Sunday, June 16, 2024

Avoiding the perils of 70s’ governance

by malinga
June 9, 2024 1:10 am 0 comment 819 views

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has experience in running a Pradeshiya Sabha (PS), the legend goes. The Tissamaharama PS was their stronghold. There is no previous experience needed to run any type of Government of course. In many countries such as France for instance, new parties with people barely experienced at running any State administration, have taken over without so much as skipping a beat.

But the competence of the JVP, which now appears in a new avatar as the National People’s Power (NPP), to run an economy is constantly questioned. Is the JVP the only party that has to prove itself? The JVP has been hosting seminars for professionals and businessmen at the drop of a hat. But none of this has offered a proper gauge of what the party and its rankers could do if elected to high office.

However, it could be said — if hints from the past are allowed — that Sirimavo Bandaranaike was one of the most inexperienced politicians that ever took office, and ruled as Prime Minister. During her first tenure in 60-65, she however ruled as if she was a natural born policymaker. It was in this term in power that it was said that she was the only man in her Cabinet. In those politically incorrect days, alas, that was meant to be a compliment.


She and her Cabinet colleagues were instrumental in launching myriad corporations that were able to produce everything from plywood to textiles. But politics played its usual reckless role in her undoing. When stalwarts such as Phillip Gunawardene joined Dudley Senanayake’s UNP and defeated her at the General Elections, having offered people two free measures of rice as a campaign promise, it was called a watershed moment.

Perhaps in retrospect, Sirimavo Bandaranaike could be classed as the boldest politician Sri Lanka ever had. She secured the assistance of Soviet bloc countries in that Cold War era to establish so many factories that produced paper and a great deal of our domestic needs. She sent parasitical foreign companies packing. But her subsequent term beginning in 1970 was less of a success than the first, partly because of the draconian tactics of Felix Dias Bandaranaike (FDB), her right hand man, who along with his wife became a law unto themselves.

FDB laid the ground for the anger that swelled among the population in general against the Bandaranaike Government, making it easy for his virtual twin in the then political arena, J.R. Jayewardene to reduce Bandaranaike’s SLFP to shambles in the elections that marked a crucial turning point for the country in 1977.

Why does this writer characterise JRJ and FDB as twins, perhaps even as evil twins? It is because the twosome, through their actions alone perhaps turned around the fortunes of a country. History of course would be kinder to Jayewardene than FDB because he implemented giant projects such as the Mahaweli and ushered in the so-called liberalised economy, even though that had mixed results.

But all the nationalism unleashed by Bandaranaike in establishing the factories aforementioned, seemed to have been undone with Felix turning everything into a Soviet style project replete with edicts, and regulation Chinese Cultural Revolution type optics. It could be argued that a good leader would have been able to reign in errant Cabinet ministers, and the fact that Bandaranaike allowed FDB’s excesses was a failure she had to own, and later regret.

But what has all this got to do with the JVP’s experience or the lack of it, which was the opening subject of discussion of this article? The JVP would have to avoid the perils of going down the route that the last Bandaranaike Government went on, particularly in the 70s. It is a party that if it ever forms a Government would be coming in with the same ‘work ethic’ credentials of the Bandaranaike regime, which worked with a great deal of zeal in implementing nationalist projects.

If Dudley Senanayake was content with playing Golden Boy with camera slung around shoulder and handing out goodies that could be ill-afforded by the exchequer — such as the two free measures of rice —Bandaranaike was almost viscerally opposed to such ‘playboy’ political excess. Moreover, with the revolutionary Leftists in tow at least at the time she began ruling in 1970, she had extremely transformative ideas for the country. She implemented Land Reforms even though such policies may have had certain adverse effects on the economy as the then plantation economy was largely disrupted, with ruthless British era firms running estates and turning in profits being forced to give up their extensive land holdings.


The undoing of these policies with the advent of the JR style robber-baron democracy in 1977, is a cautionary tale for parties such as the JVP trying to implement radical reforms as the SLFP did in the 70s, with little political experience or savvy to be able to implement such transformations efficiently.

Who is to say that the JVP, if in power, will not have its own petty despot FDB style, that would undermine well intentioned reforms from within? Besides that, the JVP has not done a good job of assuaging fears and anxieties generated by those such as Lalkantha with his idle prattle about handing over judicial power to the rural masses.

The fear is that the JVP could follow in the exact path of Bandaranaike in the 70s with overzealous policies and the inability to control the ogre that it released from the bottle, figuratively put, with radical policies that made the then leadership a cabal that had possibly bitten off far more than it could chew.

Is the JVP’s power-project itself an attempt to bite off more than it could chew? That would be dismissed by the party hierarchy as an unnecessary fear harboured by those resistant to the idea of change. But the party would only have itself to blame if it does not seek to convert those who are unconverted, who could spell the difference between them registering a middling performance at any future election outing, and winning enough seats to form a Government.

The JVP may be having an insularity problem in the same way that the radical-minded Bandaranaike administration had in the 70s. A party that’s reliant on its substantial overseas support in the Sri Lankan Diaspora abroad, cannot possibly be insular, it could be asked? But the insularity is in the way the party leadership back here in this country is wedded to radical reform, not in how loudly the Diaspora cheers.


Most radical reform of this sort cannot be implemented without some draconian measures, which is a lesson the late Soviet leaders before Gorbachev soon learnt, as did domestic politicians of the past such as FDB, at their cost. Besides that, iron-clad control is in the JVPs DNA, so imagine what could happen when a party whose one signal achievement in policy implementation is the Tissamaharama PS, gets suddenly catapulted to power?

The other mistake erstwhile strongman FDB made was to restrict free trade and grant monopolies subsequently to those such as Dasa Mudalali (S.D. Gunadasa), who then went on to become petty tyrants of sorts in their own right. Nobody wants a SLFP 70-77 redux, but the JVP would say that any fears of that happening with a future JVP Government at the helm is remote. They would in characteristic style claim that these are the fears of a reticent elite who fear taking the great leap forward, holding hands with the rest of the country’s forward looking citizenry.

But there are cautious people among voters, whether they like it or not. The party does not attempt to cover up for lack of experience with a detailed manifesto or a plan of action. That means a 70s era trial period of the Sirimavo-FDB type is altogether in the realm of possibility, if the JVP wins.

Of course the radical reforms that this era needs are different from those that were implemented by the Bandaranaikes in the 70s, but the political dynamic in operation could be the same. Radical reforms may require iron-fisted rule and that could mean that the Lalkanthas of the day could develop into modern day FDBs. We do not want another JR Jayewardene having to undo the damage after that, the way JRJ undid the damage inflicted by the Bandaranaikes in the 70s, while also possibly inflicting more damage of his own, and spawning an ethnic war to boot.

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