A walk organized by the JVP in 2013

I am no painter or artist. But I am going to ‘paint a picture’. It is certainly not a portrait. It’s a meandering scene on a broad canvas of one aspect of our political landscape. It is certainly not the political equivalent of what John Constable or JMW Turner did with the English countryside. In one swell sweep, I am going to paint a 50-year landscape. So, political purists and Marxist ‘theologians’ must abide with my rushed or even rash brush strokes.

Yes, 50 years. The fact that the Sino-Soviet split was the first seed sowed in the emergence of the JVP is sometimes forgotten. But let that be, for now. Taking the Chinese line, as against the Trotskyst LSSP and the pro-Soviet CPSL, the JVP was born somewhere in 1968 when Wijeweera went around the country lecturing his 5 classes. Dudley Senanayake was then Prime Minister and the JVP adversary was an easily identifiable ‘capitalist’ UNP at its wits end. The ‘writing on the wall’ for the UNP government was clearly visible. The JVP used all its youth cadres to campaign against the government- specifically against IMRA Iriyagolla, the Minister of Education – as the United Front (UF) of the SLFP-LSSP-CP campaign was gathering momentum to climax in the UNPs second debacle in 1970. The JVP was politically on the ‘right side’ – i.e., with the left of centre progressive political forces of the day. They contributed to the UF victory in May 1970. Hence, the JVP was identified without ambiguity to be a left-wing Marxist political force.

Then something happened. Perhaps, they could not stop the gathering momentum. They had decided already that the left forces can gain political power only through a ‘revolution’. They had already begun collecting arms and manufacturing home-made bombs. There was no turning back now. A grave political and strategic mistake. Or were there other agencies – both local and foreign – that used the dilemma faced by the JVP for their own long-term political ends? The answer is perhaps, permanently shrouded in the mists of time.

A march protesting the "selling of education" and student repression.
A march protesting the “selling of education” and student repression.

Their ‘revolution’ was crushed within two weeks. They had attempted to violently overthrow a government that comprised the two leading Marxist parties in Sri Lanka – the LSSP and the CPSL. It was almost a contradiction in terms. Why would a radical Marxist grouping (the JVP was still not a recognised political party), attempt to overthrow a government consisting of Marxist parties that, by popular vote, had overwhelmingly defeated a ‘capitalist’ party? Naturally, for the first time, the JVP was tainted with the label of being ‘CIA agents’. And unfortunately, it was not going to be the last.

That JRJ, the Machiavelli that he was, for his own strategic purposes, freed Wijeweera soon after he came to power in 1997 did not help the JVP to brush off that CIA label. That Wijeweera, on his release at the mammoth public meeting on the Townhall grounds, spoke for several hours lambasting the SLFP-LSSP-CPSL combine and hardly criticised JRJ or the UNP, did not help the cause of the JVP as a left-wing Marxist party either. I was there at that meeting – then a medical student. I listened intently to the whole emotive speech. It was clear to me even at that very moment that Wijeweera and the JVP was being used – with or without their consent or knowledge – as a cat’s paw.

That JRJ used the JVP for his own purposes in 1997, and not out of any empathy with the JVP’s political cause became clear in 1983 when they were used as a scapegoat for the ‘Black July’ ethnic violence (when we all knew that it was agents from within the UNP that triggered and engineered the violence) and proscribed the JVP – together with the CP and the NLLSP – and drove them underground once again. The death and violence spewed by both the JVP and the UNP government during the 1987-89 second JVP uprising is history and needs no retelling here.

After their near decimation, the JVP as compelled to turned over a new leaf. They became a legitimate recognised party in the political mainstream and eschewed their violent past with some ineffectual apologies for their past and gained some respect. Since then, they continued to remain a party within the spectrum of left-wing political parties and groupings and were consistent with their broad political philosophy. They came into agreements with CBK to support her; they came into similar agreements to support MR during their respective presidential campaigns. They even saved CBKs government from falling with a ‘pariwasa aanduwa’ and joined her government with 3 cabinet minister posts. A large spectrum of Marxist, left-wing political parties and groupings were together with the JVP in these endeavours. The JVP seem secure and comfortable in their place, and in the correct political space, in that larger scheme of things.

Having supported MR to gain the presidency in 2005, they wished to remain outside of government despite being invited by MR to take up some cabinet posts. That was well and good. It did not in any way go seriously against the grain of their avowed political philosophy. The JVP backed the MR government even in battling the fascist LTTE and the need for a military solution.

Police use teargas to control protesters in 2014.
Police use teargas to control protesters in 2014.

Then again, something happened. It was partly due to the internecine leadership struggle within the JVP that began with Wimal Weerawansa leaving the party. The ‘next generation’ was getting impatient with Somawansa. He was being erratic in his theory and practice. It was time to let him go; if not, ask him to go. Go, he did, initially without a hum and then rumblings began until they came into the open. The JVP split and split again. Somawansa became an embarrassment of the past. So were the JNP and the FSP born.

AKD became their new leader. The internecine struggles didn’t quite end there within the remnant JVP. There were stories down the grapevine of strong and divergent opinion from Handunetti, Lal Kantha and Tilvin. But fortunately for the remnant JVP, the centre held and there were no further dramatic splits. But we hear that the rumblings do continue.

In my assessment, AKD’s ascent led to a dramatic change in the deep-rooted political philosophy of the JVP that had remained with them from the inception. Their focus changed from the political to the personal. They lost track of their Marxist, left-wing political philosophy and latched on to the personality of MR and that of his extended clan. MR, in no uncertain terms, without realising it, gave more and more rope for the JVP to hang onto. The concentration of power within a coterie, alleged corruption and family bandism were what the JVP concentrated on. They lost track of the mainstream of politics, the state of the economy and international reactionary forces at our doorstep. Before the JVP realised it, they became part of that larger conspiracy to overthrow the anti-west, pro-nationalist MR government.

Their single-minded vengefulness was completely devoid of political analysis. If not, they could not have ever become a major backer of ‘SF for President’ in 2010. They lost track of the fact that a ruthless military commander would be a greater danger to democracy than what the civilian Rajapakses could ever muster. From then on, the JVP had one agenda on its political plate. Get rid of MR. That was the clarion call – and as Colvin once said, they would conspire even with the devil’s grandmother to do it.

And lo and behold, we find the JVP and some Marxist fellow travellers on the fringe, get on a ‘unifying single agenda’ slogan to bring in the supreme neoliberal agent in Sri Lanka to power by the backdoor! Since the neoliberal agenda would not have been palatable to the people, and its local leader a spent force in democratic politics, a puppet on a string was hung up front – almost in effigy. For the first time in its chequered history, the JVP openly and blatantly stood together with the global and local neoliberals and international reaction to defeat a centrist, nationalistic anti-imperialist president.

Dressed as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremasinghe, two people participate in a JVP protest in 2013
Dressed as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremasinghe, two people participate in a JVP protest in 2013

Since then, the JVP has continued its new political line in consonance with their new political leadership to support a neoliberal political agenda with only scant criticisms of their economic agenda. It seems that the JVP that came into existence 50 years ago, by rejecting the ‘revisionists’ line in Moscow, have come full circle to become worse revisionists themselves.

Their attempt to become not only the third force, but the alternate force has come a cropper on 10th February 2018. They came a poor third and their optimistic hopes as a possible alternate government has become a more distant dream than it ever was.

So where from now? With the FSP nibbling at their support-base from the more extreme left, and a greater possibility that their vote base is likely to diminish (even though they gained 100,000 more votes) they do not have too many options to choose from. As many a Marxist and left-wing intellectual has argued, their very existence as a viable political party of the left that can influence governance in this country in the future will depend on how successfully they retrace their steps.

In 1904, when the Russian Social Democratic Party led by Lenin was in crisis due to internecine struggles and differences of opinion, he wrote a detailed pamphlet titled “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back”. If the JVP claims still to be Marxist-Leninists, they need to heed Lenin’s advice. Perhaps by reversing the sequence of Lenin’s appeal. They need to take ‘two steps back‘ before they venture to take ‘one step forward’.

The JVP needs to step back from egoistical and grandiloquent pronouncements. AKD comes out in every speech of his as an insincere demagogue spouting high-sounding phrases that in other circumstances, Franz Fanon referred to as those that “stuck to their teeth”.  His speech during the No-Confidence Motion (NCM) debate against the Prime Minister was hardly any different. Their pontifications from political pulpits have taken them nowhere. The JVP needs to be politically more perspicacious as well as make modesty their catch-phrase when they estimate their own importance in the current political landscape. They seem to have painted themselves into a political corner and wonder which way is out. Out is left-wing collectivism in a broad left front and not getting entangled and lost in the wilds of neoliberal political adventures. Was their compromise position in supporting the NCM a small gesture in the right direction? Or was it another of their political gimmicks? Or are they seeing the writing on the wall and taking corrective measures? Time is running out for the JVP. It was as long ago as 1225 AC that they said that “tide and time waits for no man”. It is known to be more impatient when it comes to stagnant political parties.

Will the JVP have the required humility and courage to look in the mirror and see the bloated and distorted image of themselves? Don’t you think that in the circumstances, portrait painting is completely out of the question. Landscape, it must be.


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