"… siblings of chaos".
Jorge Luis Borges (A Comment on August 23, 1944)
The JVP is no stranger to schisms. Its first internal upheaval preceded its first insurgency. The JVP has a higher membership turnover rate than either the UNP or the SLFP. Though quite a few of its more prominent dissidents tried to chart an independent path none succeeded; the ones who made good did so only after they recreated themselves and joined the SLFP or the UNP. The latest implosion is likely to take a similar trajectory. Wimal Weerawansa may be sincere when he disclaims any intention of joining the government; however objective factors beyond his control will propel him inexorably in that direction. At the next parliamentary election the dissidents will have to choose between joining the UPFA and entering the realm of political wilderness.
In the meantime this latest implosion will provide the country with an entertaining spectacle, an unparalleled melodrama, a political circus doubly welcome given the dearth of bread (as food items become increasingly unaffordable). The JVP is addicted to depicting itself as a party of superheroes who have transcended the human condition; its leaders consciously cultivate the image of Spartan incorruptibility. This façade of virtuous superiority will be rent asunder and the real (and sordidly human) JVP will be on display, as each side tries to justify itself by painting the other in the blackest of hues. By revealing the JVP as a false idol and its leaders as charlatans in heroes’ mantles, the exposes and counter-exposes may cool the fanatical ardour of its starry-eyed members and discourage new converts.
The latest JVP schism cannot be equated with the Karuna rebellion. Col. Karuna rebelled not just against the LTTE and its self-deified leader but also against deeply held convictions and beliefs of Tamil nationalism. Therefore in its initial stages his rebellion was a conscious act of affirmation with a strong democratising potential, even though it ended with the rebels becoming oppressors in their own turn. The Weerawansa schism is more akin to the Karu Jayasuriya split in the UNP, the result of a search for greener pastures. Though some would see in the JVP split a hardliners vs. moderates divide, both sides are trying to outdo each other in ‘patriotism’. Wimal Weerawansa is a Sinhala supremacist par excellence, a founding leader of the Manel Mal Viyaparaya and the Patriotic National Movement. His supporters are depicting him as a victim of an international conspiracy (concocted by Tigers, Marxists and Liberals).
The JVP too is unlikely to adopt a more moderate stand on devolution since it would not want to be accused of treachery by its erstwhile members. On the contrary, in order to maintain its ‘patriotic’ image while opposing the government on economic issues in the midst of the war, the JVP will harden its stance on devolution. Consequently the JVP schism will not have a moderating influence on Lankan politics any more than the UNP split did (the UNP dissidents are meekly toeing the anti-devolution line of the Rajapakses in order to safeguard their political futures). So long as the President remains unwilling to accept the existence of an ethnic problem and the potency of the historic memory of 1956 and 1983, the search for a solution will remain a time buying exercise.
Economics and Politics
On April 11th the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) categorised Sri Lanka as a country facing ‘severe localised food insecurity’ and placed her among 37 states ‘requiring external assistance’: "In Sri Lanka food security continues to be affected by the resurgence of civil conflict, natural disasters (recent floods) as well as rising cereal prices" (FAO Food Emergencies Update). Already 50.7% of the Lankan people are undernourished; 29% of children below five years are underweight while 14% suffer from wasting and stunting. These disturbing negatives are happening against the backdrop of a steadily rising per capita income. According to the deputy head of the World Food Programme in Sri Lanka, Jean-Yves Lequime, "Sri Lanka has a significantly higher child underweight rate than would be expected on the basis of its [annual] per capita GDP … Indeed, Sri Lanka has a child underweight rate that may be three times as high as what would be expected from a country with Sri Lanka's level of infant mortality" (IRIN – 9.4.2008). Clearly Sri Lanka is subject to the malady of ‘ruthless growth’ with a majority of the populace denied adequate access to benefits of growth.
In stark contrast to this disturbing reality President Mahinda Rajapakse displays a happy optimism. His New Year message was remarkable for its self-congratulatory tone: "A major activity of our government in the period that lapsed was devoted to ensure the prosperity of the land through the empowerment of agriculture. We know that the nation has reaped its excellent achievements". Obviously the President is sanguine about the current conditions and the future prospects of the country, contrary to all available evidence, both statistical and existential. Unsurprisingly the FAO report on ‘measures taken by governments to limit the impact of soaring international cereal prices on food consumption’ makes no mention of Sri Lanka! How can there be remedial measures when the rulers do not see any problem?
The JVP, far more attuned to its predominantly lower middle class base, cannot partake of President Rajapakse’s happy indifference to the state of the economy. Though reluctant to go all out against a government which is battling the LTTE, the JVP is finding it increasingly difficult to prop up a government that is heaping economic misery on the masses with thoughtless abandon. The JVP’s base is particularly vulnerable to the disastrous economics of the Rajapakse administration and the party would know that in the final analysis people vote with their stomachs.
Last November the JVP enabled the government to survive the Budget vote and the government reciprocated. The CFA was abrogated; the President sabotaged his own APC; the government refused to make any concessions to the international community on human rights. If
cost of living did not sky rocket in the aftermath of the budget vote and/or there were significant military victories in the Northern theatre, the JVP could have continued to prop up the regime. However prices reached astronomical levels, not least because of the financial mismanagement and malpractices of the regime; and the Northern war, given its nature, was incapable of producing the fast victories the country has become accustomed to in the Eastern theatre, since in the North there was no Karuna rebellion.
The JVP is confronted with a dilemma. The anti-people economic policies of the regime make another coalition with the SLFP an unpalatable prospect. The memory of the fate that befell the traditional left as a result of coalition politics would also haunt the JVP. The CP and the LSSP clung to the coalition in the name of socialism, even as the people were subject to unprecedented miseries. As punishment, both parties were sent into political wilderness, permanently, by the electorate. Though the SLFP eventually rebounded from the disaster of 1977 the old left never did. The JVP would not want to end up in a similar state. It would therefore want to position itself to the left of the Rajapakse administration socio-economically, base its campaign on economic issues and go it alone, seeking to benefit from the rapidly escalating cost-of-living crisis.
Contesting separately has its downside as well. The JVP did exceptionally well at the 2004 parliamentary and provincial council elections because many SLFPers gave one or two preferences to JVP contestants. This favourable factor can operate only if the two parties contest together. If the JVP contests alone, its parliamentary representation will be reduced by more than half, in accordance with its own electoral strength. This ‘defeat’ can be averted only by rejoining the UPFA on the basis of ‘patriotism’. This seems to be the course of action favoured by the dissidents.
This ‘two-line struggle’ was present within the JVP for sometime but the split could have been avoided without Wimal Weerawansa, the individual.
Wimal Weerawansa is too big for his party. He helped the JVP to emerge from the politico-organisational wilder ness it was consigned to after the Second Insurgency, rising from obscurity to national prominence in the process. However any further advancement was not possible given the nature of the JVP and the role it is fated to play in Lankan politics – Mr. Weerawansa cannot become the leader of the JVP and the JVP cannot form a government on its own. The only possible way forward is to become an influential cabinet minister (like his one time comrade, current bête noir and – perhaps! – future ally, Champika Ranawaka). Consequently Mr. Weerawansa needed to persuade the JVP to rejoin the ruling coalition or ally with the regime at the head of his own group of loyalists (as a lone dissident he will become a nonentity like Nandana Gunatilake). Given the JVP’s unwillingness to rejoin the government, Mr. Weerawansa had to break the JVP in order to break the glass ceiling impeding his upward mobility. The Government and the Dissidents
It would make sense from the point of view of the regime to encourage a split in the JVP (thereby gaining the backing of some if its parliamentarians) since the party is unlikely to save the regime at the next Budget vote. The Eastern election is another contributory factor. The regime sees it as a contest it must win (the less than sensible decision to hold the UPFA May Day rally in Ampara demonstrates the significance the Rajapakses attribute to this election). In the absence of a joint slate the regime would want to weaken the JVP before the election, so that the inroads the JVP can make into the crucial Sinhala vote in the East are reduced.
There is a law of (political) nature which governs the trajectory of inner-party splits. The JVP and the dissidents will steadily drift apart, with each becoming the ‘main enemy’ of the other. Wimal Weerawansa will support the government within and outside the parliament while the JVP will up the tempo of its anti-government struggle. The East will be an obvious battleground; the JVP will also adopt more confrontationist stances on economic issues. The worsening food crisis is causing food riots in a number of countries. As the price of rice and other essentials increases and the government intoxicated by its own propaganda hyperbole does nothing, the JVP will have both the opportunity and the excuse to shift to a confrontationist stand vis-à-vis the government, despite the war.
In such a context the temptation to repress the JVP, perhaps even to proscribe it, on the grounds of inciting violent instability in the South may be irresistible. The Rajapakses would be encouraged in such a disastrous course by the JVP dissidents (and possibly the JHU), who could then become the ‘JVP’ officially. As the election season draws near, socio-economic problems mount and the war drags on, that option would seem more and more alluring to a beleaguered regime. By contesting separately the JVP cannot win; but it can drag the ruling party down with it.