Connect with us

Politics

The rights we want

Published

on

by Uditha Devapriya

Among Sri Lanka’s largely idealistic middle-class, there is an almost foolishly optimistic belief in the necessity of political reforms for much desired change. These reforms are, more often than not, framed in terms of constitutional rights, duties, checks, and balances. This is the rhetoric of term limits, small government, and separation of powers; the idea that a country’s State will function best if its powers are clipped. Once its powers are reduced, so the logic goes, people will be able to do as they want, liberated from the constraints of authoritarian bureaucracies.

From the neoliberal right to the liberal left, these ideas have caught on everywhere, to the extent of dominating policy discussions in the country. That is what unifies the JVP and the UNP in their call for the abolition of the presidential system: the notion that the problems of the country are attributable to the flaws of its Constitution.

The SJB remains divided over these issues: hence while one section of the party allied with the UNP yahapalana project rigidly hold on to these ideas, another section has become more flexible. That explains Bandula Chandrasekara’s and Anuruddha Karnasuriya’s responses to Victor Ivan over Champika Ranawaka’s position on the Executive Presidency. As their replies make clear, far from viewing it as an aberration to be abolished, the Ranawaka faction sees the presidential system as indispensable to the country’s sovereignty.

The notion that the government presents more problems than solutions to a reformist agenda rests on the classic division, made by liberal commentators, between political and civil society: a largely imagined construct traceable to no earlier than 17th century Europe. This division followed from the dissolution of feudal society into capitalist society, a process completed between the 16th and the 19th centuries. Political philosophers, from that period, drew a line between the State and the Citizen, cordoning off the one from the other. It is this phenomenon that Marx examined in his reflections “On the Jewish Question.”

For Marx, there was nothing intrinsically non-political about the feudal order: “the character of the old civil society was directly political”. The transition to capitalism signified a rupture in this order, emancipating the citizen from the government and reducing his situation in life “to a merely individual significance.” The new society made the citizen the “precondition” of the State, endowing him with certain rights separating him from the latter.

These rights were defined in terms of a freedom to do something rather than actual political emancipation. Thus, in the new State, “man was not freed from religion, he received religious freedom… [h]e was not freed from property, he received freedom to own property.” It was more or less the gospel of 17th century English liberalism; the philosophy of man at his most egotistic, or what C. B. Macpherson labelled as “possessive individualism.”

What we need to note here is that the distinction between negative and positive rights first emerged from these debates. Distinguishing between these is rather like splitting hairs, but the difference between them has to do with their aims: hence while negative rights prevent others from interfering with your freedom to do something, positive rights recognise a wider role for the government to play in addressing the needs of the marginalised. Neoliberals and even certain left-liberals belong to the former category: those who believe the State’s role is that of a Night-Watchman who sets the rules without playing the game.

Such competing conceptions of rights and freedoms survived the 19th century. In the wake of the Second World War, multilateral institutions began recognising the need to go beyond a negative definition of these ideals. Thus the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, in Article 25, lists down a number of economic necessities such as “food, clothing, housing, and medical care” it deems everyone has a right to. That it left the implementation of these rights to individual States without specifying the manner of implementation did not take away from the point that they were now regarded as a part of the new world order.

These provisions served as the basis for the two most important conventions on economic, social, and cultural (ESC) rights to be enacted in the post-war conjuncture, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (both 1966). The Stockholm Declaration of 1972 and the Rio Declaration of 1992 reflected and consolidated these developments, with an important intervention by the Czech jurist Karel Vasek (“three generations of human rights”) confirming the view that contemporary human rights exist beyond mere civil and political principles.

Yet debates between these two schools of thought continue to rage, even in Sri Lanka. Thus advocates of negative rights, who dominated economic discussions in the previous regime, bemoan attempts by human rights groups to constitutionalize ESC rights, comparing activists to collectivists no different from the most unrepentant Stalinist. Their websites and blogs put down every progressive personality, from Roosevelt to Raúl Prebisch, while promoting what Dayan Jayatilleka with characteristic élan calls “antediluvian rightwing thinkers.”

The peak, or nadir, of these put-downs came out in a recent opinion piece that compared economists critical of neoclassical economic theories and assumptions to harbingers of the plague. Reading such screeds, one can’t help but recall the kind of hysteria which dominated economic thinking during the Kotelawala prime ministry, in particular the oblique references to Communists in the Central Bank by editorials and the almost McCarthyist hounding of the likes of S. B. D. de Silva (who later left the Bank) and Rhoda Miller de Silva (who left the country, or rather was forced to) by the then government. It goes without saying that, as Dr Jayatilleka aptly observes, such thinking would find a home in rightwing regimes across Latin America, rather than in Asia’s oldest democracy.

Sri Lanka’s neoliberals are by no means alone in making hysterically crass generalisations: in its criticism of human rights treaties, for instance, the Heritage Foundation compared moves towards legalising economic rights to no less than “the 75-year communist experiment.” If a brief perusal of policy documents and political columns reveals anything, it’s the Sri Lankan neoliberal right’s barely disguised contempt for anyone who advocates a conception of rights that, as James Peck puts it, “has less to do with individual freedom and more to do with basic freedoms.” And yet, to support the latter is not to be a Communist, even less a “Stalinist”: a point yet to be appreciated by Colombo’s neoliberal economic circles.

The hysteria that determines the thinking of the latter does very little credit to their claim of knowing how to solve Sri Lanka’s economic problems. What characterises their thinking is an almost unyielding belief in 17th century European liberalism; they accept, at face-value, what political philosophers from that era are supposed to have said on various matters. That their opinion pieces are liberally littered with references to these philosophers indicates what they believe to be the way forward for Sri Lanka. But in assuming that their preferred way forward is the only path ahead for us, they sidestep two important points.

The first is the very flawed assumption that what held true for 17th century Europe will hold true for the present conjuncture. Of course the argument can be made that these notions of economic and political freedom can be adapted to any context. But then we face the second problem, one identified less by “home-grown” nationalist thinkers than by Western political theorists (to mention three: C. B. Macpherson, Domenico Losurdo, and Charles Mills): that the political system these philosophers supported, in their day, rested on institutions which are out of date and out of place today: to name just one, slavery.

Indeed, far from failing to see a contradiction between their support of liberal ideals and the realities of slavery, they passionately defended the latter and actively took part in the slave trade. Their political system, in other words, provided the foundation for their liberal ideals, even if they drew a fine enough line between political and civil society.

As Shiran Illanperuma has observed well in a series of columns recently, moreover, English liberal philosophers made their pronouncements on free enterprise and free trade, among other abstractions valorised by defenders of negative rights today, at a time when Britain was imposing un-free and unequal trade on the rest of the (mostly colonised) world. This is what Ha-Joon Chang has outlined in his work on economic history as well, most importantly the role played by tariffs – a monstrous aberration, in the books of free market advocates – in Britain’s and later the US’s rise as an industrial power.

The conclusion we can reach from these points is inescapable: that for development to occur in these parts of the world, we need to adopt a fundamentally radical conception of rights and freedoms. What Sri Lanka needs now is not a new Constitution. What it needs now is a radical reset. It needs to acknowledge that the country’s problems are not so simple as to be resolved with a piece of paper. We have gone down that path, many times.

Neoliberals and even left-liberals are only half-right in their argument that corruption has prevented development: the real question is not who engages in corruption, but who funds the corrupt. To ask that is to realise that there is no fine line between politics and economics, that Sri Lanka’s political issues are also economic, and that we will go nowhere if we do not cede more rights to its most marginalised communities.

The State has a considerable role to play, contrary to what the neoliberal and left-liberal caucus believes, in ensuring a level playing field for everyone. The solution is not to restrict access to political power, as some would suggest, but to broaden access to as many fields as possible. We need to talk more about labour rights, affirmative action, and land reforms, and less about abstract generalisations that do very little for marginalised groups. Perhaps a good starting point would be something as simple as better bus services for villages.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Champika Ranawaka accuses ‘political underworld’ of thriving on narcotics

Published

on

Patali Champika Ranawaka

Lurking danger from trained soldiers in want

by Saman Indrajith

United Republican Front leader, Patali Champika Ranawaka, MP, says that Sri Lanka faces the danger of becoming a ‘narco-state’ if immediate action is not taken to stop the growth of what he describes as the ‘political underworld.’

“There is a political underworld operating in this country in addition to the goon-run social underworld we are all aware of. This political underworld thrives on its nexus with drug cartels. It must be eliminated without further delay; otherwise, we will all suffer under a narco-state,” Ranawaka said during an interview with the Sunday Island on Thursday.

He said that there were around 100,000 ex-servicemen with arms training now in society facing financial problems. “There are also 10,000 to 15,000 ex-LTTE cadres. They could be lured easily into criminal activity because of their financial problems.

“On the other side, owing to the uncertainty and social unrest caused by the economic crisis, the youth are frustrated. They are easy prey for narcotic dealers, and this could be seen in the proliferation of synthetic drugs such as ICE among young people.

“Our geographical location between Afghanistan and the Golden Triangle of Cambodia-Thailand is ideal for this country to become a drug trading hub. With this conducive situation, we are facing the danger of becoming a narco-state soon. After that, to get rid of the grip of narco-lords will not be easy because with their drug money, they could buy political space, media space, religious space, and almost everything. We must get rid of the political underworld handled by a few new rich who have politicians in their p0ckets. Otherwise, we will all suffer in the clutches of drug lords,” Ranawaka said.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What are your comment on the present debates and concerns about holding an election this year? Some parties have already commenced their campaigns while others suggest a postponement. Certain political leaders claim that the president has the authority to delay elections. Do you think he has such powers?

A:No, that can’t be done. There are varied arguments. Due to various amendments introduced to the Constitution, some articles state that a president’s term is six years, while others say that if a president were to continue without an election, it must be approved by the people at a referendum. Many have taken bits and pieces of of these articles and interpreting them to suit themselves.

We must keep in mind that the Constitution is not interpreted solely based on the wording of articles but also according to judicial decisions that have already interpreted them regarding the term of a president. The intention of the amendment introduced during Maithripala Sirisena’s tenure was to reduce the term of a president from six to five years. There was a supreme court decision on the presidential when Chandrika Kumaratunga argued that she had six years in office until 2006 because she took oaths in 2000.

Article three of the constitution vests sovereign power in the people. We have two SC decisions on the presidential term – when Sirisena reduced the term of office from six to five years and when Kumaratunga tried to extend her term from 2005 to 2006 arguing that she had six years. The substance of these two decisions was that sovereignty of the people would be affected if any action deprived them of their right to elections. On such occasions, the government in power could remedy this by holding a referendum.

Drawing on these precedents, some argue that if Sirisena could change the term from six to five years by using a two-thirds majority in parliament, the same two-thirds could be used to extend the term of the incumbent president.

However, when we consider the judicial determinations and the people’s sovereignty article, the president cannot continue even one day beyond Oct 17 without obtaining the approval of the people in a referendum. There are no loopholes in these provisions. This matter can be referred to the SC to get a fresh interpretation.

If someone tries to continue without elections, it will result in a crisis. We saw the backlash of opposition and anger from people when UNP General Secretary Range Bandara opined that we should continue without elections. People need an election. The president and the government elected in 2019 and 2020 lost the confidence of the people in 2022 and were forced to step down.

That was not the result of a democratic election but a public uprising, direct action. It could be considered an occasion where people exercised their right to recall. So, we must accept that people need their democratic right to elect their rulers. That should not be obstructed because it would certainly lead to another uprising of the people.

Q: There is much talk of reforming the prevailing political culture. You have also made similar statements in and out of parliament. Everyone abhors the political culture that has prevailed over the past few decades. All parties have spoken of reforms. However, it seems that the very same politicians are preparing to continue under different party names and alliances. Where do you stand on this?

A:This is easier said than done. My party believes that the practical aspects of these reforms are not easy. You cannot bring about such changes overnight. Firstly, we are living in a bankrupt country. There is no magic wand to change this. At the same time, if we are pushed back to a situation of 14-hour power cuts, miles long petrol and gas queues, people will not tolerate it. They might put up with such a situation for a day or two, or at most a week, but they will not wait for months. They also have the experience of direct public action, where a president had to flee for his life. Therefore, we need a practical program to address this.

An argument is presented that President Ranil Wickremesinghe has resolved the crisis. If we look at it from one angle, it is true because we no longer see queues for gas or fuel, there are no power cuts, we have medicine in hospitals, and farmers have fertilizers. So, on the surface, there are no visible problems.

However, there have been price hikes – the price of a single unit of electricity has shot up from Rs 12 to 46, food prices have tripled, medicine prices have increased four to five times, fertilizer prices have gone up by seven to eight times, and the price of a kilo of rice has increased from Rs 80 to Rs 250.

When we consider this, it is evident that the weight of the economic crisis has been shifted to the shoulders of the people who have done nothing to create this crisis other than voting for the incumbent rulers.

The weight is not on the capitalist class but on the labor class.

You see the same thing in the economic restructuring process. The weight is not shifted to private investors who invested in banks but to the people. The burden of treasury bills and bonds was placed on the Central Bank – that means it’s on the people. Governor Nandalal Weerasinghe is not going to absorb that weight; it will be transferred to the people.

This manifests as an increase in taxes. As a result of reliefs and tax amnesties given by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the country’s tax revenue dropped by seven to eight percent. The plan now is to increase this up to 15 percent. It is the people who are going to shoulder this burden.

VAT is imposed on all essential items, petrol, diesel, electricity, coal, sugar, flour, dhal etc., but at the same time, tax reliefs are given to businessmen. These reliefs amount to Rs 978 billion, according to the finance ministry’s tax expenditure statements.

BOI investors have been given reliefs in income tax, turnover tax, VAT, and customs duties. In the meantime, we have not collected taxes amounting to Rs 1,200 billion. Without collecting due tax revenue, the government imposes taxes on essential items such as sugar.

When a country faces a situation like this, economic solutions are proffered. It is like drinking kottamalli or swallowing Panadol when we get a common cold. For example, when there is an increase in commodity prices, meaning an increase in inflation, it means there is more money than goods and services available.

Economists will advise collecting the excess money through taxes and to stop printing money. These solutions are not magical. Argentina had a crisis more serious than ours. Their inflation was around 300 to 400 percent. Javier Milei, who is an economist, became the president and brought down that inflation to 15 percent within 100 days. That change could be identified as the smart work of Milei. Could we say the same regarding the situation here? Is this owing to some sort of talent of Ranil Wickremesinghe? His party men would say so.

The IMF offers formulae to countries to recover from crises. Such a formula helped Milei become the President in Argentina, Shahbaz Sharif to become the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and Ranil Wickremesinghe to become President of Sri Lanka. The IMF has now directed streamlining tax collection and to stop giving tax reliefs.

They also want to introduce professional administration to public institutions such as People’s Bank, Bank of Ceylon, National Savings Bank, Ceylon Electricity Board, Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, and the Water Board. Some countries do not follow the IMF prescriptions in toto but only do what they need to do.

We must not be hypocrites and must admit that Ranil Wickremesinghe has brought stability to the country and some industries. For example, the Petroleum Corporation that had been run down by Gotabaya, Cabraal, Gammanpila and Basil Rajapaksa. If they had acted wisely, they too could have brought about that stability.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, with the help of Sarath Amunugama handled the situation in 2008 while we were fighting a war. Ranil Wickremesinghe understands this crisis. He faced similar situations in 2002 and 2016. So, he acted with his experience. Other than that, there is no magic in this recovery. This very same stability could have been achieved by other means too.

Q: Are there alternatives to bring about stability without imposing taxes on people?

A:Yes. For example, look at what Shahbaz Sharif did in Pakistan. He froze the bank accounts of tax defaulters and their properties. He even went as far as suspending their SIM cards. We could have done the same and begun the cleaning process with tax defaulters in the cabinet. We could have taken similar action against liquor producers.

We have been repeatedly asking for the names of those who defaulted on their loans and taxes, but it has not been provided. We also called for the names of those who benefited from tax reliefs, but that also has not been given. We also called for the digitization of the tax process so that everyone can see where taxes are collected and where exemptions are given.

Q: You’re talking about digitizing reforms that are needed to streamline administration. But we live in a country where we can’t even pay a traffic fine using our debit cards. What’s holding us back from these reforms?

A:The first of these is opposition from institutions against change. The Customs is the prime example. Consider a scenario where an individual is caught smuggling a prohibited item. According to the general rule, the perpetrator should be fined three times the value of the items brought in. However, a recent audit report revealed that only six percent of such fines have been collected. Out of this six percent, four percent is allocated to Customs as rewards. This negligence has resulted in the loss of billions of rupees for the country.

This could be resolved. We could enable the police to charge fines using a QR code. Didn’t we use QR codes to purchase fuel several months ago? It’s feasible. All we need is political will. Unfortunately, that’s something we lack even in the face of such crises. Our leaders worry about winning or losing votes whenever they implement reforms. We should learn from India. When Modi became Prime Minister, he implemented demonetization without worrying about potential electoral losses. When people realized the benefits, they re-elected him.

In Sri Lanka, what we often see is blame-shifting, with accusations of theft against one another. However, these accusations are merely aimed at appeasing the public. Corruption has pervaded society like a giant octopus, and we’ve all become victims. It operates in a vicious cycle, with many opposing efforts to eradicate it.

We need political will for change. Mere speeches and promises to capture thieves and recover stolen money won’t suffice. What we need is a practical plan and reforms. Under the existing system, it takes around two years to file a case and another 10-15 for the hearing. Justice cannot be expected from such a system.

Q: Last week, there were reports indicating that you met with Basil Rajapaksa to discuss a political alliance. Could you elaborate?

A: There was no such occurrence. Those reports were false. There will be no alliance with them. On February 14 this year, when we unveiled our manifesto, ‘A United Step for the Country,’ we clearly stated that anyone willing to accept it could join us, while categorically asserting that we would not align ourselves with those who bankrupted this country.

However, we refuse to form alliances with anyone responsible for ruining our nation. We have not engaged in any political discussions with those who have bankrupted our country. These reports are part of a campaign aimed at targeting me. They are perturbed by our recent progress; hence, they deploy their social media to spread such falsehoods. Another reason for the spread of these lies against me was my standing up against the VFS Global visa scam.

Continue Reading

Features

HOW NOT TO RUN AN ELECTION (1956)

Published

on

SWRD Bandaranaike speaking during an election campaign

(Excerpted from Falling Leaves, autobiography of LC Arulpragasam)


As a Returning Officer, I played only second fiddle to the Government Agent, who was actually in charge of the Parliamentary Elections at the district level. However I was given definite duties: first, for staffing the polling booths with government staff officers; second, for supervising the actual process of elections in the polling booths; and third, for counting the ballots once the voting was done.

My first job was difficult because many Sinhalese officers in those days were reluctant to come so far to a Tamil-speaking district. This was long before the Tigers became the major political or military force in those districts. I was able to overcome this difficulty because some of my Sinhalese friends shared my interest in jungles and lagoons, and they were eager to come as polling officers to the Eastern Province. I had to officially get them to staff the polling booths; but unofficially, I had also to look after them and provide social activities for them.

On Election Day, I went to monitor the polling places. On one of these monitoring missions, I visited Kattankudi, a Muslim town just south of Batticaloa. I was actually able to see an act of impersonation there – for the first time. But this case was so outrageous that I will remember it till my dying day. A pregnant Muslim woman with a sari pulled over her face, with only her eyes showing, was challenged. Imagine my utter surprise, when ‘she’ was unveiled to reveal a man with a mustache and beard – and a pillow around his waist, pretending to be pregnant! I use this example to get to know the many tricks that are possible in all elections.

I still had to cast my own ballot for the Batticaloa seat. Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew all the candidates for that seat. When I came to the polling station, each of the candidates bowed and smiled, wanting to shake my hand, each of them expecting me to vote for them. I was an LSSP supporter at that time and since there was no LSSP horse in that race, I did not know whom to vote for.

I went into the polling booth and impulsively drew a caricature/cartoon of each of the three candidates against their names. I remember drawing a fez cap on the Muslim candidate’s head, and drawing hair on the ears for another candidate (which was his outstanding characteristic) and a moustache on the other candidate. Smiling guiltily, I emerged from the ballot booth to engage in small talk with the three candidates.

On that election night, there was a grand counting of all the votes cast in the Kachcheri. This was presided over by the Government Agent, but with me in actual charge of the counting. If there was a challenge to any ballot, I would give a ruling on the spot. If it was still contested, it would go to the Government Agent for his ruling. I was dreading that my ballot (with the cartoon of the candidates) would come up for my ruling. It did – and I was the first to shout, “spoilt ballot”. I heard one of the candidates muttering loudly “bloody fool” – aimed at the person who had cast that ballot! I hastened to agree! The case was reported to the Government Agent, who did not know that his own AGA was responsible for that ballot! I had acted irresponsibly as a presiding officer. On the other hand, it was my own ballot – and if I chose to spoil it, that was my own indisputable right!

The night after the election, I invited my friends from the various government departments in Colombo to gather for a social get-together at the Vakaneri Circuit Bungalow. This was about 22 miles north of Batticaloa and situated on a massive rock overlooking the Vakaneri reservoir. This had been one of my favourite haunts – to enjoy the silence and views of jungle and water.

I had got my friend Carl de Vos, from the private sector, to go up to the Vakaneri Irrigation bungalow on Election Day and decorate the place, inflate the balloons, etc. – so that it had a festive look even before we arrived. I played a piano accordion at that time – and thus provided the music for singing, dancing and baila sessions. There was much singing of old songs and much drinking of beer.

So much so, that the bungalow-keeper when measuring the rain-gauge the next morning (his daily duties in this Irrigation Circuit Bungalow) he found to his consternation that there had been so much rain on the previous night (beer converted to urine) that there was danger of flooding! He grumbled loudly (he was always nice to me), but this time he said, for me to hear: “It is impossible with this AGA!”

(The writer is among the last survivors of the old Ceylon Civil Service who later had a long career with the FAO, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization)

Continue Reading

Features

On demeaning Anura Kumara Dissanayake

Published

on

Anura Kumara Dissanayake

By Uditha Devapriya

In Sri Lanka, Tamil politics took a dramatic turn this week when Sajith Premadasa and Anura Kumara Dissanayake visited members of the Tamil National Alliance. According to media reports, Premadasa has promised to implement the 13th Amendment, while Dissanayake has vowed to revisit issues like devolution and power sharing.

This is not as shocking a development as one may assume; far more shocking developments have taken place in Sri Lankan politics. Nor should it surprise anyone it is taking place months before a presidential election, arguably the most crucial in recent years, is to be held.

Both Premadasa and Dissanayake are veteran political stalwarts; both have been in active politics since the early 2000s. There is something cynical about the whole matter, but perhaps what is most cynical is that the TNA itself has accepted these visits and engaged with these delegations.

The TNA is testing the waters: recently it announced that it would consider fielding a Tamil presidential candidate. Yet its engagements with Sinhala parties suggests that it sees itself as what it always has been: a deal-clincher, if not king maker, for mainstream political platforms – including the SLPP.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe fired the first salvo last year when he extended an invitation to Tamil parties to discuss issues relevant to the Tamil community. While many saw this as a cynical move on his part – as Rathindra Kuruwita observed in a Diplomat piece at the time, the government’s loss of popularity within the Sinhala Buddhist community has made it more open to negotiations with minority groups – the TNA itself welcomed his overtures and accepted his invitation, though subsequently a split in the party made it less amenable to holding talks with the president and his government.

Of the two Opposition figures, Sajith Premadasa’s visit has caused much less consternation. As the UNP’s presidential candidate in 2019, he agreed with the TNA’s pleas to implement the 13th Amendment. It is wrong to say he has been capitulating here: it has been his stance for some time. Besides, the SJB itself is a breakaway faction of the UNP, and the UNP, going by President Wickremesinghe’s gambits, has been keen on accommodating minority votes to make up for its lack of popularity among the Sinhala Buddhist middle-class. This has become more crucial than ever in light of the economic crisis.

The government’s utterly toxic, all-stick-no-carrot mixture of welfare cuts and higher taxes has led to a steep fall in popularity among constituencies which used to vote for mainstream nationalist formations. Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy fiascos, including his disastrous organic fertiliser experiment, led to a mass defection of these electorates. They have congealed into a floating vote bank since, up for grabs by the highest bidder. This is what the Opposition has been targeting. The Samagi Jana Balavegaya, in particular, has tried out one stratagem after another to shore up its appeal among these communities, including by taking in ex-army and political officials associated with successive Rajapaksa administrations.

Whether these strategies will work in the long term is anybody’s guess. If they don’t reveal the utter cynicism of politics in Sri Lanka – which is hardly less cynical than the alliances that have been forged by mainstream and “centrist” parties in Europe and the US – they certainly indicate how mainstream political formations keep resorting to the same old tactics when elections are nearby. Morally reprehensible though this may be to some, reaching out to the army, the police, and other defence outfits has become a sine qua non here.

Besides, mainstream parties have tried to square the circle, appealing to both majority and minority communities. This explains President Wickremesinghe’s overtures and the SJB’s and NPP’s recent moves. These can in turn be explained by the structure of Sri Lankan politics, its electoral system in particular, which has made minority parties indispensable partners for larger parties.

As a high-ranking official of the SJB put it months ago, elections will always bode well for parties that put together the broadest possible coalition. In that respect, it makes sense to have military officials and minority groups in the same room, or on the same platform. The SJB here has been no different to the UNP.

Perhaps a better way of understanding these alliances would be through a social class and economic lens. Fundamentally, the TNA is the party of the Tamil bourgeoisie, just as the UNP is the party of the Sinhala bourgeoisie. The SJB, given its past in the UNP, resonates deeply with the bourgeoisie of both communities, though it and the NPP have been reaching out to sections of the petty bourgeoisie. These ideological intersections explain why the UNP has been able to engage with mainstream Tamil parties, and why the SJB and NPP have strayed away from them and concentrated their activities elsewhere until recently.

Even here, there are important differences. The SJB and NPP have marshalled in army and police officials. But the SJB has shown a preference for higher ranking officials, while the NPP has been targeting disabled veterans. The NPP has also become heavy on anti-corruption, which explains its inclusion of figures like Shani Abeysekara. It has also become critical of the IMF’s activities in Sri Lanka. This has pushed the SJB, which is otherwise aligned with the UNP’s economic policies, to differentiate itself from both the UNP and NPP. As with the NPP, it has also compelled them to interact with other communities.

This is why analyses that put down the NPP over its recent meetings with the TNA seem, for the lack of a better word, disingenuous. The SJB has been receiving much less flak with regard to these meetings, perhaps because the establishment commentariat perceives its bigwigs as liberals on minority issues. According to these analysts, the NPP or JVP’s past stances, including on Indian intervention and the 13th Amendment, make their statements on provincial councils and Tamil political rights cynical at best and dishonest at worst. Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s recent declaration to the effect that we should concentrate on the future, rather than the past, has only reinforced these accusations.

It’s important to understand, when considering the JVP’s past positions, that certain issues cannot be isolated from the period in which they became “relevant.” Opposition to Indian intervention, for instance, was determined by fears of India exerting itself over the country. Opposition to the 13th Amendment, devolution, and even provincial councils was coloured by these perceptions. The same went for the JVP’s stance on the campaign to defeat the LTTE. There were important linkages between these issues, however morally non-negotiable they have become for liberals, including those allied with the UNP.

Those who frame the JVP as opportunist based on its stances here forget that in 2009 the JVP teamed up with the TNA in support of a common opposition candidate. In doing so, it signalled that it was not above teaming up with minority parties, and that it was willing to play an active role in electoral politics. One need only compare its shifts since the 2022 crisis with the FSP, which has become much more hardline and uncompromising in its stances. By contrast, the JVP has been reaching out to different constituencies, including the Colombo business crowd, right-wing think tanks, Western embassies, and professionals like engineers. It was only a matter of time before it would reach to minority groups.

How, then, can we reconcile these shifts with its position on the war? In hindsight, the JVP’s stance on the war, and the military campaign against the LTTE, was politically more astute than wrong. One cannot deny the need to investigate human rights violations, allegations of war crimes or even genocide. But the JVP’s response to the war was more complex than a simple conflation between its pandering to ex-military officials today and its support for a military solution to the conflict may suggest. Besides, the JVP distinguished between the imperative to defeat the LTTE and the equally crucial imperative not to let one family claim ownership of that defeat. It maintained this line from at least 2005.

Today, according to its critics, the NPP is going through an identity crisis. Thus, while veteran heavyweights spout the most “unacceptable”, illiberal rhetoric, its younger faces tout progressive ideals. In that scheme, it has ditched its hardline positions and is moving to the centre, becoming more doveish on minority issues.

There is a tendency to view the NPP’s engagements with Tamil parties through the lens of these shifts. From a political science perspective, this is not inaccurate. Parties change all the time. Yet, as 2009 shows clearly enough, the JVP’s engagements with Tamil parties did not begin yesterday, nor will it end tomorrow. There is a shift underlying these developments, but it should not come as a surprise: the JVP, and with it the NPP, has become as open to the hard-nosed world of coalition politics as any other party.

The SJB’s recent meeting with the TNA, therefore, is predictable. That does not make the NPP’s meeting any less predictable. Nor does it make the latter disingenuous. In a country where mainstream parties target the broadest coalitions with both majority and minority communities, it is unhelpful to demean one party for reaching out to political formations that other parties are reaching out to. The NPP has been in representative politics for some time. It is hardly a novice. Those who think otherwise, however, are.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.

Continue Reading

Trending