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The SJB’s identity crisis

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by Uditha Devapriya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com



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Politics

President’s Dinner for his Old Comrades

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The President and Commander in Chief HE Gotabaya Rajapakse invited 186 of his old military comrades and their ladies for dinner at President’s House on Dec. 22, 2021. For a media that lives on gossip, this was manna.

A Sunday paper (not the Island) on 26 Dec reported the invitees numbered 1,050.The figure was specific. Many readers were, as expected, duped to believe it. Added on was that ‘drinks’ too were served as though that was news. No detailed description of the menu was given as has happened before for reasons that will be a revelation. Was it to show profligacy which was news? The Sunday Island of Dec. 2, 2021 had a news item by Dayan Jayatilleka that went one better. He increased the figure to a smarter 1,090. Those made a lie look like the truth. It was meant to be so. No questions were asked as to sources.

The Dec. 26 Sunday paper also had a dig at the organizers. Apparently a few had turned down the invitation. That was curious as the invitations were sent only to those who confirmed verbal enquiries as to their attendance. It may have been that after accepting the invitation a few old sweats, officers and gentlemen it is said they had been, were churlish enough to avoid attendance at the C in C’s dinner. Were they the same fellows, who being absent from the scene, did the counting of heads too?

Jayatilleka went further. He thought there was something odd if not sinister in the exercise. He believed 1,090 ‘senior military men, serving and retired’ attended. He asked readers not to continue reading if they did not believe that the invitations had been sent with some ulterior motive. The suggestion was that the dinner was not a ‘sociable, benign gesture of a year-end party’. It obviously worried him that good and normal men in SL would have thought differently and questioned the assumption.

To begin with his facts were absolutely cock eyed. The cooked figures he had been served (1,090) by someone who was possibly not at the dinner, clearly supported his fertile imagination. He probably thought a mere 186 officers at dinner would not be enough to invent a rollicking fairy tale.

The only serving officers present were the tri services commanders. With their spouses a round figure of 400 invitees could have been closer to the truth. All the others were veterans aged 70 years and above, some disabled. A few were 90 years old and were in wheel chairs.

Now what did Jayatilleka a former minister in the EPRLF that was a IPKF stooge that made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in the late1990s, think the doddering old and but still bold 186 could have been up to? It certainly helped to propel his latest onslaughts on the fanciful ‘militarization’ of the nation. Was it also to mark up points with the West, just in case?

So how did the ‘gala’ dinner go? First of all male guests in smart casual (tie), and their ladies in sarees, arrived well in time as is the norm among servicemen. They were given antigen tests by a team of medics before gathering in the manicured garden where the military bands played some lively music.

Old comrades reminisced with their friends, many after decades and two years of Covid. Everyone was refreshingly relaxed. Many recalled long forgotten incidents, hilarious mishaps mostly, and extraordinary characters they served with. Many heroes were present but stories of daring and battle were not recounted here. The missing was not forgotten.

As at any military social function, not a word of politics was heard. No one pulled rank. When the C in C came and graciously mixed with his guests, all older than him, no one in the best of service traditions and etiquette forgot who he, the C in C, was. He knew and called all of them by their first names. He seemed as happy as his guests were, to meet simply as old comrades, exchange greetings and enjoy themselves. There were no speeches.

A splendid buffet dinner followed.

Here was the first old soldier who had become the elected President and C in C of SL. He was now among old friends. They all thanked and wished him and his lady the very best in the challenging year to come.

People who will never know what military comradeship is should not waste their time trying to question the motives of a C in C in inviting his old comrades to dinner. It was the first ever in SL history. There was nothing ‘gala’ either, as anyone who was inveigled by his ‘informant’ may have believed. Such people should try not to judge others by their standards, be mean and gullible and should not to circulate worn out tales or have recurring nightmares about ‘militarization’.

Old soldiers never die; they only fade away, even from the President’s House. God only knows what happens to mercenaries and tale carriers.

Dinner guest

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Politics

DE-CODING THE AKD-JVP-NPP RELATIONSHIP

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DR. DAYAN JAYATILLEKA

The JVP-NPP is prominent in the struggle against the presidential system–while permitting speculation that Anura Kumara Dissanayake will be the presidential candidate—and in the vanguard in the struggle against corruption.

Whether it realizes it or not, it is being hypocritical—not because of that duality–and so too are those who support them on those grounds.

The reason is simple and self-evident. Whether one is against the presidential system as such, or whether one is against the 20th amendment while being for the Presidential system, the reason is the same: the critique of over-centralization. To spell it out, the objection is too much power and too many functions in the hands of a single person and the remedy is seen as the separation of powers, which makes for check and balances.

In its practice, the JVP-NPP runs completely against that principle.

The next ‘signature issue’ is corruption. There too, the principle is the same: if one person holds more than one post and there is a possible conflict of interest, that is the potential source of corruption. Here too, the crux of the matter is that one person should not head several institutional or organization spaces. Interlocking directorates are the conduit of corruption. I am not accusing the JVP-NPP of corruption, but of violating the principle of safeguards or guardrails against overlapping and over-concentration.

The NPP was not founded by non-party activists or those of many political parties. Still less was it formed by academics. It was founded by Anura Kumara Dissanayake in 2015.

The NPP is not led by a non-party personality. It is led by Anura Kumara Dissanayake who founded it.

Anura Kumara Dissanayake is the leader of the JVP. He was the leader of the JVP when he established the NPP, and remains the leader of the JVP.

It is reasonable to assume that as the JVP’s leader, rather than merely a JVP member or second-level leader, Mr. Dissanayake would have founded the NPP as part of the JVP’s strategic vision.

Insofar as the NPP is the creation of the JVP’s leader, the NPP is the child of the JVP.

Latin American Left

The JVP has almost always had phases in which it had personalities and mass organization to which it gave a long leash. Indika Gunawardena and Sunila Abeysekara are two examples but not the only ones. Perhaps a more important one is HN Fernando the politically highly literate leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union which he had built up into a 30,000 strong organization. All of them were purged from the party when views that dissented from the changing party line, were voiced. (HN Fernando, who was Wijeweera’s brother-in-law was physically assaulted).

These seem to me the earlier prototypes of what is now manifested as the NPP. The NPP seems to me to be a new model of the same old template: a front organization of fellow-travelers.

If the NPP were to be an autonomous civic or mass organization or more ambitiously the formation which should be recognized as a contender to lead the country, the Latin American Left provides the architecture.

Uruguay’s Tupamaros and its Communist Party founded the Frente Amplio, the Broad Front, which lasted from the early 1970s through the decades of military dictatorship, to this day. The first leader of the Frente Amplio who remained so for many years, was General Liber Seregni, not the MLN-Tupamaro leader Raul Sendic nor the Uruguayan CP’s leader Rodney Arismendi.

In El Salvador, the revolutionary vanguard unified as the FMLN, with its politico-diplomatic partner being the Frente Democratico Revolutionario, the FDR. None of the FMLN’s leaders headed the FDR.

That is the model by which the autonomy of the civic front is ensured. In the case of the NPP, it is headed, not even by a JVP personality like Nalinda Jayatissa or Bimal Ratnayake, still less a respected progressive activist, intellectual or cultural-artistic figure but precisely by the top leader of the JVP.

As a disciplined leader who is committed to the strategy and decisions of the JVP, there is hardly a structural possibility of genuine autonomy for and on the part of the NPP.

Political Culture: Falsification & Opacity

A great many of us watched as Anura Kumara Dissanayake repeatedly emphasized on national TV that Kumara Gunaratnam was never a member of the JVP. Quiet apart from the insult to the memory of Ranjithan Gunaratnam, a real hero and martyr of the JVP leadership, it was a plain lie because it was widely known that Kumara Gunaratnam played the major role in rebuilding the JVP clandestinely after the repression was over.

The post 1994 JVP was built upon the foundation laid by Kumara Gunaratnam whom Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the nation was never a member of the party.

A few years ago, after Kumara Gunaratnam had been ‘disappeared’ and tortured in 2011, and was released only due to external lobbying and the intervention of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a throw-away public remark in response to Anura Kumara’s criticism of him on an entirely different matter, that the crackdown on Gunaratnam and his emerging new outfit (it wasn’t called Peratugamee at the time) was made on an alert from the same quarter that was now criticizing him. There was no answer from AKD.

If anything, a left alternative must occupy the moral high ground, and not only in its own eyes. The historical truth is the only path to the moral high ground.

None of this is meant as an indictment of or attack on Anura Kumara as a person. It speaks to the discourse, the political culture of the JVP and its opacity. The denial of Kumara Gunaratnam, his removal from the annals of the JVP, the sheer falsification of history, tells us what the JVP still is. This travesty is not something that has occurred, would occur or could occur in any other political party in Sri Lanka. The JVP was and is a party which is the most opaque in Sri Lanka.

It is the same Anura Kumara who leads the same JVP who also founded and leads the NPP.

Therefore, any influence that the NPP has on the JVP will be secondary, episodic and tactical, while the JVP’s influence over the NPP will be strategic and structural. The tail won’t be wagging the dog.

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Politics

Foreign exchange, foreign policy, and economic roundtables

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by Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lanka’s Central Bank will be settling a USD 500 million bond the day after tomorrow. Earlier this month, Ajith Nivard Cabraal tweeted that the Bank had set aside the required amount from its foreign reserves, reiterating the country’s commitment to honouring its debt obligations. Perhaps in response to this development, bondholders appear to have regained confidence about our prospects: latest figures show that bond market prices are converging with face value, though this may well be a temporary gain.

The January 18 settlement is the first of two that will have to be made to our International Sovereign Bond (ISB) holders this year. The second, amounting to USD one billion, is due on July 25. The Central Bank’s strategy is one of doubling down on these debt obligations while renegotiating loans from other governments. This strategy isn’t as muddled up as it is made to be by its critics: unlike governments, ISB holders don’t negotiate, and if they are asked to, it’s usually on the eve of a default or severe economic crisis.

In strategising a way out, then, the Central Bank has identified its priorities: it will pay up on its ISB commitments and devote foreign exchange to little else.

It’s difficult to predict how that will affect our foreign relations in the longer term. The country is presently governed by a party that promised never to sell or lease out its assets. Yet, today, officials are travelling everywhere, negotiating with this government and that, hoping for more lifelines. We have clearly exhausted other options: we can’t raise anything from bond auctions, and we are rejecting the IMF line. Since governments are easier to talk with, we are hence talking with as many of them as possible. It’s doubtful whether this is the only option available, but it’s probably the best shot we can give.

In giving that shot, however, are we exposing ourselves to the pressures of regional and extra-regional power pressures? Consider the countries we have gone to so far: Oman, China, and India. Negotiations with India have been successful, with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar stating that Delhi is ready to stand with Sri Lanka. Though his government has remained quiet over requests for credit lines, these may well come our way.

On the other hand, Beijing has responded to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s call to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to restructure its debts, with Cabraal declaring that a new loan is on the blocks. As for Oman, though negotiations have stalled over requests to explore the Mannar Oil Basin in return for interest-free credit, this too is a window that remains open.

These developments are, all things considered, intriguing. In the face of the worst global health crisis in over a century, our foreign policy has taken a massive beating. The fertiliser imbroglio with China and the withdrawal of Chinese projects from the North over alleged Indian pressure, as well as the visit of the Chinese Ambassador to the North, are cases in point here. All these point to an increasingly complicated foreign policy front. The question is, will the country’s foreign exchange problems complicate it even more?

Perhaps more so than the 1970s, when it faced a severe balance of payments crisis, Sri Lanka is gradually giving way to a foreign policy dictated by depleting foreign reserves. The administration’s dismissal of W. D. Lakshman and appointment of Cabraal, in that regard, accompanied a shift of focus, during the fourth quarter of last year, to the country’s foreign exchange situation. This has spilled over to our external relations.

Here the Central Bank has had to reckon with a contradiction: between its insistence on not going to the IMF and its assurances about meeting ISB obligations. Though it’s debatable whether the Bank has addressed, let alone resolved, that contradiction, it’s clearly making use of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to pay bondholders their due.

For their part, economic experts have shifted in their response to what the government is doing. While earlier they warned about impending defaults, now many of them have turned to questioning the current policy of repaying bondholders no matter what.

Nishan de Mel of Verité Research, for instance, points out correctly that defaulting is not the same thing as declaring bankruptcy. Suggesting that the former is preferable, he contends that the government should do what it can to renegotiate its debts. On the other hand, as Dushni Weerakoon of the IPS rightly observes, restructuring debt may be easy for a country with a reputation for defaults, like Ecuador, but it is unviable, lengthy, and costly, at least in the short and medium term, for a country like Sri Lanka.

What of the IMF line? It’s obvious that Sri Lanka can no longer negotiate for more breathing space from the IMF without conditionalities being imposed on it. The only way it can obtain such space, in other words, is by succumbing to those conditionalities.

Now, defenders of the IMF line may argue, justifiably, that there’s no give without take, and that if we go to that body we will have to eat humble pie, gratefully. But the question to ask here is, who are we asking to take on these burdens? Who are we asking to endure more of the same? Have IMF advocates considered these problems?

The IMF is not a charity: it has provided financial assistance to almost 90 countries on condition that fiscal discipline be enforced in the long term. If we go down that road, we will need to give back something, like public sector retrenchment and fuel price formulas. These have generated enough backlashes elsewhere. Are we ready to risk them here?

So long as the government fears an uprising from the people, it will not choose the IMF line. To say this is not to defend the powers that be. They have contributed to the mess we are in. But to admit to that is not to deny that, whatever that mess may be, to opt for structural adjustment, when social pressures are peaking, would be politically inadvisable.

That is why Basil Rajapaksa’s billion rupee economic relief package, tabled earlier this month despite much criticism, is intriguing: among other things, it promises a LKR 5,000 allowance to 1.5 million government workers, pensioners, and disabled soldiers. Its underlying thrust is not less money, but more: not spending cuts, but spending hikes.

The urban and suburban middle-classes have responded to the package with characteristic ambivalence. While demanding for relief from the government, they are also questioning the efficacy of printing money. What they have failed to realise is that that printing money is the only resort the government has to grant the kind of relief being demanded. It’s a classic either/or scenario: you get the relief with printed money, or you don’t.

Though economists don’t spell it out exactly in these terms, they do observe that printing money can only lead to greater inflation, implying that the only alternative is to stop doing so. But what are the socio-political costs of such measures? What are the knock-on effects they will have on economic relief for the masses? To ask these questions is not to split hairs, but to raise valid concerns that have not been addressed by the other side.

That is not to say that the government’s measures have been farsighted. They have not. Though Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) policies, which the regime is advocating, may get us space in the short term, it is not the type of reform we should be enacting in the longer term. The policies we need require radical reform and radical action. However viable it may be, printing money should not be considered a substitute for such reform.

To suggest one option, one of Sri Lanka’s most brilliant economists, Howard Nicholas, has advised that we industrialise, noting that the historical record has been better for countries which opted to do so. The example of Vietnam shows how even a sector like textiles can be used to propel industrialisation. That is an example Sri Lanka under Ranasinghe Premadasa followed, at least according to Dr Nicholas, but it is one we have since abandoned, in favour of orthodox prescriptions of fiscal consolidation and untrammelled privatisation.

Sri Lanka needs to consider these options without caving into stopgap measures and orthodox alternatives. How do we do that? As Dayan Jayatilleka suggested some time ago, we should convene an economic roundtable. Such a roundtable will likely prevent economic discussions from becoming a monopoly of elites, thereby helping the government, and the opposition, to align the interests of the economy with the interests of the masses.

This has been a long time coming. Both the government and the opposition have tended to view economic priorities as distinct from other socio-political concerns. Yet the two remain very much interlinked. In that sense, caving into economic orthodoxy while ignoring social reality would be detrimental to the future of the country and the plight of its people. To this end, we need to think of alternatives, and fast. But have we, and are we?

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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