It’s the thought that matters. The intention betrays character. That is why a bomb that explodes on a bus, even if it doesn’t succeed in killing or maiming anyone, is correctly deemed an act of terrorism. So also, with purportedly anti-terrorist legislation.
The Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) seeks to criminalise so very many ordinary activities of exercising one’s right to dissent and protest which we have enjoyed over decades, that the regime’s intention goes beyond ‘authoritarianism’. We have lived under authoritarianism for decades. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was harshly authoritarian. But the ATA criminalises a far wider panoply of activity that covers a far greater area of our lives.
The Easter Sunday massacre could not have been prevented by a tougher anti-terrorist law. It could have been prevented if several members in ranks of responsibility in the same interlocked professional network (security) had not sat on the intelligence provided by India about a forthcoming attack. In a Venn diagram they would be in one ‘set’. Quo bono? Who benefited primarily and politically? By pure coincidence, their former top bureaucratic boss (and Netanyahu acquaintance).
Totalitarian, not authoritarian
When a regime against which there has been no organised attack involving firearms or explosives, drafts an Anti-Terrorism Act which is more draconian than the one this country had when it faced an armed terrorist group turned militia turned military formation, then we are not speaking of an administration which can be fitted into the category of ‘authoritarianism’. The discipline of political science provides a category that describes behaviour beyond authoritarianism: ‘totalitarianism’. It has been substantively theorized by Hannah Arendt and her epigone.
A political scientist turned UN ambassador of the 1980s, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, famously underscored the distinction between ‘authoritarianism’ and ‘totalitarianism’. A Reagan appointee, she discredited her sound conceptual distinction by classifying pro-US military juntas in Latin America as ‘moderately repressive authoritarian governments’ (‘M-RAGs’ as her critics back home mocked it) and the infinitely less murderously repressive Cuban and Nicaraguan regimes as ‘totalitarian’.
The Wickremesinghe administration was undeterred by the thought that GSP + would be negatively impacted by the draft ATA. That is ominous. It has pulled back the legislation to May, because of an overcrowded calendar. The thinking seems to be that the regime can do what the Myanmar junta has got away with: make real estate concessions and juggle competing foreign powers to secure silence.
To return to my point, in terms of intentionality as clearly evident in the draft ATA bill, the regime’s project is totalitarian, not merely authoritarian. Serendipitously, in Sri Lanka, a (politically) volcanic island without (geological) volcanoes, there is many a slip between intention and outcome—as several administrations discovered.
It would be apposite to recall Dostoyevsky who said ‘If God is dead [doesn’t exist] then everything is permitted’. Similarly, if Democracy is sought to be killed by the evil that is Totalitarianism, then one cannot blame young people who may conclude that everything is permitted by way of resistance, in the defence and preservation of democracy and termination of the totalitarian trajectory.
The big political story appears to be the dynamics within the main Opposition party the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) led by Sajith Premadasa. The story within the story is whether or not the SJB or a section of it will align with President Ranil Wickremesinghe, and when that might happen. It is frontpage news in the mainstream press, the subject of reputed columns, and even of editorials in the Sunday papers by the most senior journalists. The speculation is that the 25-26 April Parliamentary debate and vote on the Wickremesinghe-IMF accord will be the breakpoint.
In a report hitherto uncontradicted as far as the guts of the story – talks with President Wickremesinghe –goes, the Editor of our sister paper asserts:
“…Premadasa’s latest desperate attempt to keep the SJB alive comes at a time when three of its most senior MPs – Harsha De Silva, Kabeer Hashim and Eran Wickramaratne are in talks with President Ranil Wickremesinghe to join the government as the three have supported the President’s present economic policies, a senior political source close to both camps said…Eran Wickramaratne will also agree to support the President but has not requested any portfolio while it is learned that discussions are ongoing to offer a portfolio to Kabeer Hashim.”
I have no ‘inside story’ on who might do what and when. Nor am I opposed to anyone crossing over to the camp of the President if that’s where they feel more comfortable; in short, belong. I am far more interested in the reasons adduced for such a shift, their soundness or hollowness, and the system-wide political consequences of the realignment with Ranil if it takes place.
I do not wish to set up a straw man and beat it, therefore I shall isolate the reasons given in favour of realignment with Ranil as stated by the country’s most widely-read columnist writing in the English-language press, DBS Jeyaraj.
David Jeyaraj writes that “Some reports speculate that the number of SJB Parliamentarians contemplating a crossover is between 20 to 40.” He adds that “this storm is likely to erupt any time after the April New Year festivity.” Jeyaraj produces two substantive arguments. His third pertains to Jalani Premadasa who seems to me the closest we can get to a Michelle Obama.
“…It may be recalled that almost all the SJB Parliamentarians were UNP members in the past. Most of them had no problems with Ranil Wickremesinghe’s leadership and were not favourably disposed towards Sajith Premadasa’s leadership ambition. Yet, they deserted Wickremesinghe and the UNP en masse and together with Premadasa formed the SJB. This was not due to any ill will towards Ranil or any goodwill towards Sajith. They had gauged the mood of the electorate through various means including opinion polls and had assessed that Ranil’s stock was low while Sajith’s was high. They realised their electoral prospects were dismal if they remained with Ranil and the UNP…Now the wheel seems to have turned full cycle. Ranil’s stock seems to be rising. It appears that Ranil Wickremesinghe has the best chance of winning in the next Presidential Election…It is Ranil who stands out among potential contenders in a future Presidential poll. He is like Gulliver among Lilliputians there.”
This argument is a-historical. It is not the case that Ranil Wickremesinghe was having a bad season in 2019-2020 and his MPs and voters defected. It is that Ranil had ‘a secular trend’ tattooed on him; a long track record of proving that he could not be elected as the leader of the country. He lost the presidential races of 1999 and 2005. He was an electoral millstone around the necks of Sarath Fonseka and Sajith Premadasa when they were the UNP’s presidential candidates in 2010 and 2019. He was elected PM in 2001, dismissed due to his unpopular policies by CBK in 2003 and defeated at the general election of 2004. It took almost 15 years till he was re-elected to the Prime Ministership, in 2015. When he lost the election in 2020 he lost his home base Colombo and his party didn’t get a single elected member into parliament. When Ranil took over the UNP it was the island’s largest single party. 25 years later it had shrunk to the low 20% range and two years after that, to near-zero.
Nothing has changed in terms of electability. He wasn’t elected by popular vote to the presidency. He wasn’t elected by the popular vote even to parliament.
Sajith Premadasa went up against Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the latter’s zenith in 2019 and clocked 42%, losing by 10% and missing the magic 50% mark by 8%. How he comes off as Lilliputian and Ranil as Gulliver beats me. Someone has read another version.
Columnist DBS Jeyaraj reinforces his argument thus:
“…the fundamental change of perception towards Ranil. His image has changed from a loser into that of an achiever and winner…Whether Wickremesinghe’s critics acknowledge it or not, the reality is that his efforts in pulling Sri Lanka out of the dire economic straits it was in, are resonating with the ‘ordinary’ people who comprise what is termed as the silent majority.”
One might have entertained this claim, if Ranil, with all these ‘achievements’ under his belt, had dared hold the scheduled local government election and had won, but he’s running scared of that relatively low-stakes election, so maybe he knows better. Therefore, the entire argument in his favour on this count is pure conjecture, or more simply, pure hype.
Add to this, the globally ascertainable fact that no incumbent ruler or administration survives an IMF austerity program. More generally, hardly any administration even in the First World survives a contraction of the economy which it has caused or presided over. In the global south many are toppled by popular uprisings, still others at elections. In the global North, by elections. In Southern Europe, elections preceded by social upsurges.
In the Sri Lankan case, it is not only the IMF program that the citizens are burdened under but Ranil’s own idiosyncratic economics which he tested in 2001 and 2015 with devastating electoral results. So how is he going to win an election when he is hardly a ‘Lula’ with a history of high popularity under his belt?
“The second reason is the perceived increase in popular support for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the corresponding decrease in support for the SJB…So the SJB politicos are getting jittery about the rising popularity of the JVP and want to close ranks with Wickremesinghe, who they feel is the best option to counter the JVP.”
This is an especially sad bit of nonsense. Given that the Hartal 1953 was the precursor of the Aragalaya 2022 and that the post-Hartal choice of Sir John Kotelawela as successor to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was the precursor of the post-Aragalaya choice of Ranil Wickremesinghe, one only has to envisage a scenario in which SWRD Bandaranaike’s newly formed centrist party the SLFP had de-camped (back) to battered yet ruling UNP and Sir John in 1955. The General Election of 1956 would have been swept by the Marxist Left.
Precisely in a context of a rising JVP-NPP and an IMF austerity program, the deletion or depletion of the moderate progressive centre, the SJB led by the social democratic Sajith Premadasa, would only polarize politics between the Right and Left. The anti-austerity/anti-incumbent swing would ensure a JVP-NPP landslide.
This is true even in the First World. If Macron hadn’t run as a progressive-centrist (at the time), Melenchon would have won. The elections to the National Assembly proved this. This is also why the moderate Democrats dropped out of the US Presidential primaries and rallied around Joe Biden and his neo-Rooseveltian New Deal economic platform when Bernie Sanders was faring strongly.
Intermediate zone, crucial centre
Ranil Wickremesinghe offers IMF austerity plus a re-run of his neoliberal ‘shock therapy’. The JVP-NPP offers a politics of resentment and the economics of experimentation.
Sajith Premadasa symbolises an updated version of his father’s successful developmental paradigm of growth with equity. Sajith’s ‘social democracy’ is the closest approximation of a ‘Golden Mean’ or ‘Middle Path’ available.
Its elimination or erosion by defections to or re-alignment with Ranil would mean that the swing of the policy pendulum to the Right will generate a counter-swing all the way to the untested, economically inexperienced Left.
The diminution of the SJB would jeopardise the democratic system. In any country, there are three pillars of democracy:
- The middle classes of town and country
- A strong ideological centre or middle-ground
- A two-party system.
Ranil and the IMF are already shrinking the middle classes by contracting the economy, and targeting the welfare system and state sector. If he succeeds in attracting a significant segment of the SJB, he will be eroding the ideological centre while augmenting the Right.
He will also be destroying what remains of the two-party system, i.e., of two parties occupying the centre-right and centre-left respectively. That system broke when Ranil’s UNP and its traditional foe the centre-left SLFP entered a hybrid government. Both the UNP and SLFP were ruined. Sajith Premadasa has reconstructed the moderate Centre. Ranil and the SJB’s ‘Economic Ranilists’ must not be permitted to wreck it and polarise the political arena.
The idea that the SJB’s economic ideology is compatible with Ranil’s and that the split with Ranil was because of his style of leadership rather than over ideological or programmatic issues is wrong. In the first place Ranil’s personal style hasn’t changed. He is extending his inner-party despotism to the country as a whole.
The notion that there is an ideological commonality between Ranil’s UNP and Sajith’s SJB is like saying there was an ideological commonality between SWRD’s SLFP and the UNP, simply because the former broke away from the latter.
The split-off and founding of the SLFP was not mainly because SWRD was not given the leadership despite his seniority in the UNP. SWRD had come into the UNP from and with the Sinhala Maha Sabhava. It was only a matter of time until he re-emerged from the UNP, bearing a synthesis of his pre-UNP and UNP periods.
Similarly, Ranasinghe Premadasa joined the UNP as a member of the Labour Party. He formed the Puravesi Peramuna (Citizens’ Front) in 1972-3 while a member of the UNP and had the UNP not changed under JR Jayewardene, he would have contested the next General Election on the Puravesi Peramuna platform. In 1988, Premadasa was ready to run for President as an independent, had he been deprived of UNP nomination.
The SLPP has little in common with the SLFP though it broke away from the latter.
Just as SWRD Bandaranaike’s ideas were so well formed that the UNP was always potentially pregnant with the SLFP, Ranasinghe Premadasa’s ideas were so distinctive and robust, and with his stint as President, so successfully tested, that a Premadasa-ist development program and party were already in embryo within the UNP.
That party, led by his son, is the SJB. It has nothing in common ideologically with the UNP which is a neoliberal rightwing party, and never more so than under Ranil Wickremesinghe. Ranasinghe Premadasa is hardly describable by any stretch of the imagination as a rightist or center-rightist, still less a neoliberal. His was a populist-developmentalism of a social democratic orientation. Ideologically, he was a progressive-centrist. The SJB had only an umbilical cord which linked it to the UNP. It must not become a noose with which the ‘economic Ranilists’ hang the new centrist SJB.
SJB members in contact with President Wickremesinghe may regard themselves as liberals but are in dialogue with an unelected ruler who is refusing to hold elections, and is trying to strangle free expression in all its forms and manifestations through the Anti-Terrorism Act. For ‘liberals’ they seem unable to spot the totalitarian impulse even when they sit across a table from it.