and safeguarded by the Opposition; only if what the Opposition says emotionally resonates with the Sinhala voter who shifted as a bloc to the Pohottuwa, can they be won over and the regime defeated. This is exactly how Joe Biden won back the social strata and the states that the neoliberal Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump and earlier, Bill Clinton won the South from the Republicans.

The Lankan Opposition must fuse whatever was legitimate and correct in the SLFP, UNP and Left traditions, values and discourses.

A human is not only an economic animal (‘homo economicus’) but fundamentally a political and social animal, as the ancient Greeks understood. Today the economic factor has punched through, but it won’t stay that way if too much violence is done to the political and social animal within.

Referendum 2022

If the main Opposition sports a cosmopolitan cultural profile and minoritarian-globalist discourse when a Referendum on a new Sinhala-Buddhist, minimal-devolution Constitution is looming, nationalism may partially neutralize the socioeconomic and governance factors, the Sinhala-Buddhist vote may split, and some may stay home.

By contrast, an ‘organic’ Premadasa-ist populist profile could (as in 1988) neutralize the nationalist factor acting as a Pohottuwa/GR asset, swing the Sinhala middle ground over to the mainline Opposition and ensure massive NO vote, a protest vote on socioeconomic grievances, which could break the back of the autocratic GR regime.

The Sinhala-Buddhist voters who, in a tectonic shift, swung to the Rajapaksas in 2018-2020, have swung away from them as a result of meltdown of their economic conditions. The material factor has eclipsed the ethno-nationalist for the moment, which doesn’t mean that the Sinhala-Buddhist voters have deleted their values and identity concerns. No economic crisis is going to make them swing all the way from the Gotabaya paradigm to the Ranil-Mangala-CBK cosmopolitan-elitist paradigm. Most are mainly Mahinda voters, and a smart Opposition would not flaunt Yahapalanaya UNP policies and icons, but instead pivot, move halfway and reposition itself in the progressive center so that those voters would have to come only halfway themselves.

Dirty Secret

What is it that gives the neoliberal Right in Sri Lanka such ideological durability even in the Opposition when its main agency and agents, the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe, have consistently been unsuccessful, and the ideology is itself widely discredited and obsolescent in the West?

The dirty secret lies in the decision made by Mr. Wickremesinghe to break sharply with UNP tradition maintained even during the Cold War (old and new), and formally, officially incorporate the party in a global ideological bloc, that of the world’s Conservative, Christian Democrat and Center-Right parties grouped in the International Democratic Union (IDU), co-founded by the US Republicans and the UK Conservatives.

The opportunities, funding flows and ideological indoctrination have created a certain stratum in Sri Lanka, an elitist policy Establishment in the party-political and civil society spaces, which regards adherents of rightwing, free-market fundamentalist, anti-state globalist economic thinking, to constitute its real family, far more than it regards Sri Lanka’s working people and least of all the Global South or progressive opinion (social democratic and liberal) in the West, as its family or “hive”.

Foreign Relations

There were very good contributions ranging across the political spectrum in the Budget debate on the Foreign Ministry vote by Imtiaz Bakeer Markar, Tharaka Balasuriya, Gajan Ponnambalam, Rauff Hakeem and Harini Amarasuriya. One could almost discern the outlines of a refreshing revisionist conversation and potential consensus.

However, in the main, the polarization continues between extremes continues on foreign policy.

Reflecting on his presidency, Barack Obama went on the record that his biggest single regret was Libya. Obama and his Secretary of Defence Bob Gates were against intervention, but that intervention went ahead, double-crossing Russia and the Security Council resolution, culminating in murderous regime change, opening the door for the wave of Islamist jihadism including ISIL, and triggering a toughening in Russia’s global stand under a returning Putin.

Three personalities were responsible for driving the US decision to intervene in Libya which policy decision Obama says is his greatest regret: Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice and Samantha Power.

These, and not Barack Obama, John Kerry or Joe Biden– still less Bernie Sanders or AOC– are foreign policy and ideological icons of Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitan neoliberals, ‘radical centrists’ and Yahapalanaya ex-UNPers who are Mangala proteges.

Troika of Heroes

It is in the final analysis an existential question. In economic development who should we be like? I would say Ranasinghe Premadasa. In foreign policy? Lakshman Kadirgamar. (Interestingly, he was commended in Sirisena Cooray’s Business Today Feb. 2000 interview). In Sri Lankan nationhood, embracing diversity and combating racism while being at one with the common people, I would say Vijaya Kumaratunga.

It is a triangulation of these three great heroes and martyrs that give us the values to be the best society that Sri Lankan can be within and the glowing example we can be in the world.

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Politics

Liberal dogmatism and Sri Lanka’s future

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by Uditha Devapriya

At the height of the first wave last year, the JVP and the FSP requested the government to look to Kerala. Led by the Communist Party, the Kerala administration responded well to the virus, deploying State resources and ensuring no one was left behind. It was a litmus test of what governments ought to do during a public health crisis. Although Colombo opted for a different strategy that combined army officials with medical professionals, the second, third, and fourth waves have made us realise the flaws of sticking to it dogmatically.

Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia, as well as the MPs they are attached to, predictably focused more on the West. In Donald Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic and the tensions it generated, they saw a confirmation of their worst fears. Yet while prognosticating about the dangers of populist politics at a time of a pandemic, very few of them acknowledged that left-of-centre and leftist administrations, Kerala included, had handled it better than most. Indeed, they even failed to note that Jacinda Arden, heroine of countless liberal narratives here and elsewhere, hailed from a centre-left administration.

Supporters of the present government have of course been disdainful of socialist and liberal concerns and recommendations. Thus, they have been as contemptuous of Kerala’s record as they have of Arden’s. Although the government’s handling of the pandemic has obviously seen better days, they stick adamantly to their belief that, as the president himself put it, he and his men are doing it the best. Even if they admit to the flaws of the government’s plans, they would point out that the virus does not always respond to the measures that countries like Kerala have enforced, and that, in many ways, we have performed better.

While the regime has downplayed liberal concerns and socialist recommendations, its liberal critics have been no less apathetic about the latter. This is to be expected. Liberalism in Sri Lanka has almost always been in the economic domain, not the social. Calling for reductions in government intervention, Colombo’s liberal intelligentsia has, for the most, been blind or myopic to the contradiction between their economic paradigms and the social discontent those paradigms have generated elsewhere. That is why you hardly come across free market ideologues mentioning Kerala much less commending it, and why they praise New Zealand’s pandemic response only on the grounds of its leader’s gender.

These ideologues continue to spin their narratives about the need for lesser governments and greater globalisation, failing to note that it is in countries where states have taken less proactive measures that have yielded higher cases and fatalities. It is also in regions worst affected by vaccine inequalities, a result of untrammelled globalisation, that have produced and continue to produce viral variants, perpetuating the pandemic and thereby reinforcing those inequalities even more. Anyone who thinks that globalisation and integration can save us from the pandemic, accordingly, is only seeing half the picture. Clearly, for the virus as for the economy in general, a different paradigm is the call of the hour.

Western governments have already realised this. For all its flaws, Joe Biden’s economic programme is taking the US back to the New Deal days. In the run up to the elections last year, Jake Sullivan rang the alarm on neoliberalism, calling it a failed policy. Even though I am sceptical about whether Washington can pull off a New New Deal, it is true, as a recent interview in Jacobin puts it, that Biden is emphasising a bigger role for the State. In foreign policy his administration remains as predictable as ever. But during a pandemic of this scale, domestic policies are what count more. Hence, while clearly not socialist, the president and his men have committed themselves to a new, different programme.

Yet Sri Lanka’s political liberals, who are in reality economic liberals, remain blind to these developments. Then again, they remain blind to the link between the sort of policies they advocate and the discontent those policies have provoked. They also choose to ignore how the countries they look up to have gone back on those policies.

Despite its Third Way Giddensian roots, the Democratic Party understood the rightwing surge which decades of neoliberal globalisation had unleashed in the American heartland. Though stopping short of conceiving a radical programme, the younger, more progressive part rank-and-filers realised that continuing with such policies, and placing their advocates at the helm, would damage their prospects for an electoral comeback. Revisiting, revising, and revamping old strategies, they adopted new tactics which could win them working and middle class constituencies, without caving into the rightwing fringe.

I don’t know why Sri Lanka’s liberals don’t get this, but I can guess. Among the themes that Rajiva Wijesinha explores in his fascinating book Representing Sri Lanka is what he calls “the death of liberal Sri Lanka.” The title is tongue-in-cheek: he’s not talking about what liberals in the country dread, namely the rise of authoritarian regimes and specifically those led by the Rajapaksas, but what they ought to be dreading, namely the death of liberalism among liberal ranks. Wijesinha is characteristically candid about how liberals operate in the country now. In particular, he points to three developments within Colombo’s liberal and intellectual circles: the tribalism entrenched in their organisations, their affiliations with individuals one just cannot associate with, and their obeisance to foreign interests.

Wijesinha reveals how the very same liberal institutions set up to counter authoritarianism ended up going back on their foundational tenets. This has largely been on account of the presumption, ridiculous to me and I believe to Wijesinha himself, that to be a liberal in Sri Lanka is to be a card-carrying member of the United National Party.

Of course, the UNP remains the only national party allied with the International Democratic Union, that very distinguished organisation which has, to the best of my knowledge, failed to see or note the contradiction between the UNP’s commitment to the tenets of liberal democracy and its strangling of them within the party hierarchy. Yet, even more ironic have been the hosannas lavished on it by self-defined liberal cosmopolitans, a point Dr Wijesinha notes in his devastating unravelling of their paymasters, associates, and acolytes. Underlying his critique from the perspective of a saner liberalism, he strikes a deeply regretful note. His reading of these developments does not make for happy reading, though I think it should be read, for the simple reason that no one else has written on those developments.

Perhaps the biggest mistake any political commentator in Sri Lanka can make is to define himself or herself negatively in relation to the rightwing fringe. Yet self-defined liberals, who would probably not be classed as liberals elsewhere, insist on describing themselves as such on account of their opposition to (predominantly Sinhala) nationalist politics. Here, as I have mentioned several times in this column, they fail to distinguish between their championing of economic freedom on the one hand and their tacit acceptance of a government that can “bring about” such freedom, even at the cost of civil liberties, on the other. This is hardly the ideology espoused by the likes of Chanaka Amaratunga and Rajiva Wijesinha, but it is in line with the sort supported by their less than brilliant successors.

The bottom line to all this is that nationalists of the most tribalist sort are no different to liberals of the most tribalist sort. Unfortunately for the country, nationalists and liberals alike tend to be more tribalist than most, a point that might come as a surprise for those who associate nationalism with its worst excesses, yet compare it favourably with liberal politics of whatever persuasion. It does not take one much, however, to realise that both have been caving into the same kind of insularity, which lends credence to the point I have made frequently in this column about neoliberals and neoconservatives occupying the same space. Indeed, to rethink Benjamin Barber’s very flawed essay, McWordlists have become the provocateurs and, inadvertently, fellow travellers of the Jihadists.

I don’t see why we have to continue with such a state of affairs. As recent developments in Chile, Peru, and Mexico show, dissatisfaction with rightwing neoliberalism and centre-left reformism has fed into radical formations offering alternatives to both. While many of these formations express an antipathy to politics of all shades, as René Rojas in a recent piece to Jacobin Magazine puts it, it is when the Left has banded together, without letting itself be splintered on personal and factional lines, it has been able to organise the broadest possible resistance against authoritarian regimes and their purported oppositions.

Sri Lanka’s cosmopolitans just don’t possess this kind of moral firepower, partly because they have become toothless against more powerful political movements and ideologies, but also because they themselves have, while opposing the prospect of a Rajapaksa presidency, contributed to a state of affairs which made such a prospect possible. Of course, Sri Lanka’s liberal and left-liberal circles continue to regurgitate old ideas, proving themselves to be no better than their nationalist-populist counterparts. Yet rising social discontent, and dissent, threatens to render their best laid plans insignificant, if not irrelevant. Far from bemoaning such a development, I think we should pay close attention to it.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Politics

The SJB’s identity crisis

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by Uditha Devapriya

Who is winning the battle of ideas? Not the government, it’s mired in too many crises to claim victory of any sort. The Opposition, perhaps, but it depends on what opposition you are talking about. The anti-regimists are split into two camps: those who want the party in power out, and those who want a new party in. The SJB subscribes to the former strategy, the JVP to the latter.

Caught in-between are the likes of Champika Ranawaka, who more or less sway between acceptance of a major crisis of legitimacy and acceptance of a pragmatist course of action. The JVP obviously idealises itself as the next party in power, and through its parliamentary avatar, the NPP, it is trying to win constituencies the government has lost, massively. Being the idealists that they are, they also spurn the SJB.

Despite what the naysayers will say and despite concerns about social gatherings during a pandemic, the SJB turnout was a success. People may not have been consciously joining the SJB, and it’s futile to conflate protests with votes, but this was the biggest such rally since Nugegoda 2015. In that sense Kumar David is absolutely right when he writes that the party “made a correct judgement call.” The government erred by trying to stop the protests, but then that is what governments do. That the SJB continued despite these obstacles and that it brought in urban and suburban elements revealed the seething discontent that threatens to undermine this regime and any semblance of order. This is why the rally was significant: it underscored the need to channel discontent through democratic outfits.

It remains to be seen whether people will respond to these developments this way. On the one hand, the need for a real Opposition has surfaced. On the other, frustration at there not being a proper Opposition has also gained ground. People may want the SLPP out, but does that necessary mean they want the SJB in? Colombo’s upper and upper middle classes seem more beholden than ever to the UNP’s policies, while an increasingly proletarianised lower middle class seem attracted to the JVP’s message. That leaves the peasantry, which frankly speaking no organisation appears to be considering seriously.

A multi-class resistance is the call of the hour. But multi-class resistance makes sense only if there is multi-class political mobilisation. Split on so many points, the Opposition has failed to bring about such mobilisation. This does not augur well for the SJB. As I have mentioned many times in this column, part of the problem lies in the SJB itself. For a party that formed and identified itself as an alternative to the UNP, it is fascinating how so many of its MPs are touting the UNP line on so many matters, calling for a return to the past.

When Tharaka Balasuriya, one of the more intelligent MPs in the present administration, asked if the SJB followed Mangala Samaraweera’s foreign policy, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar deftly deflected the question. Such a tactic will not work if the SJB does, in this instance, tout Mr Samaraweera’s line, or for that matter his ideology, which as Ramindu Perera in a recent piece (“Was Mangala ‘progressive’?”) has outlined is progressive only for those who conflate liberal rhetoric with commitment to social justice.

It must be mentioned here that Mr Bakeer Markar is one of the few who identify the Samagi Jana Balawegaya in opposition to and not in line with such policies. Yet this is a strategy the need for which very few of his colleagues seem to realise, much less concede.

Mr Markar was frank in his response to Mr Balasuriya. He made his argument, that the SJB should not be judged by the actions of the UNP, using the analogy of the SLFP under S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the UNP under J. R. Jayewardene. He effectively argued that just as Bandaranaike had forged a new party and Jayewardene a new set of policies for the old party, Sajith Premadasa had left the old party and the old policies for a new programme. This is what Dayan Jayatilleka has underscored as well: that if new parties and new political personalities have to be held against the actions of the old, then Mahinda Rajapaksa would have to be blamed for the Chandrika Kumaratunga government’s P-TOMs arrangement and Ranasinghe Premadasa for the Jayewardene government’s excesses.

The argument is logically sound, almost impeccable, but it does not ring true enough. Why do I say this? While Mr Markar is taking great pains to distinguish Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP from Sajith Premadasa’s SJB, not a few MPs from the latter are emphasising their links to the former. Some time back I drew a line between three groups in the SJB: the Old Guard, whose political careers were boosted by Wickremesinghe’s UNP, the Young Turks, who were overlooked in favour of Wickremesinghe’s Royalist Cabal at the height of the UNP’s power, and everyone else in-between, who feign neutrality but make statements highlighting their allegiance to the one or the other from time to time. While no conflict has arisen between these groups as yet, in the almost contradictory despatches they issue to the media and the public, one notices a lack of ideological cohesion, indeed of unity.

Thus, while Mr Markar and Dr Jayatilleka carry on their campaigns, differentiating the son from the father, a great many SJB MPs are emphasising the need to carry on with a very different campaign, of bringing the son back to the father. To borrow Mr Markar’s analogy again, this would be akin to S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike returning to Dudley Senanayake’s and John Kotelawala’s UNP before the 1956 election, or Ranasinghe Premadasa recycling J. R. Jayewardene’s policies. It would be tantamount to saying that the yahapalana experiment under Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP was a success and that its economic, social, and foreign policies constitute the ideals which the SJB ought to aspire to.

As far as yahapalanism is concerned, those in the SJB who advocate a return to it frequently emphasise two points: that regime’s jaunts to Geneva and Washington, and its repackaging of neoliberal economics under a social market veneer. This explains why Harsha de Silva’s eloquent and fine speech on the foreign policy blunders of the SLPP government detoured to a commendation of the Resolution that Sri Lanka co-sponsored, essentially against itself, in 2015. It also explains the view, held by some SJB MPs, that Sri Lanka needs an economic package involving neoliberal free market reforms. Contrasted with Mr Markar’s arguments distancing the UNP’s policies from the SJB, such invocations of yahapalanism seem to me a case of chalk and cheese: some want to avoid the grand old party and its not so grand legacy, but others seem to be in favour of bringing that party to their platform.

This is the fatal contradiction that explains the SJB’s less than stellar performance so far, one and a half years on. Sarath Fonseka was correct in his view that the SJB has not proved itself as a viable alternative. But while many have diagnosed the problem correctly, they have not given the correct prognosis. To me the issue is clear enough: if you want to differentiate the new party from the old, why advocate a return to the old party, indeed even joining up with the old, frequently? You may advocate everything the UNP stood for, but what’s the point if a great many of your fellow MPs, particularly the younger Turks, are emphasising an identity for the SJB that is different in almost every respect from the UNP? When Mr Markar makes his claims in parliament, at day, and other MPs betray their belief in the ideology of a party he disavows, at night, what’s the message voters are going to get?

If the government has been saved by a divided Opposition, the Opposition, the SJB, has been saved by the government’s blunders. The idea has formed that the SJB, had it been in power, wouldn’t have been as bad as the SLPP. But so has the idea that the SJB would not have been as good as the SLPP. Meanwhile, the JVP, or the NPP, continues to canvass votes from the impoverished middle-class and other sections of the population, and Champika Ranawaka’s 43 Senankaya, after a promising start, continues to go nowhere.

As of now, the only party that has the numbers in parliament is the SJB. True, it has a major liability with partners like the SLMC, which has time and time again proved that its loyalties lie with anyone that will offer its members cushy posts. But this is an in-house problem, and it can be resolved. Not so easy to resolve is that paradox I outlined at the beginning: while distancing itself from the UNP, it is also getting close to it. Why anyone would want to vote for an outfit that can’t make head or tail of where it wants to go beats me. In that sense the SJB has a major identity crisis. The more it refuses to engage with or address that crisis, the bleaker its electoral prospects will be. It cannot afford to be complacent.

In the marketplace of votes, political parties should know what they are saying, and more importantly, why. The SJB may be aware of what it is saying. But does it know why? On this question rests no less than its future, and no less than the future of the country.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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