In pursuit of a multi-ethnic Sri Lankan singularity
Posted on July 7th, 2021

By Kusum Wijetilleke Courtesy The Island

The mainstream media’s obsession with the re-entry to Parliament of Ranil Wickremesinghe (RW) betrays an unsophisticated effort at constructing a narrative of an ineffective Opposition Party. What these contributions are actually alluding to is that RW’s seat signals a weakness in the Opposition. A missing X-factor, if you prefer; something the returning former PM is meant to solve. On the face of it, the proposition seems ridiculous, but is nonetheless still being propagated.

History suggests that RW never seemed to understand the aspirations of the rural masses that his UNP so callously abandoned. Perhaps he never appreciated the electorate’s genuine concern for the future of the country’s unitary structure and what it represents in the collective consciousness of the Sinhala-Buddhist working class and working poor. The gravitational centre of RW’s political capital, amongst the elites of Colombo and minority parties, consistently alienated large swathes of the majority.

Intellectuals of all stripes did their utmost to paint RW’s aspirations for, and interpretations of, the 13th Amendment as guaranteeing the unitary state. Actions speak louder than words and try as he did, RW was never able to convince the masses of his integrity on this critical issue. Every time RW repeated his desire to work within the 13th Amendment, preserving a unitary state whilst further devolving powers; the only thing the electorate heard was a call for a federal state”, a model that has always been a poisoned chalice. The word ‘Federal’ is simplified for the base by RW’s opponents, pointing correctly to the fact that it weakens the centre. A Centre which must represent the majority and is seen by it as a guard-rail to prevent the national train from terminating at a station in Chennai.

From Neo-Liberalism to Social Democracy

As the decades ticked by, while RW remained rooted to his ideals, the electorate was moving past the politics of devolution. Their minds seemingly solidified around the project of a unified centre as opposed to the devolved structure which Nationalists fear would embolden reactionary, separatist elements within minority parties.

Those paying attention noticed the lack of upward social mobility amongst their classes and the dilapidation of their neighbourhoods and villages. They woke up to the reality that political structures aside, their children’s lives and those of their grand-children’s would be indistinguishable from their own. They saw in RW and the UNP, the same playbook from decades past, the same internationalist considerations and pandering to elitist liberal voting blocks of Colombo’s plush suburbs. They continuously chose the alternative, whether it was the top-down neo-liberalism of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the nationalist state-capitalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa or the ethno-majoritarian militarization of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The more vital project to build a multi-ethnic consciousness; a Sri Lankan singularity, was lost in RW’s confused maze of constitutional devolution. RW, struck by the realisation that he could not win this debate at home, went abroad to preach to and from British and European choirs.

The former PM has still not understood that the holy grail of a trans-cultural Sri Lankan consciousness is unviable if the majority remains so deeply insecure.

What does all this say about the current position and future direction of the SJB as the main Opposition Party? To the relief of many, the SJB has steered clear of some aspects of the UNP playbook. Sajith Premadasa (SP) is widely seen as to the left of RW, more in the tradition of D.S. Senanayake’s agrarianism and commitment to welfare.

On economic policy, the SJB seems to have the broad strokes of the Keynesian New Deal and Sajith Premadasa even alluded to this, specifically name-checking FDR (Franklin D. Roosevelt) at a campaign event in Bataramulla during the Presidential campaign of 2019. Some of the ‘ideologues’ within the SJB, specifically MP Eran Wickramaratne and Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, could be associated with the economic policies of social democracy.

The Sri Lankan economy with its laundry list of structural weaknesses and a history of madness and mismanagement, requires its own list of solutions. Yet, more pressing for the SJB will be to stake its position on the national issue and this, one suspects, is where RW’s attempted intervention is targeted at.

Populism of the Progressive Centre

The former PM thrives in a circular firing squad of his own making; part of his modus operandi for decades. Whilst he astutely dodges fire, his colleagues take pot-shots at one another, leading to an inevitable truce carefully negotiated by RW himself. The SJB should refuse this bait. Whatever ideological differences exist within its major factions, they are far removed from the ‘Ranilism’ of the UNP and the confused Right-Wing Authoritarianism of the SLPP.

The challenge for the SJB is to cast aside the ghost of the UNP’s failed project of political devolution and embarrassing capitulations to even the mildest international pressure.

How? Many commentators have opined that the SJB must occupy the ‘progressive centre’ which might sound like an oxymoron at first, but upon further investigation appears apt. Progressive in policy but never stretching itself too far from the true centre of the polity (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

Herein lies an opportunity to move beyond the politics of decades past and re-position the consensus. The Easter Attacks created a seismic shift in the political landscape. The emergence of Islamism and the possibility that it was homegrown came as a shock to many, not least within Sri Lanka’s diverse Muslim community. There was a collective gasp from Sri Lankans of varying backgrounds as news trickled down in the aftermath of the Easter Attacks of an alleged Sharia” University in Batticaloa (https://www.sundaytimes.lk/190505/news/mystery-shrouds-batticaloas-shariah-campus-348098.html).

This brought even sharper focus on the ‘Arabization’ and ‘balkanization’ of the Eastern Province which has now been etched into the psyche of the majority, feeding their fears of cultural invasion and oppression by foreign interference. It seems the Easter Attacks were the result of too much religious freedom, or at the very least, lax regulation in the teaching of religious doctrine. Zahran and his cohorts were able to freely preach Wahabi/ Salafist Islamism under the guise of religious expression, to corrupt and manipulate a mass of Sri Lankans with theocratic nonsense. Did increased autonomy produce the conditions that led to the Easter attacks? (https://colombogazette.com/2020/07/05/pm-warns-against-becoming-prisoners-of-circumstances).

The psychological impact aside; the aforementioned balkanization led to tangible devastation on that fateful Easter Sunday. Queue the soul searching driven by post-Easter SLPP ethno-nationalist rhetoric which reinvigorated nativist elements within the country providing them with a glimpse of their worst fears. The innate insecurity of the majority is perfectly encapsulated by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in the 1950s: …the fears of the Sinhalese, I do not think can be brushed aside as completely frivolous. I believe there are a not inconsiderable number of Tamils in this country out of a population of 8 million. Then there are 40-50 million Tamil people in the adjoining country. What about all this Tamil literature, Tamil teachers, even films, papers and magazines? … I do not think there is an unjustified fear of the inexorable shrinking of the Sinhala language. It is a fear that cannot be brushed aside” (The Politics and Poetics of Authenticity- Harshana Rambukwella).

A Premadasa New Deal and Marshall Plan

The SJB must ensure it does not honour the UNP’s tradition of demonizing voters of the Government, casting them as racists or nativists. One is reminded of Hillary Clintons basket of deplorables” or Barack Obama’s clinging to guns and religion”. The opposition voter is not the villain of the piece; address their anxieties and take seriously the values they hold dear.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka has already made the ‘progressive case’ for the SJB and Mr. Sajith Premadasa. Far from being an ideological, utopian framework, progressivism can only thrive within the boundaries of populism. (https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/why-sajiths-sjb-ranils-unp-are-quite-distinct-and-sajiths-is-the-already-existing-progressive-center/).

There is also a dependable anti-provincial-council consensus shared by the majoritarian segment of the electorate. Factions within the SLPP openly discuss the abolition of provincial councils. These are political instincts of the right that the emergent new left of Sri Lanka must urgently acquire. (https://island.lk/gevindu-insists-on-abolishing-provincial-councils-under-new-constitution/).

The SJB may not yet be sufficiently self-confident, but should it seek to prove its progressive credentials, it may opt to do so by challenging moderate Tamil politicians to take Federalism off the negotiating table once and for all. Presenting a proposition to either reform or recalibrate the Provincial Council system.

Yes there are contentions surrounding executive powers granted to the Councils, but any meaningful de-politicization of this PC system, bringing it in line with the national objectives of the centre, will reassure the insecure majority that their guard rails are in place. If Provincial Councils do not fall in line with national objectives, Sri Lanka will never find a singular purposeful path to advanced statehood and a modern economy. Thus, without reaching advanced statehood, all attempts at a devolved structure of governance will remain at least several decades in the future.

The emergence of a younger generation of politicians rising up the ranks of the TNA and affiliated parties should provide fresh impetus. Youth that is unburdened with the heavy baggage of the 13th Amendment, unlike their forefathers.

P.K. Balachandran makes this point, referring to results from the General Election; The polls in the Northern Province showed that Tamil extremism is on the wane, although some pro-LTTE radicals like Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C. V. Wigneswaran won. The bulk of the seats was won by the moderate Tamil National Alliance (TNA) fighting under the Ilankai Tamil Arasu Katchi’s House” symbol. The elections in the North also showed that the Tamils now want economic development, besides federalism. This is seen in the success of the pro-government EPDP (2 seats) and the SLFP (1 seat)” (http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/69846).

A Grand Bargain

What might the SJB provide in return to the Indo-US axis, the nationalist elements and the Jaffna centric elites of the TNA and beyond? Power (money) and purpose (development).

The SJB could announce a ‘Marshall Plan’ for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. A program of development planned and implemented by the people of those provinces through their elected representatives and appointed councilors. This would complement the New Deal” aspirations alluded to by the Opposition Leader.

Such a project will dilute foreign claims of systemic oppression of these provinces. It could counter the Buddhist clergy with the allocation of funds from this Marshall Plan towards restoring the Stupas of these provinces or any other purpose deemed necessary to tame the Asgiriya Chapter.

Perhaps a long over-due ‘National Day of Mourning’ to mark the anti-Tamil pogroms of past decades and an admission of the failures of the State to protect its people. Why not a program of targeted reparations towards those that lost loved ones and livelihoods to those pogroms, failing which, a simple, earnest national apology? Now, would that not be progressive? Part of the funding for this Marshall Plan, however small, must come from the annual defense budget. A symbolic gesture of goodwill.

The SJB must seek to alienate not just the reactionary elements of the SLPP but also the separatist elements within minority parties if it is to truly occupy a progressive centre. The ultimate goal is to neutralize the narrative and blunt the tools of the UNHRC and allied multi-lateral machinations, truly exposing their imperialist double standards.

Any number of possibilities emerge when RW is absent from the negotiating table. The SJB has every opportunity to bury the ghosts of neo-liberalism, ushering in a progressive, populist and above all, patriotic pursuit of multi-ethnic plurality, led by a Premadasa.

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