Options for the opposition: The JVP
By Uditha Devapriya
That Mahinda Rajapaksa is one of the more pragmatic political strategists the country has had is a point even his critics acknowledge. This has nothing to do with his nationalism, but rather how he channels, hones in on, and exudes it. I can’t think of a single politician, including his brothers, who can tap into populist sentiments the way he can; that, of course, is less a tribute to his personal charisma than it is an indictment on his opponents.
Once upon a happier time, Mahinda’s populist appeal enabled him and his party to forge alliances (no matter how temporary) across the political divide, and spearhead not one, but three, of the most effective political campaigns from the recent past: the 2010 Presidential, the 2018 Local Government, and the 2019 Presidential Elections. But one swallow does not a summer make, nor a summer last: in all the 72 years we have been through, we’ve seen just one Mahinda. To quote a friend of mine, there’ll never be another.
How the man came to “appropriate” nationalism is intriguing. If you remember what went for politics in this country before 2005, you’ll realise how parties and personalities celebrated by left-liberals now earned the nationalist and chauvinist labels because of their association with him then. It’s hard to believe the JVP went through such a phase, but it did; not a day went by without the Westernised intelligentsia accusing it of chauvinism: the very same intelligentsia hailing it today as a viable, progressive opposition against the Government.
One can hardly blame them for shifting gears on these outfits. Mahinda Rajapaksa became the first mainstream politician in a decade and a half to “nationalise” nationalism, outbidding his partners in that domain: the JVP first, the JHU second. Having allied with them initially, only to break with them later on, Rajapaksa monopolised the ideology which brought him to power, depriving these former allies of any popular mass appeal.
Politics acutely reflects the ironies of history. If commentators tend to view Anura Kumara Dissanayake, or even Patali Champika Ranawaka, as the ideal oppositional candidate against the present administration, the most liberal of liberals and the most leftist of leftists may have to forget that in these two once stood on the same stage as Mahinda, speaking his language, his rhetoric. Simply put, there would have been no Mahinda, or even Gotabaya, as we know them now, without the JVP-JHU conjuncture.
For all intents and purposes, these bigwigs have changed. In 2010 Champika Ranawaka called the UNP a pack of imperialist wolves: live, on TV. When was the last time Ranawaka called his opponents imperialists, let alone imperialist wolves? The JVP still indulges in such rhetoric, but not as frequently as it used to: the temptations of a middle-class and left-liberal crowd, the milieu it targets, woos, and flirts with now, have seemingly made them forget the class struggle, the fight against neoliberalism; this is the same “revolutionary” party, after all, that critiques the Communist Party of China for its “centralised single party administration”, yet sent, in 2017, a congratulatory missive to that party’s 19th National Congress, in which it acknowledged “the progress of the people” and hailed “Comrade Xi Jinping” for taking steps to establish a “moderately prosperous society in an all-round way.”
The contradiction the JVP faces today therefore is between the working class ideology which brought it to power and the middle-class ideology which dominates it at present. This divide owes considerably to its entry into the democratic mainstream after the second insurrection: it had to face the convulsions of parliamentary politics. Once it abandoned Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brand of populist nationalism, it hence had to look for other allies.
The JHU faced a similar dilemma when it joined the yahapalana Government in 2015. But it managed to resolve that by committing suicide: the moment Champika Ranawaka formed the “43 Senankaya”, canvassing support from a broad electorate (which still centres on a Sinhala speaking intelligentsia), he let go of the old ideology. The JVP has so far not opted for such a strategy, even after rebranding itself as the NPP: hence its relative decline.
The roots of its crisis go deep. Having abandoned the rural base on which it once stood, the JVP is now targeting a more urban petty bourgeoisie: student activists, Government university lecturers, popular Sinhala artists, and a section of the NGO-cracy dependent on donor capital, yet also on a Sinhala audience. This activist petty bourgeoisie tilts between a left-liberal and a centre-right position: it will either stick to the JVP, or defect to the UNP, the latter of which, for that crowd, appears more progressive than any Rajapaksa-led outfit. The JVP’s dilemma is that while a great many from this petty bourgeoisie will stick by it through thick and thin, a great many others will choose the second option and abandon it.
Likes, shares, and comments on social Media
To put that in perspective, come Election time, the JVP gets the likes, shares, and comments on social Media that it wants, going as far as to attract massive crowds at Galle Face Green. Yet all those likes, shares, comments, and crowds dissipate at the polling booth: the middle-class voter, on whom the JVP vis-à-vis its new strategy stakes all its fortunes, gives into his or her petty bourgeois tendencies and votes for centre-right parties. In other words, the JVP courts a UNP-SJB crowd, almost wins their support, and fails to convert them.
My contention here is that insofar as these ruptures prevail between the UNP or SJB and the JVP or NPP, a UNP/SJB vote will not convert into a JVP/NPP vote. The latter will be cast by an idealistic youth electorate, but it’s futile to think that middle-class teenagers and activists, spouting the virtues of a third political force and berating mainstream parties, can decide on who, or what, will hold power. For the most, then – and we must be practical here – the only way out of its conundrum for the JVP is to join a broad anti-regime alliance, inclusive of the SJB (and the UNP), as it did in 2010 and did not in 2015 and 2019.
Of course, in opting for a strategy so patently at odds with its urban and rural working class roots, the JVP will attract accusations of betrayal. Such accusations are justified; the move, if made at all, will betray the opportunistic shifts it has been engaged in since its entry into the democratic mainstream, first with Chandrika Kumaratunga, then with Mahinda Rajapaka, and now with every and any force opposed to Rajapaksa.
Now the JVP’s dilemma is that while it can afford to accommodate these shifts in private, it cannot confess to them in public. To do so would be to grant legitimacy to its immediate rival, the Frontline Socialist Party, and at the same time dabble in a vague and amorphous petty bourgeois ideology which may, or may not, win them support at the cost of its working class and rural base. In other words, while partnering up with the SJB/UNP may be a viable strategy for the JVP, it will not be a winning strategy. In the short term it will gain traction; in the long, it can only end up as a button on a neoliberal outfit.
A confused muddle
Anura Kumara Dissanayake has succeeded today in turning the JVP into a confused muddle of a left-liberal outfit, unable to propound a coherent ideology, to say or do anything without borrowing the rhetoric of centre-right and neoliberal parties – disconnected from the working class, a shade Sinophobic – yet attempting, somehow, to stand out and apart.
To belabour the point is not to belittle the party: in Harini Amarasuriya, for instance, the JVP appointed the most eloquent National List MP it has seen in years, and Dissanayake, though still exorcising the same Rajapaksist demons he has been expelling since 2007 – a strategy which got them down from six seats in 2015 to three in 2020 – has shifted to more practical tactics, transforming the party into a more proactive outfit than what it was in 2018. No party can, or will, remain in stasis, a point Left outfits elsewhere have conceded as well. To argue the JVP should not shift to a different position thus is to deny it any agency.
Yet this does not contradict my main argument, which is that the JVP is playing to a gallery that won’t convert to its ideology, whatever its ideology may be, and that in doing so it has neglected its core base, shifting from the Arbeiterklasse to the Mittelklasse. “I like them,” a friend of mine virulently opposed to the current regime told me the other day. “But they’re building castles in the air.” The last time I checked, this friend, a typical scion of the middle-class, had shifted from Ranil Wickremesinghe to Sajith Premadasa to Champika Ranawaka. As far as his milieu is concerned, the JVP has become Baudelaire’s devil, having convinced the country, indeed the world, that it does not exist, and that it no longer matters.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]