To be, or not to be…

By N Sathiya Moorthy

At one level, the ‘Tamil votes’ are the deciding factor in the presidential polls of 16 November, as on most past occasions. At another, and more academic level, their own ‘majority’ Sinhala votes are even more important for the mainline candidates, with or without the ‘Tamil votes’ or those of other minority ethnicities, namely, Muslims and Upcountry Tamils.

Nothing else explains the way UNP-NDF/DNF presidential nominee and Housing Minister Sajith Preamadasa is shying away from meeting with the TNA-led five-party Tamil political/electoral alliance to discuss and decide upon the latter’s 13-point demands for a political solution to the ethnic issue. This, even as the ITAK leader of the TNA, which is only one, yet the most important constituent of the truncated three-party combine in the five-party alliance, has volunteered its backing for the Premadasa ticket, almost without asking and certainly unilaterally.

The ITAK has reasons of its own to back the Preamadasa candidacy. As the party leadership has since pointed out, for a responsible leadership to tell their voters to cast their lot individuals thought fit under the circumstances was not on. They needed to lead (even if at this belated hour and after a lot of hesitation and even more confusion). Put in a nut-shell, ‘To be, or not to be…’ as Shakespeare’s Hamlet was confused, was not an option before the Tamil political leadership – or, that has been the ITAK’s logic.

Already, a section of the TELO constituent, under secretary-general N Sri Kanatha has contested the ITAK decision. As on similar occasions in the past, Sri Kantha has not only contested what he sees as ITAK’s unilateralism. He has also challenged the core of the ITAK decision, pointing out Preamadasa too has only promised a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ rule, if elected president.

It is another matter, Sri Kanatha’s is the strongest of TELO voices. It belongs to parliamentarian and party president Selvam Advaikalanathan, who is said to have identified with the ITAK decision, so also PLOTE’s Dharmalingam Siththarthan. Worse still, TELO’s loudest of voices in M K Sivajilingam has since quit the party, a return-compliment for the leadership questioning his wisdom to contest the presidential polls without clearance.

The loudest Tamil voice, of course, now belongs to TNA’s one-time Northern Province Chief Minister, Justice C V Wigneswaran. It is anybody’s guess why and how he issued a unilateral statement on not backing either of the two mainline Sinhala candidates – Minister Premadasa and rival SLPP-JO’s war-time Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Having questioned Wiggy on this out-of-turn announcement without consulting the five-party alliance, it is anybody’s guess how the ITAK leadership is going to face the music, if any came its way, at the TNA talks on the presidential polls, one of these days.

Iconic symbol

There is no denying that the ITAK is the most influential and better informed Tamil party than the rest of them put together. Even the TNA derives its electoral strength from the iconic ‘House’ symbol of the ITAK that they have adopted as theirs, for the ‘winning chances’ that it still represents. Yet, it remains to be seen if the ITAK leadership holds the same or near-similar sway over the Tamil votes, as was the case in the past, both recent and distant.

In a way, the presidential polls is also an evaluation of the ITAK/TNA’s hold over the Tamil electorate. It is more important for the ITAK leadership, as the party too is entering the electoral way, albeit through proxy in Premadasa, to test its hold after the moderate showing in the nation-wide local government polls of February 2018.

With the Election Commission announcing that the much-delayed Provincial Council polls across the nation would be held not long after the presidential polls, and possibly ahead of the parliamentary elections that are anyway due by mid-August, the ITAK first and the TNA alongside has to consolidate its original hold over the Tamil masses, if it has to continue making a dent in national politics and in international fora. With a moderate to modest 35 per cent vote-share in the local government polls, they are facing an uphill task.

The Tamil-mood could sway either way, if not in the presidential polls but possibly in the other two to follow, if the Wiggies and Sri Kanthas of the world were to join hands, and then with the equally obstinate Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam, who had walked out of what was originally thought of as a six-party Tamil alliance even at its first meeting. Together, they may not be able to ensure a substantial Tamil vote-share even for fellow-Tamil candidate, a kin, if not confidant of slain LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran, even if they tried.

However, by calling for a ‘Tamil poll-boycott’, and together, they could all ensue that a substantial, though not a majority of Tamil voters abstained. Considering that a Tamil woman victim of ‘forced disappearances’ during the war-time, tried to throw her footwear at the ITAK leader on a Vavuniya street, where the latter had gathered to decide on backing Premadasa, there are reasons for the ITAK-TNA leadership to feel concerned.

If however the woman could not execute her project, even if it was one, aided and abetted by other Tamil or non-Tamil groups, it owed to the timely intervention of the police, who were there on crowd-control duty. It the footwear incident had taken an ugly turn, it could well have made news for the national and international media – which thankfully, it has not, thus far at the very least.

No secret pact

It is in this overall background that UNP leader and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s most recent statement that there was no secret pact with the TNA, for the latter’s backing for Premadasa assumes immediacy and relevance. Otherwise, the most liberal of even the dwindling ranks of liberal polity in the country at that level, Wickremesinghe’s ‘clarification’ (?) is obviously aimed at assuaging majority Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments, even before anyone from that segment of the national electorate had cited Tamil media reports about such a pact.

In the previous presidential polls, especially since 2005, when Wickremesinghe was the losing candidate against then Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, his own camp was keen on creating the impression that there was a ‘Tamil pact’ (to support him), after all. Of course, in 2005, the LTTE was the ‘unilateral, sole Tamil boss’, and the TNA did not matter, yet the Wickremesinghe camp did do everything to woo the latter and keep the former in good humour.

As it became known post-poll, the forced LTTE call for Tamil boycott meant that Rajapaksa won by the smallest of margins for a nation-wide presidential polls in the country. Or that is the post-poll construct, still. It is another matter that any Tamil vote for Wickremesinghe when the LTTE was still around could have as well meant that more Sinhala-Buddhists than already voted against him, thus tilting the scales in his rival’s favour, still.

This trend has continued through the post-war presidential polls of 2010 and 2015, where the anti-Rajapaksa camp was keen on projecting the existence of a ‘secret pact’ with the TNA, whether or not such a one existed. On both occasions, the anti-Rajapaksa Sinhala-Buddhist candidate with a chance to win, met with the TNA team and discussed their demands, whatever may have been the promises made.

It was based on such meetings that the TNA could go to town, declaring its support for war-time army commander Sarath Fonseka (2010) and former Minister, Maithripala Sirisena (2015). The former lost, also because of the ‘Tamil votes’, the latter won because of the Tamil and other minority votes.

This time round, the anti-Rajapaksa, Preamadasa campaign is fighting shy to meeting up with the TNA delegation, even after the Wiggy camp and estranged and exited EPRLF had broken up the unnatural five-party alliance for all practical purposes. Yet, the ITAK has contrived a situation in which the leadership claims that the Preamadasa manifesto has more positive points than Gota’s, when tested on their 13-point charter of demands, if only to announce unilateral support for the camp, though the candidate himself does not seem to have even appealed for the same.

No commitment

If anything, Preamadasa is busy writing only to rival Gota, repeatedly challenging him to a public debate. He does not seem to have the time to write to the ITAk/TNA leadership, even if he does not have time to meet with them, even once. It boils down to a situation in which a Preamadasa presidency could still claim that they had made no commitments whatsoever on any of the Tamil parties’ current demands, for them to hold him or his Government accountable.

The question may arise even faster than the ITAK/TNA leadership and their friends, in the Tamil society, national polity and international community may wish for. Come the Provincial Council and Parliament polls, Preamadasa’s UNP would be contesting them alone and against the ITAK-TNA in the Tamil areas of the North and the East apart from capital Colombo. They all either speak of the presidential poll commitments / non-commitments, if only to win seats, in exclusive Tamil areas for one of them, but equally and even more so for the other, in the majority Sinhala South.

The ITAK-TNA leadership(s) cannot wish away the existence of Sinhala-Buddhist political ambitions of returning to the centre-stage of electoral politics in the Tamil community and regions, too, if only over the medium and long terms. For either of them to campaign for the PC/Parliament polls on a platform that could be considered a continuation of the present presidential poll platform (or, non-platform) is both untenable and non-saleable.

It is in this background, the Tamil adversaries of the ITAK-TNA leadership’s unilateral, uninvited support for Premadasa might launch the usual whisper campaign, to point out how he too had looked the other way, when the Wickremesinghe leadership of the party and the Government stripped fellow-Tamil UNP Minister, Maheswari Mahendran, when she allegedly made what looked a pro-LTTE speech, when she was actually talking about the plight of hapless Tamil women, post-war and under the Government of which she was very much a part. It is also in this context the more recent ‘footwear episode’ in Vavuniya street needs to be considered.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at the Chennai Initiative 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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