Ranil’s tough line deserves watchful support
From The Sunday Island - By Kumar David
The public has been haranguing the government for not prosecuting corrupt and criminal politicos (of whatever regime), not acting firmly against racist provocateurs and not pulling up slack government servants to enhance the quality of state services. If this is the grouse then strong action is justified and nobody should complain if the Prime Minister breaks a few eggs to make an omelette – there are good reasons to be cautious in supporting tough governments because Lee Kwan Yue like experiences have been mixed blessings, but more on that some other time.
Demonstrations of public outrage at malfeasance is abundant in print, electronic media, TV and is a prime topic of every social conversation. The antidote was well stated in a letter to the Island (19 February) by reader DEMOS: "If the law of the land is enforced equitably, and where breaches of the law occur, justice is meted out strictly without fear or favour, the majority of people will be happy in the knowledge that they can live with dignity and with an assured sense of security ". Very good, but enforcing the law with equity, putting an end to racial incitement and that ensuring public servants work in proportion to their remuneration, provokes vengeance from law breakers, racists and slackers. These eggs need to be broken if Mr Demos is to enjoy his nourishing omelette.
Allow me to muse on these themes from the perspective of a leftist and dwell on what the left should be doing but falling short. I expended time seeking leftist reactions to the question "What should our relationship to the Ranil Wickremesinghe government be?" The reply fell not into a wide spectrum, but into two sharply dichotomous positions. The Better-Left, for want of a name, consisting of the LSSP Majority Faction (Lal Wijenayake, Jayampathi, Vijaya Kumar), left-liberal intellectuals and Tamils said: ‘Responsible Cooperation’. ‘Responsible’ is an issue based approach – there will at times be disagreements. ‘Cooperation’ means now is a not-to-be-wasted opportunity to collaborate with the government for both positive purposes, and no less important, to defeat racism that has not been entirely eradicated, 8 January and 17 August notwithstanding. Others, such as Siritunga’s United Socialists, ex-Maoists and some civil society organisations e.g. those led by Jehan, Nimalka and Pakiasorthy, also belong to the responsible but not unconditional collaborator block. The JVP is tied up in knots of its own making and has managed to get both feet into its mouth.
The other side of the dichotomy is exemplified by the Dead-Left – or Dead & Buried (D&B) – consisting of the LSSP minority, the CP and Vasu’s DLF. Frontline Socialists (a JVP breakaway sliver) also belong indirectly to an ‘overthrow this government and bring back Mahinda’ agenda. The D&B’s theoretical fig-leaf is ‘Mahinda is pro-people; the present government pro-imperialist’. This is farcical. The Rajapaksa gang’s anti-Western posture was to save its skin from war-crimes prosecution, its tilt to China to collect booty from Chinese companies, and as for socialism, I sincerely don’t see what’s socialist about that regime’s programme during its two terms of office.
The Better-Left I can identify with but the pity is that it’s not deeply involved in mass action. Lal is doing a great job with public consultation on the constitution and Jayampathi will be on the drafting body, but still isn’t it a disgrace that the left needs, albeit open-minded, liberals to lead the fight against chauvinism? What a goddamn shame; it’s not the left, but Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera who are the most prominent spokesmen denouncing racism today!
Some in the Better-Left are handicapped by sectarianism; they manifest the negative side of Trotskyism and do not understand that nurturing a broad-left should be their main task. Ranil does not need their help to mobilise the liberal class, he can do it better himself; the tactical need today is for another separate vanguard on the left flank of society. Is this difficult to grasp? It has not penetrated some pro-Ranil left sectarians on whom the importance of broad-left mobilisation has not dawned. Ranil is willing to grasp opportunity: His "Hit-to-see; if you want to fight, let’s fight" is the right frame of mind and is waking up liberals who have long been grumbling about inertia.
Now cut the crap that the left is in decline globally and our predicament is normal. Heard of Jeremy Corbyn? Heard of Bernie Saunders? The world is changing, Lanka will change; how soon depends on our clarity and purposefulness. What is indisputable is that young people, the next generation, in the West is vibrant and the working class in the US is following in its wake – in the UK trade unions were one driver of Corbyn’s rise to leadership.
I took the initiative of bringing Corbyn to the notice of Lankan readers when he was derided by the British media as a dead loser; the UK media is a lot more sanguine now. The Guardian (15 February) carried a piece by Freddie Sayers, editor in chief of YouGov, which said: "In both cases (Corbyn and Saunders) a key enabler has been the detoxifying of leftwing ideas. The word socialism itself has become acceptable again, and to the millennial generation it has more to do with Swedish sunshine than Soviet gloom. A recent YouGov study in the US revealed that 18- to 29-year-olds are the only group that overtly favours the term. But there are significant minorities in the older generations that also favour the concept – and they add up".
The PM has taken the fight to the GMOA and the press. I have not yet studied ETCA and will take it up next week; in principle internationalism and collaboration with India are good. In respect of the press it is true that (a) much of it, not excluding the Daily Mirror and Dirana, was a Mahinda tail-wager and that (b) to this day contributes little to foster pluralism, devolution or imaginative and constructive inputs to the development discourse. Sure I have reservations re- the government’s reliance on a capitalist development strategy with no grounding in the guiding role of the state. This contradicts even models of successful Asian capitalism, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.
However this piece is not about whether the left can collaborate with the UNP on economic policy; it is about the political programme that has come to the forefront – constitution, devolution, pulverising chauvinism, and a framework for all-round development. The extended common ground is welfare (education and health), and a functional public service, not class fundamentals. I do not seek commonality with the UNP on socialism, capitalism or any other –isms. First things first; at this time of peril secure democracy first; maybe our ways will part after that.
Ranil as populist
Life never ceases to surprise and some things the PM has said recently are not consonant with the image I have carried over the years. His punch lines at the World Bank Research function were quite un-Ranilish. Here are the choice ones: "The rich have got richer the poor become poorer"; "The bottom 80% pay 80% of taxes and the economy’s weight is borne by the masses"; "I think we require a capital tax". I rubbed my eyes in disbelief; I was used to this sort of thing from NM, but Ranil!
But there are three inconsistencies. First this is inconsistent with the government’s budget proposals which are not poor-friendly but intended to spur capitalist growth in anticipation, I presume, of a trickle down effect. Reducing the income tax ceiling to 15% and inducements to entrepreneurs, do not resonate with the PM’s pro-poor talk; somebody is taking somebody for a ride! The imbalance of expected revenue and envisaged state spending is a second discrepancy. Who will pay? Economists are not good at expressing themselves; when tongue-tied they borrow from the civil engineering argot. So they have "structural" problems, which apart from this imbalance, refers to low investment, skills deficiency and weak institutions.
This brings me to the third defect. I have been pushing for a development and industrialisation programme; Make-in-Lanka to dovetail into what is turning out to be a big Make-in-India push. My pleas are falling on deaf ears, like my Single-Issue Common-Candidate concept which was ignored for two years. I don’t see how the PM is going to get anywhere resource-wise, unless he aggressively points in a chosen direction. I repeat, Lanka must cash in on India’s potential boom and I am inclined to view ETCA through this prism.
Ranil’s purported populism raises interesting prospects that I leave you to mull over for the rest of the week. Let us take a dim view of the PM; let us hypothesise that his populism does not come from the heart; that for him it is unfamiliar territory. Territory he is venturing into because he needs allies among progressive sections of society to defeat chauvinist monsters and the Rajapaksa rump and to overcome colossal inefficiency in the state. To do the second of these he needs a deal with the working class; to do both he needs a wider alliance.
Now, there is something called momentum. One can have allies, make commitments, set wheels in motion, and having used erstwhile collaborators, ditch them, saying "Thank you very much" and go the other way. History has many such examples; but history also has many counter examples where momentum could not be reversed and change followed upon change. It all depended on how the specifics unfolded. For now let us not ask for too much and work towards the ‘merely’ democratic tasks I enumerated previously. Let us also keep our eyes open, ready to cross whatever bridge, in whatever direction, when it becomes necessary to do so.