Sri Lanka Freedom Party, throughout the period of its existence, successfully maintained organizational unity, comparable stability and continuity as the major political formation of this country and it, though experienced numerous political setbacks and difficulties relating to both organization and policies, overcame those challenges mounted by a segment of its membership on different occasions. Sometimes these things happened with the connivance of the party in power. No political party, irrespective of its solid popular base, would remain in the same political mould and the social context without being forced to make tactical adjustments, most of which are made to overcome challenges.
Political parties concern themselves with the life of men in relation to government and states. As Bernard Crick mentioned in his In Defence of Politics, the phenomenon of politics is very limited in time and space. Sri Lanka Freedom Party, in the context of the present coalition arrangement in the country, is faced with a predicament as to how the party should maintain its legitimate links with the membership throughout the country and its associated institutions of the national edifice of the party.
As we know, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, from its inception in 1951, was a political party with a set of diverse links with an island wide network of traditional pressure groups, which at one stage, formed the backbone of the emerging rural intelligentsia whose strength was the mainstay of the party for decades. The party has not still deviated from that basic historic foundation, from which it derives support and it constitutes the source of political recruitment for the party. Now a novel challenge has surfaced via the same base where the local government institutions political leadership is active and it has become an important element in a subtle divisive movement led by a few disgruntled party local politicians who claim themselves as a separate oppositional group. It does not cover the totality of the local level politicians and they, in fact, come from select areas.
This, in my view, has not substantially interfered with the grass root level support base of the party though it has been magnified by the wide media coverage, and this clamour for a new front or a breakaway party emanates from a limited segment associated with certain individuals with parochial agendas; it is in this segment that we see an element which fail to understand the significance and the current relevance of the present national coalition political arrangement.
It needs to be understood that the country’s politics could not be always looked at from the angle of the traditional rivalry between the two major political parties. In other words, pragmatic adjustments and understandings are needed to meet the political requirements of a given national situation. This traditional two party rivalry is a very powerful factor in the rural setting of this country and the party alignments are also very sharp in those areas. Control of village politics has been a vital factor in the competition for political power and influence, and identification with a major political party is a vital source of power and influence. It is this crisis of identity which has created a new kind of situation in respect of the SLFP base which still finds it difficult to understand the current scenario at the very national level.
The present bunch of party dissidents, despite their continuous rantings, do not have the political courage to call themselves a break-away group but their overt intention is to destroy the very political party from which they got political recognition. If they lost the party identity, which is a powerful resource at the village political environment, they are certain to lose all sources of influence and everything in politics. Therefore, they continue to remain within the party as they know that identification with a political party gives one more power and influence, and this-is effectively delivered at the village level. It has been the true experience of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party since its formation in 1951 and it derived its basic sustenance from the rural setting of the country. The continued existence of this dissenting group, the base of which is, among the obscure local government level politicians who are primarily political neophytes, has become a major contradiction and a sizable de-stabilizing factor which however, cannot challenge the solid foundations of the party.
Today the Sri Lanka Freedom Party is led by President Maithripala Sirisena, who as its Secretary General for more than a decade, is now ready to provide effective and efficient leadership to the party which had experienced two electoral debacles within a short period. The party which Maithripala Sirisena leads is his own SLFP and he never joined a political party to become the common candidate. The entry of Maithripala Sirisena as the common candidate and his astounding victory at the Presidential election was a unique political event in Asian politics. It was an equally unique political situation-which produced him and eventual elevation as the President of the SLFP was a deliberate act by the totality of the party. It was not a mere political accident or the result of fortuitous political circumstances. This, in fact, means that Maithripala Sirisena, who remains the only leader of the party, needs to be allowed to function in that capacity. He came forwards as the common candidate to serve a historic political purpose; it was for the sole purpose of politically demolishing the authoritarian political dictatorship and it has been achieved valiantly. The main cause germane to the present predicament of the party is this great victory, for which there was a massive popular urge, and Maithripala Sirisena fell in line with that popular upsurge, which, in fact, was unprecedented in the political’ annals of the post-independent Sri Lanka.
New political strategy
Today the authority of the party has been challenged by a certain vociferous divisive elements by threatening that a new political party would be formed by a segment of the party supporters who speak of the new political strategy only outside the party. Main exponents of this line of action are within a couple of smaller political parties associated with three or four individuals who, on their own, have so far failed to build a strong political base for themselves but they are rabid communalists. Their political salvation lies with some association with the breakaway groups of the SLFP and they are vociferous advocates of this line of political action. It is up to the leadership of the SLFP to see that its supporters are prevented from falling prey to the rantings of such demagogues. Some neo-fascist political pundits, who donned the khaki military garb in the past, with absolutely no experience in politics, speak of a political scenario similar to the one which existed in 1951 when the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. This immature political canard, which displays nothing but absolute political immaturity, needs to be demolished by putting forward a set of plausible arguments.
Similar viewpoint has been expressed by an utterly corrupt politician of the former regime who has now been thrown inside the dustbin of history. As the same argument has been made by the same protagonists, they need to be countered because the name of that illustrious politician, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike has been brought along with the name of an obscure provincial politician of the South. Bandaranaike came to form the genesis of the SLFP during the period of the Colonial State and the Sinhala Maha Sabha, which gave leadership to a network of pressure groups of the Village Sri Lanka, had a formidable base which Bandaranaike utilized to form the SLFP, and it was an extension of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggle to which Bandaranaike gave his blessings since 1926. Sinhala Maha Sabha, from which the SLFP was born, was basically anti-imperialist.
The present attempt by the disgruntled elements is basically to destroy an established political party and its avowed aim is to enthrone authoritarianism within the party and convert it again to an appendage of a family and its immediate cabal. Today, the SLFP has discarded all the authoritarian characteristics which dominated the party for a decade and the innate democratic values have been resurrected. As Hobbes said, man is motivated by greed for power. Individuals who enjoyed absolute political power for more than a decade are still displaying their appetite for power. What is their special political indispensability? Was it their ability to indulge in corruption? Does it mean that this island nation could not be ruled without this bunch of men who converted the Sri Lankan State into their personal fiefdom? Tocqueville once said that modern democracy does not believe in personalities. His decision was to focus on parties and masses. Personalities have influenced the formation of political parties and this is especially true of political systems in the third world. Maithripala Sirisena falls within this category and he needsto be given space and time to fulfill the task for which he got a massive mandate.
The present group of dissidents who provide sustenance to a new political party, intend to help the power-hungry elements to capture power again and establish another kind of cult of personality which smells fascism and virtual anarchism in the country. Sri Lanka Freedom Party cannot allow the country to drift towards Fascism; a Hitlerite type soldier is strutting around to become a leader of a political party and Sri Lanka is not ready to accept a fascist state.
In the past there were attempts to split the party and they emanated from similar dissidents but the party remained solid and strong throughout that period due to the leadership of the party, which, in different times, adopted tough positions to deal with such bundles of contradictions. Measures were taken to reconcile such contradictions and no splitter succeeded in threatening the SLFP and its stability as a political organization. SLFP, though a political party, is a political institution based on a kind of social contract with a certain set of fundamental institutions and they would continue to remain within the folds of the party, which, since 1956, has done yeoman service to this country and the people.
Sri Lanka Freedom Party, like the Congress Party of India, is a kind of a social movement, the foundations of which are in rural Sri Lanka and the party, despite the setbacks, is certain to remain in the political firmament of the country. It has been the experience of the Congress Party of India because it was a political formation which, throughout history, maintained the character of a political and social movement. It derived inspiration from the nationalist struggle and the party became a direct extension of that historic movement.
SLFP has a similar character and an orientation and it is this which gives additional strength to surmount all problems and contradictions. It was the agent of political, social and economic modernization during the crucial phase of the post-Colonial State. A political party, with a great tradition, cannot simply allow a group to form a party within the party and this attempt needs to be stopped with decisive and tough political action. As Max Weber stated, political parties are restricted to the realm of power and the political order. In other words, the party President is the President of the country and he is in power; the party, irrespective of the rantings of the divisive elements, is in power. This stark reality cannot be ignored.
A political party is oriented towards two kinds of activities; firstly, it is oriented towards the acquisition of power and secondly it is influencing the action of others for political purposes. This is precisely what the SLFP is doing and what intends to do in the future and the party, therefore, should maintain its identity within the system and it, though a few dissidents disagree with its present strategies, cannot allow such elements, in association with fascist-oriented ultra-nationalist groups, to destroy the formidable political formation of this country.
In the past, the party experienced the attempts made by such personalities as C.P. de Silva, Maitripala Senanayake, Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike, Vijaya Kumaratunga, T.B. Ilangaratna, Hector Kobbekaduwa and Anura Bandaranaike and on all these occasions the party took decisive action to deal with them; some of them formed political parties to challenge the SLFP but the dominance of the party remained intact. In other words, the SLFP remained invincible a party in the political landscape of Sri Lanka.
Compared to the neophytes who now champion the cause of a new party, the politicians who challenged the dominance of the party in the past were men of great political stature and they were stalwarts in the party holding important positions in the party. Despite their political stature and political clout in the country, they failed to oust the SLFP from the arena of national politics. Most of them, who left the party on such occasions, came back and held high profile positions within the party. That was the nature of the indispensability and the invincibility of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party.
There were issues of profound and passionate controversy within the party; they, sometimes, involved personalities but the party, with its traditional resilience, overcame all this and never went into total political oblivion. What was the secret of this success? One was its political and ideological resilience and the next was its social movement orientation, from which the party continues to derive political and ideological inspiration. I dub them as historical foundations of the party. The very ordinary party man, man in the village, man in the paddy field, man in the factory and the man in the street are certain to play a great part in the actual battle. For them, the identification with the party is an important badge.
The SLFP was formed by humble men in an age which treated them as unimportant and as long as this historical base of the party exists, no super-man or a khaki clad super-hero could destroy a political party which has been built on the aspirations of the common man. The curious paradox of the current situation is that this particular historical truth has not been understood by the advocates of a new political party who want to form a party out of the established SLFP which, in Sri Lanka, is a political institution which is unassailable SLFP is not a fragile political organization which can be made vulnerable to pressures from a few former local councillors; SLFP clings to principles rather than to consequences and it emphasizes interests. The dissidents, who challenge the SLFP are vehement in their language but their conduct is timid and irresolute. The SLFP is a strong political party that can easily surmount this temporary setback with political sagacity and tenacity, and the present leadership has the capacity to meet the challenge.
The top leadership of the party, including the rank and file, need to take a clue from what Harold Lasswell said of politics; politics is concerned with “who gets what, when and how”. In modern democracies, the principle of self-interest is bound to govern human action and the advocates of a new party are primarily guided by agreed for power at the local level. The very basis of power at the local level is certain to undergo a change with the introduction of a new electoral system which is certain to produce a new kind of political leadership.
Under the new constituency or ward system, the electorate would choose the most acceptable man as their representative and this is certain to displace quite a lot of local politicians who came to be elected under the PR system of representation which, in my view, destroyed the political efficacy at the village level. Some of these elements realizing that they will certainly be displaced, would want to join a bandwagon to become somebodies as they are certain to be reduced to nobodies. Therefore the emerging political scenario at the local level is going to be drastically different and completely a new kind of local political leadership would emerge in the process and it is this newly emergent political leadership that needed to be taken on board by the leadership of the party.
In the thirties and forties, the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike heavily relied on the then local level leadership which he converted into powerful pressure groups by organizing them into associations and those institutions constituted a vital segment of the base of the party in 195l, and that historic experience need to be utilized by President Maitripala Sirisena to fully activate the party base at this level. All component parts of the body politic are vitally important at a given point of time. Aristotle, for example, was aware of multiple group character of a political community; it was Aristotle who first collected the 158 Greek city state Constitutions. In an oligarchy, a number of privileged persons or families holding power are seen; oligarchies were always overthrown by the masses sooner or later because equality was denied to them and it was this that took place in January, 2015 as people of the country openly challenged the power cabal of a family oligarchy. Yet another political party is struggling to be born with the active connivance of the same family cabal as against the established SLFP which is the political vehicle of the ordinary man. As long as he stands by the party, the SLFP would remain solid and unassailable.