By N Sathiya Moorthy
Chennai, 19 November 2018
Should even the UNP led by (former) Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe get another chance at Government-formation, whoever their prime ministerial candidate, the six-member JVP’s reiteration of no-support to either the (incumbent?) one under Mahinda Rajapaksa or the other has made the 15-MP Tamil National Alliance (TNA) back in the driver’s seat. This is however a greater responsibility for the TNA leadership than a cause for celebration, going by the history and historicity of intra-Tamil politics since Independence and now, post-war.
If the TNA leadership of R Sampanthan, still the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ (?) in Parliament, has got away with travelling closer to the UNP line on the ‘constitutional crisis’, it owes near-exclusively to the alleged ‘horse-trading’ of one of their original 16 MPs, who was weaned away by the Rajapakasa Government and his becoming a junior Minister. But S Viyazhaendrilian’s explanation that the TNA did nothing for the Tamils despite aligning with the post-Rajapaksa Government of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, has not convinced anyone – at least in the TNA hierarchy.
However, that one act of ‘defection’, or ‘horse-trading’ in TNA’s perspective, was enough for the Alliance leadership to go hammer and tongs against the Rajapaksa leadership. Gone was the brief spell of self-doubt when Sampanthan had declared that it was sort of a personality-clash between Wickremesinghe and Rajapaksa (all over again), and their support would be for whoever made them a better offer (only on a political package to the ethnic issue).
For a time, it looked as if the TNA would be rendered irrelevant, but the Sinhala polity did not fail Sampanthan. Today, with numbers not adding up for Rajapaksa, and not enough for the UNP either, there is a clear indication that barring a massive defection from the existing ranks, they will require the TNA to present the numbers to Parliament, and maybe to the Supreme Court, when the ‘dissolution case’ comes up for hearing on 7 December (something that every stake-holder seems to have forgotten altogether).
Handling in sleep
Despite the strong show of political sagacity for their international supporters in Colombo to acknowledge in whatever way, wherever, the TNA leadership seems wantonly not looking back at their backyard, still. They seem to have convinced themselves that a ‘solo defection’ was enough for their Tamil voters to hate Rajapaksa even more. To them, it also seems to have translated as a natural corollary that for want of a choice, the Tamil people would now vote the UNP in future elections.
It may hold true for a presidential poll but not necessarily in a parliamentary election. Woe, behold the TNA in such a scenario! In a parliamentary election, the TNA is the main stake-holder for the Tamil loyalty and the UNP a major contender for those very votes. The Tamil vote may be even more confused in simultaneous elections to the presidency and Parliament, which proposal some UNP leaders especially have put forward.
At one level, only Sampanthan and party’s international spokesman, M A Sumanthiran are seen talking about the TNA’s position at every turn of the continuing constitutional conundrum. It can be described/marketed as self-discipline. But going by TNA’s divided history, it can also mean that other partners in the combine are letting the two to clear the ‘mess that they alone had created’ by near-unilaterally deciding to back Sirisena for presidency in Elections-2015, particularly at the instance of the UNP and more so, Wickremesinghe personally.
In traditional TNA style, it is at election-time that the non-ITAK partners of the combine who make noises, if only to bargain for a more advantageous seat-sharing formula. It is then, and then alone, that the non-ITAK partners dig out the past, and murmur their traditional line of protest against the leadership for doing the unavoidable and at times, unthinkable. This is a known line that Sampanthan has mastered to handle in his sleep.
However, if one went by the TNA’s parliamentary conduct over the past three-plus years especially, the combine’s Tamil detractors in the traditional Tamil areas of the North and the East have more ammunition to target the combine and its leadership. To them, ‘constitutional crises’ are all a ‘Sinhala creation’ for the ‘Sinhala polity’ to sort out. In the post-war era, it’s a God-sent opportunity for the Tamil hard-liners to celebrate the ‘Sinhala crisis’ and make hay. Not so for Sampanthan & Co.
At the core of the hard-liners’ argument at any future election will be the way the TNA leadership surrendered the Tamil-led Northern Provincial Council to the Centre, the day it voted for the dissolution of PCs pending fresh elections, on the ruling UNP argument that the electorate and other details needed to be re-worked, requiring more time than already. To them, with this one act, the TNA has invalidated the long-standing Tamil demand for ‘self-rule’ of a kind through a Provincial Council for a re-united North-East.
Leave aside the fact that the TNA was nowhere near handing over the Tamils more powers than already promised under 13-A, which again needed implementation even after 30 long years, the hard-liners are bound to point out that even whatever remained as a PC, it was the TNA that convinced the ‘Sinhala State’ that they could do without. What’s now happening in most of the Provinces, including the ‘Tamil-ruled’ North, is that the TNA has helped the ‘Sinhala polity’ and the Sri Lankan State to convince themselves that the Tamils needed no Provincial Councils or power-devolution.
Today, the Tamils are back to the pre-PC days before the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord, 13-A and the Provincial Council Act, all vintage 1987. The Sri Lankan State would have been convinced that they could rule the nation without PCs, and through the pradeshiya sabhas scheme, which is what many in the Sinhala polity describe as ‘power to the people’. Anyway, the Sinhala PCs are not impressed with themselves and never made power-sharing an issue for them to agitate against their central leaderships, political and constitutional.
Now that one-time TNA Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran from the North, has floated a breakaway, ‘separate/separatist’ Tamil People’s Alliance (TPA) they are bound to use the TNA’s ‘failure’ in any future electoral campaign. The local government elections of February showed that in the Tamil areas, the TNA’s stock has dwindled almost to a third of the total population presence. There are other Tamil detractors of the TNA, who too are now waiting on the wings. None of them (other than the ubiquitous Douglas Devananda’s EPDP) can been seen as backing the Rajapaksa but then can take on the TNA still, and in a Tamil-centric election.
The way the national scenario is playing out however, it looks as if ‘democracy’ and not ‘ethnic issue’ in any form may form the core of whatever elections that come next. The TNA leadership would be hard-pressed to prioritise their own electoral issues at the time – and whatever they say and do now, may come to haunt them more than ever in an election time!
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)