Vietnam example: Communist factor in JVP-NPP mix could prove constructive

Thursday, 30 May 2024 00:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



“First as tragedy, then as farce”. Marx’s legendary riff on Hegel springs to mind when forecasting the political future of Sarvajana Balaya, the rebranded bloc of Islamophobic ultranationalists from the Zombieland of the Gotabaya Presidency and old Leftists. 

I expect it to be extinguished through Sarvajana Chanda Balaya (universal franchise) at the forthcoming Parliamentary election just as the SLFP’s allies were in 1977. Its rancid ultranationalism is anathema to the youth of the Aragalaya generation and while its old personalities and discourse will give ex-MR voters someone to punish, for the painful Gotabaya fiasco. 

For the CPSL and Vasu’s DLF there will be no coming back from this last cruise on the Titanic. Criticising the JVP-NPP is fine but doing so in alliance with and on the same platform as three notorious political purveyors of dangerous Islamophobia (Muslim birth-rates, Dr. Shafi, etc.) is morally grotesque and ethically disgusting. 

There is no charismatic Sarath Muttetuwegama to revive the CPSL through a self-criticism as in 1978-80 of the racist (‘Masala Vadai’) line. 

Sarvajana Balaya leaves the JVP and FSP as the island’s authentic Left. 


The debate debate

In a democracy with a presidential system, there is almost always a debate between the candidates. Sometimes, in a winnowing-out process, there is more than one such debate. 

One need not insist that the debate be simply between two leading Opposition candidates. It is perfectly in order for it to be a triangular debate between Ranil, Sajith and Anura. Recall the debates between Macron, Melenchon and Le Pen.  

As for the debate between the Economic Councils of the SJB and the NPP, I’d really like one because I really like debates—not because it is an international practice. It isn’t. 

Off-hand I cannot think of a single democratic country where in the run-up to a Presidential election, there was a debate between ‘Economic teams’. Even in the Westminster system the debate is between party leaders (Sunak accuses Starmer of ducking his debate challenge).

In the US presidential elections no one actually knows who the Secretary to the Treasury would be until the winning candidate appoints his/her Cabinet. Even during an economic crisis as serious as in 2008 which was the backdrop of the US Presidential race won by Barack Obama, the economic debate was between the front-runners. In Presidential elections the world over, the questions “how have you/will you handle the economy?” is debated by the candidates. 

Therefore, the SJB’s insistence on a debate between ‘Economic teams’ when a Presidential election is in the offing is an oddity. The SJB’s stipulation of a debate between ‘economic teams’ as precondition for a debate between the Presidential candidates is simply is not a standard international practice. 

Whether intentionally or not, that insistence devalues Sajith Premadasa’s status and his economic knowledge and ideas, garnered from familiarity with his father’s stellar developmental achievement as well as his own experience in decades of Budget debates in Parliament which antedate Harsha’s and Eran’s. It is an attempt at gate-crashing, and elevating the SJB’s Economic Council to the same level as the party leader and Presidential candidate. 


Direction rejected 

An overwhelming majority of Sri Lankans think the country is headed in the wrong direction. This has been the case at least since 2022, Aragalaya year, but the current figure does not mark even a marginal improvement. Indeed, the degree of dissatisfaction is at an all-time high. More strikingly, the dissatisfaction figure in Sri Lanka today is the highest recorded among all countries in which such polling takes place. 

These are the stunning takeaways of the May 2024 poll by the Institute of Health Policy (IHP). 

“3 in 4 Sri Lankans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

More than in any Other Country With Similar Polling. 

Three out of four Sri Lankan adults (75%) said that the country is heading in the wrong in April 2024 while almost none (3%) said it was on the right track. The number of people who say the country is heading in the right direction has remained very low (less than 10%) since SLOTS started polling this in early 2022. 

Comparison of IHP SLOTS estimates for Sri Lanka with other countries shows that Sri Lankans are more likely to think the country is headed in the wrong direction than in any other country. In March-April 2024, a global average of 64% of adults polled in 29 countries by Ipsos thought their country was headed in the wrong direction compared with 96% in Sri Lanka…”


Either the economy is not improving, or it is improving only for the very few while the very many are suffering. Furthermore, the vast majority of citizens aren’t in a stoic frame of mind, swallowing the “bitter medicine” (Dr Harsha de Silva’s delighted urging) of an economic adjustment program that they believe will ultimately benefit them. On the contrary the overwhelming majority is bitterly disapproving of the direction this country is heading. 

This means several things.

Firstly, in a country the vast majority think is headed in the wrong direction, it is wildly illogical to assume that anything but a minority – perhaps a microscopic minority--would vote for the incumbent who is piloting the country in that deplored direction. 

Secondly, something is drastically amiss with the Wickremesinghe economic model and strategy. They require re-thinking and revision, before rejection turns to revolt, whoever is in office implementing that model.  

Thirdly, the party or parties propping up the Wickremesinghe model (UNP-SLPP-SLFP) are the most distant from public sentiment and are the most likely to be penalised by voters.

Fourthly, the Opposition party perceived as the least willing to rethink and rupture from the Wickremesinghe economic strategy (i.e., the SJB) is the least in synchronicity with the mass mood, and is the most likely to take hit unless it makes a policy pivot. 

Fifthly, the party perceived as most willing to readjust Ranil’s structural adjustment (i.e., the JVP-NPP), is most in keeping with mass sentiment and has an electoral edge.


Ranil ripple 

Ranil is hoping to replay the Mangala Samaraweera election strategy of 2015: win the overwhelming majority of the minority vote which then requires only the flipping of a minority of the majority Sinhala vote to win. It succeeded in 2015, failed in 2019, and lies crippled in 2024. 

Firstly, the Catholics are unlikely to vote for Ranil in noticeable numbers. They will be divided between Sajith and Anura. 

Secondly, it will be irrational for the minorities to vote for a candidate who has a mere sliver of support among the majority and cannot be saved by the minorities. 

The expectation of waves of SJB defections putting Ranil over the top in the presidential race is a scenario that is way over the top. Why should any SJB MP waving at cheering crowds at Sajith’s rallies (e.g., Polonnaruwa) while facing a Parliamentary election in months, defect from that platform onto Ranil’s where crowds are sparse? 

A vengeful Wickremesinghe looks set to play spoiler, paying Sajith and the SJB back for 2020. If Sajith can be tripped up by splitting the generic UNP, center-right vote, then one of Ranil’s favorites in the SJB -- no prizes for guessing who -- can grab the leadership and reunite with the UNP in time for the parliamentary election. 

That said, Sajith has made himself and his party strategically vulnerable: 

By making the SJB’s profile another version of the UNP, it is prone to voter-defection Ranil-wards, while it is also unattractive to ex-MR voters who are uncomfortable with the JVP-NPP and may have voted for a progressive-populist mainstream Opposition. 

If the SJB had been robustly Ranasinghe Premadasa-ist, i.e., populist-centrist, instead of center-rightist, it would have been less vulnerable to vote-splintering by Ranil. 

If the SJB had remained “MR-Lite” as Mangala Samaraweera denounced it in 2020, it could have attracted ex-MR voters, aided by an alliance with the Dullas Alahapperuma-Charitha Herath faction. 

Instead of being progressive-centrist with omnidirectional outreach, the center-right SJB is in a pincer, threatened on two fronts. 


Communism, nation-building, economic miracle   

In a reflective report in our sister paper on the vibrant discussion he moderated at the launch of my anthology ‘Interventions’ at Marga early this month, Kusum Wijetilleke undertakes a complex set of moves to grapple with the problems of nationalism, liberalism, the center-left and contemporary Lankan political choices. (

Kusum strives to square the circle between a cosmopolitan but pro-Western Center-Right and a culturally conservative, parochially nationalist Center-Left. 

As an internationalist and methodological ‘comparativist’, I draw lessons globally and am optimistic about the possibility of a superior synthesis for Sri Lanka. 

Vietnam, a pinup for export-oriented economists, massively celebrated the 70th anniversary of its victory over French colonialism on May 7th. The celebration had a military parade, drew crowds of tens of thousands and featured a detailed, daily re-enactment by the Vietnamese armed forces of the historic battle. Vietnamese newspapers reiterated the significance of the victory: 

“…The Dien Bien Phu Victory on May 7, 1954, is considered a glorious “golden milestone” in the Vietnamese nation’s history of fighting foreign aggressors for national independence. It also marked the complete collapse of old colonialism all over the world, paving the way for the movement of rising up to struggle for national liberation in colonial countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America…” (

The crushing defeat of French colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 provided the backdrop for the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, the next year, 1955. That was the moment of conception of Nonalignment, born in Belgrade in 1961. Bandung 1955 also was the larger backdrop of the defeat of the pro-Western UNP government (advised by Ranil’s father) in Ceylon and the triumph of the progressive-patriotic forces led by SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956. 

Vietnam’s celebration of the 70th anniversary of Dien Bien Phu proves that a strong foundation of anti-colonial, anti-imperialist national liberation sentiment is not in contradiction with the confident and successful participation of a country in the world economy, but even a prerequisite of it. It is only on the basis of national self-respect, in contrast to an attitude of abject dependency, that a country of the global South in general and Asia in particular, can assert itself constructively in the world. Vietnam and China have proved that. 

To exit the current crisis, Sri Lanka must forge a synthesis of patriotism and internationalism. That patriotism must not be conflated with narrow, parochial, ethnoreligious nationalism. 

Vietnam’s ideology was deeply patriotic, not narrowly nationalist. It was an ideology of national liberation, directed against external invasion, interventionism, encroachment and hegemonism. Vietnam’s national liberation consciousness was powerful enough to serially defeat Japanese, French and US aggression. It was not based on reliance upon the elite. It was firmly based on faith in the people and reliance on them. This organic identification of the ‘nation’ and the ‘people’ provided a superior example of what Antonio Gramsci, a leading figure in the world communist movement in the 1930s like iconic Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, called the ‘people-nation’ and the ‘national-popular’

Sri Lanka’s misfortune is that it has swung between two extremes: on the one hand, a superficial cosmopolitanism and supine dependency on foreign powers, and on the other, a rancorous retreat into sectarian ethnoreligious revivalism. This cyclical pattern has blighted our trajectory at least since Independence. It blocked a fruitful postwar peace after victory 15 years ago this month, in a thirty-year war of reunification against a division analogous to that of North and South Vietnam. One dimension of the Vietnam war was the struggle to reunify a divided country.

The Asian Communist-led states Vietnam and China provide examples of the attitude that Sri Lanka needs to adopt as it embarks of an economic strategy of developing the forces of production through rapid industrialisation for the global market, so as to exit the debt-trap. Contrary to signature cliches such as “build bridges, not walls” so beloved of Sri Lanka’s contemporary rightwing economists, “walls” are not opposed to “bridges”. It is only if you know what walls to build, where, when and how to build them, that you will also know what bridges to build, where when and how. “Unifying” with South India and a bridge to Tamil Nadu isn’t the way. 

Vietnam’s and China’s nation-building patriotism has been the product of the Communist parties of these two countries; the Communist parties not only as ruling parties but from their beginnings decades earlier, as the parties which led armed insurrections, agrarian revolutions and wars of national liberation, thereby becoming the vanguards of their independence as countries. 

Unlike Ceylon’s/Sri Lanka’s nationalism which was the product of elitist Establishment parties in contention and collusion with neo-tribalist petty-bourgeois ideologies, the patriotism of China and Vietnam was the product of their long and deep national heritage of struggle and civilisational achievement, viewed through the prism of and worked upon by a modernist-universalist ideology—Socialism/Marxism-Leninism/Communism—which had an internationalist calling rather than purely nationalist vision. 

Since all this may sound esoteric to the reader, let me make my point plainly. In China and Vietnam patriotism has been the foundation of the self-confident assertion in the world economy. This patriotism has been the product, not of the elites, but of counter-elites and an intelligentsia standing for an alternative modernity and alternative globalisation; a modern, universalist ideology synthesised with national narratives. Asia’s ruling Communist parties have done an infinitely better job of nation-building and economic development than the elite leaderships of Ceylon/Sri Lanka have for a century. 

My case therefore, is that the Marxist-Leninist background and communist origins and inspiration of the JVP may not be the liability they are thought to be, and may bring something positive into the mix, something that was sorely lacking. 

That communist ingredient may enable us to have a re-founding moment, simultaneously resisting economic recolonisation and geopolitical hegemonism while transcending narrow nationalism based on ethnicity and religion-- which our elite political leaderships so signally failed to do. 

We may be living through the historical transition to the foundation of the new consciousness we require to launch confidently into the world economy and engage independently with a “churning” (Dr. Jaishankar’s term) world order. 

In the mid-1940s, JR Jayewardene and Dudley Senanayake inducted the Communist Party into the Ceylon National Congress (CNC). Apprehensive of adverse British reactions, DS Senanayake left the CNC and formed the UNP in 1946, on the eve of the 1947 General Election. During the 1947 election campaign, UNP thugs assaulted and paralysed Rohana Wijeweera’s father, a Communist party activist and loyalist of Dr. SA Wickramasinghe in the Deep South. It was a searing, distorting, history-altering trauma. 

Had the liberal nationalist-democratic-Communist bloc of the 1940s remained, Ceylon’s trajectory would have changed. There wouldn’t have been ‘Sinhala Only’. 

Today’s crisis requires that we return to the beginning, rectify that error and restore the Left --yes, communist-- component. Marxist philosophy would deem this move ‘the negation of the negation’ through which the dialectic of history makes its ‘spiral ascent’.   










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