A Fragmented Left is a Jinx

Addressing challenges democracy will encounter in coming years


by Kumar David

"We will never surrender: Never! Never!!"

The field of debris scattered on the left is not a pleasant sight. Nevertheless, the validity of Marx’s method remains firm, like Churchill’s spunk after the surrender of France or Greek resolve between Thermopylae and Salamis. On the darkest of nights and in the wettest of forests the monkey does not lose its grip. History is an unkind matron replete with setbacks to be digested. Though in themselves they prove little, they encourage theoretical renewal and strategic redesign. A resurgence of nativism does not compel us to retreat but to renew our determination to combat it. Before any of this, however, we need to survey the debris field. Hard-nosed honesty is the mother of future progress.

There are three species making up the Left menagerie. We know of the dimly visible phantoms bearing Mahinda Rajapaksa’s spittoon and trailing in his shadow. Next are small fragments - the ULF (is it one or two?), NSSP (certainly two), peratugami, kurutugami fleas shed off JVP hide, post-Shan Maoist assemblages with some influence in the North, Siritunga’s outpost of a UK outfit, and oh dear sects and sects whose membership can comfortably fit in a minivan. Though I speak in denigrating tones I do take cognisance of their existence. Worldwide experience from as far back as 1917 is that when a mass left accretion torrents forward all are sucked into the mainstream, the few relicts that aren’t, drown.

Thirdly there’s the JVP’s whose elephantine proportion in left-space makes it critical. It is the only entity in this collection that can win even one seat in parliament on its own; that is without hitching itself to a SLPP-SLFP or UNP list. Its cadres are youthful enough to look well ahead and it has remade itself after setbacks in 1971, 1983, 1989 and its 2004-5 sojourn in Chandrika’s government where it held ministerial portfolios. But its presidential election profile has been consistently disappointing: 4.2% in 1982 (Wijeweera) and 4.1% in 1999 (Nandana Gunatilake), both better than Anura’s 3.2% in 2019. One hopes, hopes for the umpteenth time, that the JVP has learnt the lesson that it cannot go it alone and must integrate into a large democratic-left matrix. (National People’s Power which fielded Anura comprised 29 groups but only one, the ULF in which I was an insignificant potato, was a political party).

Readers will not dissent if I pass over Rajapaksa spittoon-carriers LSSP, CP and DLF quickly. They have been slotted in their star-crossed roles for two decades, but achieved what? What’s the purpose of their existence? If the LSSP, CP and DLF cease to be, if they dissolve like dew into the SLPP, what difference? Will it make an iota of difference in GR/MR policy and action? There is nothing left of the Left in the Rajapaksa pocket. This is not 1970-75 when NM made budgets, Colvin drafted constitutions and ran plantations and Pieter excelled in housing, all of which, like it or not, coloured the timbre of the then government.

The wee fragments I mentioned in my second para could make themselves useful if they play honest broker in gelling a bigger left-democratic alliance with the JVP as core. One faction of the ULF tried in the run up to the presidential election. But absent a creditable showing by Anura as a base from which to culture a third-option opposed to the venal and wretched two-party oligopoly, the initiative has suffered a setback. We now need to examine and digest why AKD polled only four lakhs, not seven as expected, or more as hoped. The answer to this will help us inch closer to truths about domestic relations of political power and to gauge Lanka’s dependence on international winds.

Let’s make a common sense inventory of Anura’s ‘missing votes’; that is the three or four lakhs that went elsewhere. Obviously part went to Sajith; some people feared that ‘first-preference-for-Anura second-for-Sajith’ tactical voting was risky. Many, who wished my third-option concept well, funked to risk it. These bimbos were both short-sighted and foolish but this is not the occasion to grouse. But this cannot and does not account for all the ‘missing votes’; maybe half - for want of a better measure.

The other half is less easy to pin but more complex and interesting. The 400,000 that the JVP polled is its hard-core, shorn of the aforesaid well-wishers and minus something else. What’s that? In truth the JVP is a Sinhalese party but wrapped around its intuitional self is a progressive petty bourgeois mantle; radical, subaltern, left inclined and not in awe of UNP or Rajapaksa. Its sentiments are voiced in phrases like "ung horu nemei" and "ung ta chance-ekak dheela balamu". The mantle evaporated; it went to Gota. We must not underestimate the significance of this fact; this slippage of the JVP’s peripheral vote is one measure of the surge of Sinhala-Buddhist (SB) sentiment. I have repeatedly asked that this emotion not be underestimated; 72% is a never before SB landslide. We must not fool ourselves about the nativist-racist upsurge that needs to be surmounted if Lanka is to rescue itself from itself.

Gota will himself be a prisoner of the forces that this genie will release. Why is the SB mass so incensed with the UNP and the minorities and loath even to extend its usual marginal support to the JVP? We have to grasp the why of this if we want to conjecture what will come next. This upswelling of SB anger has been ripening since the end of the war; the Gota phenomenon is a manifestation. There is resentment that the rewards of war victory "have been frittered away"; Tamil elites and businessmen strut in Colombo as though their side did not lose the war, the TNA lords it in parliament, Sampanthan had the temerity to claim Leadership of the Opposition, and Tamil fellows still talk about devolution; how dare they! To make it worse the Moors are getting richer and multiplying faster. (My suggestion that their men are more virile and women more comely nearly cost me Sinhalese friends!).

The coup de grace coup was the human rights commission in Geneva. It is incomprehensible to the Sinhalese mind that its state is accused of human rights violations when all it did, in their eyes, was stamp out evil terrorism. The military is indicted of bombing and shelling civilians, and horror of horrors, "great warriors, brave war heroes" are exposed to possible trial before war-crimes tribunals. It is this decoction of frittered away ‘opportunities to fix the Tamils after victory’ and conspiracy against war heroes, that fermented a SB landslide like never before. If you don’t buy my reasoning come up with a better one to explain such a huge and partisan change.

Now to "what next". I want to make a point first. The upsurge of Sinhalese nativism, and the electoral gush to the Rajapaksas, are not the same thing; they are related but not identical. The former, frighteningly, is a psycho-political phenomenon, an ideological rapture of durable influence, the latter could ebb and flow with time and events. It is the fickleness of the rush to Gota compared to the durability of the ideological remoulding that will be the chink in Rajapaksa armour. The bolts and arrows will be fired by international actors. India has given notice about 13A; Sri Lanka cannot shelve human rights trial promises made in Geneva without courting mild sanction in the West; UK parties have gone out on an anti-Colombo limb, and no one knows what idiosyncratic impeached-Trump will do from one day to the next. However, the biggest fuse in the tinder box may be the Islamic world. There is a point beyond which one cannot hound the Muslims of Lanka. The Gota regime will have no option but to appease the minorities, and do so to a degree which will be unpalatable to its nativist-extremist base.

How does any of this influence opportunities for refurbishing left-democratic space? First there is the recommendation that I was leading up to earlier - that the left and the JVP is an environment hostile to democracy and therefore seek broad, repeat broad, defensive alliances till the danger of Gota despotism is past. The left midgets can be of service in aiding this.

But what of the international side? The tricky part is navigating between foreign influence which will be hated by the Sinhala mass and the authoritarian dispositions of the Rajapaksa clan. But not so tricky if you think clearly. Lanka is not an island separate unto itself. No big domestic conflict in the world especially if it has democratic or human rights implications lacks international involvement. Women’s outrage in Pakistan at Qandeel Baloch’s murder in the name of despicable honour killing, Modi stripping Kashmir of its long cherished autonomous status, near uprisings in Venezuela, Chile and Bolivia and widespread rioting in the guise of campaigning for democracy in Hong Kong, have all gone international. Value judgements a matter apart, nothing big is domestic any more. And I think that’s damned good! The world must not fear to condemn dictators and bullies and when necessary kick them. World opinion is armour against dictators.

I am not predicting that Gota’s regime will without doubt degenerate into autocracy, but if it does, a defensive alliance at home, while opposing it, must also welcome international empathy. Why I make special mention of this is because the JVP suffers from a nativist inward looking ethos, it has rejected international human rights initiatives consistently and stoutly opposed investigation of war-crimes. If it is to be a core unit in defending democracy in the next period, it will have to shed this outlook. ‘People of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains and a world to win’. The JVP must learn that in today’s world, borders are evaporating ever faster.

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