The Left and Ranil – economics

Conditional support and a Transitional Programme


PM and delegation in Chongqing

by Kumar David


This column has consistently approached Ranil’s economic outlook and programme with the acceptance that it is a frankly capitalist strategy. At this stage most people are not interested in all sorts of left-right theoretical debates or even questions of class equity; they simply want to know "Will it work; will the strategy that RW is pursing bring growth; will it promote economic strength?" They say, yes fairness and spreading the butter more evenly are good things, but right now they are terribly worried that the economy will decline, there will be belt-tightening and their personal living standards will decline. This is why I invested most of my column inches to pointing out certain critical deficiencies in RW’s approach even judged as a capitalist growth strategy. I will summarise the critique briefly at the end but I don’t want to be distracted from the theme of this piece so early.

The theme is about the Left movement, though somewhat enfeebled, and its relationship with the present UNP-SLFP (S&R) alliance government and in particular the economic programme on which RW is striking out these days. There are three categories of the Left from the perspective of these concerns: (i) the pro-government or in-government groups (the Jayampathy-Wijenayake LSSP Majority group or LMG and Bahu’s wing of the NSSP), (ii) in-the-middle parties including JVP and Siritunga’s United Socialists and (iii) Joint Opposition IJO) members (Dead Left) or fellow travellers of the JO like Peratugami (Frontline). An interesting case is the Communist Party; DEW is distancing himself from the JO because of its flagrant racism (which Vasu and Vitarana seem to revel in) and the CP may support the proposed new constitution depending on its provisions. A section of the CP linked to people like Dr Michael Fernando has already entered into in alliance with LMG and Bahu’s group.

There are two crucial irons in the fire that will shape the attitude of all three categories not just to the government but to the whole evolving scenario. These are the new constitution and in sync with it the national question and secondly Ranil’s economic breakout. The motives which will stir the left on both issues will be similar; firstly what are the actual contents of policies, second the transitional aspect – that is to say to what extent will it be a stepping stone. A third is narrow and personal interets as is common to all things, not just politics. The third concern is well illustrated by the certainty that Vasudeva and Vitrana will under no circumstances diverge from the Mahinda Rajapaksa leadership whatever his fallacies. Thus they will vote against the new constitution since MR is priming the JO for this objective. (Will MS expel SLFPers who vote against the constitution from the Party? That’s an interesting one since so far he has always backed down when confronted; but to do it on this matter will be suicidal).

What is the principled stand the left should take on the Constitution since we know that it will be a far from perfect charter? For example it will not be secular; the unenlightened mumbo-jumbo about the special place of Buddhism will be retained. The country will be declared unitary though this may, I hope be cleverly undermined in other provisions which de facto devolve power to regions and minorities. There is argument about whether reference to social, economic and welfare (healthcare and education) should be explicit. There is little doubt several progressive provisions will be enacted, there is also no doubt given the strength of petty-bourgeois chauvinism there will be undesirable stuff and a lot of omissions.

How should the left respond? What Colvin and the LSSP-CP did in 1972 is wrong. What the ultra-left did in damning the 1972 Constitution out of court is also wrong. The left should explained how several provisions were undesirable but that it would still vote for the constitution since voting against it was destructive. OK Colvin was trapped into a compromise as drafting minister it but that constraint did not apply to the rest of the party and certainly not to those outside Parliament. The LSSP-CP singularly failed to tackle the problem in the way that I am certain Lenin would have. What had to be done was to frankly and openly lay out the negatives; what had to be done was to explain to the people the negative side not hide it; above all what had to be done was to seize upon the opportunity to expand and advance the consciousness of the masses as they lived through the post-constitutional processes. Perhaps most criminal of such failures was mishandling the Tamils.

This way of approaching things at every step is to develop the consciousness of the people. In fact partial and imperfect measures are more important not as half-way steps in the right direction but as opportunities to advance people’s understanding and political consciousness. This is what Trotsky meant by the ‘Transitional Programme’. It was less important as a transition in getting something done; it was far more important as an educational process taking the movement towards what Trotsky was won’t to call a more revolutionary consciousness. One important feature is never hide limitations of erstwhile partners. The left was reluctant in 1970-75 to tell even its own cadres the truth about how reactionary leading sections of the Coalition regime were. So when unceremoniously kicked out in 1975, the cadres of the left parties, the working class and the broad pro-left mass movement were nonplussed, confused and disoriented. Had the LSSP and CP taken note of Trotsky’s thesis on preparing consciousness, people would have been prepared for what was to come and the left stronger when in 1975 than in 1970.

This is a rather long introduction on method since it has a bearing what my topic for the day is; how should the left approach Ranil’s economic strategy. Support what can be supported and oppose what needs to be opposed but in no way become an apologist for the UNP nor lose one’s left identity by failing in essential criticism. Do not identify with what is still a capitalist, not a social-democratic regime. Note my calculated use of ‘still’ because I do not rule out the possibility of the R&S government being pushed in social-democratic directions by the sheer weight of economic crisis. (On economic issues it is R&S not S&R). Before I probe that a little further let me repeat the point in a different style because it deserves emphasis. Do not make the loss of identity mistake that the LSSP-CP made with Mrs B’s government and the Dead Left made with Mahinda; the mistake is fatal, in both instances the left ended up dead.

These are two top of the agenda current issues to which my observations above pertain; the new constitution and Ranil’s economic initiatives. Though Jayampathi and Lal Wijenayake are involved in and playing leading roles in preparing the draft constitution the left is also well aware that on several issues it will fall short of what we wish for. To repeat myself the ‘unitary state’ will be retained, secularism will be eschewed and the ‘leading place of Buddhism’ will be retained and it not clear how the reference to socio-economic guarantees will be incorporated. In the prevailing political circumstances it is beyond dispute that the left must support the new constitution despite anticipated shortcomings, but the crucial question is how we will face up before the people at large and the minorities on these points. We must not make the mistake that the left made in 1972; we must not hide the shortcomings; we must explain how are support has to be seen within the ‘transitional’ perspective as explained previously.

The left must not lose its identity and submerge itself into an amorphous political alliance. If we do this correctly we can achieve three objectives; participate in the enactment of a constitution that on the whole and on balance we support; take the understanding (the political consciousness) of the people one step forward; and thirdly, if and when Jumpy and Lal get kicked out by the rightwing in the government we can go out stronger, not weaker in the mass arena.

A similar way of thinking must regulate the left’s approach to Ranil’s economic strategy. Critical support is not the terminology that quite gets what I am driving at across but I guess may sound like that. Yes the new approach to regional economic cooperation is right; yes agreements with India, China, Singapore etc is desirable in principle, and yes the thrust to enhance the efficiency of the sate machinery and state owned enterprises is correct. Yes it is correct to enhance state revenue; but rescinding announced impositions on the rich, on property owners and on car import duties while imposing a VAT shock on the populace at large is not what one will call examples of intelligence. The duty free vehicle import bonanza bestowed on Members of Parliament who are selling them for between Rs 8 and Rs 20 million is deeply and morally flawed. One can and must be ‘critical’ of such things as part of a ‘critical support’ orientation.

But there are deep and fundamental flaws in the Ranil-Charita-Manik-Eraj-Harsha way of thinking about economic involvement with the outside world. Read their perspectives again and again with care, what is their strategic direction and perspective? A financial hub, more trade agreements, and pouring ever more concrete into high-rise towers in the Port City (or whatever its current pseudonym). In principle and in theory the inclusion of activities of this nature within a strong economic growth strategy is fine, but where is that real growth strategy? Have you heard Ranil or his other acolytes (or are they the real decision makers?) speak of production of goods, of manufacture, of agricultural output; have you even heard them speak of services which will contribute to the productive side? An example of the latter would be converting the white elephant Mattala into an aircraft-maintenance and repair and service hub, for which there is scope. But no, in respect of Mattala the teams thinking cannot get beyond the second airport, a service economy concept. It seems to me that there is deep inbuilt hostility, or at least a latent inability on the part of the aforesaid team to thing of economic growth as anything beyond financial services, trade (not production) and pouring concrete on real estate.

Ranil wants one million jobs; does he want one million pen-pushers in pretty saris and white shirt and tie or people who get their hands on a job and do practical economic activities? Rani9l wants free trade agreements on all sides, but if the productive side does not expand what in pluperfect heaven is he going to export. Even to export brinjals one needs to grow more brinjals!

All is not yet lost. Chongqing seems to have been an eye opener for the PM. He seems to have seen how China prioritised the real economy and built transport systems and commercial, trade and financial services around a booming real economy. The left’s transitional programme must be to explain to the people the incredible one-sidedness of the government’s economic ‘growth’ (sic!) strategy.

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