Multidimensional vulnerabilities, SJB self-sabotage and NPP-JVP idiosyncrasies
Thursday, 7 September 2023 03:03 – – 90
6 out of 10 citizens under siege
Confirms he’s definitely running for President
“If I can become the voice of the voiceless millions, and become the main instrument that will take them out of their misery, I will consider that alone as my greatest achievement.”
– Ranasinghe Premadasa (Presidential candidacy acceptance speech, 8 Oct 1988)
Do we know the country we’re living in? Do we understand how it is changing as a result of ‘economic contraction’? A new report reveals that we live in a country with two nations within it, by which I don’t mean ethnic nationalities, but ‘social nations’ (if I may coin a term). Just as the world has the Global North and the Global South, Sri Lanka has its own socioeconomic North and South within it.
One country, two nations
A stunning UNDP Report (undp_multidimensional_vulnerability_report.pdf) reveals that over half our citizens are ‘have-nots’, caught in overlapping and intersecting vectors of deprivation and thus trapped in a downward spiral of povertisation and social underdevelopment.
6 out of 10 citizens (55.7%) totalling 12.3 million suffer from ‘multidimensional vulnerability’.
82% of the multidimensionally vulnerable are in rural areas.
As districts, Colombo (1.23 million) and Gampaha (1.37 million) have the highest absolute numbers.
These are truly ‘the wretched of the earth’, or of our little corner of it. Who will speak for this socioeconomic majority? Who will be the voice of these voiceless citizens?
I belong to a generation that was delighted when global economic thinking shifted from ‘growth rate’ to the Physical Quality of Life Index (PQLI) and then to a better version, the Human Development Index (HDI). We were proud for two reasons.
Firstly, our elders, the Lankan economists of my father’s generation of professionals had fought many battles internationally as part of the Third World intelligentsia, to help shift economic thinking in this direction which registered how the people of a country were actually faring.
Secondly, Sri Lanka, with its fairly modest income, registered high on PQLI and HDI, bettering many richer, more developed countries. The United Nations system and its agencies were the arena and agency of these advances.
Today, I am saddened and outraged to live in a country where by the same indicators, we are in rapid reverse. All the indicators—nutrition, education, health etc.—that went into PQLI and HDI, are in free-fall. This doesn’t pertain to a minority on the margins; this is true of the arithmetical majority of our citizens. An increasing majority is undergoing a process of social underdevelopment, which if it isn’t reversed, will turn from situational into systemic socioeconomic apartheid.
Can anything be done to save them from descent into crushing destitution? In the mid-late 1980s a UNICEF report on growing poverty and inequality arrived on the desk of Sirisena Cooray, Colombo’s mayor who sent it to his leader Prime Minister R. Premadasa, who read it and promptly constituted a one-man commission headed by Dr. Warnasena Rasaputram to investigate the state of poverty which had grown despite or because of the economic growth model adopted since 1977. Premadasa’s Janasaviya program which was one of the main planks of his victorious campaign at the presidential election 1988, arose from that process.
We imperatively need a Presidential election next year to make a change. No less imperatively we need a leadership that will ‘do a Premadasa’, study the latest UNDP Report and formulate a specific program to solve the problem and embed it in his/her election manifesto as a solemn commitment to a new socioeconomic and developmental contract.
Running against The Establishment
Sajith’s crucial candidacy
The SJB leader and the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa announced at Lunugamvehera on Sunday that he would definitely run for President. Sajith’s candidacy, not Ranil’s is the critical variable in deciding whether or not the Sri Lankan system changes sufficiently progressively yet pragmatically so as to save what has been the best of its aspects and achievements since Independence while avoiding the risks of amateurism and experimentation.
However, an element within the SJB is sabotaging Sajith Premadasa’s presidential run.
The SJB is campaigning against the Government and the Rajapaksas as if a Parliamentary election was the first on the agenda, or a Rajapaksa was likely to be a presidential front-runner, while barely campaigning against President Wickremesinghe though the Presidential election is first on the agenda, only a year away and Sajith Premadasa, the SJB leader is due to run against Ranil.
The 56% suffering ‘multidimensional vulnerabilities’ (UNDP) creates a clear social demand for Sajith Premadasa provided he leans into the campaign with a robust [Ranasinghe] Premadasa ‘growth with equity/poverty alleviation’ New Deal, but the SJB’s economic policy-makers keep driving in the opposite direction, recycling their 2022 economic platform as The Economic Blueprint 2.0, a vapid technocratic take which is hardly an alternative to Ranil’s neoliberal policies and so seamless a complement to it that the two are indistinguishable.
Doesn’t the SJB know that a Presidential election is highly likely to precede the Parliamentary election?
Is the SJB is hoping for a Parliamentary election to precede the presidential despite the fact that its advantage lies at a presidential election? If so, why?
Is the SJB trying to signal Ranil to go for a Parliamentary election and flush out the SLPP because then the SJB can take its spot as the dream team for the implementation of Wickremesinghe’s policies?
If so, how does it hope to get enough anti-incumbency traction for its leader and Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa to beat Ranil at a Presidential election next year?
Does it hope to support Ranil at a Presidential election while suffocating Sajith’s candidacy?
Or does the SJB know that Ranil is not going to hold a Presidential election next year?
Bemoaning the fate of the US Republican Party, highly-respected US academic commentators such as Nobel prize-winner for Economics, Paul Krugman, describe the ‘wingnut’ phenomenon. According their analysis ‘wingnuts’ are ideological extremists (‘nutjobs’) trained in free-market fundamentalist doctrine and strategy in ‘an ecosystem’ (Krugman) of right-wing think-tanks/institutes. They formulate an ideological economic, social and foreign policy agenda, aggressively implant it in one wing of a party, and turn that wing into the whole party or the hegemonic element, or publicly project only that one wing as the party.
That is the situation of the SJB, trained while in the UNP and (weirdly) even after it broke away, by the International Republican Institute.
When SWRD broke from the UNP after decades and formed the SLFP in 1951, no one confused it with the UNP. When Ranasinghe Premadasa moved away from the UNP and formed the Puravesi Peramuna in 1972-1973 and held public meetings, no one mistook its discourse for that of the UNP. Similarly, Vijaya and Chandrika’s breakaway SLMP was never an ideological clone of the SLFP. Though it had the perfect policy planks for a uniquely successful ‘third way’ platform—the policies of Ranasinghe Premadasa—the SJB was blocked by ‘US Republican’/ ‘UK Conservative’ indoctrinated wingnuts within.
Today, a year from Presidential elections the SJB has a leader-candidate who is the best placed to do an S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Ranasinghe Premadasa, interpolating himself successfully between an unfeeling elitist neoliberal Establishment and an anti-open economy one-party Left; posit a social democratic alternative and deliver a progressive-centrist outcome. However, the SJB has allowed itself to be dominated by ‘wingnuts’ who yearn to reunite with Ranil and desire to fight the JVP-NPP electorally –or otherwise—on a Right vs. Left basis under Ranil’s leadership rather than on a Social Democratic basis under Sajith’s. Which suits the JVP-NPP just fine.
Sajith’s father created a parallel structure of like-minded loyalists under Sirisena Cooray to run for Presidency in 1988 with, without or against the UNP. Sajith should do the same from within the SJB.
Anura’s analysis and assumptions
37-year-old Gabriel Boric famously said that Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism and his presidency would be its grave. Anura Dissanayake’s critique is primarily not of the political economy of neoliberalism but of endemic corruption. That’s fair and accurate enough, but corruption is hardly the overwhelming preoccupation of leftists in general and the electorally highly successful Latin American left-populists in particular. Their focus is on the economic policy regime of neoliberalism and its consequences.
The logical problem with AKD’s near-exclusive focus on corruption is that it would unwittingly give a free pass to neoliberals such as the SJB’s economic troika which cannot credibly be accused of corruption.
With or without corruption, the neoliberal policy model would still generate poverty, inequality, marginalisation, misery and underdevelopment.
AKD’s (sporadic and secondary) critique of neoliberalism is wrongly dated. By dating it from 1977 and the open economy, he fails to understand why Ranil is demolishing all the achievements and policies from that period onwards and is transgressing all the parameters that successive administrations stayed within.
He therefore fails to defend the host of developmental achievements and programmes throughout those decades which the people benefited from and Ranil is now trashing.
He fails to understand that that no previous Sri Lankan capitalist leader had the nihilistic attitude to the economic role of the state that Ranil does.
He fails to recognise that the only free-market fundamentalist to be elected PM and now, lead the country as appointed President, has been Ranil Wickremesinghe. Full-blown neoliberalism makes it appearance in the policy mainstream in Sri Lanka only in 2001.
Only if Anura were to take that perspective instead of his 1948 and 1977 dating, can he sweep up the broad anti-Ranil vote which has been the winning factor from 1999 to 2020.
The JVP-NPP hammers away at the idea that politics is inexorably polarizing into ‘two camps’. This strident slogan is an echo of a political line universally acknowledged to be the very worst in the history of the Communist International, a.k.a the Comintern.
The JVP-NPP’s binary perspective is the direct descendant of the “class vs. class” line of the Comintern’s notorious, post-Lenin, ultra-left ‘Third Period’ of 1928-1933. Any and all united fronts were rejected. The Social Democrats were classified as no better than the Fascists and denounced as ‘social fascists’. The prospect of clear-cut polarisation between the Left and the radical Right, the Fascists, was welcomed. The result was that the Nazis won the election of 1933.
After that most monstrous of miscalculations, the Communist International dumped the binary theory of polarization and replaced it with a hugely successful strategy of a broad united front, articulated by Georgi Dimitrov and Palomiro Togliatti, known as the Popular Front, and best practised by Mao Zedong as New Democracy.
Speaking last week at the Kotte conference, Anura Dissanayake channelling Lenin (without acknowledgement), noted that there are two conditions for great social transformation, namely that (a) ‘the people cannot live in the old way’ and (b) ‘the ruling-class cannot rule in the old way’. These conditions are currently manifest and therefore this is the best moment for major transformation, he said. He omitted that Lenin listed a third condition: a fissure, a split in the ruling class. Lenin’s third condition was the very opposite of AKD’s gleeful prediction of the convergence into one camp of all Establishment forces.
Therefore, AKD and the JVP-NPP have a choice:
(a) Dismiss Lenin’s third condition as dispensable, because the JVP knows better.
(b) Recognize that Lenin’s third condition is missing and therefore it is not inevitably a moment for great qualitative transformation.
(c) Work towards creating that third condition—a split in the ruling class—instead of ecstatically hailing its absence and un-dialectically proclaiming the unification in one camp of the entire Establishment.
The JVP-NPP is being dictated to by the psychology of its base which does not want any alliances with ‘tainted’ Establishment political forces/figures. A party must educate and persuade its support base, not be constricted by its subjectivity. The great Antonio Gramsci stressed that if the Communist party – the ‘Modern Prince’—is to lead, it must not be stuck within the interests and sentiments of its organised social base but must transcend those sectoral-sectarian limits, and rewire those class interests into a new matrix, re-translate them into a new discourse which is simultaneously national-popular and universalist.
If the JVP-NPP remains within the politically exclusionary parameters prescribed by the emotions of its base, it will be at best the majority in the Parliament or more probably, the Opposition.
Jewel in the crown
The indefinite deferral of the visit of India’s Defence Minister to Trincomalee –and Nuwara Eliya (curious, that)—gives Sri Lankans an opportunity to recognise what’s really going on. Maj-Gen Ashok Mehta who commanded the IPKF in the Eastern Province lays it bare in a piece in The Tribune. The title of the article and ‘strap’ beneath say it all: “India has big plans for Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee port”. “Trincomalee Harbour is recognised as an unspoken part of New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy.”
Ranil’s invitation to India to take over the Trincomalee harbour, the Trincomalee district and the Eastern Province would make Sri Lanka part of the anti-China ‘Indo-Pacific’ grand strategy. Maj-Gen Mehta’s article leaves no room for doubt:
“…Speaking at a seminar last month on Sri Lanka’s strategic geography in the Indian Ocean, Vice Admiral Anup Singh (retd) said the Indian Navy could make former Chinese President Hu Jintao’s Malacca dilemma come true as 80 per cent of Chinese oil tankers passed below Hambantota. Trincomalee Harbour is recognised as an unspoken part of New Delhi’s Indo-Pacific strategy…” (India has big plans for Sri Lanka’s Trincomalee port : The Tribune India)
Maj-Gen Mehta elaborates on the value of Trincomalee:
“…This harbour is the geo-strategic crown jewel of Sri Lanka’s vital assets. It is the world’s fourth largest natural deep-sea harbour and New Delhi has eyed it for decades…
…[It] is 40-m deep and can shelter warships, aircraft carriers and large merchant vessels. It has one of the world’s most elaborate underground ammunition depots, pillboxes and artillery emplacements. Singapore has constructed a flourishing wheat flour mill that is Sri Lanka’s bread basket. But the key assets are 99 oil tank farms (OTFs) of World War II era, some of which have been restored…
…The Trincomalee Harbour area was one of Britain’s biggest sea bases for its naval campaigns in the Far East. It is a model naval base, grand and awesome, that kept French and Dutch forays into Trincomalee Harbour at bay. Britain was reluctant to transfer the control of Trincomalee Harbour to Sri Lanka at the time of its independence in 1948. Britain did not quite attempt a Diego Garcia, but handed back the naval base and OTFs to Colombo only in 1957…” (Ibid)
President Wickremesinghe is handing an incomparably valuable strategic asset to one side (India/Quad) in the great contestation in Asia and the world. Will the other side remain passive?
Meanwhile, an invitation sent by the Colombo Port City Economic Commission highlights “The Role of Sri Lanka in the New Indo-Pacific Economy”. The speaker at the Dubai event is David Cameron, Conservative former PM of the UK. Surely, someone from the Indo-Pacific such as Dr George Yeo would be a more logical – and far less blatant—choice?