Originally Published 2013-09-24 05:08:20 Published on Sep 24, 2013
The sweeping victory for the Tamil National Alliance in Saturday's first-ever Northern Provincial Council in Sri Lanka has a message for various stake-holders nearer home and afar.
Sri Lanka NPC polls: Messages for one and all
"The sweeping victory for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Saturday's first-ever Northern Provincial Council (NPC) in Sri Lanka has a message for various stake-holders nearer home and afar. Read and acted upon with care and caution, it can be the (only) sure-fire way to attaining the still-elusive political rapprochement and resolution. Left to imagination and rhetoric, it can be the sure recipe for national disaster all over again.

Despite the failed hopes and fragile expectations of the rest in the fray, none, including the hardest and harshest of 'Sinhala nationalists' in the Sri Lankan Government and the larger majority community, doubted that the TNA would record a handsome win. Yet, even the greatest admirers of the party would not have hoped for the TNA to bag 28 out of the 36 elected seats. With the two 'bonus seats', as they are called, going to the party with the highest poll percentage (close to 80 percent), the TNA now has 30 members in the 38-seat Provincial Council.

The election results are also a victory for the octogenarian party leader R Sampanthan, both within and outside the Tamil society, both within and outside the country. His shrewd choice of the chief ministerial nominee in retired Supreme Court Judge C V Wigneswaran has paid off handsomely. By polling more than 139,000 'preferential votes' in favour of Justice Wigneswaran under the 'Proportional Representation' scheme of Sri Lankan elections, the Tamils have as much endorsed the chief minister nominee as the party itself.

Independent of the larger issues and the greater message(s) from the NPC polls, it is also a sharp and silent retort to wannabe politicos in the TNA's midst, whose ambitions do not match their achievement. Yet, the party leadership, of which chief minister-elect Wigneswaran is a part - and, not by default - has to adopt the now-famous seemingly conciliatory approach to the ministry-making exercise. It is full of possibilities, as much as it is full of opportunities.

On the face of it, the TNA's massive victory is a message for the Sri Lankan Government and the larger Sinhala polity. They now need to acknowledge certain ground realities and revive the political dialogue in a mutually-accepted format. The Government has mooted the Parliament Select Committee (PSC) and has even begun nominal work on the same. The expectation was obviously for the TNA to reconsider its earlier position and join the PSC, post-poll, or proceed with it on its own, possibly.

The TNA was not averse to joining the PSC, but not before the party and the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa had arrived at broad contours of a possible solution. It's a cart-and-horse story, as to which should come in the front. With a massive popular mandate behind it now, the TNA could and should join the PSC with greater confidence and comfort. Its responsibility now is not only to the Tamil people of the North, but to the entire nation. The party has got an opportunity to demonstrate its seriousness and sincerity, after the calculated faux pas caused by its controversial election manifesto.

In such a scenario, there is no escaping bilateral and multi-lateral negotiation among various stake-holders on specifics, and on the sidelines of the PSC, if and when the latter joined the process. The TNA's bilateral negotiations at that stage would not be confined to the Government as an institution, or the 'Government parties' as decision-makers. Between the Government and the TNA, there would be, and would have to be many such rounds of talks - formal, informal, above or below the radar.

To try and encourage the TNA to consider joining the PSC, the ruling SLFP in particular would have to reverse its earlier position to come up with its suggestions only after the parliamentary forum had made up its mind. It sounds dilatory, but is definitely confusing - with scope for further contradiction afterward. After all, there can be no worthwhile PSC without TNA's participation, as the entire exercise is to try and identify a 'common ground' for resolving Sri Lanka's 'national problem' that the ethnic issue has been, war or no-war.

At the negotiations table, the Government had asked for the TNA to come up with its proposals in writing. Neither did it comment on the same, officially, nor did it come up with counter-proposals, if any. The SLFP leader of the Government coalition thus cannot follow the non-committal approach it had adopted earlier in the case of the recommendations of the All-Party Representative Committee (APRC). It has to be as specific as it expects the TNA to be, particularly if both sides have to adopt a 'give-and-take' approach to problem-solving.

Good beginning

Post-poll, both sides have begun well. TNA spokespersons, including Sampanthan, Wigneswaran and parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran have sounded as conciliatory as has been possible under the circumstances. Together, they have reiterated the TNA's resolve to work for a political solution within a "united and undivided Sri Lanka". A lot will now depend also on how the Government, with greater political experience and also muscle at the same time, perceives their mutual equations and relations, and is willing to accommodate the TNA's peculiar proclivities and problems in the larger cause of nation-building.

Interestingly, some of the pan-Tamil Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups also seem to have given qualified welcome to the NPC results. Some have pointed out that the Government should not bloat over the simultaneous victories in the Central and North-Western Provinces as an anti-Tamil vote. The Government should remember that the TNA's vote was likewise a vote for more powers for the Tamils. The reverse, it should be remembered, is equally true, if not more.

The 'Doubting Thomases' in the 'Sinhala nationalist' camp should give the TNA time to settle down to and in the business of political administration. There is enough in the TNA's birth and upbringing for a possible implosion, if the leadership does not handle intra-party affairs with adequate care and caution. The acknowledged lack of exposure of the TNA leadership as a whole to political and/or non-political administration in any serious way is another dampener.

The 'Sinhala nationalists' do not have to divine additional problems for the TNA if the latter were to set out on the course of self-destruction. By doing so, they would only be exposing themselves to the charge of continuing to play constituency-driven anti-Tamil politics, just as they are blaming the TNA of playing 'separatist politics' still. Should the TNA/Tamils give up such 'separatist dreams' for good, particularly if there were a political solution to the ethnic issue, then the Sinhala nationalist camp could be rendered irrelevant and for good.

With President Mahinda Rajapaksa flying out to New York for the UN General Assembly session when early results were beginning to flow from the elections to three Provincial Councils, his brother and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa has made the right moves on the TNA victory. While letting fellow Minister and SLFP General Secretary to talk politics at their joint news conference, Basil R has offered to work with the elected administration in the Northern Province.

The Government and President Rajapaksa have lived up to the promises and hopes of re-introducing democracy in the post-war, post-LTTE North. Yet, the results have shown that 'development' is not an end in itself, and that there is more to democratisation than roads and rail-lines, bridges and buildings. Issues of power-devolution, de-militarisation, re-settlement all have to be addressed, fully. For this again, there has to be mutual consultations and consequent trust in both the Centre and the Provincial administration. The two breed on each other.

The 'ethnic issue' today is not only about power-devolution in the larger, extra-territorial context in particular. Human rights issues have become a part of the milieu after the international community was provided with an occasion to intervene, and the UNHRC came into play. In this context, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's address in UN General Assembly on Tuesday would be watched with interest - for what he says and what he does not say.

Learning from 'TN experience'

For starters post-poll, the TNA leaders have underscored the need for greater political power to the Provinces, particularly the Northern Province. They have sought the full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment, a brainchild of the Indian neighbour at a particular point in time. Where individual TNA leaders may have expressed differing views, it's on what more after the full implementation of 13-A.

There is simultaneously much more that the TNA can and should learn from the political experience of the 'pan-Tamil Dravidian parties' in the south Indian State of Tamil Nadu. Political party leaders in Tamil Nadu have since come up with various formulations, post-poll in Sri Lanka's North, which is based mostly on their political convenience and constituencies nearer home than on the realities across the Palk Strait.

Significantly, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa seems to have delayed her observations on the TNA victory. However, her Government chose to time the release of the Chief Minister's earlier letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the 'fishers issue' involving the Tamil tradesmen from the two countries, the very day the NPC polls were out in Sri Lanka.

TNA's Wigneswaran, who had rightly criticised the Tamil Nadu polity not to fish in the troubled waters of 'ethnic politics' in Sri Lanka, and his party can and should learn however from the political past of the Dravidia Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the forerunner of the current crop of pan-Tamil parties in India. Having been part of the Dravidar Kazhagam (DK) parent at the time of Indian Independence, the DMK's founders of 1949 had opposed freedom for the country, and wanted what's now christened as Tamil Nadu to be allowed to go separate.

However, election victory after a delayed entry to the State Assembly in 1957, and later as a registered party in 1962, enthused the DMK into greater mainstreaming, quick and fast. The party gave up the 'separatist agenda' in the midst of the 'Chinese aggression' in 1962, and reaped electoral benefits in full measure only five years later in 1967.

Over the past nearly 50 years, the DMK or the breakaway AIADMK alone has enjoyed political power in the State, owing not to their pan-Tamil political rhetoric but to the attainment of socio-economic aspirations of their people, who identified the same with the political party concerned.

In contrast, many an insurgent group in India's North-Eastern States had to bow out of elected office after peace pacts with the Government, when confronted with the tough-task of political administration, aimed at meeting the socio-economic aspirations of their people(s). There are thus lessons from India that the TNA needs to learn. What thus matters is not just the 'Indian model' of power-solution or more, but also a full understanding of the 'Indian experience', if the TNA has to make the grade.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter)
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N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy

N. Sathiya Moorthy is a policy analyst and commentator based in Chennai.

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