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The New Old Left turns 50



by Malinda Seneviratne

Revolutionaries, self-styled or otherwise, are hard to imagine as old people, the exception of course being Fidel Castro. Castro grew old with a Cuban Revolution that has demonstrated surprising resilience. Che Guevara was effectively stilled, literally and metaphorically when he was just 39, ensuring iconic longevity — and the wild haired image with a star pinned on a beret is a symbol of resistance and, as is often the case, used to endorse and inspire things and processes that would have horrified the man.

Daniel Ortega at 75 was a revolutionary leader who reinvented himself a few decades after the Sandinistas’ exit was effectively orchestrated by the USA in April 1990. He’s changed and so has the Sandinistas. Revolutionary is not an appropriate descriptive for either.

Rohana Wijeweera is seen as a rebel by some, naturally those who are associated with the party he led for 25 years, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People’s Liberation Front), widely referred to by its Sinhala acronym, JVP. He led two insurrections and was incarcerated alive on November 13, 1989 in the Borella Cemetery during the UNP regime that held stewardship during the bloodiest period in post-Independence Sri Lanka.

If he was alive today, he would be almost 78-years old. Imagination following the ‘ifs’ probably will not inspire comparison with Castro or Che. Not even Ortega, for the Nicaraguan actually helped overthrow a despotic regime and, as mentioned, succeeded in recapturing power, this time through an election.

Wijeweera did contest elections, but he is not remembered as a democrat. Neither he nor his party showed any success at elections during his leadership. In any event, as the leaders of what was called the ‘Old Left’ as well as people who are seen as ‘Left Intellectuals’ have pointed out, the 1971 insurrection was an adventure against a newly elected government whose policy prerogatives were antithetical to the world’s ‘Right.’ As such, although the JVP had the color and the word right, moment and act squarely placed it as a tool of the capitalist camp, it can be argued.

As for the second insurrection, the JVP targeted leaders and members of trade unions and political parties who, although they may have lost left credentials or rather revolutionary credentials, were by no means in the political right. That such individuals and groups, in the face of the JVP onslaught, ended up fighting alongside the ‘right’ is a different matter.

Anyway, this Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the first insurrection launched by the Wijeweera-led JVP. Of course that ‘moment’ was preceded by preparation and planning that was good enough to catch the United Front government led by the SLFP by surprise, but the entire adventure needs to be examined by the longer history that came before.

Wijeweera belonged to what was called the Peking Wing of the Communist Party, formed after the USSR and China parted political/ideological ways. When Wijeweera broke away from the Peking Wing he was barely out of his teens. What he and others dubbed as the ‘Old Left’ were at the time seen as having lost much of its previous revolutionary zeal. Entering into pacts with the ‘centrist’ SLFP gave credence to this perception. There was, then, a palpable void in the left half of the political spectrum. Wijeweera and the JVP sought to fill it.

It’s easy to play referee after the fact. April 4, 1971 was inauspicious one could argue. The entire strategy of capturing police stations, kidnapping/assassinating the Prime Minister, securing control of the state radio station etc., describe a coup-attempt rather than a revolution. There was no mass movement to speak of. There wasn’t even anti-government sentiment of any significance.

Nevertheless, it was an important moment. As Prof Gamini Samaranayake in his book on the JVP pointed out, the adventure revealed important things: a) the state was weak or rather the security apparatus of the state was weak, and b) armed struggle was now an option for those who aspired to political power. Indeed these two ‘revelations’ may have given some ideas to those Tamil ‘nationalists’ who would end up launching an armed struggle against the state and would so believe that victory was possible that they would try their luck for 30 long years!

Had April 4 not happened, would we have ever had an armed insurrection? If we did, would it have been different from April 1971 and 1988/89? That’s for those who enjoy speculation. Maybe some creative individual with an interest in politics and thinks of producing fiction based on alternative realities might try his/her hand at it. It would probably make entertaining reading.

The April 4 adventure ended in an inglorious defeat. Wijeweera himself was captured or, as some might claim, planned to be captured (a better option than being killed, as hundreds of his followers were). The captors did not know who he was until he himself confessed. He spilled the beans, so to speak, without being urged to do so.

The JVP, thereafter, abandoned the infantile strategy adopted in April 1971. The party dabbled in electoral politics for a while after J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP offered a general pardon that set Wijeweera free. Wijeweera and the JVP would focus mostly on attacking the SLFP thereafter. Others who were arrested opted go their individual ways. Some went back to books and ended up as academics (Jayadeva Uyangoda or ‘Oo Mahaththaya’, Gamini Keerawella and Gamini Samaranayake for example).

Others took up journalism (Victor Ivan alias Podi Athula and Sunanda Deshapriya). A few joined mainstream political parties (e.g. Loku Athula). Many would end up in the NGO sector (Wasantha Dissanayake, Patrick Fernando and Sarath Fernando). Their political trajectories, then, have been varied.

The JVP is still around. For the record, the ‘Old Left’ is still around too, although not as visible as the JVP. We still have the CP (Moscow Wing) and LSSP, as well as their off-shoots. Individuals who wished to be politically active, either joined the SLFP or the UNP or else were politically associated with such parties, even if they didn’t actually contest elections.

The JVP still talks of Wijeweera but this has been infrequent. It’s nothing more than tokenism, even then. The party has politically aligned itself with the SLFP and the UNP at different times and as of now seems to have been captured by the gravitational forces of the latter to a point that it cannot extricate itself or rather, finds itself in a situation where extrication allows for political crumbs and nothing more. The Marxist rhetoric is gone. Red has been replaced by pink. There’s no talk of revolution.

The high point in the post-Wijeweera era was returning some 40 members to parliament at the 2004 elections in a coalition with the SLFP. However, the decision to leave the coalition (UPFA) seems to have been the beginning of a serious decline in political fortunes. It demonstrated, one can argue, the important role that Wimal Weerawansa played in the party’s resurgence after the annihilation of the late eighties. In more recent times, the party suffered a more serious split which had a significant impact on its revolutionary credentials. The party’s radicals broke ranks and formed the Frontline Socialist Party, led by Kumar Gunaratnam, younger brother of the much-loved student leader Ranjithan (captured, tortured and assassinated sometime in late 1989).

The JVP, led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake, has done better than the FSP in elections thereafter, but the split also saw the former losing considerable ground in the universities, the traditional homelands of recruitment if you will. The spark went out as well. There’s palpable blandness in the affairs of the party. At the last general election the JVP could secure just 3% of the vote.

The JVP is old. Too old to call itself the ‘New Left’ (by comparing itself with the LSSP and CP). The FSP is ‘new’ but it poses as the ‘real JVP’ and as such is as old. There’s nothing fresh in their politics or the ideological positions they’ve taken. In fact one might even argue that now there’s no left in the country. It doesn’t mean everyone is in the right either. There’s ideological confusion or, as some might argue, ideology is no longer a factor in Sri Lankan politics. It’s just about power for the sake of power. That’s not new either, but in the past ideological pretension was apparent whereas now politics is more or less ideology-free. Of course this means that a largely exploitative system and those in advantageous positions within it are the default beneficiaries.

Can the JVP reinvent itself? I would say, unlikely. There’s a name. It’s a brand. It’s off-color. It is politically resolved to align with this or that party as dictated by the personal/political needs of the party’s leadership. Wijeweera’s son Uvindu is planning to jump-start the party with a new political formation, but adding ‘Nava’ (new) doesn’t make for the shaving off of decades. Neither does it erase history. Its potential though remains to be assessed. Maybe a decade or two from now.

So, after 50 years, are we to say ‘we had our first taste of revolution or rather pretend-revolution and that’s it’? The future can unfold in many ways. A half a century is nothing in the history of the world. It’s still nothing in the history of humankind. Systems collapse. Individuals and parties seemingly indestructible, self-destruct or are shoved aside by forces they unwittingly unleash or in accordance with the evolution of all relevant political, economic, social, cultural and ecological factors.
People make their history, but not always in the circumstances of their choice. The JVP is part of history. They were in part creatures of circumstances and in part they altered circumstances. Left a mark but not exactly something that makes for heroic ballads. Time has passed. Economic factors have changed. Politics is different. This is a different century and a different country from ‘Ceylon’ and the JVP of 1971.

The JVP is not a Marxist party and some may argue it never was, but Marx would say that a penchant for drawing inspiration from the past is not the way to go. One tends to borrow slogan and not substance that way. April 4, 1971. It came to pass. It was followed by April 5. The year was followed by 1972. Forty nine years have passed. A lot of water has flowed under the political bridge. Good to talk about on anniversary days so to speak. That’s about it though.


[Malinda Seneviratne is the Director/CEO of the Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute. These are his personal views.]

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Political nostalgia in the land of forgetting



Anxieties about the present, psychologists and social scientists have long ascertained, lead to a fixation with the past. A nostalgic yearning for how things used to be is hence one way through which our minds, even our bodies, put up with what they are today: a defence mechanism, in its simplest sense, to cordon us from the past.

When we channel the past, we prefer to black out what was considered bad then. This is so that we can procure from it a favourable comparison with the present. Hence, for instance, in the aftermath of Vietnam, with Watergate pummelling public confidence in the government, Americans turned to the memory of the Kennedy years. Donald Trump triggered a somewhat similar response: at the peak (or nadir) of his presidency, it wasn’t unusual for commentators, even liberals, to contrast it unfavourably with the Bush II years. The perceived failures of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa regime have similarly led the economist, the political commentator, and the Average Joe to reflect warmly on the yahapalana years.

In societies where memory fades over shorter time frames, nostalgia tends to play a major part in reviving disgraced oppositions and defeated strongmen. Thus the UNP, which suffered inexorable declines in 1960, 1970, and 1994, managed to rebound and return five or so years later; thus Mahinda Rajapaksa won by the thinnest of margins from any election he contested in 2005, despite popular perceptions of his opponent as a terrorism appeaser; thus in 2015 his party lost crucial divisions in the western and the southern province to a candidate who had emerged, from a united oppositional front, barely three months before the election; thus four years later, having reorganised itself, it won those very same divisions by margins wider than what its opponents had obtained at that earlier election.

What explains these reversals of fortune and misfortunes? The reason is the absence of ideology among mainstream parties. Why do I say this? In 1962, Daniel Bell predicted in The End of Ideology that with the dissipation of mainstream political creeds, more parochial sects would emerge, making the old divisions between the left and right irrelevant at best, archaic at worst. Bell may have been wrong in his predictions about the fading away of left vs right polemics, but he was correct in his view that these would be displaced by bigger debates. Bell was also wrong in his assessment that this displacement would occur in the liberal West; au contraire, it was in the peripheral countries of the South where the marginalisation of left-vs-right political debates eventually transpired, with much more vigour.

It’s important to understand why such a phenomenon transpired in the first place. Bell’s belief in the end of ideology was moulded by the post-war experience of Western European societies, where policymakers and bureaucrats believed they had struck a balance between equity and growth. For them, the disappearance of traditional ideological patterns followed from the so-called post-war consensus, in which market-led growth cohered with a dirigiste state. The 1960s, with its unyielding faith in managed capitalism – “We are all Keynesians now,” Nixon famously declared – thus appeared to have the best of it both: private affluence without public squalor. Barely a decade later, after the oil crisis and the abandonment of the gold reserve, however, we stopped being Keynesians: eight years of rising inflation and staggering unemployment later, we became monetarists.

On the face of it, Thatcherism and Reaganism signalled the end of old left/right divisions throughout the West, and the simultaneous rise of a new right. In the non-West, on the other hand, the old divisions did fade away, but not at once to a new right. Neoliberalism proper did not make waves in these societies until after the end of the cold war. Even those countries that enacted market reforms failed to oversee their Reaganite revolutions. Transplanted in the tropics, these reforms did not so much lead to an assault on the state as it did a widening of its powers. They generated a horde of contradictions: each dovetailing with the other, all of them at odds with the utopian outcomes predicted by World Bank-IMF technocrats.

In Sri Lanka, these contradictions led simultaneously if not concurrently to the expansion of the state, the slicing of the Left, and the emergence of a donor funded NGO-cracy. The one both led to and followed from the other: the annihilation of the Left yielded place to new civil society formations, which in turn facilitated an exodus to the latter of a great many activists and intellectuals associated until then with the Left. Unlike in other parts of Afro-Asia where neoliberal reforms squeezed the middle-class out of existence, moreover, in Sri Lanka those reforms served to empower a new middle bourgeoisie, more consumerist and less receptive to the Left. The ruptures and schisms of the Jayewardene years both entrenched them – hence their vote for continuity over a reversion to a pre-1977 status quo in 1989 – and turned them to ideologies cut off from mainstream politics. All these factors contributed to the emergence of a new political discourse, mediated less by the old distinctions between left and right than by new divisions between pluralist and exclusivist political polarities.

All politics since 1977 and 1983 – the liberalisation of the economy and the polarisation of the polity – has come to rest on these divisions. In 1989, the debate was resolved in favour of a populist Bonapartist, who sought to achieve equity with growth. In 1994, the murder of that populist led to the election of an ostensibly centrist, but in reality centre-right and neoliberal, candidate from what used to be the country’s foremost centre-left political party. Cut down in size, forced to capitulate, the SLFP under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga finished off what J. R. Jayewardene had begun and his successor had stalled, namely the liberalisation of the public sphere (and not just sector). This generated an exfoliating morass of contradictions which deepened the rifts that the Jayewardene regime had facilitated; these rifts entrenched both liberal and tribalist ideologues, leading the electorate to vote for the neoliberal UNP in 2001 while ceding political space to the nationalist Sihala Urumaya.

The cycle of memory and forgetting so inherent to politics over here has fed into a never-ending oscillation between exclusivist and pluralist polarities; from neoliberal peaceniks (the UNP, 2000-2004) to populist Bonapartists (the UPFA, 2005-2015) to neoliberal globalisers and liberalisers (the UNP, 2015-2019) to centre-right Bonapartists (the SLPP, 2019 onwards), we seem to be closing in on a maelstrom. If the second half of the 1970s heralded the end of ideology in the Global South, with the demise of the so-called Old Left, and if 1977 marked its end in Sri Lanka, the post-Cold War conjuncture continues to facilitate the rise of various totalising narratives to the exclusion of old political divisions, patterns, and trajectories. “We have to forget class in politics,” a popular political scientist, once affiliated with the Left, but now allied with a post-Marxist outfit, declared at a webinar recently. I disagree with him, yet this process appears to be unfolding across the spectrum: not just class politics, but politics itself, seems to have been thrown out of the window.

It’s easy to understand what’s taking place here. Split between left and right, politics used to be about issues, people, things: the price of rice and the weight of bread. These were primary concerns in an economy which had still not made a leap from agriculture to industry. In such societies, polarisation along lines other than Left versus Right has tended to push mainstream parties, across the political spectrum, to more peripheral concerns. This usually follows from, or accompanies, the replacement within civil society of vital economic and political issues by peripheral concerns: I call the latter micro-politics and single issues.

Now a failure to resolve primary concerns has lead parties to embrace these single issues, and to canvass as many votes as they can based on them. In Sri Lanka, accordingly, mainstream politics has come down to a trade-off between security and democracy. The latter used to be associated with the UNP, and the former with the SLFP/SLPP, but with the advent of the SJB and the electoral shrinkage of the UNP, government and opposition are effectively struggling to outdo each other over security matters; the SJB’s approach to the Geneva resolution and its handling of the all too tenuous issue of devolution shows that clearly. Whether or not such volte-faces bode well for the future, of course, one cannot really say.

Our collective memories are short: we forget, sometimes in an instant. It is easy for parties to make use of such a culture of forgetting, to play on nostalgia, to present the past as some sort of arcadia to which we must return. But the past is prologue, and nostalgia is neither here nor there. Our aim should instead be, not a politics of one polarity against another polarity, but a politics of democracy plus sovereignty. To that end, we must stop considering democracy and sovereignty as opposites, and focus on mobilising every class in pursuit of issues that matter, and have the potential of unifying everyone from everywhere.

In Sri Lanka, the foremost issue is, as it always has been, the agrarian question, the leap from agriculture to industry. Since 1977, we have failed to make that leap. That is our real national tragedy, and in ignoring and side-stepping it, we have managed to perpetuate it.

It is time parties across the divide realised this without engaging in polemics that have failed to get us anywhere: polemics based on polarities, oscillating from neoliberal globalisation to neoconservative nationalism. We remain stuck in a rut, in a never-ending cycle. To exit the cycle, we must exit these polarities. Yet parties across the divide seem content being where they are. That cannot be the case, and for our sake, it cannot be allowed to continue.

The writer can be reached at



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Explained: Peak of India’s Covid-19 second wave in sight, but end may still be far away



After the April surge, the daily count of new cases has dropped in the last one week. Several other factors indicate that the peak is approaching. But the end of the second wave is expected to be a slow process.

All indications from the coronavirus numbers in India in the last two weeks suggest that the second wave of infections may already have reached a peak, or will peak in the next few days. The end of the second wave may still be a long distance away, though.

After reaching a high of 4.14 lakh last Thursday, the daily count of cases has dropped significantly in the last one week. This is not happening for the first time, though. After crossing the four-lakh mark for the first time on April 30, the case count had gone down for a few days, before jumping again. But the new thing is that the seven-day average of the case count, which adjusts for daily fluctuations, has begun to decline for the first time during the second wave. The seven-day average peaked at 3.91 lakh on May 8, and has begun to decline after that. On Wednesday, this average had slipped to 3.75 lakh.

A five-day decline in the average case count may not be a strong enough indicator in itself to establish a trend, but there also are other signals that are pointing in the same direction.

Decline in surge states

Maharashtra, which at one point was contributing more than 60% of daily cases, certainly seems to be in a declining phase now. It’s been more than three weeks now since the state reported its single-day highest case count of 68,631. After hovering in the 60,000s and 50,000s for two weeks, the state’s daily case count has dropped to the 40,000s now.

The decline in Maharashtra is likely to have the biggest impact on the national curve. For a few days, an unexpected jump in the cases reported by Karnataka and Kerala more than compensated for the decline in Maharashtra, but the chances of these two states sustaining their threat over a long period is showing signs of waning. The continued decline in Maharashtra could make Karnataka and Kerala the highest contributors of cases, but it appears unlikely now that either of them would contribute as many Maharashtra has done.

The biggest glimmer of hope is coming from Uttar Pradesh. The state has the potential to report even more cases than Maharashtra. And at one time, Uttar Pradesh indeed seemed headed in that direction when its daily case count rapidly progressed to 35,000 at the end of April. However, for more than one week, now, the state’s daily tally has remained well below 30,000, and is showing signs of declining.

Like Maharashtra, Delhi too seems to have reached a peak, and appears to be in a declining phase. The city-state had been reporting cases in the high 20,000s for some time, but this has now dropped to less than 12,000 a day.

The decline in Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and also Chhattisgarh, is not being compensated by any major rise in other states, though Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal could give anxious moments. The case count in Tamil Nadu has crossed 30,000 while Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have breached the 20,000 mark. All these states are in the ascendant phase right now.

Active cases

For the first time in two months, the number of active cases saw a drop this Monday and Tuesday. Until the end of April, the active cases were rising by almost a lakh every day. Through May, this daily increase has been reduced substantially. In the last few days, the active cases have increased by less than 10,000 a day.

A large part of this has to do with the fact that the number of daily recoveries has now caught up with the daily case count. The recoveries tail the case count by two weeks.

Now that the daily case count has remained more or less stable for the last two weeks, the number of recoveries has reached the same level as the case count. The runaway increase in active cases has been halted.

Current trends indicate that active cases could peak well under the 40-lakh mark. As of Wednesday, there were 37.1 lakh active cases in the country.


Positivity rate

The defining characteristic of the second wave was the high positivity rate. Out of those being tested, many more people were turning out to be positive as compared to the first wave. India’s overall positivity rate remained between 5% and 6% during the first wave, although there were small phases where it rose to more than 12 per cent. In the second phase, however, the positivity rate has exceeded 20%. In some states, it even went past 40%.

Positivity rate is a measure of the disease prevalence in the population. If a very large number of people are infected, many more would be detected positive when tested.

(The Indian Express)

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Champika’s challenge



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

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