Why is the left in Sri Lanka so weak? From a distance, it doesn’t look so brittle; every other day we see and hear of protests, demonstrations, and rallies. Indeed if protests and rallies indicated strength and solidarity, the left should have usurped the populist space that the joint opposition had monopolised, even if those protests and rallies were, as supporters of the then regime argued, organised by (covert) supporters of the joint opposition such as the GMOA. But then the tragedy of the left in Sri Lanka is that it has failed so far to take these struggles beyond the leadership. The GMOA’s campaigns against private education, for instance, may have been rooted in the GMOA’s opposition to the UNP, but if the leaders were swayed by political considerations, the rank and file should not; their opposition would no doubt have been to the idea of private education, not to the guys trying to legalise it in parliament. Yet even so, the left has continued to shrink. How come?
The JVP which claimed to lead and unify the left gained a considerably lower percentage at this year’s election than what they gained with Rohana Wijeweera in 1982. Both Mahesh Senanayake and Rohan Pallewatte appealed to sections of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie who felt let down by their traditional party, the UNP. Duminda Nagamuwa, who articulated probably the clearest, most concise, and most convincing left programme (in contrast to Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s amorphous blend of radical fervour and social democracy) was nowhere to be seen in the final results. Taking Mangala Samaraweera’s woolly-headed logic from 2018 to its logical conclusion, the total of the anti-Rajapaksa vote couldn’t transcend the pro-Rajapaksa bloc, which gives the lie to Samaraweera’s arithmetic that it was rising even at the time of the LG polls. Sri Lanka is, and since 1948 always was, a quasi-capitalist state in which ethnic identity predominates; perhaps the new left couldn’t cut across ethnicity and this explains why they lost so badly. But that cannot be the only reason.
The JVP which claimed to lead and unify the left gained a considerably lower percentage at this year’s election than what they gained with Rohana Wijeweera in 1982.
More likely, the error was to confuse ideological solidarity for popular support. Sajith Premadasa, the main anti-Rajapaksa candidate, had among his allies several parties which, if they really courted the electorates and the ethnicity they claimed to represent, should have given the man a thumping, if not overwhelming, victory. The JVP courted disenchanted suburban petty bourgeois artists, activists, and academics who could not go beyond the proscenium. The NPM and SDP entranced the suburban young, the middle-aged professional, and the floating voter who had voted for the UNP but who felt let down by a) Its response to the Easter Attacks and b) Its choice of presidential candidate. Ajantha Perera’s Socialist Party attempted to gather around her those who were as opposed to the incumbent and opposition as they were to the other (largely petit bourgeois) candidates. Their conflation of ideological and popular support is one that has been made again and again, here and elsewhere. The JVP was not alone in making it, but in making it, it ended up as the biggest losers.
In one way they had it coming, which means that in many ways it was inevitable. The writing was on the wall and those for whom it had been written failed to take note of it. After all, this was the JVP, no less than the oldest and perhaps the most historically colourful radical left party in the country, and still it managed to mistake the woods for the trees. By the time Anura Kumara Dissanayake had come out of the fold after Easter 2019, trying to make clear his opposition to the UNP, the SLFP, and the SLPP, those who had viewed the JVP as an appendage to the UNP had given up on it; I know at least one ex-JVPer (hardly representative) who while the election results were being announced in the early hours expressed, point-blank, his fears of a SLPP defeat (and UNP victory) to me. The ex-JVPer, like the ex-Communist in the West, had embraced a populist right-wing movement because it represented a better alternative to the status quo as well as to the left. The JVP chose to ignore this.
The JVP which emerged after its resurrection in the late 1970s was branded, at various points, as racist, chauvinist, and xenophobic. Perhaps it was all or some of these things, or perhaps it wasn’t. The labels stuck on, however, and for the better part of that decade prior to Wijeweera’s assassination it was, for all intents and purposes, not leftist but fascist: Pol Potist, not Guevarist or Castroist, though it labelled itself as Marxist-Leninist and proceeded to tar not only Trotsky and Khrushchev but also Stalin, Mao, Zhou Enlai, and Marshall Tito as traitors. It had, as Malinda Seneviratne observed, a Marxist head and a cultural heart: with the same rigour with which it could oppose Indian hegemonism and play on vulgar cultural binaries between India and Sri Lanka. It could, with no compunction whatsoever, murder Daya Pathirana on the last Poya Day of 1985. The irony was that at the time of the second insurrection, those who had been involved with the 1971 insurgency were writing critiques of the JVP’s theoretical positions; they were, in one way, implicitly defending the State without defending it.
The reason for that is not hard to find. If capitalism in Sri Lanka, in the Marxist-Leninist sense or any sense, found its roots in the J.R. Jayewardene years in “Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism”, then popular resistance to it from the left found its roots in an ideology which reflected that chauvinism: not only anti-Indian but also, allegedly, anti-Tamil. (Why I say “allegedly” is that the JVP went out of its way to convince not just estate Tamils but also the Tamil proletariat that they could and should join the JVP’s struggle against the common enemy, the UNP; the NGO and Old Left propaganda machine, however, looked out for every phrase, misread between the lines, and wrongly put it out that the boys from the south were misguided zealots drawing up conspiracy theories about estate Tamils colonising the hill country.) The LTTE alienated what little support it could have gained by killing Sinhala peasants as well as rival Tamil leaders, even those like Uma Maheswaran who tried to strike a chord with the Sinhala working class. All that bolstered the JVP and its “chauvinist” cause.
Even so no party, however leftist, can stay sterile for too long. Upon entering the democratic process during the presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, against whose mother it had campaigned in 1978, 1982, and 1988, and whose husband it had killed remorselessly in 1988, the JVP, and by default the New Left, changed its colours, but only just so. During these years it was easy for the more nationalist sections of the petty bourgeoisie to support the JVP, however begrudgingly, simply because there was no alternative; the SLFP, or rather the Mahajana Wing of it, was in power, and elected on a platform of devolution and federalism it went beyond its original position on the National Question. The State was being dismantled, and unlike in the late 80s when India, the LTTE, and the JVP fulfilled that task, it was now dismantling itself: with the same eagerness with which many of its representatives pursued peace, they were only too readily embracing privatisation, deregulation, and wholesale resource-plunder. This was the paradoxical combination that brought down the Sirisena administration too: reconciliation on the one hand, pro-market neoliberal economic policy on the other.
All this changed with the emergence of Sinhala Buddhist (petit bourgeois) nationalist parties. Made up of fragments of the UNP as well as the SLFP (anti-Chandrika), the Young Turks of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist movement soon managed to clinch the ideological space that the JVP had been courting after 1977. Such movements had been established before – the Mawbime Surakeeme Viyaparaya and the Bhoomiputra Pakshaya, to give just two examples – but they lacked a key element; the Buddhist sangha. For a while the Sihala Urumaya lacked the sangha also, but as time passed it made up for that deficiency by unleashing something the JVP could never, even with the support it got from temples and chief incumbents during the bheeshanaya, get -- a “saffron revolution.” By the time of the 1999 presidential and 2001 parliamentary elections, the JVP’s prospects were down, their sole saving grace being their support for a military solution to the war; even that went down with the formation of the National Freedom Front under Wimal Weerawansa. The exigencies of parliamentary politics no doubt led it to compromise on many of its earlier positions, leading to a steady if not rapid decompression among its electorate, particular the Sinhala peasantry and lower middle class.
And after its fallout with Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom the JHU would support until the end of his second term, there could be no turning back. Today the JVP finds itself in a muddle: on one hand its ideology continues to be articulated, onstage and onscreen, by petty bourgeois academics, artists, and activists, support for whom by the people, while strong, is nevertheless receding; on the other hand, support for it among the people, despite flashy demonstrations, is especially among the young slowly receding as well. Being a radical, in other words, no longer means being in the JVP.
To be continued...