Last year, 2017, the Government and Opposition separately commemorated the centenary of the Russian revolution –actually of twin revolutions, liberal and socialist, of February and October 1917. In an interesting twist, the result of the Sri Lankan Local Government election of February 10th 2018 takes us back to a situation best described by a term first used during the Russian Revolution of 1917: Dual Power. The Parliament (‘Duma’) was held by the liberal government allied with the Western powers but elections to parallel Councils representing the grassroots– the Soviets– established a dualism of power in Feb 1917, an unstable balance, and by October that year, gave power to the Bolsheviks, from below. This is the real situation in Sri Lanka today, following Feb 10th.
If we look further North, at Jaffna, it is impressive that while the five-party front, the ITAK, dominant in Tamil politics obtained 150 seats in the Jaffna District, 81 seats were won by Douglas Devananda’s EPDP. Once again Douglas comes into view as the last Tamil moderate standing, the sole viable negotiating partner for any Colombo administration whatsoever. He is the only one who will agree to the implementation of existing Constitutional arrangements for devolution and won’t make dogmatic demands which sink their Southern partners in Government –as the TNA, propelled by hawkish civil society and Diaspora sentiment and funding, has just done to the UNP and SLFP.
The Sri Lankan neoliberal and liberal-left commentariat-cum-intelligentsia supported the ‘regime change’ of January 2015. It continued that support right up to Feb 10th 2018 except that it divided up between those who stayed with Ranil and those who shifted to the JVP. Both wings of the un-intelligentsia got it very wrong this time. How so and why so?
At least since the collapse of Russia’s pro-west liberalism and the contrasting success of the Chinese model of modernization, it is almost a truism in the realm of serious policy, that one cannot push neoliberal economic reforms and state-retrenching anti-nationalistic political, ethnic and foreign policy reforms at the same time. But this is precisely what Ranil did in 2001-2003 and again in 2015-2018, and yet, no literate, educated supporter of Yahapalana seems to have expected a social blowback quite this massive. This says much about, but very little for, the Yahapalana intelligentsia, be it the policy intellectuals or the artistic-literary-cultural community.
It is the Geneva Resolution of 2015 and the project for a new, non-unitary Constitution, separately and in combination, that really galvanized the patriotic resistance to the government. The Yahapalana intelligentsia supported both.
Of the plethora of follies committed by Yahapalana, one of the most hilarious was Chandrika’s notion that one could retain and even win back SLFP votes while insulting Mahinda Rajapaksa and treating him as a worse enemy than Ranil.
Ranil and Chandrika went quite far in rigging the democratic political system, by installing the TNA with 16 seats as Opposition, bypassing Mahinda with 50 plus seats. This triangular model of the UNP-SLFP-TNA was utterly rejected at this year’s election and is now politically paraplegic with a broken back.
If Ranil cares for the UNP at all, he will promptly resign as Leader and PM. If the UNP has the slightest sense of electoral self-preservation it will throw out Ranil, Mangala, Rajitha and Champika immediately and promote Sajith, Navin, Ruwan, Vasantha and Wijayadasa.
If the President and the government have the slightest sense of Realism, Ranil will be immediately removed as PM while Finance and Foreign Affairs will be vested in the President, or Sarath Amunugama or Susil Premjayanth.
If the SLFP has the slightest sense at all, it will unite with Mahinda’s Pohottuwa as a junior partner in an anti-UNP coalition. If CBK has the slightest self-respect she will be on the next plane back to London or Paris.
Perhaps the most glaring mistake made by the liberal commentators, social scientists and intellectuals was ignoring two major factors: History and Political Leadership. Mahinda Rajapaksa is a major figure, a great and successful leader in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history and will be recorded as such in its long chronicles. Ousting and then marginalizing him (not even granting him Opposition leadership) was as obviously stupid as treating Mao as “a dead ancestor, a Buddha on a shelf” as the latter complained of the Chinese Communist Party hierarchy before he overturned it by launching the Cultural Revolution, unleashing the Red Guards and “bombarding the headquarters”. Which is what Mahinda did, and succeeded electorally.
In liberal democratic terms, Ranil and Chandrika being restored to government while Mahinda is out of it, is as if Churchill had been succeeded by Chamberlain or Halifax rather than Attlee. It is a grotesque travesty that could not have been sustained.
Max Weber’s phrase “Politics as a Vocation” perfectly describes Mahinda Rajapaksa. In the practice of that vocation, the art and craft of politics, Mahinda is a maestro. He combines instinct with experience, maturity and a steely political determination and will. None of that would be enough if not for the factor of magnetic personal chemistry bordering on magic: sheer likeability; pure public appeal; personality.
His political opponents were just not in the same weight class as this Muhammad Ali of politics. Taken together with the various talents of his brothers and sons, he has an ‘A Team’ as the core group. Add to that the experience and abilities of the Joint Opposition leadership and the 50 plus Members of Parliament who displayed enough moral fiber not to be coopted into the Yahapalana government after August 2015. Mahinda has a top-notch political army and it is on the advance. Feb 10th was Yahapalana’s Stalingrad defeat.
This society is divided between those who prefer Ranil to Mahinda and those who think the opposite. It is similarly divided between those who find Brigadier Fernando’s gesture far more objectionable than Tiger demonstrators shouting “Our Leader-Prabhakaran!” outside our High Commission on our 70th Independence Day. It is now blindingly obvious which camp the majority of his country’s citizens—the sovereign People—belong to, and in what ratios.
“In Ceylon, the road to political power lies through the paddy fields” wrote my father, Mervyn de Silva. Ranil let the paddy fields start to die for want of fertilizer while Mahinda used the old Maoist strategy of “encircling the cities from the countryside”. It is the beginning of the end. But what kind of end will it be and when and how will it arrive? Will it be a crash and burn, caused by an unresolved crisis of legitimacy following February 10th and preceded by labor, student and peasant unrest as in 1976?
If the Government wishes to survive without a major upheaval even until the end of next year, it will have to shift to a new model. That is the model which Michael Kalecki and KN Raj defined as that of an “intermediate regime”. This would entail a total rupture from the neoliberal policy of Ranil and Mangala. As Giuseppe de Lampedusa said in his famous novel The Leopard, things have to change if they are to remain the same. If I am to modify it slightly, if the Government is to remain, it can no longer remain the same. It has to change its profile, its composition and content, and be seen to do so drastically and immediately.