Opinion

Whither the SJB?

Summary

The SJB’s response to a democracy deficit should not be adherence to a failed ideology.

From its inception, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, now an year-and-a-half old, was hit by a series of unfortunate travails. These do not make a pretty picture, and far from receding, they in fact continue to bedevil it.

For starters, there was the issue of the party’s legal status. Had it conformed the country’s electoral laws, or in its haste, had it flouted them? It took a UNP candidate (Oshala Herath) to raise the question at the Supreme Court; though the case did not go his way, conversations between him and the Chairman of the Election Commission, plus an associate of Mangala Samaraweera, made headlines when that candidate leaked them online.

The resulting controversy may or may not have tarnished the SJB’s prospects at the general election, but its convulsions haven’t died down. Ironically enough, one of its National List parliamentarians, the most colourful and controversial from that party, teeters today between government and opposition, having voted for the 20th Amendment; what’s ironic there is this MP’s legal ownership, through her husband, of the ostensibly anti-regime party.

Owing to such convulsions, the passage of the 20th Amendment deepened divisions in the SJB. For the first time here, a section of the opposition connived with the government over legislation that boosted the incumbent’s powers. This in turn reflected the contradictions of the regime: the ruling party had to resort to support from minority parties, in the opposition, to pass the Amendment. The resulting backlash against the SJB over this has done very little address the rift between the ruling party and its critics. Forgotten in that paroxysm of anger, though, was one stark fact: most of the SJB still stood against the 20th Amendment. In 2010, by contrast, the UNP chose to abstain in toto from the vote on the 18th Amendment.

That’s hardly a consolation, however. If in the debate over 20A the opposition dithered (apart from a display of amateur theatrics, including waving anti-20A banners and donning “blood-spattered” cloths), over the imprisonment of its most outspoken candidate it downright caved in and buckled down. Here popular opinion remains sharply divided: should the SJB have left Ranjan Ramanayake’s seat vacant, or should it have replaced him with another?

The opposition faced a classic Catch-22: the first option seemed comradely, the second more pragmatic, yet by opting for the latter, it reinforced allegations among undecided voters, even supporters, of it being unable to hold the line. Ramanayake himself did not take kindly to the capitulation, as his apoplectic response on Facebook shows.

On the level of ideology the SJB has done all it can to distance itself from the regime and the UNP. Yet the result seems to be less a distancing from than a midway compromise with these outfits. Consider its relationship with the UNP. As Dayan Jayatilleka has pointed out only too clearly, a party associated with the politics of appeasement and capitulation for over a quarter century isn’t the ideal partner for any rational-minded opposition. But Dr Jayatilleka appears to be in a minority of one among his contemporaries: other commentators, including those on the Left, advocate rapprochement instead of rupture.

Hence Harindra Dassanayake quips that “the SJB alone cannot defend democracy or form a government”, Krishantha Cooray questions whether it shares “its mother party’s economic vision”, Kumar David invokes Trotsky’s precept of marching separately but striking together to justify it getting together with that mother party, and someone calling himself “Prince of Kandy” fails to see it propounding any “real political ideology.” These polemics lead to two conclusions: the SJB cannot stand alone, and it must return to the UNP.

Since Dr Jayatilleka has replied to these commentators, I will not restate what he has written on them. What’s curious isn’t so much their insistence on these two parties getting together (or for the rebellious son to yield place to the mother), as their belief that the one cannot, in the long run, do without the other. Does this necessarily mean they have no faith in the SJB’s potential to grow independently, free of the UNP? Debatable. If it does, then it indicates that such commentators, including those on the Left, associate the opposition with a party which still hasn’t filled in the one seat it got at last year’s general election.

This, of course, is nothing to be astonished about: Ranil Wickremesinghe led the opposition for 20 years. Sajith Premadasa’s rebellions against the Dear Leader (as Indi Samarajiva calls Ranil) did not begin in 2019, but they peaked in the post-Easter conjuncture. As such the SJB is more recent, too recent for dissenting voices and voters to consider it a viable successor to the UNP. Moreover, the middle-class, which since 1956 has determined the prospects and the trajectories of new parties and disgraced oppositions, still has not carved a place within its consciousness for Premadasa. For these voters, the most protean electorate in the country, the SLPP and SJB represent two wings of the much derided 225. Detached and disengaged from the 225, Wickremesinghe seems to have become a Lazarus for them: every other middle-class voter I meet today wants him back. Again, nothing to be astonished about.

Such paradoxical responses to the old opposition and the new should come as a concern, but not a surprise, to the SJB and those who support it. Sri Lanka’s middle-class is protean, yet it is also inherently compradorist. If it prefers a strongman like Gotabaya Rajapaksa to Sajith Premadasa and gives him unexpected majorities through the Kelani Valley – electorates like Homagama, Maharagama, Kesbewa, right until Avissawella – concurrently cutting into the southern heartland all the way through to suburbs adjacent to Colombo, including Moratuwa, it also, in the same vein, prefers Ranil Wickremesinghe to Sajith Premadasa.

Sajith Premadasa doesn’t yet command a presence among this peculiarly compradore middle-class. That, in its own way, is worrying. Not because I hold a candle to Sajith Premadasa, nor because I think he is the last great hope of the opposition, but because the absence of middle-class support can compel the SJB to neglect new ground – electorates the UNP neglected, like the Sinhala peasantry – and hang on to the Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie, which has tended to shift, wildly, between compradorist neoliberals and authoritarian nationalists.

If the SJB gets more petty bourgeoisified than it is, it can only cave into a line no different to what the UNP was following: not the most advisable of strategies. Yet this is the line analysts want the SJB to follow, a line Dayan Jayatilleka explicitly warns against.

I believe the analysts have got it wrong. The SJB’s response to a democracy deficit should not be adherence to a failed ideology. The Kelani Valley petty bourgeoisie – not limited to the Kelani Valley alone – champions a Ranil Wickremesinghe or a Gotabaya Rajapaksa for the same reason why neoliberal globalisation and retrogressive nationalism cohabit the same space: both appeal to a middle bourgeoisie desperate for any figure which can provide it with security and stability. This explains how, at the height of Sinhala nationalist backlash against mainstream political parties, the middle-class voted for the UNP in 2000, returned the PA in 2004, and gave a wafer-thin margin of defeat for Ranil Wickremesinghe in 2005.

In its idealisation of compradore neoliberalism or compradore nationalism, the middle-class continues to shape the trajectory of mainstream parties, indeed of fringe parties also (even if its support for the latter outside parliament hasn’t translated into support for their aspirations for parliament). Given its ideological predilections, falling in line with this crowd seems for me the height of folly. Far from following such a strategy, the government and the opposition should instead engage with marginalised groups: not just the peasantry and working class, but every ethnic, social, and economic minority, across the racial and class divide.

The compradorist pretensions of the middle-class have not got this country anywhere. Both government and opposition must oversee a shift in focus to other electorates. I do not see this happening here, on either side. Between the crevice of neoliberal globalisation and the abyss of neoconservative nationalism, there thus seems to be no centre. That is worrying.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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