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Negative capabilities of the JVP

POLITICS: Having discussed internal dissension between two major parties last month, the SLFP and the UNP, it seems appropriate to devote some space to the JVP, the other important player now in the political game. Significantly, there seems at present little evidence of internal dissension there, which is worth considering in itself.

This should be done perhaps in the context of my assertion, when I started this column, initially decided to use the title ‘Politics, Policies and People’, but I realised this made little sense since in Sri Lanka, policies rarely govern perceptions, actions or reactions. I wrote then, that ‘the JVP may be an exception to this rule, but I would argue indeed that it is an exception that proves the rule, as its history has shown’.

What I meant was that the JVP is unusual in being devoted to particular policies. But, whereas other parties have changed their policies both because of changing circumstances and the priorities of particular people, the JVP has ignored not only individual aspirations but also actual realities in its adherence to what it presents as established policies.

More importantly, and I think sadly in the present context, it equates policies with strategies, and therefore, tends to lose sight of final goals because of its devotion to particular means.

JVP responsible for Premadasa’s 1988 election victory



Sirima Bandaranaike


J R Jayewardene


Ranil Wickremesinghe


Somawansa Amarasinghe

To illustrate my point I can do no better than go back to what happened in 1988, when the JVP, having perhaps been primarily responsible for President Jayewardene’s decision finally to call it a day, then ended up ensuring the election of a UNP successor.

I will paraphrase here what appeared in my earlier book ‘Sri Lanka in Crisis: J R Jayewardene and the erosion of democracy’, which will also appear in the updated version ‘Declining Sri Lanka’, which should be available soon.

I wrote then that there seem to have been a number of reasons for the decision of the JVP to urge Mrs Bandaranaike to boycott the election, and then in effect to turn its guns on her, which ensured that she lost.

The JVP call for a boycott led to extremely low polls in the South, with Mrs Bandaranaike being the loser even more pivotally than Ranil Wickremesinghe lost by the LTTE boycott in 2005.

That of course was swiftly forgotten by the drawing rooms of Colombo, even though on the earlier occasion government goons also exacerbated the impact of the boycott in areas where Mrs Bandaranaike was expected to do well.

I wrote then that a number of factors seem to have contributed to the JVP decision. One was that, it was disconcerted by Mrs Bandaranaike’s candidature, since that renewed the possibility of democratic change, whereas the JVP had capitalised on recent feelings that democracy had been destroyed and armed revolution was the only possible answer.

Then there were also those who, having seen how effective violence had been in the preceding few months, wanted to continue with that sort of campaign.

Though many of these were among the younger cadres, in the pattern that had earlier characterised developments in Tamil militancy, there were also those in authority who saw such a strategy as preferable. Their belief seems to have been that a Premadasa victory and the consequent marginalisation of the SLFP would prepare the ground for revolution more satisfactorily.

But my point then was that they should have realised there was some risk in this approach, since a Premadasa regime following a contested election would have more authority than Jayewardene had exercised over the preceding year.

The aspects of what could happen were already visible in that as the Armed Forces had begun to move more forcefully against the JVP even in the South, when it became clear that there was no close identity of interests between the SLFP and the JVP.

But, even then it was possible that there were those in the JVP who would still have thought such a strategy preferable, on the grounds that what had in the end to be achieved was total revolution.

At the same time such an approach may have been advocated too by those in the JVP who were sympathetic towards Premadasa. Interestingly, I wrote then that such sympathy may have been due not only to Premadasa being seen as opposed to the elite that had dominated Sri Lankan politics previously, but also because of the influence of the ELJP, the party that had been set up by Rukman Senanayake when he finally left the UNP.

The ELJP had initially brought the JVP into the coalition of parties that opposed President Jayewardene, but dropped out, and opposed Mrs Bandaranaike.

As I wrote then, ‘it continued to keep up its contacts with the JVP, which appeared to provide Premadasa too with a link; unlike Jayewardene he was extremely careful to refrain from criticising the JVP, but insisted rather it was the SLFP that was responsible for the anarchy that gripped the country’.

But the consequence of all this was that, while Rukman Senanayake and his ELJP were happily absorbed by the UNP, the JVP was decimated and its leadership all killed, except indeed for Somawansa Amarasinghe. Recently, it was suggested in a newspaper article that some members of the leadership had wanted to support Mrs Bandaranaike back in 1988, but the more doctrinaire elements had prevailed.

Perhaps there are parallels to the situation now, since one would assume Nandana Goonetilleke cannot be alone in his view that the present government is more likely to pursue ultimate JVP goals than any other. But, as recent events and pronouncements have made clear, the JVP has decided that compromise is out of the question.

Current JVP goals

This decision must be assessed in terms of what one assumes to be the final policy goals of the JVP. One is preservation of a united Sri Lanka. Sadly, this very reasonable goal, shared it seems by all players in the game, national and international, except for the Tigers, has been obfuscated between various terms, unitary and federal, devolution and decentralisation.

There are those who think federalism and devolution will lead to increasing autonomy for the separate units, and therefore, to disintegration of the country.

Though historical experience argues against such a view, the counter example of the Soviet Union is often adduced as a warning. Sadly, world history is unknown amongst the younger generation of Sri Lankans.

Even more sadly, as is also apparent from the students who have come to university in the last decade or so, the few who are supposed to have studied politics, or who are interested in the subject, believe that the Soviet Union broke up because of American manipulation. That there were internal problems that precipitated the crisis is wholly ignored.

The JVP therefore seems to think a unitary state is sacrosanct. This is ironic in that, way back in 1981, when President Jayewardene introduced District Development Councils, it contested those when the SLFP boycotted them.

Of course those DDCs did not really devolve power, so there is no fundamental inconsistency, but my point is that when the rest of what might be termed the nationalist opposition opposed any devolution, the JVP was more enlightened.

Now that the whole world has moved towards understanding the need for greater pluralism, it is sad that the JVP seems to have regressed.

But, this I think has to be examined in the context of its other fundamental goal, which still seems to be that of the all-encompassing state. Here again one is struck by their seeming to be in a time-warp, when the rest of the world has moved far beyond that.

But here they are conscious that the people at large do not really believe in that sort of statist socialism, and therefore that aspect is downplayed, while they strive to oppose the government publicly in terms of the constitutional issues.

In reflecting on these matters, I was reminded of the MoU signed between the UPFA and the JVP when it agreed to support Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign, and indeed did so with remarkable commitment.

At the time I had no problem with the clauses relating to the ethnic issue, because those were basically about reducing the authoritarian gains of the Tigers consequent to the Ceasefire, and introducing democratic and human rights principles to the affected areas. What did worry me was the commitment to do away with ‘the so-called liberal open economy’.

No turning back

In that respect however, Mahinda assured that there was no turning back and that the country would continue to move into the modern world, though there would be greater emphasis on social welfare and equity.

Having worried previously about the more libertarian approach of the Ranil’s government, this was of course quite acceptable, and indeed soon after it was reported that the JVP too had declared that what they meant was a mixed economy.

Obviously, in a mixed economy, the relative balance cannot be prescribed, and it was understandable that different elements in the government would have different ideas.

In this respect indeed there are those in the SLFP who are as statist as their JVP counterparts, though this may be more for convenience than ideological reasons.

But whereas on balance President Rajapaksa has tried rapidly to modernise, and indeed approached Premadasa like efficiency, as opposed to the two leaders who preceded him, with regard to Norocholai and Upper Kotmale, the JVP has sensed that development on such lines will not be conducive to a restoration of the absolutist state.

It makes sense then for them, if not to stop President Rajapaksa, to slow him down. They have two weapons with which to do this, or rather two issues, since there are many weapons with which to exploit these. The first issue is public sector restructuring, the second is constitutional reform.

The first however is not of great concern to the country at large, and even the majority of public servants would not object despite the clamours of a vocal minority. Transparency, as with the SLTB and SLT, is the key, and ensuring that public servants realise the benefits to them.

Of course tying up that issue with the cost of living may yield better results to those who want the dinosaurs to continue, but the government is aware of that and the need to limit agitation on that score. So, there remains the issue of constitutional reform. This is potentially an emotional issue, and in particular if others get in on the act.

Though the JHU, while reaffirming what it would not want, seems disinclined to rock the boat, it is possible that the UNP may refuse, as in 2000, to support any substantial measures of devolution.

Sadly, the current allegations about the President’s relations with the Tigers may be used as an excuse to oppose a settlement that the Tigers also oppose, with the claim that it is based on some secret understanding.

After all in 2000 Ranil allowed his storm troops to burn President Kumaratunga’s proposals on the floor of the house, on the grounds that they conceded too much to the Tamils, even while the TULF was rejecting them as inadequate.

Chaos at this time with regard to the constitutional issue would be disastrous, because it would also slow down the reforms in other areas that are so urgent. The government’s ten year plan shows clear understanding that the two issues are in a sense related.

In the health sector, for instance, which fortunately has a Minister, like his counterpart at energy, who can conceptualise, management changes are predicated on greater decentralisation, while in housing for instance there is clear recognition that the nanny state must retreat and allow individuals greater responsibility for themselves, albeit with structured support.

But, while there is much further to go, none of this will appeal to the JVP in its present atavistic mood. I hope later to show that such a mindset is tragic for the country, and is indeed likely to prove tragic for the JVP and for the rural youngsters it should be promoting towards productive lines of their own, not simply as tools to a regressive goal.

For the moment I hope that the rest of the country, the silent majority who have moved with the times, will look at issues on their own, and not allow the confrontational extremes that dominated the eighties to wreak destruction again.

 

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