Will the SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’) have a political future, or will it wind up like the LSSP-CPSL of 1977, the SLFP of 1977 or the UNP of 2020?
According to the Jataka Tales, when the Buddha was asked a question which contained a problem, he used to tell the tale of a precedent, located in Benares at the time of King Brahma Datta. The device of a retrospective was either illustrate the cyclical, karmic character of occurrence or to underscore the moral lesson of the story or both.
Similarly, if the Rajapaksas and the Pohottuwa are to understand their future, they must study the 1970s, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike administration and the outcome in 1977 and after.
The Bandaranaikes took 17 years to make a comeback, but the Rajapaksas will take twice that time as did Bongbong Marcos. This is because the Bandaranaikes had a genuine rebel in their ranks, who had retained her credibility and could therefore lead a comeback as a contrast to the Old Guard.
Chandrika Bandaranaike rebelled against her mother in April 1971, broke away from the SLFP in 1984 and was President ten years later in 1994. The Rajapaksas have no Chandrika equivalent.
Even with CBK, it took 17 years for the SLFP to make a comeback. It would have been a much shorter recovery time if a leader had been found outside of the Bandaranaikes– for instance Maithripala Senanayake, the SLFP’s Deputy Leader and ex-Deputy Prime Minister (1970-77). That didn’t happen so it took 17 years.
The Rajapaksas will either be wiped out of Sri Lanka’s politics or will take double the time of the Bandaranaikes to recover, not only because there is no equivalent of CBK the rebel, but also because the citizens are suffering more than they did in the 1970s or feel the pain more because it comes after 45 years of an open economy. A further reason is that Mrs. Bandaranaike didn’t cause a collapse of peasant agriculture, but Gotabaya Rajapaksa has done so—resulting in the unprecedented collapse of the SLFP’s (SLPP’s) traditional peasant base.
However long it takes for the Rajapaksas to recover, if they ever do or anyone of them ever does, one thing is certain. The Congress party in neighbouring India proves that so long as an opposition party does not rid itself of a burdensome family, it will prove unelectable.
LESSONS OF THE UF 1970-1977
The SLPP/Pohottuwa has to decide whether it wants to survive and recover, and if it wants to, it must rupture decisively with the Rajapaksas, now. If it fails to do so now, the voters will always recall with bitterness that all these MPs were with the Rajapaksas while the people were suffering terribly.
That memory won’t fade easily. It took 17 years for the SLFP and this time, the voters will condemn the present ruling party to a longer term out of office.
The only chance of survival and recovery for the SLPP and indeed the SLFP is to rebel against and rupture from the Rajapaksas, real-time. It already almost too late.
The lessons of the 1970s Jataka Tale are clear, but do the SLPP members recall those lessons? Do they recall the story itself?
Take the Communist Party. Everyone from Pieter Keuneman to Sarath Muttetuwegama lost in 1977, though the latter came back at a by-election years later. The main point is that it need not have happened this way at all. The Communist Party had split in 1972 over the Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) Bill, with the iconic founder Dr SA Wickremasinghe and the young, charismatic star Sarath Muttetuwegama left the Government and sat in the opposition. They were backed by the ATHTHA newspaper, its legendary editor BA Siriwardena and political columnist Surath Ambalangoda.
Had the whole Communist Party joined them and stayed out of the government there would have been a leftwing alternative in 1977. Not only did they not do so, but CPSL Gen Sec KP Silva returned from Moscow with instructions to reunify the party, restoring it back to the Government. He succeeded. The consequence was that the entire Communist party was wiped out in 1977 and never recovered—thought it might well have, had Sarath Muttetwegama not died tragically in a car crash in 1986.
The lesson for the SLPP/Pohottuwa is simple: leave the Government now and form an axis with the SLFP and the smaller parties.
The Communist Party’s story is not the only one from the 1970s that proves my point. There are at least two more. The second is from the LSSP and the third is from the SLFP itself.
Vasudeva Nanayakkara came back from jail in 1972, a hero of the radicalized youth. There was a dissenting “Vama” (left) current in the LSSP which he belonged to. He and that current had the option of joining the Communist party breakaway led by Dr SA Wickremasinghe and youthful Sarath Muttetuwegama in the Opposition. They chose not to do so, on the spurious theory that they should stay in the LSSP and the Government as a ginger group, so as not to forfeit access to the working-class base of the LSSP and the peasant base of the SLFP.
Things got to such a ridiculous point that Vasudeva, as head of the LSSP’s Youth League, marched on May Day 1974 or 1975, calling upon Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike who was on the podium, to stay as erect as Fidel Castro and Lenin: “Sirimavo ta api kiyanney, Castro vagey kelin inna/Lenin vagey kelin inna!” Mrs. B turned to her deputy Maithripala Senanayaka and made a remark which he told my father later that day. Mrs. Bandaranaike had said “Why are they shouting at me to stand erect like Lenin? I saw Lenin in the mausoleum in Moscow and he was lying flat, not standing erect.”
In 1975, the LSSP was kicked out of Government. In 1976, the CPSL left the government under pressure of the university students’ strike and the railway strike of Nov-Dec 1976. They were joined by a progressive breakaway from the SLFP, named the PDP, led by TB Subasinghe, Nanda Ellawela, Tennyson Edirisooriya and AM Jinadasa. The three parties formed the United Left Front (ULF), backed by the Left University Teachers Union.
The front didn’t win a single seat in 1977. It was decimated. The lesson is that it was far too little, far too late. The moment that the three parties should have broken away and formed a front was 1972-1973 when the first Marxist member of the State Council, Dr SA Wickremasinghe had left the Government, followed by the 1973 OPEC price hike and the plummeting popularity of the Sirimavo-NM administration.
The SLPP (‘Pohottuwa’) must learn the lesson and act upon it. Today the SLPP and SLFP have political threats on the right and left: the SJB-TNA on the center-right, the JVP on the left (and the FSP on the far left).
Together the SLFP and the SLPP’s reformists, together with the smaller parties, can constitute itself a center-left. The sooner they do so, the more viable and credible the project can be. The 21st amendment provides the ideal issue, just as Dr SA Wickremasinghe and Sarath Muttetuwegama felt prompted by the CJC Act, to make their move.
If they make the move, they can tap into three advantages they have:
(a) The numbers in the present parliament.
(b) The presence of a mature, experienced national personality, ex-President Maithripala Sirisena.
(c) A pool of intelligence and talent (Dullas, Dayasiri, Charitha, Nalaka, Susil, Anura Priyadarshana, and if he agrees, most definitely Champika).
These three advantages give such a potential center-left bloc two options, neither of which contradict each other:
1. Forming an interim, all-parties or multi-party government, in alliance with the SJB or if the latter refuses yet again, on its own.
2. Forming a sizeable center-left opposition bloc, much of which may not survive an election but the survivors of which will provide an alternative to both the center-right and the hard left.
Such a move by the SLPP reformists, if and only if it results in a swift convergence with the SLFP and nine parties, will add value to stability and the democratic system because it would constitute the middle ground and re-open a Middle Path in and for Sri Lankan politics.