When the United Socialist Alliance (USA) was formed in the late 1980s, it was yet another Left political formation, but with a difference. The color was no longer red. It was red plus purple. The old guard, namely the Communist Party (Moscow), Lanka Sama Samaja Pakshaya (LSSP) and its off-shoot and therefore comparatively ‘young’ Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya (NSSP) were, of course, in the picture. But it was less red than purple, less Left than Center, less the stalwarts of the independence struggle, the ‘betrayal’ of 1964 than the clinging to an icon, a representative of a breakaway faction of the mainstream Sri Lanka Freedom Party, namely the Sri Lanka Mahajana Pakshaya (SLMP). It was all about Vijaya Kumaratunga.
A few years later, Vijaya’s nephew and Prof Carlo Fonseka’s son, Suranga, who was my housemate in Boston, explained the phenomenon in the following terms: ‘Vijaya was popular and the Left thought that they could, through him, push their agenda’. Now that’s a far cry from classical Marxist conceptualization of ‘revolution’, even for what certain sections of the 4th International would have called ‘revisionist’ or even ‘downright retrograde’ leftists (as they dubbed parties such as the CP and LSSP). Even self-styled Marxist ideologues like Dayan Jayatilleke were swayed, which means that half-baked, confused Marxists like Kumar David must be forgiven for supporting the LTTE against the Sri Lankan security forces.
The masses viewed Vijaya in terms very different to how the Left saw him. His relative position in the politico-ideological spectrum was hardly important to them. Vijaya was a celluloid hero true, but one whose humanity in real life was abundantly acknowledged by each and every person who had opportunity to meet him. Wherever he went, there were crowds. Whether these crowds were equivalent to ‘votes’ is, of course, another matter, Vijaya never won an election after all and even if, as alleged, he was robbed of victory no one will claim he was going to win in a landslide.
At the time, though, it is quite understandable that Old Left saw in Vijaya a ray of hope given the state of the Left’s political fortunes. A breakaway faction from the SLFP, after all, is something much bigger than a splinter from the splintered Left, even an SLFP in the doldrums, one might add.
And so, Vijaya was to be the ‘Left Candidate’ in 1988. Vijaya was to spearhead the campaign for the Provincial Councils to be held a few months later. The SLFP may or may not have been worried, but there was no reason for the UNP to be scared. Vijaya would split the opposition vote. This was obvious. A Vijaya-less USA contesting in elections boycotted by the SLFP did not make any waves, even if one were to factor in election malpractices of the kind we haven’t seen since 2001.
The JVP, then proscribed, and operating through its proxies, principally the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) and the secretive ‘Deshapremis Janatha Vyaparaya’ (DJV), on the other hand, did have reason to worry. Vijaya was appealing to the JVP’s political base, the rural masses probably including significant sections of the youth. Whatever misgiving the people had of the Old Left, they loved Vijaya. They loved him even though they may not have agreed with him on the thorny issue of the Indo-Lanka Accord and its outcome: the IPKF and the 13th Amendment.
It was then not about elections. It was about the movement of political loyalties on both political and non-political grounds in a country that fast moving towards anarchy. The regime was dictatorial and unpopular. The JVP had chosen to go the way of armed insurrection. The SLFP was painting itself out of the picture. Sarath Muttetuwegama, the one-man opposition, virtually, was dead. The LTTE had earned a breather courtesy India. The Indians were here. Vijaya emerged in this context and with a message that appealed to left-leaning youth of both the Sinhala and Tamil communities (the EPRLF and PLOTE were ‘friends’ and were ‘unofficially’ included in the Alliance).
On February 16, 1988, Vijaya Kumaratunga was gunned down. The JVP never accepted responsibility, but then again the JVP still operates as though its political hands are clean. I remember meeting a staunch JVP supporter at the Galaha Junction. We walked towards the Arts Faculty together. He referred to the poetic note penned by Sirilal Kodikara in the Communist Party newspaper, Aththa (The Truth) under the name ‘Ranchagoda Lamaya’. The finger was pointed at two personalities: ‘Jaathivaadaye visa kiri pevu amma’ (The mother who fed the poisoned milk of racism) and to the ‘father’ who promoted political assassinations and terrorism (I forget the exact lines). There’s truth in this, because that strange ‘couple’ (individuals or perhaps political realities) were indeed culpable. But it was hard to swallow what was implied: the trigger-puller and the person, who ordered the assassination, were somehow guiltless or that they were only marginally implicated.
The JVP-led ‘Action Committee’ of Peradeniya did not permit any form of mourning. Vijaya was ridiculed for crimes of omission and commission. Very few saw mirth in these insults. Vijaya was a personality that was larger than political loyalties and antipathies. You did not have to agree with him to like him. You did not have to like him to mourn him.
Had he lived? Well, that’s conjecture but the political equation was such that he would not have stumped either the UNP or the SLFP. He was assassinated. The USA, icon-less, floundered. Many key activists of the SLMP were killed. After the bheeshanaya, Vijaya’s widow went back to the SLFP and took with her key figures of the party. From 1994 to 2005, one can argue, we had an SLMP President, but that’s taking ‘logic’ too far.
It’s twenty-five years since Vijaya was slain. Since then we’ve had ‘stars’ take to politics. None have had the appeal that Vijaya had. Maybe they were smarter, less innocent, for twenty-five years later, they are ‘somewhere’. Vijaya is no more. Whether this is good or bad, is another story. We lost a great actor, a magnetic personality, a fledgling politician (all things considered). A good man, certainly.