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TNA Needs to Win the Upcoming Northern Elections for More Reasons than One

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By N. Sathiya Moorthy

Election paraphernalia

Election paraphernalia

With the elections have also come the TNA’s charges of misuse of official machinery by the government parties and their Ministers.The Northern Provincial Council polls are for real now. Tamil leaders of all political hues not wanting to resign their seats in parliament to contest the Chief Minister’s post may be ruing their hesitation. They used to say that the government would get the process stayed one way or the other. The promise of an election was only to convince the international community ahead of the prestigious Colombo CHOGM in November, they used to say further.

There have also been charges of pre-poll violence. Attempts are being made to paint them as a part of the larger ‘ethnic issue’. Owing to a combination of past experience, hurt and propaganda value, many among them have come to believe that alleged malpractices in elections is a part of the ethnic bias being practised by the government, and the political parties comprising it. They have not spared the SLFP leader of the ruling UPFA now. They did not spare the UNP when the party was in power.

Very few Third World democracies have escaped the odium of electoral malpractices and violence. The party in power has been the main suspect/accused. Often times, the opposition party/parties too have not escaped the charge. If it is the TNA in the North, the opposition UNP and the rest have charged the government with misusing the official machinery in the simultaneous elections to the North-Western and Central Provincial Councils.

Ahead of the three PC polls comes the much-publicised and equally delayed visit by UNHRC chief Navi Pillay. Her mandate is largely about issues other than the Northern PC polls. It does not certainly cover the PC polls in the other two Provinces. Yet, neither is Pillay known to have focussed exclusively on issues on hand, nor have critics of the government nearer home resisted the temptation of telling international visitors what all they thought was wrong with the government. It is a universal practice in the country.

The government has agreed to the demand for independent teams of international observers to monitor the Northern elections in particular. It has also repeated the offer to give Pillay in particular free access across the war-ravaged North (and possibly East). As part of their assignment, the poll observers from outside the country would anyway be traversing the North.

In reaching (out to) the North, some, if not all, will also be travelling through the Central Province and/or the North-Western Province, where too elections are due. They would get to see, hear and feel things, either way.

Despite what critics might say, in all fairness to the government, it has done some good work on the development front in the North. The rehabilitation efforts may have been tardy but not wholly absent. One problem relates to contradicting interpretations. The international community is talking about ‘rehabilitation’ of all war victims in the Tamil areas in physical terms.

The government’s focus has been even more on the psychological rehabilitation of the 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres (read: re-education?) and their mainstreaming, in social, economic and political fields. The work has neither been assessed the way the international community has evaluated the perceived inadequacies of the government elsewhere. Nor have they been commented upon, one way or the other.

Some of the ‘rehabilitated’ LTTE cadres/leaders are also contesting the Northern PC polls. The names of more prominent among them, like KP and Daya Master, were doing the rounds as the chief ministerial candidate of the government parties. From the East, the government set the mark by ‘rehabilitating’ the likes of ‘Col’ Karuna and Pillaiyan. Karuna’s ‘defection’ from the LTTE happened when the UNP was in power. Pillaiyan’s emergence occurred under the ruling SLFP tutelage.

‘Tamil nationalists’ would not accept them, as in their eyes ‘mainstreamed’ men and women are ‘traitors to the cause’ (not necessarily of lesser demands of the larger community but to the methods of the LTTE). The Sinhala nationalists’ suspicions of the TNA stems from the latter’s unwillingness to draw the dividing line. The Sri Lankan government’s apprehensions also flow from the international community’s acceptance of its efforts at mainstreaming ex-militants, which is otherwise welcome in other global hotspots of the kin

The government and the TNA have to acknowledge that focussing excessively on the Northern PC polls can cut both ways, after a time. The government should not conclude that free, fair and (relatively) violence-free poll and the democratisation of the polity in the North thus is a substitute for a political solution to the ethnic issue. ‘Power-devolution’ would still be in national discourse and international debates.

On power devolution an elected Northern PC in particular cannot be expected to be disinterested as those in the other eight Provinces have been. It would be so even if the government-sponsored Tamil parties were to win the elections and form a government. Whoever wins or loses the polls, power devolution and political resolution would be central to the politics of the Northern Province.

Likewise, the Northern PC can become the fulcrum of similar demands on power devolution emanating from other parts and Provinces of the nation, now or later. It could begin in the East. It could also commence elsewhere. A lot will also depend on the results of the PC polls in the two Sinhala-majority Provinces. Internal strife within the Muslim community and polity, starting now with the SLMC too can be a catalyst.

A new-generation political leadership in the South, cut off from the immediate past of ethnic violence, war and victory could sound the bugle. It could be centred on ideology, but could be dictated by political pragmatism that political parties like the JVP should not have bitten more than they could have chewed at a time.

Conversely, keeping the ethnic issue alive in the South could have electoral consequences, not very long after. The new generation voter would see through it all. He would be the one angling for a new-generation polity with a new-look leadership with which he can relate. Post-war, Sri Lanka cannot escape the reality that other democracies have learnt to live with it, every now and again.

In such a scenario, whenever it emerged, the Sri Lankan state, the incumbent government and the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists’ would have all lost their case that Police powers for the North would be a precursor to the revival of separatism. Some of the concerns of the Sri Lankan state may be justified, and need not be limited to the Tamils and the Northern PC alone. Yet, most of the disinterest and consequent disaffection flows from the unwillingness of national leaderships of the national (or even Provincial) parties to share power with those in the lower-rung, be in government or otherwise.

It does not stop there. After appreciating government initiatives on normalisation efforts in the post-war era for speed and sincerity, the international community has come to see them as ‘delaying tactic’, whatever the reason and justification. The belief now would be that the government was doing what it’s doing in terms of the delayed Northern PC polls only to ensure good attendance and high-level participation at the Commonwealth Summit. Yet, free and fair polls in the North in particular could ease the international pressure on Sri Lanka. Yet, the government’s conduct after the Summit would also be watched even more.

Thanks to what it considers prevarication in the past, the international community has come to expect more than what the government is willing to give initially – but gives in ultimately. The election of a Tamils-only government in the North thus would come with more demands and expectations, as much from the international community as from the local population. Independent of the parties in power, the government should thus begin considering if empowering the Provinces would be an expectation that it could put off for long elsewhere, if it has to adopt a balanced and meaningful approach to the post-poll ‘Northern conundrum.’

The Tamils, starting with the self-styled ‘nationalists’ nearer home and afar, should acknowledge that the Northern PC polls would have empowered the community to ‘direct’ its destiny, if not ‘decide’ on the same. The TNA is pragmatic to accept a political solution within a united Sri Lanka. The party is expected to win the upcoming polls in the normal course. It is also expected to market its concepts, not just the tactic, effectively among the Tamils nearer home. It has also taken upon itself the unenviable task of carrying Diaspora elements, particularly of the vociferous ‘Tamil nationalists’ belief.

In the immediate aftermath of the PC polls, a victory for the TNA would also mean that the international community would sit back and take a deep breath before moving ard in assessing pending and future Tamils’ charges against the Sri Lankan state and the incumbent government. If the elections were to be free and fair, as they normally should be but has not been expected to be in Sri Lanka ever before in the past, then the international community could not but commend the government’s efforts. Nor could it stop commanding the post-war reconstruction success stories for inspiration elsewhere.

Victory or defeat, the election comes with a burden for the TNA. It is a burden on which the party cannot afford to fail the Tamil people and their unclear(ed) aspirations through its inherent inefficiency, caused by inexperience. With the international community, they have discussed concepts and complaints. In Parliament, they could content with flagging political issues politically. In the Province, they need to attack practical problems, pragmatically. It requires patience and understanding, commitment and sagacity.

The ‘understanding’ is not only about their people’s problems, but more about how to address them from within the four walls of an existing government system, before seeking changes and improvements. Yet, as freshers to governance, the TNA could also breathe in a whiff of fresh air into political administration, particularly at the provincial level. It could thus do greater good for the Tamil people, and more so the nation at large, if a TNA government, if elected to power in the North, waited it out before coming up with fresh demands, or reviving the existing ones. They need to learn first, and learn from other people’s mistakes – and their own – before coming with their Q&A on power-devolution for the future.

In its various avtars over the past decades, the moderate Tamil polity that the TNA now represents has played only adversarial politics. It has no experience in governance. At a critical juncture in the post-war career of those Tamil people who have chosen to stay back in the island, the TNA should not make light of the tasks ahead. It would also mean that the TNA, particularly as and when elected to power, should not seek to bite more than it can chew. Nor should it use power-devolution of the un-devolved kind, to throw up the towel and then cry foul.

For the TNA, winning the election is one thing, keeping it is another. It will be even more so if the government parties manage a win in the North (which on paper looks remote at the moment). Between the Northern PC polls and CHOGM now, and a series of other elections that may be in the pipeline, the PSC on power devolution may be at work. Free and fair polls now on September 21 could be the yardstick for the success of CHOGM. Victory for the SLFP-UPFA in these elections would be the call for more elections across the country. Any election season is a good time for negotiating with constituencies, not within the polity – outside of seat-sharing and ministry-making.

The PSC process them may have to wait, if it is not to fail itself. In a country that has witnessed other parliamentary committees working on power-devolution and political solution, the TNA should not see that the current one means the end of the road for the Tamil community. They should participate, present their case, protest where they feel the need, in the present PSC – and leave it at that.

The party should provide for the possibility that most, if not all, its expectations could be belied, just as it claims was the case in the past. On those occasions, the party was not however in power.

Hence, it did not know where the shoe would pinch.
The TNA needs to win the upcoming elections for more reasons than one. It will sound the arrival of post-war, moderate Tamil party at the helm of Tamil politics in the country, with an authority to call its own. With experience in office, even if limited to the Provincial Council, the TNA might acknowledge the complexities of governance.

It might be willing to yield more than is expected. Conversely, it might demand more than what the government may be willing to concede – more than what the party has said through the failed talks with the government, post-war, and what it wants for the Tamil people and their Province.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)

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