As it stands, the Opposition under Sajith Premadasa has three routes to take, or to be more specific, left to take. Without considering all the cards on the table and deciding what card it should deal with, it cannot and will not go forward. Simply put, there is nothing to talk about if the SJB doesn’t evolve a consensus on tactics and strategies.
Unfortunately, for reasons that are only too obvious, the regime seems to be losing as much legitimacy as the Opposition. People have given up, or seem to have given up, because they don’t see the government being constructively engaged. If Premadasa is serious about upping the ante, he has to correct course, engage, and confront better.
The first option the SJB has is to unite under Mr Premadasa. This is the simplest option, yet also the most effective. The SJB’s biggest strength is the SJB. From a strategic perspective, it has the arsenal and the ammunition. It has several figureheads from the yahapalana regime who are not tainted as most of those in the UNP are. While it won a fraction of the votes the present government did last August, it did come out as a viable opposition. To pose the kind of challenge to Mr Rajapaksa’s regime it managed to do last year was not easy, but that it did speaks a lot about its credentials. The SJB is the only option those against the regime have at present. To claim it as the other side of that regime’s coin, then, is plainly absurd.
The second option is to bring the parent party, the UNP, back. Those in support of this view Mr Premadasa as a weak opposition leader. They claim that he has not stuck to the job well enough and has failed in his task. While they offer no proof of how he has floundered, they claim that Ranil Wickremesinghe is more suitable for the post than Mr Premadasa.
To put it simply, these critics of the SJB view the present batch of parliamentarians with so much disfavour that they see Mr Wickremesinghe as a superior candidate: cleaner, smarter, sharper. This is of course an oversold claim, especially when considering that Mr Premadasa was among the few names not mentioned in connection with the Bond Scandal, but as I have noted before, Sri Lanka’s middle-class prefer a neoconservative or a neo-liberal in office, and they have, rather tragically, not yet come to terms with Mr Premadasa.
The third option is to retreat from parliament entirely and partner up with an amorphous and ambivalent radical centre. A section of Sri Lanka’s middle-class, including left-liberal artists and activists, have emphasised again and again their dissatisfaction with the establishment, recommending an alternative platform outside the system. In the absence of such outfits, they have gathered around Mangala Samaraweera’s Radical Centre.
The Radical Center does not pretend to be or to operate as a party; it is an activist group, and as with all such groups, it works with ideals, not action plans. That those in it accuse those in the opposition of not having action plans is rather strange, but the truth of the matter is that they have attracted the disaffected from Sri Lanka’s anti-political stratum of intellectuals and activists. Hence, insofar as they constitute or resemble a political association, they oppose not just governments and oppositions, but the idea of politics itself.
The legion of radical centrists spreads far and wide, and is hardly an isolated phenomenon. Those who believe it has no influence are deluding themselves: Mangala Samaraweera was the Foreign Minister in the yahapalana regime, later serving as its Finance Minister. Most of his pronouncements are on foreign policy and the economy. These pronouncements may be wrong, as they often are, but the expertise and experience underlying them cannot be denied. The Opposition cannot wish them away; it must confront them.
Thus, if the SJB is to counter any negative publicity from his outfit, it must listen to what Mr Samaraweera has to say on these matters and consider how to react to his comments. To start things off, they must note that Mr Samaraweera has got it wrong on three fronts: his assertion that all politics is to blame for the crisis in Sri Lanka, his conflation of narrow racism with “a socialist mindset”, and his suggestion that the SJB is no different to the government.
Sri Lanka’s liberals have, for the most, never been able to distinguish between different kinds of political formations. This is why they regard Sinhala nationalism as a devil to be harnessed in much the same way ultranationalists regard human rights and multiculturalism as devils to be harnessed. They make two mistakes here: pitting nationalist politics against liberal democracy, and assuming liberal democracy is the only form of democracy at the table.
All other wrong assumptions follow from these two mistakes. Thus, having equated nationalism with anti-democracy, they equate nationalism with socialism, and place the two on a vaguely defined continuum. Since all politics in Sri Lanka have caved into populism or socialism in some form, and at some stage, this cohorts translate their opposition to populist and socialist politics into a total opposition to politics: given that most of us are nationalists or socialists in their books, they conclude that there must be something rotten with all politicians, not just the government. Ergo, supporting them is untenable; ergo, we need a radical centre.
What is grievously wrong with this view of things is not that it pits the good against the bad guys à la Cowboys versus Indians. If all it did was to divide “us” from “them” ideologically, even politically, there wouldn’t have been a problem. Rather, what is wrong with their vision is that they assume what’s good for them is good for the country.
This explains why their notion of liberalism is superficially progressive, yet quintessentially fundamentalist: they support individual rights, independence of the judiciary, and separation of powers, but are silent and ambivalent on socio-economic matters, i.e. matters that concern the populace at large. Indeed, insofar as they hold any view on the latter at all, they project a right wing, libertarian stance, opposed not to authoritarian states, but to interventionist states. Having confused “government” with “authoritarianism”, they seek to reduce it politically and eliminate it economically, giving pride of place to the market.
The inescapable conclusion here is that most of our liberals are, in reality, classical liberals. They view the government with disfavour and imply that its presence is reason enough for its speedy elimination. Advocating market reforms as a panacea for the problems of the country, they have become as rigid in their outlook as their nationalist opponents. That explains, inter alia, their rather strange opposition to incorporating ESC rights in the constitution.
Economics has never been a strong point with Sri Lanka’s deracinated activists: they oppose infringements of individual rights, yet prefer the market to the government and disparage any party or alliance that recommends an alternative to the current economic system. They fail to understand that even in the capitals of the West, liberals haven’t opposed interventions by the state when such intervention was considered necessary, be it in the interests of sovereignty or security. They fail to understand that liberal as economists in these countries may be, many of them, including Krugman and Stiglitz, have emphasised the need for intervention in times of crisis. The irony is that our liberals charge their nationalist opponents of being out of step and outdated, yet the latter accusation can just as validly be applied to them.
Let me explain. If Sinhala ultra-nationalists are stuck in 2009, somewhere in Nandikadal, Sri Lanka’s (classical) liberals are stuck in 1973, somewhere in Santiago. This explains their fascination with Ricardo Hausmann and their marginalisation of Joseph Stiglitz; they prefer free market fundamentalists to their more pragmatic counterparts. Whatever the reason there may be for this state of affairs, our liberals remain trapped in a rabbit hole: they believe in a liberalism even the liberal West has seen fit to abandon. Clearly, being out of touch with the times is far from the exclusive preserve of nationalists, socialists, and populists.
Sri Lanka’s pro-market right is occupied and manned by a strange mishmash of activists, artists, and economists, most of whom vacillate between condemning the idea of the state and advocating a free market fundamentalism scarcely different from the fundamentalism of their nationalist opponents. It tells us a lot about the depths academic standards have been lowered to that Sri Lanka’s nationalist and liberal circles remain intellectually obdurate and politically untenable. Whatever route Mr Premadasa and the SJB take, then, they must avoid a joining of hands with intellectuals, activists, and ex-parliamentarians whose claims about the polity are as simplistic as the claims made by their opponents. The SJB must evolve a consensus on its political ideology, articulate and debate it publicly, and set itself up as a strong opposition. To aim at self-righteous rhetoric now would be to achieve precious little later.
Note: Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz are both Nobel Prize recipients. You’d think our liberals and neoliberals had better sense in their choice of economic consultants.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com.
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