As was only to be anticipated, a section of the twitterati in Sri Lanka have claimed that Indian High Commissioner Taranjit Singh Sandhu and US Ambassador Atul Keshap had talked to TNA leaders, R Sampanthan and M A Sumanthiran, for the three-party combine back Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in the no-trust vote of 4 April 2018 in the Parliament. If they had talked to know which way the wind was blowing, it was a part of their legitimate brief and mandate – especially of High Commissioner Singh, who represent Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour. If the twitteratis implied that HC Singh had sought to influence the TNA, then there is no evidence to the effect.
The mischief in such claims can be seen from the results of the parliamentary vote. The Ranil camp defeated the SLPP-JO’s no-trust motion by a wide margin of 46 votes in the 225-member House. With Speaker Karu Jayasuriya staying away from vote, as is the custom, only 72 members backed the motion while a total of 122 MPs opposed it. A total of 26 MPs abstained from voting. In such a scenario, even if the 16 TNA members had stayed away, which was the likely option, Ranil would have defeated the motion by a margin of 30 votes.
Alternatively, had the TNA voted against the motion, then, well the Government would still have won by a 106-88 votes, but that was not an option available to the Alliance in larger political formatting, in the context of the post-war ethnic situation, also with its international realities of the UNHRC and war-crimes probe kind. This was because pitted against PM Ranil and his Government was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom the Tamil community loves to hate yet, after the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’.
What the TNA vote, for instance, has conferred on the Ranil victory is greater respectability that the Government still has an absolute majority in Parliament, as the figure still crosses the mid-way mark of 113. As parliamentary norms in most democracies go, any vote requiring a simple majority is invariably calculated on the basis of ‘members present and voting’. Sri Lanka is no exception.
The TNA’s votes became even more significant as 26 MPs belonging to the Government party had ‘abstained’ from the vote. That comprised 25 from President Maithiripala Sirisena-led SLFP and one ‘National List’ MP belonging to PM Ranil’s UNP. Rathna Thero, the nominated member, was in the forefront of the civil society campaign that culminated in a united opposition to Rajapaksa, when the latter was President, and later in the incumbent ‘Government of National Unity’ (GNU) under the Maithiri-Ranil dual leadership.
The question still arises what if the 26 or abstaining members had voted against the Government? Then it could have been a tie, and Speaker Karu Jayasuriya, otherwise belonging to Ranil’s UNP, could be expected to use his ‘casting vote’, which in turn could well have saved the Government, still. There, however, the TNA’s voting for the motion alone would have upset the applecart. Considering that the TNA leadership knew their constituency’s mood better than any ‘outsider’, they did not require lessons in Sri Lankan parliamentary practices and possibilities from either the Indian High Commissioner – or the US envoy, either.
The no-trust vote has once again proved that despite deliberations, calculations and deliberate calculations to the contrary, the Tamil-speaking minorities matter in Sri Lanka’s political and parliamentary affairs, still. Apart from the TNA’s 16 votes, Ranil also got seven votes from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and five of the All-Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) or ‘People’s Congress’, earlier calling itself the All-Ceylon Muslim Congress, going by the same acronym. The Tamil Progressive Alliance (TPA) of multiple parties of Upcountry Tamil people (of recent Indian origin) has six members in Parliament, who also voted en bloc with the Government.
Of them all, barring the TNA, other Tamil speaking parties have ministerial representation. Ironically, the TNA, whose Sampanthan enjoys the status of the ‘Leader of the Opposition’ in Parliament, voted with the Government.
However, the four-member JVP, once-militant, left-leaning Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist party, one of whom the TNA designated as the ‘Opposition Whip’, voted with the motion. They are among the 76 who voted against Ranil, even while continuing to claim that they are still opposed to the Rajapaksa style of functioning.
Barring the JVP, the 72 MPs who voted for the motion belong to parties or alliances that are represented in the Government. That includes 52 MPs forming the ‘core group’ of the Joint Opposition identified with Rajapaksa and starting with himself. Most of them belong to the Sirisena-led SLFP, or to other constituents of what is euphemistically called the SLFP-UPFA. Originally, it had the JVP and the two-member JHU, the centre-right Sinhala-nationalist party, now in the Government and voted for Ranil’s continuance.
The irony of the Sri Lankan minorities is that forming just around 25 percent of the nation’s population in linguistic terms, they belong to three diverse ethnic groups, namely ‘Sri Lankan Tamils’ (11.15 percent), Muslims (9.30 percent) and the Upcountry Tamils (4.12 percent) . There is also a minority group of Sinhala-speaking Muslims (0.22 percent) and Burghers (equivalent to Anglo-Indians in India: 0.19 percent).
By voting for Ranil’s continuance, the ‘minority’ polity almost across the board (barring CWC veteran Arumugan Thondaman, who again abstained, despite being identified otherwise with the Rajapaksa camp) have reposed faith in his ‘liberal, democratic credentials’ and that of his UNP, to deliver on the incumbent commitments on various ethnicity-related issues, concerns and aspirations. Here again, their concerns are different, so are their aspirations, though the common threat of and from ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ is the common thread – and the only common thread
If someone says that India ‘influenced’ the vote, this one or any other, India is often identified more with the SLT and the TNA, if at all, and not with the Muslim polity, whose constituents continue to have live social contacts with Tamil Nadu. Neither the state, nor its polity, not even Government of India has the kind of political influence or clout over any or all of the Muslim parties or community leaders, other than at formal, official levels.
The TNA’s political contacts with the south Indian State too are next-to-nil, before and after the war. Instead, the ethnicity-centric emotional upsurge in Tamil Nadu from time to time owes to persistent propaganda – not all of them unfounded – has its roots in the Diaspora SLT, and used to be routed through them when the LTTE was around and its boss, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was alive.
The Upcountry Tamils, like the other two ethnic groups of the same linguistic origin, again has much use for external assistance, guidance and help, and they need it more than any other ethnic group of any kind in Sri Lanka – barring the numerically low Veddas, considered the aborigines. While India has been routing assistance for them through the Sri Lankan Government lest it should be misunderstood at the official-level and mis-interpreted at the political-level, especially by the Sinhala-Buddhist hard-liners, Indian political engagement with their local polity is minimal, though not to levels lower than that with their Muslim counterparts.
The Sri Lankan Muslim polity and society have been operating on their own wave-lengths, in the domestic atmosphere, independent of ‘external influence’ in general and that of India in particular. This does not mean they have greater ties with India’s adversarial Muslim neighbour in Pakistan. Instead, their increasing relations in terms of nations is rooted in religion, and hence Saudi Arabia, to an extent – and the rest of the Gulf-Arab region, where their children have prospered in the era of petro-dollars, like their Muslim brethren from India, especially from states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu.
The Sri Lanka’s Tamil polity and society, despite having constant contacts with the Government of India, especially through the High Commission in Colombo, has always operated on their own, often centred on the views of their strong Diaspora constituency, especially after the LTTE’s exit. The Diaspora loves to hate India, independent of whichever party or Government is in power.
The upcountry Tamils, for reasons of the sufferings that they have been going through in more recent decades and they themselves are yet to come out after being rendered ‘State-less’ in the very year of Sri Lankan Independence in 1948. Even otherwise, like the Tamil and Muslim polity, the upcountry Tamil parties are weighted down by personality clashes and ego-tantrums of individual leaders that there are as many parties for each one of them, as there may be leaders – or, closer to that is the truth.
In this background, to conclude that just because the Indian envoy spoke to a TNA leader or two, or met with some Muslim politicians, or came across an upcountry Tamil minister or activist at an official or social function should not mean that India could and/or did influence elections of whatever kind in Sri Lanka, especially. Any campaign of the kind could well be rooted in the political mischief of a domestic kind where dragging India’s name makes for good politics in the interim, or Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist campaign targeting non-Sinhalas and non-Buddhists – or, both. Nothing more, nothing less.
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N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.Read More +