SWRD Bandaranaike was a political doer, for the most. He knew words and knew how to extract on-the-moment rhetoric. He knew how to bend movement into mass action and how to stunt existing political structures. That is why he could turn 1947 into 1956, why what he left behind survived death (for better or worse), and more importantly, why his principle legacy to the country, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), was able to commit to different ideologies without losing that original thrust it stood from the inception.
Formed in 1951 and originally a result of a schism in the United National Party (UNP), the SLFP was the first ‘alternative’ party which crippled the ruling regime. No other party or force was able to intrude into politics within as short a time and create a presence as this one. The object of this article is to engage not in self-reflection or on the ‘what might have been’ of history but rather on the ‘what was ’and its implications. The SLFP celebrates 63 years this week.
The first real attempt to form a national movement against imperialism arose in 1915. Both the Temperance Movement and the 1915 riots shaped the leaders who would take up this movement. The riots in particular, which incensed the British into imprisoning several members of the anti-imperialist brigade, were led by those who’d later head the Ceylon National Congress and form the UNP.
What was the real story though? Most of these leaders came from the noveau riche, whose landowning interests necessitated a ‘bowing down’ of sorts to the imperialists, indeed the same imperialists whom they had in their youth avowed to defeat.
One remembers FR Senanayake’s invective against the British, when Henry Pedris’ body was paraded in front of him and his jailed colleagues: “I take the solemn pledge here and now that even if I am forced to beg on the roads with a coconut shell, I will spend all my wealth to teach these fellows a lesson.” Patriotic no doubt, but were these words really kept to?
To ask that is to ask how those who espoused rhetoric of this sort began to be opposed, not by the colonial government, but by the first real movement aimed against it, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP).
The LSSP represented the first real mass struggle against the colonial administration. As history has shown, most of those national heroes venerated today were not only dependent on this same administration, but preferred (in the Bracegirdle affair, for example) the subversion of law by its representatives to the questioning of it by Marxists.
The riots of 1915 represented a struggle of another sort. As Kumari Jayawardena has illustrated in her book Nobodies to Somebodies, what went on through the riots was a tug-of-war between the political Somebodies entrenched in the colonial government and the political Nobodies vying for power.
That is why (for instance) the latter class who are venerated as heroes today could oppose universal franchise and prefer Dominion status to independence, never mind that they had come to power on a mandate to deliver the country from the British.
What happened next was tragic. Stunted by factional struggles (through the Third International) and the wartime ban imposed on it by the government, the LSSP split and remained, after the war and euphoria of independence, a paled replica of what it had once been. There were victories obtained, yes, but these were mostly orchestrated in the parliament, the shift to which was echoed in the shift in party leadership from Philip Gunawardena to NM Perera.
The SLFP on the other hand purported to continue what the LSSP left behind before making that shift. But even in that case, SWRD Bandaranaike refused to create a Marxist party out of it, which meant that the SLFP was moderate, structured to accommodate those who were opposed to Marxism while being tired of the UNP’s erratic policies (particularly during the Kotelawala years). The defeat of the UNP was, as Denzil Peiris observed, “the result of the maturing of the long submerged Sinhalese intelligentsia” and not an outright victory of socialism over conservative politics.
The point is that the SLFP, while tilting towards the left, was not really left-oriented. The reforms Bandaranaike brought about had more to do with opening political structures to the people (his government was described as ‘ape anduwa’) than with real economic and social reform, which explains how he inadvertently preserved class-hierarchies and this in a way which intensified the rifts between different social classes in the years to come.
Put in another way, the SLFP robbed the Left. By legitimising itself as a leftist party, the squandering of that image in later years meant that the party became to the UNP what the Labour Party under Tony Blair became to the Conservatives.
The likes of Vijaya Kumaratunga, Ossie Abeyagoonasekera, Felix Perera, and later Rajitha Senaratne and Dilan Perera became the ideological shapers of the SLFP, when after 1994 Kumaratunga’s widow and Bandaranaike’s daughter (again, for better or worse) turned it into the biggest champion of devolution and federalism, more so than the UNP (whether under JR Jayewerdene or Ranil Wickremesinghe).
Here lies the tragedy of the SLFP today: Its inability to move beyond this federalist-devolutionist stance.
To be sure, we saw 2005. We even saw 2009. But Mahinda Rajapaksa was to the SLFP roughly what Ranasinghe Premadasa was to the UNP: A popular leader who rationalised a virtual dictatorship in terms of that popularity and remained, for the most, an outsider to both colleagues and foes. Sooner or later, dissent within the party would have privileged Chandrika Kumaratunga’s hold on the party, just as Premadasa’s murder led the UNP to perpetuate Jayewerdene’s legacy in the hands of his nephew.
The tragedy of the SLFP is the tragedy of our people: the tendency of popular leaders to justify self-perpetuation and subversion of democracy using that popularity and charisma. The UNP has not and will not produce these leaders, at least not for quite some time. Only the SLFP can. A truly national ruler however remains as far away from our country as Bandaranaike was in 1956.
Sirisena, though, seems to fits the bill. We hope and pray that he will. One day. The sooner he does so, the better it will be for the SLFP in terms of continuing what his predecessor left unfinished: a nationalist project that is neither majoritarian nor minoritarian, but supportive of all identities.