The past year has been a good one for the JVP. Its profile, and, indeed credibility, have been enhanced. Those followed its high profile campaign in favour of military action against the LTTE. The population had long been manipulated by the `usual suspects` that a military solution was not possible, not least because of its soaring economic cost. The only viable way forward, said the self-regarding elite and foreign powers, was a negotiated peace with the LTTE, notwithstanding its proven track record of terrorism for over two decades.
By arguing that the question was not `Can we afford the War` but `Do we want to spend whatever it takes to save the Nation` the JVP has transformed the debate. Its Churchillian rhetoric, campaigning and call to arms has strengthened the backbone of the military and raised the morale of the troops. It tipped the balance on military expenditure such that the Government has embarked on a major rearmament programme to fight the LTTE. The military, officers and men, perhaps for the first time, have begun to feel that the battle against separatist terrorism is well worth fighting and dying.
There is little doubt that the military successes in the East have benefited the JVP in the eyes of many, especially in the military.
In recent days, the implosion of the UNP and the cross-over of UNP heavyweights to the Government benches have given the JVP an unexpected additional bonus. The UNP, loyalists and reformists, nor the Government (by creating 105 ministerial posts), have emerged with credit. Members of parliament from the UNP and SLFP and minority parties are now considered much the same, ready to serve in a coalition with the incumbent President or, the current Leader of the Opposition had he won the Presidential election in 2005. The JVP, on the other hand, has commanded respect, even among opponents, for taking a principled stand on coalition politics thereby foregoing ministerial office that were theirs for the taking.
The current reality, however, is that benefit to the JVP of these factors may not be translated in terms of many additional votes. The cognoscenti may well know that the JVP is neither chauvinist, sectarian or extremist. But the public perception is that it is a leftist movement comprising of Buddhists from a low income strata with the leadership and activists (with a few exceptions) speaking only Sinhala. Though aware that the sectarian image needs to be rectified, in practice the JVP has been unable to become a broad-based national party and has miniscule support among the Tamil-speaking people and religious minorities.
It is in that context that the JVP stance on a constitutional settlement to bind the minorities to the Nation is perplexing. It has been obsessive in its intransigence in insisting on a unitary form of government. That may have stopped the headlong rush into the precipice of extreme federalism reflected in the Majority Report of Experts and Dr Vitharna`s thinking. But immobilizing the push in the wrong direction is a negative success. There is nothing in the JVP campaign on this aspect of the National Question that offers an attractive political settlement to the Tamil-speaking communities who after all constitute a hefty one-quarter of the population and a majority in the city of Colombo.
The JVP`s non-negotiable stance stems from the view that any, and every, form of federalism would necessarily promote separatism. But rational arguments can be made for a unitary rather than a federal form of government on its own terms. The JVP needs to spell these out in a persuasive way to show that a unitary form of government would indeed provide a basis to bond the different language groups and communities in a united Sri Lanka.
It requires defining the forms of decentralization of decision-making at village, district and provincial level, and their funding, within a unitary framework. If, in addition, the JVP leadership were to advocate a secular state, compulsory teaching of Sinhala and Tamil in all state schools, bilingualism in the public service, say a 25% quota to minorities in all state employment for at least a time-bound period it would be talking to the minorities?at least the workers and peasants-- in a language they recognize as meeting their legitimate grievances in terms of equity and fairness.
There is one sure way that would really make a difference viz a viz commanding the argument on a unitary form of government. That is for the JVP parliamentarians, now almost exclusively Sinhala speaking, to become fluent in Tamil too. The JVP message would then be directed to the entire nation, especially to the Tamil speaking working class in the plantations and elsewhere. If the JVP Leader was able to become fluent in French after a relatively short forced exile in France, it is hard to believe that Messers Weerawansa, Lal Kantha et al. cannot master Tamil.
There is another noticeable factor that severely sets limits to an expansion of JVP vote base. That relates to economic policy. The message perceived is that the JVP is saying we need no economics. Restoration of 10,000 tanks, Mr Lal Kantha`s agitational fervour to raise wages of the working class, fighting corruption in the public sector are admirable in themselves but they are not economic policy. Even less so are strikes, general strikes and rowdy university disruption. Real economic policy is about public spending and taxes, national savings and investment, interest rates, the exchange rate and such-like topics.
Economic fundamentals in the country--- growth, exports, employment, skills--- may not be in a bad shape. But the country faces immediate economic problems that need to be addressed. One is the sudden acceleration of inflation. The other is the growing imbalance between the demand for, and supply of, foreign exchange, presently plugged by ad hoc external borrowing. Both stem from the gap between government revenue and expenditure and the weakly regulated surge in private investment and consumption, in part stimulated by abundant bank and other financial institutions` loans. The pressure on demand of these two inter-related factors, notwithstanding foreign borrowing, is the weakening of the exchange rate, and that gives an additional twist to the upward spiral of inflation.
These problems are the Government`s creation made worse by the in-built spending expansion of 105 ministries. Its approach to correct the external imbalance has been to raise interest rates, discourage private imports at the margin, to increase foreign borrowing and trust to luck. Its policy to reduce the gaping budget deficit is through better collection of taxes, marginal tax increases, domestic borrowing and `printing money`.
It would be natural for the JVP to fight tooth and nail the major consequence of government economic policy----the unprecedented rise in the cost of living of the masses. The history of the Great Inflation in Sri Lanka since 1977 has witnessed the fat cats getting fatter continuously under every successive government and the poorest going to the wall.
There is a difficulty, however, in the JVP suggesting ways to deal with the current macroeconomic imbalances. It is probably supportive of at least 80% of increased Government spending---for the military, wages for public sector workers, state subsidies to various sectors and many development projects.
There is an alternative macroeconomic policy to stabilize real economic activity and to keep inflation low, however, that dares not speak its name. Beside cutting down waste and corruption in Government spending, it implies squeezing private sector consumption and investment until the pips squeak (through taxes primarily on the wealthy, incentives to mass saving and stringent controls on bank lending); a Daltonian cheap money policy to reduce the cost of government borrowing; a wages, income and dividend policy such that all increases in these sectors for a year or two are compulsorily saved in War bonds; an excess profits tax; and a system of rationing of essential foodstuffs to low income groups at affordable prices.
Alternative, tough, short- term policies primarily affecting private sector consumption are not by themselves enough for the JVP to win trust with a much bigger segment of the electorate. The JVP needs to outline the contours of a long term economic settlement for the country (comparable to a political settlement) that would last a generation.
The economic settlement must answer the question on every voter`s lips: `What is the JVP for? The private sector would then know the JVP policies regarding the parameters within which they can function. The population at large would then grasp the JVP intentions of controlling the commanding heights of the economy, its priorities (and phasing) for welfare services that matter to them from the cradle to the grave, and the nature of its macro-economic policies (taxes and spending priorities) and productivity improvement measures to bring about sustainable non-inflationary growth in a broad-based manner,
The JVP today stands on the threshold of being the real Opposition in the country demanding a change of direction. But it needs more votes for that. Its activists and vote base are currently far from being typical of the general voter. Majorities matter. Strikes now do not.