By coming up with a controversial election manifesto when none was required to win the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls of September 21, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) may have put the cart before the horse, and advanced excuses well before time.
This could lead to the party losing the confidence of the people who may be voting it to power in the first place. It was a repeat-performance of sorts from the Eastern PC polls last year, where no formal manifesto of the kind got released, but similar sentiments were expressed from the TNA platforms.
That way, the party may have shot the Tamil people in Sri Lanka – the miserable leftovers from war, violence and emigration to greener pastures in the West and elsewhere – in their foot. In doing so, the TNA leadership has convinced critics, who were still willing to be convinced otherwise, that they were taking orders from ‘Tamil nationalists’ nearer home and their Diaspora children, and not the cares and concerns of fellow-Tamils living in the North or elsewhere in the country. Incidentally, those ‘cares’ do not seem to be the concern of the Diaspora Tamils, who seem to be calling the shots for and in the TNA but with no responsibility or accountability to the people that the TNA seeks to rule – and/or, rule over.
It is still not unlikely that the TNA leadership back home may have been convinced that they would be able to pull over the party and the people from the brink, if and when their administration came to power in the Northern Province after the PC polls. It may have also been convinced that in good time the Diaspora Tamils and the twice-born ‘Tamil nationalists’ would be convinced about the TNA’s commitment to a political solution and power-devolution within a ‘united Sri Lanka’.
For the interim, when the TNA’s preliminary task is to convince the Sri Lankan State and the Sinhala nationalists – and in that order – that the Tamils did not mean mischief or separation in the post-war, post-LTTE era, the manifesto seeks to claim and/or prove otherwise.“The TNA firmly believes that sovereignty lies with the People and not with the State,” reads the manifesto.
“The Tamils are a distinct people and from time immemorial have inhabited this island together with the Sinhalese People and others. The contiguous preponderantly Tamil-Speaking Northern and Eastern provinces are the historical habitation of the Tamil-Speaking People.
The Tamil People are entitled to the right to self-determination,” it adds. “The principles and specific constitutional provisions that the TNA considers to be paramount to the resolution of the national question relates mainly to the sharing of the powers of governance through a shared sovereignty amongst the Peoples who inhabit this island,” the otherwise brief manifesto says pointedly elsewhere.
It may be charitable to argue that the manifesto reflects the electoral inexperience of the TNA leaders, coupled with their continued lack of exposure to administrative mechanisms, schemes and systems under a constitutional scheme. There is no mention whatsoever to what a TNA administration in the Northern Province, if elected to office, will do for the people who voted for it – and even those who voted against it. In the post-war era, the people’s needs are many and their expectations from an elected administration nearer home are even more. Be it land and police powers, health and education, where there is enough for a provincial administration to achieve and deliver, even with this limited powers available under the un-enforced 13-A, before the TNA could demand more.
In a way, the TNA is talking only about the political rights of the party (or even its people). The manifesto does not talk about concurrent administrative responsibilities that the party is willing to shoulder if and when in office. That is to say, if inexperience in administrative power were to expose the party’s inherent inadequacies as the branch of Tamil population unfamiliar with political administration, and unwilling to acknowledge it as such – unable to learn from their mistakes or those of others before them. There is no inclination to learn. Instead, the manifesto is an apology for anticipated failures, with a window of opportunity for blaming it on the existing Sri Lanka State system, the Sinhala polity, and anyone else other than the self.
It is a politico-electoral anomaly on the one hand, and a travesty of the current constitutional scheme for the TNA manifesto to talk about the re-merger of the North and the East, after the Supreme Court had struck it down as far back as 2006.
If the idea was to provide a common/shared politico-administrative unit to the Tamils in the two Provinces, and not necessarily the merger of the two Provinces, per se, as was outlined in the forgotten ‘Chandrika Package’, the focus should have laid elsewhere. So should have the wording of the manifesto chosen with care and caution – not casualness and calculations aimed at posting an unfettered demand on the Sri Lankan State instead.
Tamil sentiments and purported needs apart, the TNA’s demand and re-merger would imply that the Eastern Provincial Council instead could demand a merger with any other adjacent Province, even if one were not to violate the provisions of contiguity enshrined in the Provincial Councils Act of 1987.
Until ‘Sinhala Only law’ in 1956 came into being, and up to the ‘Standardisation law’ of 1971, the Tamils of the East also suffered. The ‘Sinhala Only law’, though reversed on paper, is still effective distant Colombo, with a substantial population of the Northern and Eastern Tamils.
Reviving a demand of the re-merger nature thus has consequences for which the TNA does not want to think of a solution beforehand. Against this, the much-criticised ‘Standardisation law’ helped the Tamils of the East, and also fellow-Tamils in the Wanni and other parts of the Northern Province.
It was the ‘Jaffna Tamils’ who may have suffered. So did the Sinhala elite in Western Province with the capital city of Colombo at the centre. ‘Positive discrimination’ comes with a price-tag. Nations, particularly those that pride in the democracy of the western kind, can ignore it only at peril.
For all this, however, the TNA manifesto has still left the doors for a negotiated political settlement wide open, but as has always been the case with the Tamil leadership – on their terms.
In this, successive Tamil leaderships have been as unsure of themselves as they have been unclear.
An unsure government, in the TNA’s place, on the other side of the negotiations table is bad enough, yet it has institutional mechanisms that can cope with such problems. A non-State player in the TNA’s mould could only move backward from here not forward, given in particular the various pulls and pressures that have dominated the party’s post-war course in particular.
It is not just about the election-time rhetoric of Brothers Rajapaksas against the TNA, or that of any other leadership of the Government and the Government party in their place. Some of these have dominated the nation’s ethnic discourse, purely as the Sri Lankan State’s concerns and response to the posturing and positions, motives and methods of different Tamil leaderships at different times in the past. Negotiations between any two stake-holders – or many – involve give-and-take. At no point in time has the Tamil political leadership come up with, or even offered on the negotiations table, what they are willing to offer than what they too know are patently unfeasible, unconstitutional and hence would be thrown out.
This trend and mood, motives and methods will have to change if the Tamils, in general, and the TNA, in particular, are serious about a negotiated political settlement. Without reviving in the Sri Lankan State the off-again-on-again suspicions of a separatist streak in them.
Police powers, Land powers and Fiscal powers will follow – but cannot precede the same.
(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)