by Dr . Dayan Jayatilleka
As the year and the first decade of the 21st century winds down, politics in Sri Lanka displayed new and portentous developments. One was the convention of the UNP, the ratification of its new constitution and the transformation of Ranil Wickremesinghe into a lame duck ‘leader’.
The other was the tentative drawing together of the two wings of Tamil political representation in Sri Lanka (as distinct from the Diaspora). The third was the broad social reaction (e.g. Cardinal Ranjith’s December 6th remarks and Sajith Premadasa’s statements) to the recent events in London and the ‘war crimes’ outcry in the Western media.
Though it may not seem so as first glance, there is a linkage between the first and third phenomena, which in turn, has implications for the second, Tamil politics and the political settlement of the minorities question or nationalities question.
On the morning after the convention, the UNP spawned two press conferences, but it was not further evidence of deadlock or a split down the middle. One media briefing, that by Ranil and Mangala, represented the outgoing leadership and the tendency in irreversible decline, while the other, led by Sajith Premadasa, represented the incoming leadership of the party and the tendency in the ascendency.
The UNP convention witnessed something radically new in Sri Lanka and South Asia: the (potential) democratisation of inner-party politics. More concretely it represented the beginning of a transition from the Ranil Wickremesinghe leadership to that of a different generation and project represented by Sajith Premadasa. That transition is not complete but it is on the horizon.
The struggle to replace Ranil Wickremesinghe, and return its Premadasaist programme to its rightful place has taken over a decade. A glance at the Lankadeepa somewhere in mid 1997 would show an editorial page political commentary on what it dubbed the ‘Karu-Kuru alliance’, which was a pun on the rapprochement of Sirisena Cooray and Karu Jayasuriya in the run-up to the Premadasa Commemoration that year.
Ranil whispered in a little bird’s ear, CBK had Cooray arrested and charged in courts for attempting to assassinate her. The commemoration went ahead with moderate success in the face of the opposition of the government and the opposition leadership. I know. I was there. As the Executive Director at the time, of the Premadasa Center, I was one of those on stage at the stadium and addressed the gathering.
The next stage in the struggle was in 1999-2000 in the aftermath of Ranil’s explicitly pro-Tiger line and the UNP’s defeats. A young Muslim financier belonging to the dissident faction of that time was shot, but survived undergoing six surgical interventions and Colombo Central UNP activist G. Ariyapala was shot — gunned to death in the context of that struggle.
The protracted struggle to dislodge Ranil Wickremesinghe is an adjunct or subset of, or postscript to, the struggle to defeat the LTTE, the legacy of appeasement and the memory of national humiliation. The identities of the players have changed and the factions have decomposed and realigned but at long last, the struggle is on the verge of success.
The ascendency of the patriotic or nationalist and populist wing of the UNP and the decline of its neoliberal elitist Old Guard, has a dualistic or dialectical effect on the country.
While on the one hand it renders the polity potentially more competitive and bi-polar, it paradoxically homogenises society and polity; broadens and reaffirms the patriotic-populist consensus and squeezes the old pro-appeasement, pro-West, minoritarian, ‘NGO peace lobby’ within the UNP and the country into a narrow, vanishing space.
This has implications for the ongoing convergence of the TNA and the TPPF. While it will strengthen the collective Tamil voice and facilitate negotiations with the government in that there will not be a competitive cacophony, the new developments in the UNP also mean that the Tamil bloc, while able to benefit from competitiveness between the two mainline formations, will be unable to punch through a certain definable ceiling in their demands.
It is unlikely that the rising or newly emergent patriotic UNP leadership will agree to go beyond the 13th Amendment, though it sincerely reiterates the principles of multi-ethnicity, equality and multiculturalism.
So while Sinhala opinion comes to terms with the geopolitical and geostrategic reality that the 13th Amendment constitutes a ‘floor’ and its rollback would entail unacceptable risks and costs in terms of our diplomatic and strategic vulnerability, the Tamil parties will have to face the reality that its full implementation — minus merger and police powers — and improvement constitute the ‘ceiling’ of the possible.
The protagonists may deny and decry the idea but as a political scientist I see a congruency and complementarities between the Rajapaksa and Premadasa projects; indeed between those of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, Ranasinghe Premadasa and Mahinda Rajapaksa, especially with regard to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.
They need each other for completion, and tend to reappear, positioned on a spiralling dialectical movement. With their different inflections and emphases on the ‘national’ and the ‘social’, they are variations and ‘moments’ of what we may regard — using the terminology of Antonio Gramsci — as the ‘national popular’.