The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) has long been able to pull crowds. The Marxist-Lenninist party’s capacity to organise a large-scale rally is perhaps rivaled only by the increasingly well-oiled machine that is the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). But even by the JVP’s own standards, yesterday’s event in Colombo was an unprecedented success. A show of strength that signalled to supporters and detractors alike that the SLPP is not the only party in town that can fill the 12-acre Galle Face Green with busloads of supporters.
Thousands braved the hot afternoon sun to witness the JVP-led National People’s Power (NPP) announce its candidate for the upcoming presidential election. Nearly every inch of the Green was covered by supporters anxiously awaiting what was meant to be a surprise announcement. Even the drone-camera that was entangled with a kite flying nearby wouldn’t have failed to capture the mood of revolutionary fervour.
On stage were representatives of the 28 leftist or left-leaning organisations and groups that make up the NPP. Namely, the JVP, the Brotherhood Society of ‘71, the Centre for Dialogue, Aluth Parapura (New Generation), Aluth Piyapath (New Wings), the Trade Union Federation of the Government, the Lanka Samasamaja Party (LSSP) Alternative Group, Ethera Api, Jana Niyamu Kalakaru Ekathuwa, the Janatha Mehewara Udesa Rajya Sevakayo, Janawabodha Kendraya, the National Fishermen’s Solidarity Movement, the National Bhikkhu Front, the National Intellectuals Organisation, the National Trade Union Centre, Da-bindu Samuhikaya, the Railway Employees’ Union, the National Front for Good Governance, Left Centre, the Revolutionary Socialist Centre, Sri Lanka Jamaat-e-Islami, Sri Lanka Communist Party Alternative Group, the Sri Lankan Alumni and Professionals Association (SLAPA), University Teachers for Social Justice, Doctors for Social Justice, Savisthree National Movement, Sulu Jana Maha Sabhawa, and the United Left Front.
According to General secretary of Lanka Electricity Workers Association Ranjan Jayalal, in addition to the above 28 groups, the NPP is backed by 300 powerful trade unions in the state, semi-government and private sectors.
Starting the proceedings, General Secretary of the United Left Front Senior Lawyer Lal Wijenayake said past leaders had failed at the outset, having failed to formulate a constitution suitable to the country. This, he said, to a Sri Lanka that still struggles to find its identity.
“We are behind all other countries as our leaders did not have a proper plan in place in their total lack of foresight,” he said.
The NPP’s formation, said Wijenayake, was the first time that a set of proposals were presented following a scientific analysis on how to take the country forward.
Wijenayake spoiled the big surprise of the event when he, perhaps unintentionally, said it was the right and responsibility of JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake to be the NPP’s presidential candidate as he and his party had ably and steadfastly stood against corruption in Parliament and elsewhere.
Offering a feminist perspective of the road ahead for the NPP, Chamila Thushari of the Da-bindu Samuhikaya said women are the backbone and lifeblood of Sri Lanka as they bring the majority of foreign exchange into the country through the textile and plantation industries, as well as foreign employment.
Thushari spoke at length of the difficulties faced by women working in the Open Economic Zone, but what seemed to really capture the attention of the crowd was when she claimed that women are now resorting to drug use in order to keep themselves going and to achieve their production targets.
Wasantha Dissanayake, meanwhile, of the Revolutionary Socialist Centre began his speech by proudly proclaiming his credentials in terms of his participation in the failed 1971 JVP insurrection. His disabled comrades were seen seated in the front rows, as Dissanayake spoke of the need for change.
The word ‘change’, he said, was also used heavily in the Yahapalana campaign that brought President Maithripala Sirisena into power in January 2015. Keeping past mistakes in mind, the former revolutionary said, people cannot bring about change by just appointing new governments or presidents. “People should get together and actively engage to make change possible,” he said.
The NPP stage was also filled with various artists, some of whose faces were seen on the pre-2015 election platforms. Speaking on behalf of these artists, veteran author Jayathilaka Kammallaweera of the Jana Niyamu Kalakaru Ekathuwa said artists are gathered behind the movement purely for reasons of humanity and not because of any political, personal, career goals or other benefits.
Representing the Tamil community, activist Mailvaganam Suriyapragasam said if SLPP candidate and former Defence Ministry Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa came into power, the country would have to live under a repressive regime.
Senior Lawyer Harshana Nanayakkara, who spoke in both Sinhala and English said that the Rajapaksa candidate, who has eight court cases against him, has pledged to stop corruption and fraud, leading to much laughter in the audience including some of the journalists covering the event.
Then came the most eagerly awaited moment of the rally, when Anura Kumara Dissanayake, or AKD as he is known in some quarters, flanked by cheering supporters, entered the scene through a side of the stage. His South Indian movie protagonist-style entrance, though not as grand as that of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s, was still worth the wait.
“True national security can be ensured by leadership that create national unity by recognising the value of all communities,” said AKD in his first speech as presidential candidate, to loud applause.
Dissanayake also pledged that the NPP will transform politics in the country into a discourse that will be close to the people and free of corrupt influences.
“There is fear and suspicion in our society created on ethnic and communal lines. But no religious or ethnic extremist can ensure national security. They can only increase police check-points,” he said.
Dissanayake was also critical of society’s approach to politics. The country’s political culture, he said, “divides our people according to the language we speak, our faith, our caste and our sexual preferences”.
“These are forms of oppression,” he added.
Striking a chord with the activists in the audience, Dissanayake said national security can only be ensured “by leadership that creates national unity by recognizing the value of all communities”.
Younger voters disillusioned with the status quo also figured prominently in the speech.
“It’s vital to allow freedom of speech and thought for our society to develop. A diversity of thoughts and ideas are important and that cannot happen when these creative thoughts are locked up and stifled,” he said.
The JVP leader, in no uncertain terms, promised to walk the talk.
Twenty years after the last time the JVP fielded its own candidate, it remains to be seen whether Dissanayake can deliver on this promise.