Champika’s conundrum


Champika Ranawaka seems to have “neo-conned” Sinhala Buddhist nationalists without abandoning the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ship.

Ignazio Silone is reported to have told Palmiro Togliatti, the Italian Communist Party leader, that “the final struggle will be between the communists and the ex-communists.” It’s not too much to claim that in Sri Lanka the final struggle will be between the nationalists and the ex-nationalists. The Communists claim the ex-Communist has betrayed his conscience. The ex-Communist claims the Communists have betrayed his ideals. In the end the ex-Communist, branded a heretic, turns into a renegade. It happens with nationalists also.

Our ex-nationalist seeks for himself the comfort of the two major parties, and like the ex-Communist who finds himself branded a traitor if he joins the Party of the Right, he finds his credentials questioned if he joins our Party of the Right, the UNP. Tilak Karunaratne did that in 2004. Now the UNP, the Party of the Propertied, has split into two wings, an old and a new. Tilak Karunaratne’s successor is Champika Ranawaka.

Before getting to Champika, it is imperative to shed a few myths about the JHU. For a decade and a half, from 2000 to 2015, the rallying call of the left-liberal intelligentsia was that the JHU was tribalistic. Left-liberals adduced JHU opposition to fundamentalist Islam and Christian evangelism, in that order, as evidence for their view. Thus long before the Bodu Bala Sena, the JHU became known as the party of chauvinists. When it fielded monks in parliament in 2004, the left-liberals argued the legislature was not a proper place for monks. Omalpe Sobitha Thera’s protest fast against the P-TOMS in 2005 and Athuraliaye Rathana Thera’s march to Mavil Aru in 2006 merely heightened their opposition to it.

Yet their rather convenient characterisation of the JHU as tribalistic belied two important facts. One, support for the JHU cut across party lines. Two, membership of the JHU also cut across party lines.

The JHU’s origins can be traced to the Sinhala middle-class’s ambivalent run-ins with the Jayewardene, Premadasa, and Kumaratunga regimes. While the open economy enriched a Sinhala middle bourgeoisie, it fuelled antipathy towards minorities wielding economic power. Jayewardene’s policies did little to address this antipathy, and even Premadasa, despite the support he enjoyed among even the clergy, could not assuage it.

Yet neither of them went as far as Kumaratunga in dismantling the state, historically seen as the official patron of Buddhism. From 1977 to 1990, W. D. Lakshman observed in 2010, “the role of the state sector remained significant and powerful.” The first Kumaratunga presidency rolled back not only the economy but also that “significant and powerful” sector, contributing to if not enhancing a cultural critique of neoliberalism among ranks of a disgruntled Sinhala middle-class who hailed from the SLFP and the UNP; they would later find their home in the Sihala Urumaya and the Hela Urumaya. Their attitude to the role of the government is rather interesting, because in a very big way it explains the contradiction at the heart of the Sinhala nationalist movement: it offered resistance to neoliberalism and the internationalisation of the war from a cultural angle, but it failed to do so from an economistic angle.

This largely explains the Sihala Urumaya’s bizarre economic ideology. In its 2000 Manifesto, the SU rejected a closed economy while rejecting neoliberalism, acknowledging that while “going back to a closed economy” was “unthinkable”, it would nevertheless avail itself “of the opportunities thrown up by globalisation.” Viewed this way, even Nalin de Silva’s campaigns against Coca-Cola at the Kelaniya University in the 1990s seems to me more a cultural than a political attack on globalisation. Not surprisingly, it shows how Sinhala nationalists can oppose free markets while criticising the Sirimavo Bandaranaike reforms on the grounds that those reforms destroyed the “Sinhala businessman.”

Indeed, the SU explicitly opposed state-led industrialisation: Tilak Karunaratne once told Aratuwa that they were “not of the opinion that the public sector must control industry and business.” This confirms my thesis that as far as their stance on the economy is concerned, Sinhala nationalism differs very little from the dominant UNP and post-Chandrika SLFP paradigm. Today it seems to have made the transition from a petty bourgeois to a middle bourgeois framework. The credit for this transition must certainly go to the Sihala Urumaya, and the Hela Urumaya.

All this, however, is secondary to my point.

My point is that Patali Champika Ranawaka’s departure from the Jathika Hela Urumaya and his formation of the 43 Senankaya had to happen; it really transpired five years ago, when he joined the UNFGG. In a context where Sinhala nationalism has become a product of the very parties it ends up opposing on cultural grounds, it should come to no surprise when its most fervent stalwarts return to those parties as renegades. Champika’s departure in that sense was an acknowledgement of the fact that as far as this kind of nationalism is concerned, he has no future.

It is true that Champika’s journey has taken him from the path of Sanwardanaye Thunveni Yamaya to that of expedient political practice, pushing him closer to the middle-class. And yet, I find myself wishing him well. I do so because while Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rise remains the most groundbreaking political act in recent times, Champika’s resurgence within the SJB smacks of a possible sequel to it. Will he have Sajith Premadasa at his side? Will he be content being at Sajith Premadasa’s side? Will he then nationalise (i.e. Sinhalise) the Opposition?

EconomyNext headlines its report on his departure thus: “Champika seeks to shed his Sinhala-Buddhist cloak.” Of course he has to, if he is to expand vertically (to gain non-Sinhala non-Buddhist voters within Colombo) and horizontally (to gain Sinhala voters outside Colombo). Yet he doesn’t crave for the SJB: he wants to see whether it will become “a truly democratic institution.” Is he throwing down a gauntlet there? Perhaps.

Ignazio Silone died in 1978. By then a new generation of leftists and liberals disillusioned by the Communist dream had turned to the Right, reneging on their radical roots and forging new alliances with conservatives. They would be called neoconservatives. Michael Harrington used the term for the first time to denigrate his friends on the Left who had abandoned the Communist ship. Now the thing with Champika Ranawaka is that while he has “neo-conned” the Sinhala Buddhist nationalists, he has done so without, as of yet, abandoning the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist ship.

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