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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2732

Confusing Times

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“The Iberian peninsula has problems but no solutions.”
Eric Hobsbawm (Revolutionaries)

For the JVP this is the ‘best of times and the worst of times’, a time of unprecedented opportunity and of insurmountable dilemma. A future full of promise and of danger beckons to the JVP as it stands at a crucial crossroad. The way the JVP turns, the choices it opts for and the ones it rejects will have a bearing not only on its own fate and the fates of the regime and the UNP but also on the future trajectory of Sri Lanka.

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound is a practice that is in no way alien to the JVP. For almost a year no party has been more critical of the Rajapakse administration than the JVP. In parliament and outside, it thrashed the regime mercilessly. Its criticisms were biting and unsparing; and going by the occasional government responses these hurt. The lacklustre leadership of Ranil Wickremesinghe and the resultant inability of the UNP to mount a serious challenge to the Rajapakses organisationally or propagandistically made it easier for the JVP to eclipse the UNP as the most successful critic of the government. And it could do all this in the comforting conviction that the Rajapakse regime was in no danger of falling.

The JVP thus had the best of all worlds until the budget vote. Mr. Wickremesinghe was hoping to cajole or shame the JVP into voting against the budget. The JVP kept its cards very close to its chest in the run up to the vote on the second reading of the budget because it wanted to prevent any defections from the government ranks. That tactic worked. When the voting time came there were no crossovers and the JVP was able to vote against the budget – which it had been virulently critical of during the debate – in perfect safety. The government remained in place while the JVP was able to safeguard its anti-government façade. However this charade became impossible to maintain when Rauf Hakeem crossed over. As wild rumours circulated about an imminent volte face by the CWC and of several crossovers from the SLFP, the JVP was forced to abandon its anti-government pretence and save the Rajapakses from defeat.

The Bearer of the ‘Remote”

During previous elections the JVP asked the voters to place the ‘remote’ in its hands – i.e. to give it a sufficient number of parliamentary seats to enable it to control the government from outside. As the budget vote proved, that long desired ‘remote’ is now in the hands of the JVP and is proving to be far from an unmixed blessing. The importance of the JVP to both the government and the UNP is no longer in any doubt. In the coming months it would be wooed more than ever by both parties. Theoretically it can dictate terms to both the regime and the UNP. The government especially will be looking over its shoulder in the coming months, at the JVP.

According to media reports the JVP agreed to save the government, upon conditions. Though the exact details of the deal are not known there is informed speculation that the conditions may include the abolition of the ceasefire, the pruning of the cabinet, adopting a more hardline stance on the international community, non-devolution of power, bringing down the cost of living, tackling corruption and waste and greater receptiveness to the demands by workers and students.

Will the government honour its promises? Can the government honour its promises without incurring unsustainable political/economic losses, perhaps even undermining its very existence? What will the JVP do if the administration does not honour its promises? What can the JVP do in such an event?

The JVP does not want the Rajapakse government to fall. It does not want another 2001: parliamentary election, Ranil Wickremesinghe cobbling together a government and trying to revive the appeasement process. To add to its woes the JVP knows full well that at the next elections its parliamentary seats would be more than halved. Understandably it will do whatever it can to postpone that day of shame. On the other hand its ‘anti-government’ image is also important to the JVP; this precludes any public identification as the chief-prop of the regime. As the Rajapakses break many of their promises with their customary insouciance, and its own rank and file simmers with discontent, this is the dilemma that will confront the JVP leadership: Can it keep in power a government which does not honour its solemn promises and acts in a manner that violates all the precepts supposedly important to the JVP? Can it enable an opposition, that is every willing to kowtow to the LTTE, to come into power? In the final analysis these are the only real choices open to the JVP; it must either help the Rajapakses or Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is no middle path, no other option.

Maximalism has ever been the bane of the JVP. Historically, the JVP’s minimum programme has been almost akin to its maximum programme. Effecting compromises does not come easy to the JVP. Throughout most of its existence it has displayed a tendency to regard compromises as betrayals. Many of the conditions the JVP is said to have imposed on the Rajapakse administration would impact on the country and the regime disastrously, if implemented.

Soon after the budget vote the President declared that the ceasefire will have to be abolished if the LTTE does not come to the negotiating table soon. This was undoubtedly a sop to the JVP. The ceasefire is a dead letter now. The best course of action we can adopt is to let it lapse into oblivion. If we abolish it now formally, the world and the Tamil people would see us as the aggressor, the more intransigent one. This would be tantamount to handing over a significant politico-propaganda victory to the LTTE. If the government chooses to abolish the ceasefire to keep the JVP happy, it would be causing unnecessary harm to the country and conferring an unnecessary benefit on the Tigers.

Another JVP demand would be to adopt a more hardline stance vis-à-vis the international community. This too is a potentially dangerous course. Right now the only advantage we posses in our dealings with the international community is the abysmal nature of our opponent; this behoves us to act with care not to narrow the gap between us and the LTTE. If the government is seen to be acting at the behest of the two most extremist entities in the South, the JVP and the JHU, the international community is likely to look at us with greater askance. Needless to say this would be of advantage only to the Tigers. In fact a government in thrall to Sinhala extremism would be a government made to order for the Tiger.

The JVP’s other area of concern would be politico-economic: the size of the cabinet, corruption and waste, cost of living, wage demands etc. It is unlikely that the government will make a serious attempt to prune the cabinet. If any such effort is made there will be a veritable exodus to the opposition and the government will fall. It is also unlikely that a serious effort will be made to reduce corruption or waste. Mihin Air is a metaphor of the Rajapakse approach to governance. The President regards the state coffers in the light of private funds and uses scarce public resources to keep himself and his cronies in clover. Corruption and waste thus begins at the very top and are at their most abhorrent there. Since the President and his family and cronies are not going to change their new life styles, it is unrealistic to expect any appreciable reduction in levels of financial malpractices. The country is facing severe financial problems and this would constrain the regime from granting many of the demands of workers or students. The regime is unlikely to embrace any sort of financial discipline; consequently controlling the cost of living would be well nigh impossible. In any case the Rajapakse solution to the problems of inflation is to introduce a new cost of living index with inbuilt safeguards against reflecting real inflationary levels. Therefore, it is unlikely that the government will be able to satisfy the JVP on matters politico-economic.

The ‘Patriotic’ Path

The JVP is not unaware of the regime’s disinclination to reform itself. Though internal dissension can cause a change in emphasis/direction, currently the JVP seems inclined to prioritise the war and related issues over either the economy or good governance. The political column of the latest issue of the de facto JVP broadsheet, Lanka, indicates this bias: “On the one hand in the year 2008 anti-Sri Lankan interventions by the international community will intensify. Already the USA has begun to implement soft-sanctions. On the other hand the Killinochchi-Vanni operations, which will determine the fate of the Tiger organisation, will commence in the first few months of 2008. It is reported that Vellupillai Pirapaharan is undergoing treatment after becoming severely injured in a SLA raid. An important Catholic priest from Jaffna has recently visited Pirapaharan and prayed for him. From all these facts it is clear that the politics linked to the national question will certainly dominate Lankan politics in the period ahead. Though economic problems can intensify, these will surface or become submerged depending on the success or failure of the war against separatist terrorism. Therefore the JVP has the opportunity to direct this critical period in a manner that will make the country and the people victorious” (Lanka– 23.12.2007).

As of now the ‘patriotic’ wing of the JVP seems to have gained the upper hand. Lanka is closely linked to this wing. What the paper has indicated is the path this wing, led by Wimal Weerawansa, will want the JVP to take. And the path is clearly a Sinhala supremacist one. This wing would have the JVP put economic and governance issues on the backburner for the sake of the war. It would regard the demand for better observation of human and minority rights an international conspiracy made up of the most impossible partners: George Bush and the Human Rights Watch, the Islamic fundamentalists and the Catholic Church, the anti-Tiger Tamils and the Norwegians. It would oppose any political solution to the ethnic problem based on substantial power sharing with the Tamil people, seeing in it nothing but de facto separation. In other words this wing would have the government take an equally tough line vis-à-vis the international community and the democratic Tamils as on the LTTE. Needless to say such a hardline would be very appealing to the JHU which would back it fully within and outside the government.

The Rajapakses may opt for the ‘patriotic’ path since it suits both their needs and their inclinations. Since the Rajapakses would not want to implement any measure that diminishes their enjoyment of the good life at public expense, governance issues would be anathema to them (and the government too). Since any ameliorating of public economic distress would require the Rajapakses to impose some financial discipline on themselves and their government, that too would not be regarded with any favour by the First Family. Taking a tough live vis-à-vis the minorities and the international community may seem an easier way out, as it does not entail any sacrifice by the First Family in the short term. This option would seem doubly attractive since it would enable the government to cover all its sin under the cloak of patriotism.

If economic distress and corruption intensify, if the war drags on, what will the JVP do? Will it under any circumstances opt for a course that will in the final analysis enthrone Ranil Wickremesinghe? Can it prop up the regime as the Rajapakses fleece the country and economically oppress the South in the name of patriotism? Given the financial indiscipline of the government the time of reckoning may come sooner than next November, with the inevitable supplementary estimate.

- Asian Tribune -

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