Three Fine Lines along the Aragalaya

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Whether the aragalaya will succeed or fail will depend on the tactics it has adopted and the strategies it has set. More crucially, it will hinge on whether its members are able to come together, or whether they split from each other. The extent and degree of these splits will obviously depend on the different loyalties to which different groups in the aragalaya have committed themselves to, and whether these loyalties are so great as to overdetermine – to quote Althusser – the original aims of Gotagogama and #GotaGoHome.

As things stand, the aragalaya has divided into three distinct formations. In a broad sense, these formations comprise the Student-led New Left, the Neoliberal Right, and a Civil Society-led Liberal Centre. These harbour their own objectives, tactics, and strategies regarding the protests. While they are all agreed on getting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resign, they tend to disagree as to what should follow his exit from politics.

This isn’t to say that there are fine lines drawn between these groups. Supporters of the aragalaya may identify themselves with one or two of them, but their overwhelming desire remains the same: Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation. As such, while their loyalties lie with one or another of these groups, they haven’t  let such loyalties overdetermine their support for the broader movement. Nevertheless, the fact of such divisions should point us to what I see as the biggest weakness of the aragalaya: its tendency to splinter along ideological lines. That is, of course, a direct outcome of its lack of leadership.

The best gauge of the extent of these divisions are the ideological affinities of the three groups mentioned above. The student-led New Left, represented by the likes of Wasantha Mudalige, the convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation, persistently calls for extra-parliamentary tactics. The neoliberal right, the clearest articulators of which are to be found in both the Opposition and the Government, hedges its bets on multilateral financial institutions, and closer engagement with Western establishments. The liberal centre is led by a Colombo-centric civil society and advocates democratisation, and the incorporation of issues like minority rights to the broader movement.

More than the differences between them, it would be apt to take a look at their similarities. Apart from their support for #GotaGoHome, all three groups propose looking beyond the parliament for a solution to the present crisis. While the IUSF organises mass rallies and subtly threatens to overthrow the regime, the neoliberal right looks up to the IMF, World Bank, and other similar institutions. The liberal centre, by comparison, reposes its trust in institutions attached to the State but also independent of it, like the judiciary.

The Student-led New Left

None of these groups advocates a solution within the present political framework. The IUSF, led by the Frontline Socialist Party and sharing affinities with the JVP, tends to take the non-representation of their preferred parties, in parliament, as a sign of some moral superiority, distancing themselves from the much derided 225 and advocating a solution beyond them. Dayan Jayatilleka’s critique of this line is perhaps the most lucid: for Dr Jayatilleka, such a solution is not a solution at all, but mere patchwork, a ploy that may bolster the New Left’s prospects in the short term, but can well backfire in the long term.

The clearest and bluntest expression of the New Left’s extra-parliamentarianism was, of course, the 9 May counter violence against SLPP MPs, officials, and supporters. Supporters of the aragalaya initially supported the mob violence, yet after a while, when it became clear that anarchy had descended and the military had become helpless and indifferent, took to critiquing these acts. The result has been that the aragalaya today acknowledges, in full or in part, that such tactics will not win them any favours, and that they can even, if taken to their extreme, lead to a greater backlash from the Government.

The Neoliberal Right

The neoliberal right’s solution is to go to the IMF. Here it must be noted that many of the protesters, during the initial stages of #GotaGoHome, held up placards and banners asking the Government to engage with the IMF. Yet as these protesters themselves seem to have realised today, the IMF is not going to be our saviour anytime soon. On the contrary, many reforms that the Government has undertaken in the expectation of an IMF package, such as the raising of fuel prices, have impacted the poor and the middle-classes badly. The clearest and bluntest expression of this would be the Rambukkana shooting.

The Liberal Centre

The liberal centre’s strategy has been to use the aragalaya to urge reforms they consider important, perhaps more important than the immediate aim of evicting Rajapaksa from the President’s House. These include the abolition of the Executive Presidency. While the SJB, as the main Opposition, dithered over these proposals, it has come full circle today and sided with their biggest advocates. Not surprisingly, a not insignificant section of the Galle Face protests has tried to incorporate demands for accountability and transparency, and for rights extending to Sri Lanka’s ethnic and sexual minorities, to the protests.

The clearest and bluntest expression of this tendency would be the many tussles, splits, and debates emerging from the aragalaya over whether these “greater demands” need to be inserted into the protests at all. While many protesters feel that the aragalaya must serve as a launch pad for discussions of these issues, not a few believe that their incorporation into the protests has deprived the latter of a proper base and solid footing. In response to the recently held, aragalaya-affiliated gay rights parade, for instance, a young man told me that it served as a distraction, and did nothing to take the protest forward.

What are we to make of these fine lines and distinctions? First and foremost, that they can and will have a disruptive influence on the protests. Yet the discussions and debates they have unleashed, throughout the protests and outside them, have in one sense contributed to the aragalaya: mainly, by making the protesters aware of issues outside the immediate, and urgent, imperative of #GotaGoHome. Most crucially, these are issues which lie beyond the resignation of one individual or Government. In that regard, such tendencies, disparate and disruptive as they may be, can actually help take the protests ahead. At the same time, however, they can also contribute to their very fragmentation.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist based in Sri Lanka who can be reached at [email protected]

By Uditha Devapriya