Post-war trauma still haunts TNA

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By N Sathiya Moorthy

Sad but true, but then the nation’s Tamil polity has since made a fine-art of infighting that they do not any more have the fig-leaf of blaming the majority/majoritarian Sinhala-Buddhist counterpart, as also the Sri Lankan State, for all their eternal woes. Better or worse still, a substantial portion of their complaints were imaginary, or universal to all Sri Lankans, ethnicity no bar. In the past, they covered up their intra-communal weakness of in-fighting with ‘ultra-nationalism’ by one or more politico-electoral stake-holders from within, but post-LTTE, the coinage has lost its currency, almost for good.

It may be true that sections of the Tamil war victim community are still living through the trauma of the war years. But the greater truth is that the TNA leadership is worse in readjusting to the post-war Tamil realities that is striking the community on the face. You can argue that as the ‘victors’ the Sinhala polity has wholly returned to pre-war ‘normal behaviour’, but the TNA seems to be waiting for another Prabhakaran to direct them to do, or not do things. 

The current tiff within the party, pushing ‘one-time reluctant’ (???) Northern Province Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran, to a corner one more time, is fraught with the danger of the ruling Tamil National Alliance (TNA) falling apart, and for good. If someone from within the community is reminded of the eternal split in the once-united TULF, he is not wide off the mark.

The problem with the present-day TNA leadership is as much structural as it is being made to sound conceptual. The LTTE was the first and only outfit which was not looking for power under the Sri Lankan scheme and system. They wanted it all, and on their terms. With the result, they did not gain anything ultimately, and lost everything, including the common global Tamil imagery of ‘invincibility’.

Truth be acknowledged, the LTTE also broke the TULF camel’s back, for good, and created the present-day TNA, because someone somewhere would not fall in line. Again, the fact remained that those that fell on the LTTE’s line and also Prabhakaran’s feet did so as much for whatever elected legitimacy that the latter could confer on them, as out of fear for the LTTE’s ways and waywardness, especially in ‘managing’ from within the larger Tamil community.

Back to the wall…

It is not as if Wigneswaran is alone in fighting his own battle, for succession within the TNA and larger Tamil polity. Going by media reports, TNA boss and Leader of the Opposition, R Sampanthan, too is fighting Wigneswaran’s battles, but the latter too is doing so, with his back to the wall.

It is a question of who blinks first – one, between Sampanthan and Wigneswaran, and on the other, between Sampanthan and the rest of the TNA leadership, which has begun moving away from him, to include other second-line leaders, as well. The Tamil polity and the community has always allowed itself to be led by the nose and guided on its path by a strong leader. This has proved to be as much of strength in the past as it may have become a weakness at present. The reverse is equally true.

Wigneswaran has failed to show himself as a ‘team-player’, which is what the Tamil political methodology had been in the days of TULF founder, the late S J V Chelvanayagam. SJV readily identified with the TULF after finding his brainchild of ITAK/Federal Party alone, unequal to the task. Sampanthan is yet to readjust to the post-war political scenario in the country and the Tamil community, with the result, the old ways are failing him, as also the party and the community – or, so it seems.

The difference…

For the non-ITAK partners in the TNA (Tamil National Alliance), ‘internal reforms’ have stopped with bargaining more and choice seats during election-time. So much so, the EPRLF constituent lost whatever credibility that remained from the pre-LTTE past evaporated as it marshalled all three non-ITAK partners in the Alliance, to ‘rebel’ against the ITAK hegemony in seat-sharing and the rest. Today, the EPRLF is out of the Alliance, but that has not made a difference.

The difference is there in the post-LTTE generation of second-line leadership at all levels that is jostling for political space, which their own sub-regional elders refuse to vacate. They are also as much confused as the elders are adamant.

The fact is that the elders who were younger once upon a time, when the LTTE sidelined and sidestepped them all at one go, want their own pound of flesh, here and now. They do not seem to be concerned as much about their continued irrelevance to the post-war scheme but to their own personal mortality – which did not leave out even the mighty Prabhakaran, unlike what some of them had believed, at one time or the other.

The present-day Tamil political situation, especially of the TNA, is akin to that which prevailed in the Seventies, when alone Tamil militant youth decided that enough of moderate politics was enough, and took things into their arms, and also took to arms. There is a difference still. The present-day Tamil youth seems wanting to leave behind the war-psyche and get on with their lives, not talk ideology, which can make sense only when they have their basic needs addressed.

Here is the difference also between Wigneswaran and the rest of the TNA clan. They want a political solution move hand-in-hand with development works, job-creation and income-generation for the war-victim families. Wigneswaran and a small band of Diaspora hardliners would not have any of it. They are afraid/apprehensive that if they let it go now, ideology may become a thing of the past.

Ideology business

Leave Wigneswaran aside for a moment, there is still a small industry in the ‘ideology’ business, at least overseas. Wigneswaran has allowed himself to be their ‘poster-boy’ nearer home. The product refuses to sell as much overseas, so is the ineffective nature of the poster-boy thereabouts.

In their time, the original TULF and SJV had failed to take note of the youthful angst within the community. They had further hoped that their moderate ways was the best, and they could still manage to carry the youth with them. It is possible that only to ensure that the youth did not stray away even more, SJP and the rest had the controversial ‘Vaddukottai resolution’ on the larger agenda.

Maybe, given his larger-than-life image, as Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil Gandhi’, SJV had hoped to guide the Tamil population and polity alike on pressing the demand on the ‘Vaddukottai resolution’ front. It was possible he wanted to use the resolution to keep the restless youth in line. But he was gone before things stabilised, and the rest is all history, and the result is there for every Tamil to see.

Political relay-race

The question for the TNA leadership is hence to look inwards, and also look at the mirror, and decide which way to lead the youth, how and for how long. Politics of the protests kind is a relay-race, where not always does the same generation that initiates the process ends up reaching the finishing-line. The Tamil issue and leadership is a case in point for them to learn from, they do not have to look elsewhere for precedents, positive or negative.

The handing over of the baton is a deed that few political/administrative leaders have done with grace and in time. In our time, the Bhutan royalty is possibly the only one in the neighbourhood (and possibly elsewhere) that has scored. There may, or may not be a need for change, within the Tamil polity, not about leadership (alone) but more so about the ‘ideology’ part.

The need is for a churning process, which seems to have already started without anyone guiding it – rather for want of anyone guiding the same. The 10 February local government poll results went the way it did – moving away from TNA ‘totalitarianism’ – not because the voters wanted the TNA to go away. There were other reasons.

The TNA’s vote-share went down in the LG polls, mainly because the Tamil voters were getting increasingly frustrated with the TNA’s arrogant, assertive and arrogating ways. It is this ‘arrogating’ position that the TNA leaders were/are fighting among themselves. They only need to recall how the original TULF began losing its relevance even in the days of the tall and unassailable SJV. They need to decide if they want a repeat of the same, for their second line to tell their children, “Meendum, meendum pizhai vittom!” (‘We committed mistakes, again and again!”)

 (The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email:sathiyam54@nsathiyamoorthy.com)

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