When it came to the presidential elections, we warned Mahinda that an American led regime change conspiracy was afoot in this country and we suggested ways out of this trap. But astrology outweighed scientific socialism and the country is now faced with this situation.
A part of the conventional political wisdom in this country was that the SLFP loses when they contest elections on their own but wins when they contest together with the political parties of the traditional left. This was the pattern from the first SLFP victory in 1956 where they had no-contest pacts with the LSSP to defeat the common enemy the UNP. What started off as no-contest pacts later developed into coalitions and this partnership with certain ups and downs has continued for the past several decades. But for the first time since 1975, the traditional left has now been deliberately left out in the cold by an SLFP leadership. In this interview, LSSP leader Prof. Tissa Vitarana speaks to C. A. Chandraprema about the future of his party and the trajectory the country has taken after the August 17 parliamentary election.
Q. The LSSP was left out of the UPFA national list and is now no longer represented in parliament. This was an unexpected turn of events and it came as a surprise to many especially members of the UPFA itself. What do you make of this move on the part of Maithripala Sirisena?
A. We are deeply disappointed because it has been the established practice over the years to have a representative of the LSSP appointed to parliament on the National List. The composition of the national list and the number of LSSP candidates who would contest in the districts was agreed on between the party leaders of the UPFA. My name was included in the national list. For the oldest political party to be thrown out of the national list and candidates rejected by the people to be taken in is not only a violation of the understanding that existed among our political parties, but also a betrayal of the trust that the progressive voters placed in the UPFA.
Q. What now is the way forward for the LSSP?
A. As far as we are concerned, this does not mean the end of the world. The same thing happened in 1977 and the LSSP was without representation in parliament. So we are used to this.
Q. Could we say that the relations between the LSSP and the SLFP are at its lowest ebb since 1975 when the LSSP was thrown out of the coalition government?
A. Not really, because the SLFP itself is divided. There is a large progressive wing of the SLFP and that wing enjoys the confidence of the people at grassroots level. We are working together with that progressive wing. We are prepared to work with the SLFP and the UPFA if they are prepared to do the same. There is a need to save our country from a great calamity with the election of a government headed by the UNP and Ranil Wickremesinghe. There is a danger to our country and we would like to work with all progressive forces, the SLFP in particular to prevent the retrogressive changes that they are contemplating.
Q. The LSSP has worked with several SLFP leaders since the 1960s. In your view, who was the easiest to work with?
A. In the early days, we had figures who were nationally, historically established figures like Dr N. M. Perera, Colvin R. De Silva, Leslie Gunawardene, Bernard Soysa, Vivian Gunawardene and others. Therefore the relationship with the SLFP was on a different footing. Though the right wing of the SLFP was manoeuvring to marginalise us during the Sirima Bandaranaike governments, we got on well. Unfortunately, the global food crisis, the oil crisis, and drought in Sri Lanka had a telling effect on the government and the economy at that time. Furthermore, the policies that we were following like the Senaka Bibile medicinal drug policy which went counter to the interests of drug multinationals in this country were inimical to American led imperialist forces. They brought pressure to bear on the SLFP to get rid of the LSSP. The SLFP right wing connived in that process and we were booted out. Up to that time the relationship with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaiake was cordial. There were SLFP leaders like T.B.Illangaratne and T.B.Subasinghe and others who were left inclined so the relationship with the SLFP was strong. From 1994 onwards we had good relations with Mrs Chandrika Kumaratunga though there were issues like the privatisation of state owned enterprises and so on. But on the whole Chandrika’s positive attitude to solving the national question helped overcome those other problems. We were able to get Mahinda Rajapaksa to move more to the left than Chandrika and to stop all privatisations and to reclaim some of the institutions already privatised. But in any alliance you have people operating at various levels with private agendas and these matters would come up from time to time. The changes that we advocated as the left in the UPFA alliance were not heeded. When it came to the presidential elections, we warned Mahinda that an American led regime change conspiracy was afoot in this country and we suggested ways out of this trap. But astrology outweighed scientific socialism and the country is now faced with this situation.
Q. In an earlier interview with our newspaper, you described Maithripala Sirisena as an SLFP thinking person. It was Sirisena who deprived your party of a national list seat. It was not done by the UNP or the right wing reactionary forces in the government. What do you make of him now?
A. Maithripala Sirisena was being made use of as a part of an international conspiracy . As Asoka Metha reported in The Hindu in January, the conspiracy started in London with America and Delhi joining in. He mentioned the people who were involved in that conspiracy. He said very clearly that Ranil Wickremesinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mangala Samaraweera, and several others were involved and they were working on it for 18 months. Thereafter Maithripala Sirisena was brought in, in the last few months. We too carried out a campaign against some of the objectionable aspects of the UPFA government such as cronyism and corruption. This is an endemic problem in all capitalist societies because of the corrupting influence of the profit motive. Even the Communist Party of China has been having problems with their higher-ups. But we realised the dangers of crossing the line and making common cause with the UNP. Maithripala however took a different path. He may think he can control this process, but those forces are too powerful.
Q. From January this year, an Alice in Wonderland element has entered the politics of this country. The SLFP leader is helping to keep a UNP government in power. Then we see a UNP national list parliamentarian organising an N.M.Perera commemoration. What comes to your mind in observing these strange occurrences?
A. N.M.Perera was not only my uncle but also my political guru and I know what he stood for. What is taking place now is a betrayal where the country is being sold to international capitalist forces. Some have got into the UNP national list in the name of the LSSP. Our Kalutara District leader even contested on the UNP list. I have been to meetings in Kalutara where he used to start his speech by recalling how his father the LSSP leader in the Agalawatte area was gunned down by UNP thugs. I would have no issue with any stand they took if they had left the LSSP and said they want to support the UNP. But to join the UNP in the name of the LSSP, is a gross act of hypocrisy. It’s a good thing N.M.perera was cremated. Had he been buried, he would have been turning in his grave.
Q. You played a major role during the debate on the 19th Amendment to make the independent commissions responsible to parliament. That was something that all the political parties represented on the Public Petitions Committee of parliament including the JVP and the TNA had been asking for. But as of now, no mechanism has been set up to monitor these commissions and ensure that they are answerable to parliament. In 2008, the Public Petitions Committee wanted the independent commissions made answerable to them. But the 19th Amendment has merely stipulated that the independent commissions will be answerable to parliament and left it at that. Parliament has not yet amended the standing orders and devised some mechanism through which the answerability of the independent commissions to parliament will be put into practice. Now that the constitutional council is up and running isn’t it about time that parliament got down to the task of setting up an oversight mechanism over the independent commissions?
A. There has to be a body set up for the purpose. Whether this task will be handled by an existing parliamentary committee or a new body is a matter for parliament to decide but it has to be done. We can’t have a situation where officials appointed to these commissions are able to act in an arbitrary fashion. The knowledge of some of these officials appointed to these bodies may also be limited. If there are unjustifiable delays on the part of these commissions, there should be some way to address those issues. When I was the minister of science and technology, I wanted to set up a support service for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the rural sector in the form of the Vidatha programme manned by a science graduate with a computer operator supported by a field officer with the express purpose of helping existing SMEs and also those wishing to become entrepreneurs. We wanted to link up rural entrepreneurs with scientists and researchers in the universities so that they can improve their products and remain competitive. When I first put up this proposal, it went to the Public Service Commission and it was stuck there. I met the PSC chairman three times and explained the importance of this programme. But various petty officials haggled over matters like the salaries of computer operators and the whole project was delayed for over one and a half years. I finally had to go to the president and he intervened and approval was given for the cadre. People who don’t understand matters can get into those positions and even buckle the work of the government. So the government should take the initiative to set up a mechanism to make the independent commissions answerable to parliament.